Seeking the source

Well hooray – a fine weather forecast coincided with a free day so I headed out to get some mud on my boots. Off I went, up into the Cotswolds and to Kemble, a village a couple of miles south west of Cirencester. Turns out there’s a lot of interesting things to see around there, but I was on a mission. I was out to journey to the source of the Thames. (I feel as though I should be saying that in my most important voice. In an echo chamber with a little bit of reverb. JOURNEY TO THE SOURCE OF THE THAMES). Anyway I was pretty excited about it because wherever I’ve known the Thames it’s been a big river, wide and deep, and so the idea of following some little stripling of a stream into nothingness appealed. I saw myself jumping lightly from bank to bank, and even took along my own Boaty McBoatface bath toy to see if I could launch him into the very uppermost of the headwaters. And not lose him.

First, a word about the Cotswolds and about Kemble in particular. In my experience the Cotswolds are Picturesque with a capital P. (The Cotswold Way takes you through 100 miles or so of gloriousness from Chipping Campden to Bath – highly recommended). Here’s a shot from the archives to show you the sort of thing.


Hidcote. 2015

But while it’s true that the village of Kemble is in a wealthy area, with a direct line to London and a station car park full of Range Rovers, Audis and Mercs, it’s also really quite – how can I put this? – normal. A mix of old and new housing, light on the chocolate box exteriors, with some very friendly inhabitants. Nothing spectacular but just nice.   I like nice. True to form, the village church was equally pleasant but unremarkable – other than the historic fondness of the parish for a man, any man, named John.


Other clergy names are available

Perhaps one of the reasons that Kemble is not on the Treasures of the Cotswolds coach tour route is that the area is very flat and exposed, ideal no doubt for the former eponymous RAF base. So the discovery that my walk started in the biggest cabbage patch I have ever seen should not have come as a surprise.IMG_0737.JPG

Putting the spring greens behind me, I arrived at the Thames (or Isis, as it is known this far upstream, but which I shall gloss over).  Just a wiggly mile and a half down from the source according to the map, it was way bigger than I expected, full of fast flowing, crystal clear water – too deep to paddle through – and unexpectedly appealing.IMG_0741.JPG As I began to walk along the bank I found myself in a small plantation of what I think were birches and the combination of the low winter light, the spare straight lines of the leafless trees, and the sound of the river was enchanting. Around a bend and I came upon the most perfect spot for a dip, where the river had eroded a sharp and surprisingly deep meander. Had it been high summer I would have leapt in, no question.IMG_0753.JPGApproaching the first road crossing the water grew sluggish, perhaps under the bridge there would just be the narrowest of jumpable stream? IMG_0774.JPGNo, with under a mile to go, the Thames was still pretty full for an infant watercourse.

A little further on there was this. A wall. Across a river. It’s evidently been there a while and yes, I get that it is intended to stop large branches and other bits of detritus being carried downstream and blocking things up. But what’s it doing here? After a squint at an old map (How do I love thee,, let me count the ways), I realised that it is not a wall at all but a sluice. Makes perfect sense now. Presumably there was once a system of moveable gates with which to open or shut those little doorways, so as to control the flow of the water. Doesn’t look like it’s been used for a long time though.img_0780

Behind the wall was a riverine T junction; off to the right was an attractively ample stream flowing out of what was – on closer inspection – a form of underwater pipe.

I knew that there are actually two sources of the Thames marked on the map. It pops up at a spring, then immediately disappears underground again only to re emerge a mile later on and get going properly. This must be the spot where it takes off, I decided, and so I spent a long time looking at it, before I realised that I had it completely wrong and that the other watercourse which looked boring and boggy was in fact the embryonic Thames.


With the best will in the world, I cannot call this inspiring.

Amazing what you learn when you look at the map.IMG_0855.JPGAfter the bridge the channel ran dry in a matter of metres. These tall desiccated water grasses which must like to keep their roots damp show very clearly where the water begins.This then is the source of the Thames. Not what I was expecting.


