I’ve been walking the River Thames for three and a half years. In day long sections, starting, oddly in Staines (bear with me), walking to the barrier east of Woolwich and then about facing and heading east towards the Source.
We almost made it to the Source in 2012, but having arrived in Cricklade we were told the path was at least knee deep in water and it would be 12.5 miles of wading So we postponed that section until now.
It has been a bit of an epic and the fractured nature of some of it has detracted from the enjoyment that comes with continuity. But over these last few weeks we, the Famous Four, have filled in the missing pieces, eventually arriving at last Saturday morning with us standing by the road side near Cirencester ready to head north west to find the Source and then walking back to Cricklade to join up with where we finished those three years ago.
The route was clear, the walking easy, the weather a little nippy but with the chance of sun later. We set off with a spring in our step, out to find the Spring where it would all begin. We found this.
A wet cow pat.
But bugger all water. Indeed the topography suggests you’d need a heck of a lot for the water to turn into a stream from here. When the Thames Conservators chose this spring as the Source it must have been a darn sight wetter than recently.
Oh well, nil desperandum, we strode along a line of trees and crossed the main road. There was a bit of a channel but no water. The book warned us about the lack of water sometimes; maybe Lyd Well, up ahead would be damp. There were encouraging signs; rubble like a river bed, dried weed on stones. Even the well itself spoke of a former dampness but, frankly, the Ancient Mariner would have to rewrite his epic were he hereabouts.
Onwards, past a forlorn and redundant bridge and into a wood. There were more plants that like rivers here; also willow. And finally a grotty puddle that would insult a three year old’s bladder. The start. Wow?That it? Like losing your virginity – sticky and disappointing.
Three miles in and we started seeing flow. The occasional flash of colour – Saturday had to be hatching day for the damsel flies because the foliage regularly exploded in matchsticks of blue.
Once the river started – a brook really – it gathered pace. Through Ewen we trod, too early for the Baker’s Arms and on towards Sommerton Keynes (which, once again we reached too early for a coffee – rats!). The fields were peopled with buttercups, the countryside charming with some evidence of where past floods had taken their toll and defences erected to channel any water surge away.
We had always planned on lunch at Ashton Keynes, the book telling us of two pubs. The first was closed. Oh no. I could tell my companions were far from happy. But happily the White Hart opened its doors to us, fed us baked potatoes with a variety of fillings and provided us with a Kiwi couple who’d just stated the walk and were heading off for the barrier backpacks in place. We felt humbled by our dithering.
Just before lunch we started the second phase of the walk, which takes the path and the river through the former gravel pit workings that are now a large body of inland lakes that mostly provide a nature reserve home to abundant wildlife as well as venues for fishing and water sports.
We saw a lot of bird life and the lush vegetation and at one point sunbathing terrapins! It was a splendid contrast to the morning though at several points the industrial scale of the gravel extraction had obliterated the river’s course.
Eventually the open water wearied and it was good to turn up a slight hill, Hailstone Hill, away from the river to cross, first, the disused Cirencester to Swindon railway, a Beeching closure in 1964 and then the Cricklade canal, an earlier victim of transport changes and cuts.
Down the far side of the canal embankment we entered North Meadow, now owned by English Heritage. This is Lammas Land, which is named after an ancient common law right that allows cattle owners to graze their cattle on the water meadow once the hay has been cut at Lammas, the ancient festival day. First cattle then horses and finally sheep are allowed on before the livestock is moved off at Candlemas (February 2nd) to allow the pasture to recover and the hay regrown. The local Cricklade worthy decided on the exact dates for the cutting and the release of livestock depending on the length of the spring and the winter. Nowadays this is considered to be one of the largest wild flower meadows in the country though, as with some much just now it is predominantly buttercup.
And here’s a little film took.
From here, with the church of St Sampson is sight, we knew we were nearly done. The bridge at Cricklade even told us what we had embarked upon, helpfully, in case we forgot.
The day did nearly end in disappointment. My trusty if out of date guidebook had said the Cricklade cafe was open until 4 pm. It being 3.15 we strolled the high street in search of a celebratory cup of tea. Once again, horrors. A hand written sign told us it was shut from 3 pm. Why, cruel world? Why?
The village fete, that’s why. Happily we found said fete, demolished the tea and some rather nice cake and set our compass east for home. We’ve conquered the Thames so what next?
This is a Monday Walk for Restless Jo