Johnnie Ray. Patsy Cline. The Platters. Connie Francis. Frankie Laine. The Everly Brothers.
You can get the answer from the links, but you’ve probably got them right already.
This was the soundtrack at the Kemble Tavern. We’d gone further back in time. To the real classics. ‘Twenty in the posse/ Ain’t never gonna get no rest …’ The collegial bonding cry of the Birchip Secondary College staff in 1972. Even if golden, these songs are olden.
But the baguettes were excellent, the rosé a treat and although the taxi came from Cirencester to take us a very short distance, and charged 10 quid to do so, our destination, the Thames Head Inn on a beautiful attempt at a summer’s day, dispelled any discolourations on the horizon.
To shake out the jams (or are they kicked out? Not knowing what the jams actually are it probably doesn’t matter), we went for a stroll over to the source, a kilometre or so away, read the inscription on the stone [‘The Conservation of the River Thames 1857- 1974/ This stone was placed here to mark the Source of the River Thames’], and chatted to two Yorkshiremen our age who were going as far as Reading this time, 153 km in a week. That would be good going. Oppressively so. We hadn’t even started. Hadn’t even drunk our first pint of ale.
We continued on through the pasture and past one of those fenced mini-jungles that an Englishperson might call a wood and found the remnants of the Severn canal which once connected the Thames with the Severn. An ambitious engineering marvel, this meant that you could transport stuff — anything you could put in a barge — from London to Bristol by water. But it ran through limestone and chalk country and springs kept creating leaks in its base. And then the trains came. Point finale.
A ramshackle barn with an extraordinary collection of farm equipment, and mud, cemented the notion that was forming that we were living in 1960s Punch cartoons. Norman Thelwell and his little girls with rotund ponies is a start, but not quite my memory of narrow lanes with hedgerows and taciturn farmers in beanies with a smoke on their lower lip driving tractors with the front shovel up, an MG going past driven by some nobs, often young, tweed cap, pipe, glamorous woman with a scarf, forcing them off the road or vice versa and some witticism passing. Mud, wellies, old sheds, more mud, tractors, cows, sheep across the road, sheep dogs, mud.
While sharp as a knife in my memory I can’t find any examples. But that’s where we were regardless.
As we reconnoitered the night before I kept thinking of a 19th century note in a guidebook about just ramming your stick into the earth on the side of the hill where the source stone is located and, whoosh, you’ve activated a spring. There’s a tumble of rocks near the stone which might suggest a spring and from which water might flow after rain, but not when we were there. I think it’s likely that climate change might be playing a role just as it will be in the increasing incidence of floods, a once in 50-year phenomenon on the Thames except there have been three in the last decade with the 2007 floods the highest ever. According to the lock keeper it came half way up this window.
The First bridge: distance from source about 1km. Depending on your purview and range of interests, this bridge could carry the A433, Tetbury Road or the Fosse Way, the Roman road which went from Exeter near the coast of Devon to Lincoln, 300 km in something very close to a straight line.
First puddle: 2 km from the source.
First flow: 3.4 km from the source just near Parker’s Bridge. Invisible in the photo, the water glinted as it oozed through the gravel. Just a motion. Nothing more. I was more interested in the bustle in the hedgerows at the time. I wasn’t quite sure whether or not to be alarmed but soon realized it was just the spring clean for the May Queen. Ooo but it did make me wonder. [Drugs. Stay with me.]
First swan: Appeared as a mysterious white cloud in the distance across a park which encompassed Bittenham Springs’ private lake and event facility near Ewen. It was a swan, but not as we know them. Too big. BUT Bittenham Springs is a wedding venue, and as a matter of course — magical. ‘The perfect setting for our 145 guests and Welsh choir, in your amazing barn.’ ‘We had a tipi wedding there in August 2014, and it was the perfect setting for the relaxed, country-style theme.’