Looks like sometimes there’s more water on the ground for a ghostly trail of dry grass leads onward across the field. img_0799But eventually it runs out at a small rubble heap.IMG_0802.JPGNot an auspicious start for a mighty river.

But I could still pin my hopes on the spring, the true source. Two rather beautiful fields later (and one death defying scarper across the Fosse Way where the traffic was travelling at speeds the Romans would not believe) I saw something in the distance.IMG_0830.JPG A stone, a sign, a lightning ravaged tree and  a small ring of rocks.img_0823

The source of the Thames. Bone dry but, I trust, bona fide. And really rather perfect.




Clifton Wood

IMG_0321.JPGThe other day when I was out taking a turn around my favourite harbourside route, I realised that there is a large chunk of that pleasing vista across the water which I have never, ever explored. Clifton Wood – home to strings of multi-coloured streets clinging resolutely to the cliff edge – is a foreign field to me. It’s a jumble of Georgian and Victorian streets, many fairly modest, all apparently built  on top of one another without much thought to vehicular traffic. That they’re too old and the land is too steep would probably account for it, but whatever the reason the result is a quiet but colourful enclave, criss crossed by a maze of paths and passages.

I started out at a very familiar spot. No one can come to Bristol and not be aware of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. It dominates the city skyline and  visitors come from far and wide to gaze upon its graceful lines. Here it is.IMG_0437 - Copy.JPG I’d like to have taken a better shot of it by moving a little way to the left but then there would be a lamp post slap bang in the way. Yes, well played City Lighting People for ruining every tourist’s photo opportunity. Being charitable perhaps it is not a good idea to have snappers  cluttering up the pavement just there and a viewpoint has been provided down the way, but you just can’t get the whole bridge in from that angle.IMG_0436 - Copy.JPG See what I mean? Anyway, let’s quit the moaning and move on. Imagine if you will what lies across the road – behind me in the first bridge shot above – an elegant terrace of large white stucco Georgian houses. Not so long ago one changed hands and the new owners set about a project of modernisation. Amongst the renovation team was a roofer who told me a lovely tale of how he was working away on the roof one day when a bus pulled up across the road and out rushed a stream of tourists. Who promptly formed an orderly queue, not to take selfies in front of the bridge but instead to avail themselves of the builders’ Portaloo in the front yard…

Not far from here is another Bristol landmark – Royal York Crescent.IMG_0469.JPG Allegedly the longest in Europe if anyone is counting and superior to that one they’ve got in Bath, if you ask me.  Trouble is they’ve taken more care over there, tighter planning restrictions and rather more open space in front and the like, so I have to admit that their’s has the upper hand, lookswise. But this one’s not too shabby, is it?

From here I headed off into uncharted territory, following paths and passageways that looked promising.

Occasionally I found myself somewhere familiar although I have to confess that I have been trying to erase this particular spot from my memory ever since a research interview I conducted in one of these homes went spectacularly pear shaped. You’ll note that I am standing quite a long way away from them. It’s a bit of a long story so feel free to skip on if you prefer.IMG_0496.JPG

