Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Travel Tuesday : The Thames Path day 2, Cricklade to Lechlade

written 3 May 2002

Woke up early this morning—the usual fear of having overslept, I suppose. Spent yesterday evening packing and bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t bought a larger rucksack—though I know I’d just fill that, too. See Parkinson’s Law: the work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion and Delaney’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law: the stuff expands so as to fill the space available for its storage. As it stands, a 3-day walk is doable, a 2-day walk is roomy, and on a day hike I could rent out space.

Left the house a little later than expected or hoped, but arrived with five minutes to spare. The ticket taker at the barricade looked at my ticket, checked it, and said ‘There you go, my angel.’ Aww. A nice start. It’s another glorious morning—though the experience of the past few days tells me that I may well get rained on later. The trainline runs near the river outside Reading; we flew through Tilehurst and I thought about how long it would be before I went walking there.

Arrived at the bus station in Swindon and was relieved that I didn’t hustle to catch the 8:10am bus to Cricklade—it only runs in the school vacations. As I had a bit of time to kill before the 8:50, I went into Swindon’s shopping district in search of the statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It seems to me that there should have been a statue of Brunel here long before the 1980s, given his importance to the town. But the plinth says the statue was erected to commemorate the opening of the first stage of the Brunel Shopping Centre. (There’s also a Darwin Shopping Centre in Oxford. One wonders if there is an Edison Mall in New Jersey, a Chrysler Center in Detroit, or indeed a Feynman Fair in California. The mind boggles.)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great engineer, stranded in the plaza of a shopping mall named after him
Anyway, poor Izzie stands there in a small brick plaza on such a high pedestal that the vast majority of people have no idea that he’s there. Not knowing his social proclivities, he might have liked that very much.

If I were a better tourist—or if there were more frequent connections to Cricklade—I would go and see the Great Western Railway museum. Like a lot of West-coast Americans, I’ve got a thing for trains. See, we have trains, but we use them for long journeys rather than for commuting. As a result, trains are, for us, somewhat magical. As the Amtrak slogan goes, “There’s something about a train…”

This morning, not far outside of London, I saw billowing clouds of what I took to be smoke out the window. As we hurtled past I saw that it was a gleaming green steam engine, pulling a handsome old carriage, puffing away mightily. I gasped and laughed out loud, but the suits on the train didn’t react at all. More’s the pity for them!

Back at the bus station I picked up the requisite sandwich-in-a-box and a mini Mars bar. The bus to Cricklade travelled a slow and winding route (with stops at an outlet mall and a meander through Swindon’s one-way system), and I was the only one left when we got to the town. Luckily the driver asked “Is this the stop you want, luv?”—I was looking for the High Street, where the bus didn’t go.

St. Sampson's Church, Cricklade, on a much nicer morning

But I made my way first to the church as I wanted to see the carvings on the spire that Dickens talks about. I walked around and around the tower, trying to sort out which end was north and second guessing myself about altars and east ends and ecclesiastical traditions. Finally, I spotted the pair of reaping hooks. Never did spot the shears, nor any sight of a Catherine wheel (“and a very good one too”).

yep, I borrowed a stock photo because it's the only one I could find of the shears!
As I stood there, squinting up at the tower, a fat little black cat came running up to me. Very friendly, he rolled around on the grass and practically begged me to rub his belly. While thus engaged, a woman hurried past me, unlocked the church gate, and went inside. She came out a few minutes later carrying a pair of shoes. I asked her if she knew where the shears or the catherine wheel was on the tower, and we both stared upwards. She thought there were shears inside, and invited me in for a quick peek. They have to keep the church locked nowadays, to deter vandals—but “I knew you were nice because you were petting the cat.” She introduced herself as Janet, the church organist, and explained she was on her way to a funeral so she couldn’t give me a proper tour. I kept telling her how grateful I was just for the chance to take a quick peek. We went in—oh! how glorious the tower is!—and started looking. I did find the two sets of ladies’ stays, along with a cross, in the corners of the tower. I tried to imagine Dickens standing there in the crossing, as I was, playing I-spy while craning his neck upwards. As we stood there, Janet told me that the church cat (who was meowing loudly) was probably the most faithful attendee they have.

are those really Dickens's "ladies stays" in the far corners? Who cares! The tower is so gorgeous!
Old Puss isn’t always so welcome, however. Apparently the church often hosts gypsy weddings and funerals; events which completely fill the church. “I don’t know how they hear of it,” Janet said, shaking her head. “But they come from miles around. Cricklade is a centre for the gypsies. Of course, at a gypsy celebration, the black cat is very, very unwelcome. We had to go; Janet had to attend to the music at a funeral in a neighboring village. I thanked her and happily strode out to the High Street. As I did so, the late express bus pulled up, and I wondered get again about luck and coincidence. Had I waited in Swindon to take the (much) briefer bus ride, I would have missed Janet, the cat, and the interior of St. Sampson’s Church.

I wandered down the High Street, relatively quiet in the morning. I stopped in at the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary, with its beautiful 4-sided lantern cross in the churchyard. I also went down to the river just to reacquaint myself. Thus grounded, I set off again.

confluence of the Churn and the Thames
The Path isn’t very well signposted in Cricklade—I didn’t see any signage until I was well out of the village. I’m not sure why this is—whether people don’t like the path so they take the signs down, or whether I just didn’t spot them. Thankfully, David Sharp lives up to his name, and the details in his text made the route completely clear.

The sun shone, the sky was blue, and the path was clear and level. Heaven! There was no one, absolutely no one on the path with me. Every now and again I would stop, turn around, and listen. Nothing. Well, except this swan -- the first one of the day.