We went ooh ahh then and later that day when the swans (officially and actually Mute) were much closer on the river, and then we found families with goslings, and then over time they dropped beneath notice as the black-faced gulls, terns, cormorants, herons, finches and kites proved far more interesting.
This first sighting however corresponded with the appearance of the VNHs, the very nice houses. Here, the Thames is just a trough at their rear, a boundary. But that doesn’t diminish the polish on the Range Rover or the Bentley. They might be very snug these houses but they also seemed like they could be very lonely and not much used.
An interesting tendency emerged here. To name these houses one must choose the definite article and a very low key noun, sometimes with a temporal component (although really only ‘old’ or ‘new’; not, say, ‘eternal’ or ‘periodical’): The Beech, The Lodge, The Stables, The Mews, The Brow (?), The Orchard, The New Granary, The Old House (see? at right), The Stick (made that one up); or an assemblage of low key noun plus ‘Cottage’: Elm Cottage, Hill Cottage, Rose Cottage, White Cottage; or that dual-play masterstroke, The Old Cottage. When the river grows, one can became more expansively riparian: River’s Edge, River Bank, River Cottage, The Rivulet. Anything. Anything at all. Just as long as you’ve rinsed out all colour. When you get to Staines you can put a sign up on your house saying ‘Iris’s Wet Dream’, and I regret not being able to share a photo of that with you. But not in Ewen. No ‘Sherlock’s Home’ or ‘The Tardis’ here.
After Somerford Keynes (a Norman family, the De Kaines?) you are walking between the lakes of the Cotswold Water Park. They’re tucked away mostly shielded from view by the naturally thick vegetation. But on the map these gravel pits filled with water, 150 of them, are quite dramatic. It’s wet wet wet round here.
The river wanders where it will through here in multiple channels (one can be seen at left), and the only time we were in dispute about direction was when I chose to follow the river rather than the track, ending up in Happy Land. True. (Click at right.) I got turned around pretty smartly and we ambled down Back Street (naming!) to Kent End (encore) and recovered the track before encountering a warning that I haven’t come across before, a dream warning. Fabulous. Made me want to leap in and, against all advice, struggle before someone threw me a rope.
The photo above was taken just before arriving at North Meadow, a nature reserve which has on its day more than 80 percent of all snake’s head fritillary in the UK. This wasn’t that day but it was delightfully floral, a first experience of the ubiquity of buttercup, saxifrage, red clover and other English meadow flowers.
First a coffee. When I asked the barista if I could take her photo, she said, ‘All you Australians on the Thames Path take my photo. And then you write a blog about it.’ Lord, it’s hard to be original.
The church below with a few odd bits (vide for example, the clock, and the agglomerative additions which are hard to see in my pic) is distinguished by being the oldest (1000+ years) continuously operating Christian church in England, at inception Catholic and then via Henry VIII’s fiat Anglican, and then after 1983, leased by Roman Catholics.
Cricklade to Lechlade — 18km
It rained during the night and although doom was forecast we awoke to another beautiful day, a day of meadows, cow parsley and muscular cereal crops. In fact below is the story: crop, track, cow parsley, river.
I thought we might hustle along a bit to Lechlade to beat the promised storm, but we didn’t. Hustling was not an appropriate activity for this stretch of the still very modest river. We got to Castle Eaton at about exactly the right time for a cup of tea and a little bit of something to eat. The map indicated the presence of a pub there, but it was closed.
I stood grizzling in The St. Yes, ‘The Street’ is the name of the the main thoroughfare of Castle Eaton. That’s really pushing the naming principle. Really pushing it. The other streets in toto in Castle Eaton are: School Lane, Long Row, The Lawrels and Mill Lane. Good, but not as good as The Street. (In that street and elsewhere here, lots of VNHs.)
A gentleman came past and I asked him if he had any idea where we might get a cup of tea. Indeed he did. It was Thursday morning, therefore the post office/ town hall/ community centre. We were warmly welcomed and, tossing our pounds into the pot, greatly enjoyed the cup of tea, the biscuit and the conversation.
