Walking the Thames

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History of the Path

Getting to The Thames

The Thames Path follows the River Thames from its source in rural Gloucestershire to beyond the Thames barrier – almost 200 miles in all. My plan is to do it all in 4-5 stages. The first stage, from Kemble to Oxford is around 50 miles and I started that on Tuesday 17th September, getting to Oxford on Friday 20th. I shall be staying in Kemble, Cricklade, Lechlade, Newbridge and Oxford. There is more information on the path in a similar blog by Keith Palling, who walked the path in 2007.

Kemble is a small town in Gloucestershire, and is the nearest settlement to the source of the Thames at Thames Head. Trains go to Kemble station, from Nottingham, change at Gloucester, takes about 3 hours. I am staying at the Thames Head Inn, and they helped me book a taxi from the station with A-B Taxi (01285 655 651).

i caught the 11.07 Nottingham-Gloucester, then 13.33 to Kemble. A somewhat overcast day. Train quite empty in spite of nearly every seat being reserved. Plenty of time to ponder what walking up to 16 miles a day will be like and whether I will have time to explore the surrounding landmarks, churches, bridges and pubs.

Arrive at Gloucester 12:24 on time and find myself amongst several others with disarmingly large rucksacks. Maybe this won’t be the solitary journey I had expected! As it happens, none get off at Kemble.

As we pull into Stroud, I am reminded of Laurie Lee who “walked out one midsummer morning” from Stroud and carried on to Andalusia! From here on, the scenery changes. Instead of fields stretching off in the distance, or industrial sites, there are now hills to the east. We pass through Chalford which looks a beautiful village, yellow stone small houses around a river.

Train pulls into Kemble spot on time. There’s a taxi waiting, “Is it Peter?” Lee, the driver, came to this area from Scunthorpe for a three month job as a chef and stayed 30 years. He became a forester and a builder, now loves driving around the Cotswolds countryside.

Main bar of Thames Head Inn
My room – Room 3. TV, ensuite, wifi, coffee – very nice

The barman sounds just like Henning Wehn, “But I was here first” he tells me. But having been here working 35 years, he and his wife now have to register to stay. What sort of country have we allowed racism to make us into.

The pub is on the busy A433 and is the closest inn to the source of the Thames, being about 1 Km away. Turn out of the pub, turn left for two minutes, and just before the railway bridge go left then over a stile and follow the path to the source.

But that’s tomorrow’s challenge.

The footpath from the A433

Day 1 – Source to Cricklade

The first leg of the Thames Path, from the source to Cricklade, is some 12 miles long. It took me around 6 hours, including stops for lunch at Ashton Keynes, and some exploring on the way.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep and good breakfast in the Thames Head, I left my suitcase and set off at 9:15. I had arranged for my bag to be moved by a company called …appropriately “Move My Bags”. (Cost £134 for four pick ups and drop offs between Kemble and Oxford).

Just 15 minutes from the Thames Head Inn, I reached the source….I am not sure what I was expecting. I had read that there was likely to be no water, which there wasn’t, but I was not expecting the total human isolation. There was no one around, just a herd of cattle, who didn’t seem in the slightest bit interested at the significance of the location.

The Source of the Thames

Looking away from the source, along the path that leads to the Thames Barrier in a mere 184 miles, one can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about, and just where the river might have flowed.

The Thames is here somewhere….

Indeed for the first 2 miles of the path there was no water in sight. After half a mile or so, the path of a once-river appeared, and the first bridge over the non-existent Thames as it went under the A433.

The first bridge over the Thames
The dry Thames

About half a mile further on at Parker’s Bridge, some water appeared – a poor excuse for a river but enough to give the impression that something was happening.

Parker’s Bridge

By Ewen, some water had appeared, at times trickling along, at other times a little bit more forceful, but stroll not yet the flowing Isis.

But there is something quite spiritual following a river bed that will become significant in a day’s time at Lechlade. It may be insignificant now, but carries with it the future aspirations of a mighty waterway.