Still with me? OK, so my interviewee, an artist I hoped would provide me with some reflections which could be key to my project, is a well known name in the field and I am going to start by saying that it was generous of him to agree to see me at all as he is undoubtedly inundated with students’ requests for his time. He chose the place, date and time: his home, 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. I accepted with alacrity but alarm bells were beginning to ring. I don’t know how it is in your house, but at that time of day we’re either busy doing something which needs doing or sunk in a post lunch torpor, neither state being conducive to receiving a visitor with a list of questions. To add to my unease, he’d picked 23 December – the day which (if you are having guests for Christmas) you probably want to keep clear for last minute preparations. Anyway, I spent a lot of time preparing for the discussion, going over his work in the field, planning the directions I’d like to take the conversation and so on. I was as ready as I could be when I knocked on the door on the dot of 3 o’clock and met a man who clearly wished he’d never agreed to see me. Sunday papers scattered on the floor in front of the armchair by the blazing fire spoke of a nap curtailed, an ironing board piled with crumpled linen and a Christmas cake part iced at the other end of the open plan room told of a wife disturbed in her plans and dispatched out of the way but not before, if her husband’s mood was any indication, sharing her displeasure at this considerable inconvenience. So this wasn’t a great start. But, to give him his due, the interviewee did not show me the door (which would have been understandable) but kindly offered me a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the kettle had barely boiled before it became clear that not only had he moved on from the field in which I was working (and which I had outlined fully in my email), but that he no longer had any interest in it and indeed did not want to talk about it. He was happy to speak of his current work but, as this was not pertinent to my research, I had only the haziest notion of it, an inadequacy he soon discovered and which did not improve the atmosphere. I tried to soldier on, rattling through my carefully prepared enquiries, receiving terser and terser replies, until I could down my still scalding cup of tea and exit as quickly and as graciously as I could and leave him in peace. It was such a gruesome experience that I couldn’t even bring myself to transcribe the tape. Not, that is, until more than a year had passed and I was polishing up my thesis and looking for a killer first line with which to begin.

And there it was…fullsizerender

Briskly turning out of Anecdote Alley and leaving Memory Lane behind, I meandered on until I came upon the first of the coloured houses.img_0528 Rather subtle this row, but they soon got brighter and brighter.IMG_0599.JPG And they went on and on. Here are a few more

IMG_0640.JPG I think these are my favourite but I wouldn’t rule out changing my mind if the sun was in a different direction.

The place was deserted, apart from builders (natch), and the pub was closed in the middle of the day, but doesn’t this look like a perfect place for a sundowner?img_0614

Definitely somewhere to come back to.


A promising haul

Pretty ghastly weather hereabouts recently, but I’m brewing up a whole list of walks to seize the day when the sun does shine. Or it stops raining. Either. Both. I’m not fussy.

With this in mind, I nipped into my local Oxfam bookshop to browse their selection of second hand OS maps. They had none of the ones I was looking for, but if you’re in the market for an impressive coverage of the Highlands at all scales allow me to point you in the right direction. Did someone just move down from up there or was someone intent on leaving nothing to chance in planning their Scottish holiday?

But I did get lucky when I moved onto the books. First up was this splendid compilation.


Minshull, D. (ed) (2000) The Vintage Book of Walking. London. Random House. (Sorry, I just can’t help myself)

OK, I admit that it was the cover that sold it to me. (That’s my favourite colour. I never said I was deep). Plus it promises to be glorious, funny and indispensable – who could ask for more? Quite how the original owner could have dispensed with it is a question that has been worrying me ever since. I have read no more than the first page so far but I see that it opens with a lengthy quote from the second volume which leapt off the shelf at me. I mean, what are the chances?

Yes, I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but who could resist this one?


Jebb, M. (1986) Walkers. London. Constable.

What is going on here? Hipster 1 appears to be looking down his nose at Hipster 2 who looks crestfallen for reasons which are unclear.  And what about the fellow on the left, he who only appears when the whole dustcover is unfurled? He’s desolate. I’m thinking there may be some stick envy going on, but I cannot decode it myself (although I will confess to having taken a shine to Hipster 1’s old school staff). The only cheerful creature in this little tableau is the dog, carefully pretending he’s not with any of them. It’s not exactly a great advert for the convivial joys of walking so I am eager to see how Mr Jebb moves on from this unpromising start.

Back on the map hunt, I went and plundered my Dad’s cartographic collection. Success. Latterly he has taken to marking up his maps with an enviable collection of highlighters to note his route, the date and even the direction of flow. He’s a civil engineer; one would expect nothing less.


OS Explorer 168

I don’t know quite what’s so special about Luckington but clearly it’s well worth the detour. Think I may have to take a look.