Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Travel Tuesday : The Thames Path day 1, the Source to Cricklade

27 April 2002

Had a very difficult time getting to sleep last night. I had those first-day-of-school jitters again. Heated up water as I got my things together, then had a nice hot bath. Rather spoiled the relaxing effect by then balancing my checkbook—an annoyance at the best of times, a real pain when multiple currencies are involved. Thank heavens for online banking, so I could check exchange rates, etc. While I was online, Suz came online in Boston.

She asked me if I was excited about my walk. I told her yes, but that I was nervous, too. I told her what Rod had said--asking me if it was safe. Once planted in my head—aided and abetted by the immigration officer’s flippant comment that I’d be mugged if I did—the tiny worry grew. Would it be safe? Should I be walking with others? (If so, whom?) Should I carry a big stick? Perhaps borrow a dog? Rod suggested Mace, which is of course illegal in the UK.

Suz said that she hated it when men said things like that—and that if a girl had suggested I might not be safe I would have poo-poohed it. Perhaps she’s right. She then had me tell her my itinerary, and promise to call her when I was safely home. I also gave her my mobile number and told her to call me when she got up—“so I can share the countryside with you.”

I’m not really nervous about it; I’ll have a few villages and I’m sure—on this glorious day—a few fellow walkers.

The train to Kemble is a First Great Western train. I was a bit confused when I went to board; all the seats have little antimacassars with the company logo and name. of course, I thought the service was the “Great Western”, and that these antimacassars indicated that there were first-class seats. So on I went down the platform, looking for the riff-raff section—the one with the ripped vinyl seats and general air of desperation. When I got to the front of the train (and noticed the big cushy seats) I figured it out.

I must say this is one of the nicest trains I’ve ever been on. Very clean, very well appointed, very comfortable. There’s even a little safety guide. Very plush. When we pulled out of Paddington (bang on time, I may add), the train movement was so smooth that I didn’t feel it—only saw it in my peripheral vision. Then a fast ride to Reading, through rape fields in full flower—that eye-popping yellow that’s almost reason enough to grow the plants.

On we went, through Didcot Parkway (I love the word ‘Didcot’, I have no idea what it means), Swindon, and finally to Kemble. I spent much of the 75-minute journey reading Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, sniggering quietly to myself. I had just gotten to the point where J. and George come back from their night out in Henley to discover, among other things, that Harris is unaccountably sleepy, he has apparently had a battle with an army of angry swans, and that the whisky was missing.

As a result, when I alighted from the train, I was momentarily disoriented. (it could be argued I was disoccidented, too, as I knew neither east nor west—nor north nor south for that matter). I stood there for a moment, then began rummaging in my rucksack for the guide.

I quickly discovered that I needed to exit the station from the other platform. Glancing backwards as I mounted the stairs, I saw three men dressed in outdoors wear, clutching the same guidebook as me. And then I realized that there would be others on the trail. This was both a relief (they looked like nice guys) and a slight annoyance (would I have to talk to them? couldn’t I be alone?). Affecting more confidence than I really felt, I took off in the direction I thought seemed right.

Luckily I started off the correct direction and soon found myself climbing over a stile and into a field.

The glorious blue sky in London had been replaced by high clouds in Gloucestershire. I took a moment to put on my beloved Marmot Dri-Climb and a wool hat, at which point it began to drizzle. I walked alongside the riverbed, at this time of year full only of grass, not water. A few more stiles, across a narrow road (once the Roman Foss Way) where cars sped past, and then into the last field. At the end of a line of trees, under a large ash tree, a pile of white stones marks the site of the source of the Thames.

the faintest of gurgling sounds can be heard by these stones -- but that's probably the power of suggestion
The inscriptions reads: "The Conservators of the river Thames 1857-1974, this stone was placed here to mark the source of the river Thames"

What’s a little sad is that this spot was formerly home to a handsome statue of Old Father Thames that was once exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition, but he was moved due to vandalism in such an isolated spot. We’ll meet him later.

On the way across the last field I had passed a pair of walkers, while a man who for some reason felt creepy was milling about near the source when I arrived. The couple walked up (phew!) and we took pictures of each other at the source monument.

Don't I look jaunty??? Technically it's all downhill from here!
The source was bone dry – apparently only at very very wet times is there water at the source.

The creepy man set off, then the couple, and then I retraced my steps downstream and wandered along. Here's the view from the source down the path of the Thames:

A few hundred yards from the source you could already see a defined -- if Dry -- streambed through the field.

I had been slightly worried about keeping to the path. But I needn't really have worried! These waymarkers -- taking various forms -- would be my friends along the way.

As I followed the path through the field, I could see the growing stream -- though the shimmery stuff is actually white flowers growing in the marshy soil.

The first village on the Thames banks is Ewen, whose name comes from an old Saxon word meaning "source of a river".

Of course, the river here is only a few feet wide. But look how clear the water is!

Just past Ewen, before the little bridge at Upper Mill Farm, I startled a group of placid cows by reaching into my pocket to get out my camera and take their picture. Perhaps cows also feel that the camera steals their souls?