By Somerford Keynes, the water is freely flowing, reflecting the sunlight, now too wide to step over. But having walked for five miles looking for water, the path crosses the B4696 just south of Somerford Keynes and one is faced with shock. A huge expanse of open water that is Neigh Bridge Country Park, part of the Cotswolds Water Park which around Ashton Keynes covers an area of some 20 square miles incorporating 150 lakes.

As you approach Ashton Keynes the River Thames feels strangely isolated; nothing more than a small stream. But it cuts through a huge expanse of water with lakes either side. But at Ashton Keynes, the flow is funnelled into a neat channel that runs through the village, splitting in two as it reaches the main road.

The infant Thames enters Ashford Keynes

Yet it is here the walk becomes rather dispiriting, as the path veers away from the Thames and you don’t meet it again for another 3 miles until you hit North Meadow just outside Cricklade. Yet even this is dispiriting, as you lose it again after a mile, until you begin to leave Cricklade.

North Meadow is enormous space. A site of National Nature Reserve (NNR) and a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), it is 24.6 Ha and has been managed in the same controlled way for hundreds of years. Coming out of the meadow you leave the Thames and circle Cricklade in order to enter it at the north east top of the Main Street.

Here the path passes the Red Lion, where I stayed for the night. When I arrived, my bag was waiting in my room.

Room 3, The Red Lion

Cricklade is one of those rural towns with a main street of shops and services, bounded by rows of cars. It has two churches (both closed when I arrived). St Sampson’s with an unusual four pointed spire, and St Mary’s, now the Catholic church.

St Sampson’s Church
St Mary’s Church on the main street
Jenners Hall

Jenners Hall was a school in 1650, became a workhouse in 1720 for a century then reverted to a school until 1959.

Built around 1490
Cricklade’s functioning telephone box

Feeling a bit stiff tonight, but dinner was lovely, bed really comfortable. Breakfast vegetarian full english Now off on the second leg.

Day 2 – Cricklade to Lechlade

Today’s leg of the journey was a leisurely 11 miles from Cricklade to Lechlade, where the river is fortified by several other tributaries – The Churn, The Key and The Ray, and becomes deep enough to be navigable. Great breakfast in the Red Lion – vegetarian full English, cereals, fruit juice, fruit, yogurt and coffee. They made me a packed lunch, dealt with my bag – which was already in my room at Lechlade when I arrived at 14:30.

Set off at 9:30. From Cricklade, the first four miles follows the Thames past Eysey, and Water Eaton until you reach Castle Eaton. There is some beautiful scenery here and I got the feeling the river was striving to make itself recognised. At this point, it was still nothing spectacular, just a stream winding it’s way through the countryside.

Castle Eaton is a sleepy village with a church and a pub, The Red Lion which has been closed for some time. Though now it is under new management (Rhiannon and Mark) and is being refurbished.

From Castle Eaton the path diverges away from the river for four miles and it is only in sight briefly at Blackford Farm. These four miles take you through farmland with corn “as high as an elephants eye”.

At 2o miles from source, just before Upper Inglesham, the path has been rerouted away from the A361, and now follows the Thames into Lechlade. At Upper Inglesham, the first boat appears, and by Lechlade the river has widened to become Navigable.

At Lechlade, we have a river worthy of the name. Wide, deep, freely flowing,and a string of boats pepper the north bank up to the Ha’penny Bridge.

The Ha’Penny Bridge
The Ha’penny Bridge from The Riverside Inn
The Thames from The Riverside Inn, upstream from Lechlade

I chose to stay in The Old Swan Inn which has very comfortable rooms, but the Riverside is Larger and much better positioned actually on the river.

Day 3 – Lechlade to Newbridge

Day 4 – Newbridge to Oxford

Today’s final leg of this first stage of the Thames Path was 14 miles from The Rose Revived at Newbridge to Oxford Railway Station. It starts with the isolation and wide open spaces of the Oxfordshire countryside and finishes with the hustle and bustle of Oxford itself.