Castle Eaton had been hit by a crime wave, and it was the talk of the group. In the navy blue on the other side of the table is the Castle Eaton constabulary and she had several stories of malfeasance including, the big one, person or persons unknown dumping a wrecked caravan next to a bend in Blackford Lane. I didn’t know if I could help, but I willingly cast a forensic eye over the scene of the crime expressing my concern in a visually identifiable way. I can’t guarantee that the experience of the Path will always be quite that intense.When I said verdant countryside I meant it. Even the runoff from silage is a distinctive shade of green.
We met a few folk on the track this day and the received strategy was to hasten to Lechlade, have a pint and rush onwards to try to avoid the heavy storm due that night and the next day. There were places to stay at Kelmscott and Radcot further down the Path. But the day stayed beautiful with mild winds and long meandering open stretches, the very picture of fecundity — cow pats, nettles, crops, extraordinarily thick pasture, blackberries, cow parsley and wild rape in equal measure, hazel, chestnut, elder, linden, lilacs, hedgerows of hawthorn, pollarded trees.
Husbandry, that’s what I thought. Skillful. Endlessly experienced husbandry. And I wondered yet again just what on earth the English colonists must have thought when they arrived in Australia. It would be as though some horrible cosmic joke with an agricultural/ pastoral flavour had been played on them. The untended-ness of it all, the wildness, the lack of water, the unproductive soils, everything so unfamiliar and so utterly and completely unsympathetic. For those who could, there would have been every reason to pack up and go home.
This section of the Path has quite a long detour away from the river and 2km along the side of a reasonably busy road. One of our companions of the track was outraged by this in a very English way. A sharp letter was going to be shot off. But on the return to the river you pass the most unusual St John the Baptist Church at Inglesham. It was built very early in the 13 century and was going to be renovated and redecorated in 1880 when William Morris the Pre-Raphaelite stepped in and campaigned for its restoration as was. He won; and so we have box pews, a Jacobean pulpit, Anglo-Saxon carvings on one wall, medieval wall paintings on another and, from the Reformation, passages from the Bible etched elsewhere. It is unexpected and highly appealing.
First narrowboat: 36 km from the source, at the confluence with the River Coln and the Severn Canal. I’ve chosen to say narrowboat rather than barge. Canal barge might do, but I think of barges as having little infrastructure above their hull, and many if not most of the hundreds of narrowboats we saw were done up to the nines and enclosed.
Lechlade is the beginning of the Thames as a navigable entity, still not very wide — there’s a turning pool in front of the pub, The Riverside (good food, good accommodation, and yes, good name) — but perhaps 15 metres otherwise.Not having walked quite far enough, we mooched around Lechlade, a gratifyingly moochable town. The post office had post cards and even better was willing to send them elsewhere. Many of the buildings were of Cotswold stone, a dense limestone sometimes with a lovely golden hue. The buildings in the background might be of Oxfordshire stone, greyer, but perfectly able to set off their vines and wisteria.
As forecast, it had rained all night. The BBC Forecast was almost always right — to the half hour. It was chill and drippy as we breakfasted, but nothing of any consequence. We crossed back over the Halfpenny Bridge, its name a remnant of tolling, and moved on into a longish day which included an appointment with a taxi at 5 on the dot at Newbridge, so not too much fooping around.
Goslings were the first distraction. Ooh ahh, aren’t they … etc until we realized that this stretch of the river was littered with new families of birds, not least being Mute Swans.First lock: St John’s at Lechlade, distance from the source 39 km. Look at these beams. Wouldn’t you like a swing on one of them?
First lock replete with Father Thames, Rafaelle Monti’s not entirely prepossessing statue (it’s the spade … lose the spade) which began its life in 1854 at Crystal Palace before being moved to the source and then in 1974 for reasons that someone will know — vandalism? loneliness? — to the lock.
We were walking along the edge or through the middle of huge meadows, and the river was beginning to emerge into waterway form.
