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.
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.
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.
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. 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.Approaching the first road crossing the water grew sluggish, perhaps under the bridge there would just be the narrowest of jumpable stream? No, 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, maps.nls.uk, 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.
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.
Amazing what you learn when you look at the map.After 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. But eventually it runs out at a small rubble heap.Not 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. A stone, a sign, a lightning ravaged tree and a small ring of rocks.
The source of the Thames. Bone dry but, I trust, bona fide. And really rather perfect.