The weather was – yet again – glorious. It was signalled by a mist rolling down the Thames as I got up.

Looking downstream
Looking upstream
Looking back to The Rose Revived
As the sun rises…..

The path today hugged the river – apart from a 2 mile diversion around Babcock Hythe seemingly to avoid a caravan park. This made the stretch after the diversion in particular quite convoluted, as the river wound back and forth. It was possible to take some short cuts avoiding the bends, but this defeated the object for me.

The stretch was characterised by open meadows, bridges and locks. Indeed just after setting off you encounter a huge field managed by Natural England in order to encourage ground nesting birds. It is in this field that one of the Thames strange “right of way” bridges appears; there are several between Lechlade and Oxford.

Hart’s Weir footbridge

The first today was Hart’s Weir footbridge. Like all the others this was built in order to preserve ancient river crossings when many of the flood weirs were removed in this area.

This stretch also has five locks managed by the Environment Agency, and yet again are all beautifully looked after. Northmoor, Pinkhill, Eynesham, Kings and Godstow Locks. Each have their own automatic weir to control the water flow along the Thames.

Northmoor Lock
Pinkhill Lock
Pinkhill Lock
Eynesham Lock With Swinford Toll Bridge in distance

About three miles from Newbridge you come to Babcock Hythe and its pub The Ferryman.

You might be forgiven for asking where the ferry is. There is no ferry, and so no ferryman. Whilst the Romans’ built a ford, and there was a ferry for 1000 year, it is no more.

Just before Eynsham Lock is Swinford Bridge, one of two local private toll bridges, with its own Act of Parliament. This was built by the Earl of Abingdon in 1770, and while pedestrian can cross for free, the traffic backs up as drivers search frantically for that 5p piece to pay the toll.

The next three miles and things begin to change as Eynsford Lock give way to Wytham Great Wood. This is a 600 acre woodland given to Oxford University in the 1940s. The wood comes right down to the waters edge and is a delight especially after so many miles of meadow.

Wytham Great Wood

After leaving the wood you are placed again in pastoral beauty as you pass the River Evenlode, one of the tributaries of the Thames. and work your way to the penultimate lock on this section – King’s Lock.

Two swans a flying…
King’s Lock

Half a mile further on and we reach 50 miles from the source and a further bridge – this time the A34 Oxford Bypass,

The Oxford Bypass

At this point it is tempting to think you are nearly there, but you are still three miles from Osney Bridge. Just beyond the flyover is the final lock on this stage – Godstow lock, and just beyond, the ruins of Godstow Abbey. (See here). This was apparently built around 1100 but was dissolved by Henry VIII.

From Britain Expess: “The abbey itself was given to Henry VIII’s physician, George Owen. Owen tore down the abbey church and built a mansion called Godstow House from the abbey ruins. In 1645 Godstow House was badly damaged in the Civil War, and stone from the site was robbed for local buildings. The site passed to the Earl of Abingdon in 1702, and stayed in part of the Abingdon estates until 1902. In 1924 it was given to Oxford University in trust for the nation.”

Godstow Lock

Passing Godstow Abbey the far bank becomes a wide open meadow – Port Meadow. This common grazing land was given to the people of Oxford by William the Conqueror for their help in defending against marauding Danes. It has remained untouched since.

As Port Meadow comes to an end, the path enters Bossoms Boatyard and crosses the Rainbow Bridge also called Medley Bridge.

Medley (Rainbow) Bridge
Going over the Rainbow Bridge

This takes us onto Fiddlers Island, a delightful strip of land with the Thames on the right and an area of wetland on the left, at the end of which is a small bridge over the Oxford Canal. This final part leads along a row of cottages, and eventually onto the Osney Bridge.

Bridge over the Oxford canal
Osney Bridge

As you step off Osney Bridge, you enter now a different world. Having spent four days in peace and virtual isolation, you became surrounded by … people and traffic.

Day 5 – In Oxford