The first moving boat, a narrow boat, 46 km from the source, and at about this point a simply wonderful row of trees began. Forty or fifty metres high, perhaps a kilometre long, statuesque but also particularly graceful. It was raining too hard at the time for me to take a picture, but a bit like this only better.The concrete structure in the study in yellow below is the first pillbox, one of several dozen you encounter on the Path. ‘Stopline Red’. I think the name would probably have been more daunting to Panzer divisions than the pillboxes themselves. I can imagine myself sitting in a tank saying, ‘Okay Ernst. There’s another one over there. Go on. My turn. You popped the last one.’I offer you a map of their location on the basis of which it might be assumed that they were designed to protect Swindon, nummer eins target of the Nazi juggernaut. It could have been one of those initiatives where it was important just to be seen to be doing something.
But it was a day for birds, the swans hardly counted — lapwings, pheasants, ducks, geese, hawks, kites, chaffinches, gulls are just some we knew. The rain faded.
I squeezed half a cup of water out of my socks and tipped the other half out of my shoes — not so much the rain as the saturated long grass. We stopped and watched dazzled by a performance of either black-faced gulls (what were they doing so far from home?) or common terns, or both, in a protected lee near Shifford Cut. They were extraordinary. The natural meadows were drenched with colour and the crops were prize-winning. Rain is such a useful adjunct to agriculture.< This is the colour of Cotswold Stone and this > is what burgeoning pussy willow looks like.
I also discovered the sort of mud that makes it possible to make buildings out of cob. I have never encountered such sticky mud nor had more difficulty in getting it off my shoes as I later discovered on the very light green velvet carpet of our accommodation.
This had been an excellent day. We were waiting for the cab when it arrived to take us off to Rectory Farm in Northmoor a few km off the river where we stayed the night and met Carolyn and Ranald MacDonell who were staying in the same B&B. We ate together at the Red Lion and they were wonderful company.
Newbridge to Oxford — 23 km (+5)
I felt very good when I got up. My body had caught up to the exercise and was quietly cheering. More it said. More.
The day provided a lovely start. Clear again, with that little rill of breeze you appreciate so much when you’re walking. The grass was sodden but we got to Bablock Hythe (hythe = ‘a landing place or small port’; lade, ‘a place for loading’) hardly noticing, hoping for some sustenance at the Ferryman Inn. It was closed and we began a bad-tempered detour.The generative cause was a caravan park/holiday cabins from memory, but actually something called a ‘chalet estate’ now I’ve checked, planted squarely on the bank of the river and you bloodywell don’t walk along the river, or park your car, or stop and look, or in any way make a nuisance of yourself in any way that the owners will define.
It was a jolt. It’s interesting how sensitive we had become to being taken away from the river’s company. Even by this early stage it had become a right.
I’d begun thinking quite fondly of it. The night before I had written in my journal: ‘It may be as much as 20m across now. Undemonstrative, phlegmatic, featureless. Is this an English river perhaps, a cultural mirror? No V-shaped valley, no rapids or cataracts, no gorges, no waterfalls, no stone in fact except at the locks where it has been imported. Intersects only with agricultural land and national park — to date. The Thames Valley is not a valley; it’s a plain. But for we walkers, a very sympathetic and forgiving one.’
So down a road and turn right onto a long straight track through the paddocks which might be parts of Payne’s Farm, Pimm Farm and Tawney’s Farm and, lo and behold, this had turned modestly sour too. Thin pasture, the sheep were badly cared for, the fences needed attention. Even the pollarding (at left) was well back into the ordinary range. This was interesting. Different.
Then in another couple of kilometres and back on the river just to keep us alert but not alarmed, we came to Swinford Farm which welcomed us, invited our interest and explained itself and its plans on several large information boards. It looked to be a model farm.
