Day 1 – Source to Cricklade

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The first stage of the Thames Path, from Kemble to Oxford is around 50 miles and I started that on Tuesday 17th September 2019, getting to Oxford on Friday 20th. I stayed 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 stayed 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.

Arrived 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 pulled into Stroud, I was 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 pulled into Kemble spot on time. There was 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. After a few minutes in the taxi, I arrive at The Thames Head Inn Hotel – the closest hotel/pub to the source. I was taken to my room, room 3, which had TV, ensuite, wifi, coffee. All very nice – as was the food.

The barman sounded just like Henning Wehn, “But I was here first” he tells me. But having been here working 35 years, Brexit means 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 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 huge tree by the source also appeared to be missing.

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 still not yet the flowing Isis.

But there is something quite spiritual in following a dry river bed that you know 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.

About a mile from Ewen, you pass Upper Mill Farm with its remnant of a water wheel on a mill race. Yet it is difficult to believe that the slow trickle of water was once so strong that it worked the mill. After crossing a plank footbridge, you pass Old Mill Farm, this time without any visible sign of the mill.

By Somerford Keynes, the water is freely flowing, reflecting the sunlight, and now too wide to step over. This was the place where the Saxons had their “summer ford”.

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. making it the largest inland water feature in Europe.

As you approach the first village on the river at Ashton Keynes, the River Thames feels strangely isolated; nothing more than a small stream, yet it cuts through a huge expanse of water with lakes either side. 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.

Interesting that these houses have a “Thames-side view”. How different from the Thames-side view in, say Greenwich, or further downstream.

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. North Meadow is an enormous space forming the flood plane between the Thames and the Churn. A site of National Nature Reserve (NNR) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it is 60 Acres 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.

Cricklade is the first downstream town on the Thames and the only Wiltshire town, and was founded in the 9th century by the Anglo-Saxons, at the point where the Roman road Ermin Way crossed the River Thames. It was the home of a royal mint from 979 to 1100. The path passes the site of the Cricklade Mint, now 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): the 12th Century St Sampson’s with an unusual four pointed spire, and St Mary’s, now the oldest Catholic church in Britain.

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. In the morning, a great breakfast – vegetarian full English, cereals, fruit juice, fruit, yogurt and coffee. They made me a packed lunch, dealt with my bag – which again was due to be already in my room at Lechlade when I arrived at 14:30. Now off, at 9:30, on the second leg.

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