I don't know that I ever really knew what "reeds" look like. Now I do.

The path meandered around and crossed a number of footbridges over water channels feeding into (out of?) the river proper. One had what Sharp called a "venerable willow of awe-inspiring size nearby"; sadly that willow had since fallen.

The path led me through fields of cattle and of crops. The first bit was lovely, with swans and ducks and even a glimpse of tiny, fluffy, grey cygnets. Then, as the river approaches Castle Eaton, the path branched off through a field newly planted with trees. The field seemed to go on forever, eventually reaching a 2-lane road.

The road led past the “Plague Cottages”, which feature a plaque giving thanks for preserving these and the adjoining properties from the fatal cattle plague of 1866. A little further along I saw a strange sight—a male pheasant in technicolor plumage, dead in the road. He wasn’t smashed in any way, and it didn’t lie in a puddle of blood. I suspect he was hit by a car and just killed by the impact.

The only reason I mention spotting road kill was that, a few yards down the road, I saw a dead robin in much the same state—seemingly just frozen. For the next few minutes as I walked down the road I mused about the X-Files and a force that causes birds to fall out of the sky. Perhaps it was THE FATAL BIRD PLAGUE OF 2002.

Then I turned down the lane which lead to Castle Eaton proper—a sweet little village with a handsome inn, the Red Lion. Deciding that 11:10 was, sadly, a bit too early for a pint, I passed it by, but I did take a small detour to see the village church, tucked down a long path on the bank of the river.

Dickens described the place in the late 1880s as having "a fine old bell turret", but Sharp says it was added in the 1860s.

After leaving Castle Eaton there was very little Thames on the Thames Path. First it was a long paved driveway through a farm, then a tramp across meadow and field, then a small road.

I stood in a field, the river half a mile away, and wondered what on earth I was doing. But it got worse.

what river? huh?
At Manor Farm in Upper Inglesham, the path follows the A361, an extremely busy 2-lane road with traffic zipping by at 65 miles per hour and no sidewalks. I walked along the grassy verge, hating every step of that mile plus.

Sharp states that one “can turn, with relief, down the lane signposted to Inglesham Church”. He understates the situation. I was ready to start crying; hallelujah for St. John the Baptist’s little sign.

Partially built in the 13th century, the church is handsome -- at least on the outside. Like so many countryside churches, it was locked tight. The churchyard is chock full of gravestones and tombs; there are funny carved downspout faces, and there’s a handsome west front. I do know that the interior was restored in the 19th century, but William Morris caused it to be restored to its Jacobean splendor rather than high Victorian gothic.

Then back onto the path which, wonder of wonders, rejoined the Thames.

You'll note that I took no photos of the terrifying walk along the busy road.

A funny chunk of stone at a bend in the river is all that’s left of the old towpath bridge of the junction of the Thames and the Thames & Severn canal. The canal itself has disappeared, though the round, 2-story lock keepers house (The Roundhouse) is still standing across the river. But though the canal is no more, its towpath survives -- which means relatively easy walking from now on!

Not much farther along and I could see the spire of the Church of St. Lawrence, Lechlade.

A few more turns of the river (and the first pedestrians I’d seen all day) and I was at Ha’Penny Bridge, which crosses the river and leads into Lechlade.

Ha'Penny Bridge, Lechlade

Lechlade from across the river, including the back of the New Inn where I would stay that night.

The bridge is very handsome; built in the 18th century it has a small tollbooth at its north end, where the ha’penny toll was collected. I crossed the bridge and headed into town to check into my hotel for the night, the New Inn.

As it was only 1:45, I decided to walk down river a little farther to the Trout, the first of three Trout pubs on the river. Spoiler alert: of course I stopped at each of them.

Walking downriver I passed this concrete pillbox -- and I would see them now and again during my walk. During WW2 the Thames was "Stopline Red"--the last line of defense for the midlands.

Looking back at Lechlade, you can see how grand the spire of St. Lawrence is in this countryside.

At St. John's Lock I finally got to meet Old Father Thames.

And no, I don't know why his trident had been replaced by a shovel. This was the statue that once graced the source of the Thames, but had been moved here to limit vandalism. He was first commissioned in 1854 for the Crystal Palace as part of the "Rivers and Oceans" series on the Italian Terrace. The artist, Rafaella Monti, made the statue of the then-novel material Portland cement. The statue has been through some rough times; it survived the fire at the Crystal Palace in 1936, suffered vandalism at the source between 1958 and 1974, and finally sites here, oddly with a shovel in his hand.

Oh, and he's cruelly been made to look cross-eyed...

A little farther along and I visited the very sweet Trout Inn.

Inside: gorgeous copper-topped tables, sloping ceiling with its oaken beams, angler art—including a taxidermied trout (of course). Not one but TWO ciders on draft (Blackthorn and Scrumpy Jack), cluttered with bar games and local info. Stands where the medieval priory of St. John the Baptist stood. the former St. John’s Bridge built in 1229, though today’s bridge is mainly Victorian.

I happily headed back through town, buying my first Thames souvenir (a tea towel) and a postcard.

The skies were getting really dark -- those clouds were full of rain. So I didn't try to visit St. Lawrence, which I have since learned was "one of the great wool churches".  As I walked into the New Inn I passed children running along the street, hoping to get home before the storm hit.

That night I enjoyed a fine dinner in the pub, and took my chances at a raffle -- sadly, with no luck. That said, how would I have carried anything home? I retired to my little room -- in what clearly had been the stables, behind the main inn, and slept very, very well.

Up next: Lechlade to Newbridge

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