The river here piles endless small meanders on top of one very large meander round Wytham Hill. Last night on my TV in North Melbourne Inspector Morse insisted (infallibly as usual) that he would find bodies in Wytham Wood. They put the dogs to work in this open and logged forest with no ground cover, and I’m very sorry to have to say that wasn’t the Wytham Wood that we saw. Even though this section of the Path is very airy and open, it was another of those English mini-jungles. Wytham Wood with Swinford Farm sheep.Depending where you start or finish, this section also has six or seven locks and there’s a lot of opportunity to watch riparian boating skills, lock management and rope tricks. This lock was near a camping ground and a small crowd had gathered to watch these two youngsters get their way through, or/ and maybe to see if they could get a push on the beams.
Further downstream this chap just parked in the lock and got off to have a cup of tea, only to be harassed by a kayaker who wanted to use the lock rather than port his very modest vessel 20 metres using the available facilities tailored for precisely this purpose. There’s no pleasing some people!
Although, I’m casting about here, maybe the guy from the Environment Agency could have moored his boat past the lock where there was provision for precisely this eventuality and he could have walked the 20 metres back. Later I spent a very interesting 10 minutes talking to the lock keeper at King’s Lock who had turned his avocation into a passionate study of just this sort of thing.
I think if, as a student of human behavior, you spent much time at all at a mid-Thames lock in summer, you’d see a lot to interest you.
People had begun appearing. It was a Saturday afternoon after all, very pleasant out and we were well within range of the cyclists and walkers of Oxford. After the Ferryman Inn had disappointed us we planned to lunch at The Trout Inn, just a long torp from Oxford really, arrived and unsuccessfully wrestled with the available circumstances. You know. Arrived late-ish, hadn’t booked anything, sat in the wrong place, stumbled into a room being prepared for a wedding, waitress for food but drinks from the bar not the other way round, collapsing chairs and, let me remember: lamb patties, a salad and something else. Bar snacks to make it easier. And this was the worst food we ate in two months. The salad had lettuce you could see through where the mould hadn’t interfered with its transparency. The tomatoes and the cucumber had long passed into another world achieving that fungal sheen produced by long association with dressing. Etc. In The Trout’s defence, they were very busy, we had arrived late, they were getting ready for a big wedding. Pah! No defence. Then the bloke in the black on the left told Myrna he didn’t like her cap. Myrna’s cap! (at left) But that was quite agreeable. He was a Tigers fan from Traralgon.
We were also getting tired, and I think it might have been something of a shock to be back in the urbs. It was only three km and we’d be there, and that would be enough for the time being. 88 km, that’s a pretty good go. A rest day tomorrow.
Oxford looked fantastic, really interesting. Food, books, buildings, lots of VNHs, people. These folk in the square for example.He was, inter alia, knocking out a version of Amazing Grace. (I showed my Londoner friends this pic and they felt that it was unlikely that he could be English.) But we were too tired to tackle any of it really. You know that feeling. Looking at something wonderful, all your favourites — and you just can’t any more. Can’t anything. Too tired.
Furthermore, our place of rest was not in this bit of Oxford. We asked directions and where we were going was too far away to generate a useful response. We were already well past the measured distance but we still had another four km to go, and your feet do get heavier on tarmac and concrete at this time of the day. Get a bus? Don’t know how to pay. Don’t know where to get off. Get a cab? No hailing cabs in Oxford. No ranks. Phone bookings only (and as we discovered the next day very bloody lucky if you can pull that off). So we walked.
Another B&B. My heart sank. I wanted the anonymity and ease of a hotel room. Ah well. It seemed a nice one. A tiger mum who would do laundry, a very amiable Englishman and their charming 14 yo daughter who wrote love songs — and it was just fine. We wanted a swimming pool. After struggling with their amazement, they found one for us. And they recommended the Magdalen Arms for dinner.
That worked very well as I wanted to watch the FA Cup in company. A rubbish game. Arsenal 4 – Aston Villa 0. Hardly in doubt from the kickoff. Only me and one other bloke were interested. So we just ate the feast that the Magdalen Arms provided, and collapsed into the arms of Morpheus.