Still musing on cows and their souls (what does cow-heaven look like? are there other animals in cow-heaven? do cow-angels have wings? I assume there’s no harp-playing…), I walked under high-velocity power lines crackling in the otherwise silence.

Not long after I had my first swan sighting. Did you know swans can hiss?

As I crossed a footbridge over the Thames I could see pretty Somerford Keynes across the fields, with its manor house and church peeping up in the center of the picture:

Always happy to carry along past a rapeseed field! This, oddly enough, was the point when I lost track of the creepy guy -- he must have turned off to actually go to Somerford Keynes, while I soldiered on.

I snapped this pic near Neigh Bridge County Park -- this, to me, the essence of the upper Thames. Lovely path next to a tree-lined river.

Passing Lower Mill Farm I saw new estates being built on a disused quarry and described as “bespoke cottages for use as second homes”. I had a Watership Down moment—seeing the development signs and knowing that there was danger coming.

Much of the next stretch of the path—and the narrow channel of the Thames--winds through old gravel pits that have filled with water, called Somersford Lakes Reserve. As I neared one of them I saw a man loading a large hand truck with an equally large pile of gear—big dufflebags, a cooler or two, a bucket, a chair, and a long, flattish padded bag on the top. “Windsurfing?” I asked.

“No…fishing” the fellow replied, somewhat sheepishly.

I was a little surprised, and blurted out “You should learn to pack lighter!” before I could stop myself.

He laughed, and said, “There’s a great many things I should learn to do—and packing lighter is one of them!”

Heading into Ashton Keynes, the Thames had been thoroughly tamed:

My guidebook wrote "A mini-Thames flows in its stone-edged channel across the grass and under an equally diminutive bridge -- the glow of Cotswold stone all around" of this scene.

The path turned away from the river as I moved through Ashton Keynes. This small village has 4 preaching crosses--indicating to me that they're either very godly--or very wicked. This one has lost its head:

There was a weird little stretch -- less than a kilometer -- where the path lead through a ruined landscape of a gravel pit. Not pretty... and I felt like I was lost for a while. Apparently there was once a minor channel of the Thames here, before the quarrying swallowed it up:

Happily, not long after, the path took the form of a bridleway through the Cleveland Lakes, where things started to feel more natural again.

I had been told that the North Meadow just outside of Cricklade was home to snakes head fritillaries, the most Charles Rennie Mackintosh of flowers. I wandered around, actually getting a bit lost in the North Meadow for a moment, in search of them. No joy. Well, I did see a swan shepherd, and some sheep being grazed on the ancient common meadowland. So that's a win.

As I approached Cricklade I could see St. Sampson's Church in the distance. I walked around the outside but couldn't go inside.

I got to the High Street in Cricklade at 2:20—very successful day. Could have gotten on a bus right away (there was a sizeable group waiting to do so), but as I saw that the buses ran every hour I figured I could explore the thriving metropolis of Cricklade.

The creepy man and I arrived in Cricklade at the same time—though I had lost sight of him in a rapeseed field hours before near Somerford Keynes. It’s like when that woman won the Boston marathon but no one had seen her on the route. I did have to rule out the MTA as an alternate route, however, so I just assumed that he hadn’t gotten lost in the thriving metropolis of Cricklade as I had done. Weirdly, I never saw the Three Men and a Book after getting off the train with them.

I wandered up and down the road, eyeing up the 4 pubs—the White Hart, the White Lion, the Vale Hotel, and, my favorite, the Old Bear.

An excellent choice, it turns out, as it maintains its Victorian divisions. I inadvertently entered the (empty) ladies bar, but the publican came to my side of the screen right away to serve. I thought about going into the main bar, but thought how nice it would be to sit in the quiet ladies bar and rest my tired feet.

I had a pint of Strongbow and a packet of Twiglets—not exactly pretzel sticks as there’s a definite cheese flavor. They are, according to the pack, “EXTREMELY CRUNCHY!!” and “HAZARDOUSLY KNOBBLY.” I have since learned that these are actually MARMITE flavoured. A definite hazard, then.

Sue called while I was in the pub, so she and I chatted for a little while. (How nice to be checked up on!) This cut into my drinking time, however, and in the end I had to gulp down my cider so that I could make the next bus.

the blurriness of this photo has nothing to do with the pint of cider, and everything to do with my haste to catch the bus
The bus and I arrived simultaneously at the stop, and I gratefully sank into my seat for the ride to Swindon. Luckily, the bus station is right near the train station; when I come for part 2 I’ll have plenty of time to make the connection.

The train back to London was pretty crowded—I had to share seats with 2 possessive men—one of whom had sucked down two cans of SPAR beer—not exactly revealing him as a connoisseur.

Next time: Cricklade to Lechlade

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up - so glad you enjoyed this stretch of the Thames Path. As a resident of Ashton Keynes, it's always lovely to read visitors' views of the village and the surrounding area.

    As for your initial worries, I sincerely hope you felt comfortable and safe on the Gloucestershire and North Wiltshire stretch of the Thames so far. We're a friendly bunch!