Cricklade to the Source – July 12th
The official source of the Thames lies in a remote meadow called Trewsbury Mead, near Kemble in Gloucestershire. It’s also referred to as Thames Head, or even just The Source. There is another candidate 14 miles further away near Cheltenham at Seven Springs that people have argued about for years as being the source. However, the Thames Path National Trail recognises Trewsbury Mead as the official source and so do I!
This section starts from Cricklade in Wiltshire. For much of the walk the path goes round the edge of a number of lakes in the Cotswold Water Park. The path passes the villages of Ashton Keynes, Somerford Keynes, Ewen and Kemble on its way to the source.
This section is meant to be 12 miles.
This was the walk I was most looking forward to and I was so pleased that I woke up to such a fine day. After my full English at the New Inn in Lechlade, I drove to Swindon railway station and parked my car there. I then walked to the bus station where I caught a bus to Cricklade. The bus stopped near to St Sampson’s Church, so I took a few minutes to take a closer look at it. To reach the river I had to walk down the attractive high street, which has many buildings made from Cotswold stone. I reached a bridge on which a brass plate proudly stated “River Thames”, just in case anyone could possibly doubt that the shallow water beneath the bridge was in fact the Thames. A couple of fellow walkers also looked on in awe at the river. I knew that by the time I reached the official source, there would in fact be no water, so I would end up taking photos of the river all along the route, in case the last photo I took was the end of the river.
To reach the path, I had to walk down North Wall, just before the bridge. Half way down past a few houses the path continued on the south bank. The path entered a meadow where a very new Thames Path sign advised me that I was 12 miles from the source and the Thames Barrier was a mere 172 miles away. A small footbridge across the river came up next which took me onto the north bank. I think from this point, the term “river” becomes a bit of an exaggeration, as to my mind it had become a stream. I next came to what must be the smallest weir across the Thames, although another one a few miles further along the walk was pretty small too.
After passing a few disinterested cows I found myself in North Meadow National Nature Reserve. This is one of the few ancient flower-rich meadows left in England and is an area of Special Scientific interest. Unfortunately, my walk was a little too late in the year to get the full effect of the many flowers found here. At the end of North Meadow the path continued through fields, tracking the river as it took a distinct turning to the left. A bridge carrying a disused railway line came up next. The railway was the Midland and South Western Junction Railway. Parts of the line have been restored as a heritage railway, the Swindon and Cricklade Railway. I think I missed a Thames Path sign shortly after the bridge, as I carried on alongside the river rather than walking along the disused railway line. However, some help from a local walking his dog soon got me back on track; in fact, he told me the route I’d taken was probably prettier than the official route.
After paying more attention to the Thames Path signs, I was greeted by a sign welcoming me to Cleveland Lakes and advising me that this was the largest purpose-built nature reserve in the area. The lakes comprising Cleveland Lakes are part of the much larger Cotswold Water Park. Cotswold Water Park is the largest man-made lake system in the UK, comprising 147 named lakes and covering an area the size of Jersey. They were created as a result of gravel and sand extraction in the second half of the last century. The resulting pits were lined and shaped with clay and then allowed to fill naturally with rain water. Currently there are 4 mineral companies still extracting sand and gravel at the rate of 1.5 million tonnes a year. There is sufficient sand and gravel left to extract in the area for at least the next 50 years. There are more than 100 miles of footpaths, bridle ways and cycle ways covering the park. Whilst the park is primarily a nature reserve, there is also plenty of self-catering accommodation available and a large De Vere hotel. Cotswold Country Park and Beach is home to the largest inland paddling beach in the UK and offers all kinds of water activities. I now know I should not have been surprised to see a motor boat pulling a banana boat on a quiet Sunday walk along the Thames!
Anyway, after the plug (no pun intended) for the park, glimpses of the river became more scarce as the path made its way around the edges of some large lakes. Thinking I must have missed another Thames Path sign, I was relieved when I reached a weather-beaten sign pointing me towards Ashton Keynes. Following the narrow track for about half a mile, the path emerged at a sports field in Ashton Keynes. Numerous Thames Path signs directed me through this very attractive village that has the river flowing through it. At the other end of the village, the tree-lined path continued alongside the south bank of the river. It was quite a hot day, so the shade of the trees was most welcome. The path continued, once again passing between more Cotswold Water Park lakes, before emerging onto the edges of Somerford Keynes. The path took me past the main entrance of Lower Mill Estate, a large, modern estate of holiday homes set amongst the lakes of the water park.
At the next main road, the path crossed over and into Neigh Bridge Country Park, based around Neigh Bridge Lake. There were plenty of people here picnicking and just relaxing. I chose to stop to eat my sandwich before the final push to the source. Carrying on, the path continued by the side of the river, mainly through large fields. In some places the river looked like nothing more than a large rain puddle but then it would widen up again. On the outskirts of Ewen was the final weir across the river. A little further on and I reached Ewen and the riverbed was bone dry. I assumed that was it as far as water in the riverbed was concerned. This was as expected, as the source is generally only ever wet after long periods of continuous rain in the winter months. The path left the riverbed briefly at Ewen, continuing through the village and along a minor road towards Kemble. At Parker’s Bridge, a bridge over the Thames, the path turned to the right into more fields alongside the riverbed. After about 250 yards I came to what was to be the first pool of water making up the Thames – but that was it – just a pool! I was more than 1.5 miles away from the official source.
The Thames Path continued through large fields, crossing the A429 and then the A433. Even though there was no water, I could still see the course the river would take. After crossing the A433, I knew I was so close to reaching the source. Another half mile of walking through lovely green fields and at the back of the last field, I saw the stone I was looking for. I had arrived at the official source of the River Thames at 360 metres above sea level. The stone reads –
THE CONSERVATORS OF THE RIVER THAMES
1857 – 1974
THIS STONE WAS PLACED HERE TO MARK THE
SOURCE OF THE RIVER THAMES
A Thames Path sign advised me I was 184 miles or 294 kilometres from the Thames Barrier London. A pile of stones in front of the main stone mark the spring that is the official source. Even though I still had a few more walks to complete the entire path, I felt an enormous sense of achievement. As I had the field to myself, after taking countless photos, I sat down on the plinth of the stone and savoured a piece of trademark coffee and walnut cake, washed down with a can of my favourite alcohol- free beer. As I was leaving, a family turned up. They were out for a walk and were curious to see the stone. After wiping my phone down with antibacterial hand wash, I got one of them to take a couple of photos of me standing by the stone and the sign and I then reciprocated by taking a few for them.
Still on a bit of a high, I had an almost 2 mile walk to get to Kemble railway station but it was virtually all through lovely green fields, so I wasn’t at all bothered. Having left the hotel at 08:15, the sight of Kemble station at 5 o’clock was very welcome. Reminiscent of all the locks I’d passed along the Thames Path, this was a very attractive, Cotswold stone building with a well tended garden. In fact, the garden was officially opened by Prince Charles in 2013. It was built and is maintained by students of the Royal Agricultural University in nearby Cirencester. Kemble is on the Golden Valley Line between Swindon and Gloucester. When the train arrived, I donned my face mask even though I had the carriage to myself. Back in Swindon, I retrieved my car and drove back to the hotel in Lechlade. As it was such a beautiful evening, I celebrated in the riverside garden of the New Inn Hotel with a real pint, before getting showered ahead of my evening meal.
What a lovely day this had been!