With a hiss of pressure the doors slide open to the warm train carriage and I step out into the crisp air of Kemble station in the heart of the Cotswolds. I am here to find the source of the Thames River and follow it all the way to the sea on foot: A journey of 200 miles.
It was my aim to see the river from a more natural perspective and immerse myself into this adventure as much as I could. I would walk it’s full length to sea, I would sleep on the banks, experience the sunrises, wind and rain and totally absorb myself in the temperament of the river. I would attempt to do this walk over 4 long weekends.
Other than the Thames being the famous arterial waterway that carves our great city in half the only other basic knowledge I’d gathered over the years was of its importance to the history and development of London through Roman trade routes and ship building. Until now, I had never fully considered its origin, its growth or its route to London.
As I left the station all I knew was the official source of the Thames started in a dry meadow 1 mile north of the sleepy village of Kemble, Cirencester. I had an ordinance survey map tucked in my trouser leg pocket, a circle drawn in pencil marked this illusive spot. After a 30-minute walk over walls and stiles I found my position on the contours of the map. When I dropped to one knee to scour the meadow I noticed a standing stone no more than three feet high and two feet across, tucked under the tree in the far left hand side of the field. Approaching the stone i could see that I’d found what I was looking for. A carving on the stone read:
“The Conservators of the River Thames 1857 - 1974. This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames”
I had to touch the stone. This would signify the start of the journey. I noticed a dry canal, 8 inches across, that left the base of the stone and ran the length of the meadow, its indentation visible. I would follow this until I found water. Putting my back to the stone and looking east into the sun, it was now 200 miles to the sea.
As my feet crunched on the morning frost, my eyes scanned the field in front of me. I came across the first sign of water in a small culvert that lead into a tree line. At this point the water was pooling rather than flowing, its direction meandered towards a tiny stone bridge in a small forested area. Excitedly walking towards the crumbled bridge I saw the first signs of water movement. As if coming from nowhere it now had direction and life as if it knew where to go, like a magnet pulling it onwards. As it trickled from the side of a small hill it began to create a 1 metre wide stream carving a small route through the meadow out in front of me. It was hard to believe that such an important river to the history and development of England came from such humble beginning.
For the next 4 hours I followed the river past the bare winter trees, through tiny villages, over walls and through muddy fields as it meandered effortlessly through this exposed English countryside. The wet browns and winter greens of the bank, no higher than two feet, held the rivers unhurried pace. For miles it was desolate, not a person in sight and intensely peaceful until I passed through the chocolate box villages of Cricklade and Letchlade.
As the sunset on the first day I rolled out my sleeping bag next the river. The stove was boiling my first pot of hot water as I put on my warm jacket and settled into my bag ready to eat my homemade butter flapjack and freeze dried Pasta and Bolognese. As I lay on my back, the restful tones of trickling water to my right, I looked up through the trees at the stars. It would be a cold, restless and sleepless night until I saw the sun again.
From inside my sleeping bag the green aluminous glow of my watch told me it was 7am. When I peered out I could see the clear skies had given way to a grey miserable start. In some ways I was happy with this; cloud meant a rise in temperature and also a night warmer than the last. As I adjusted the straps of my Osprey rucksack I knew today was a marathon distance day - For me to make Oxford the following afternoon I had to push on beside the river until sunset.
As I continued through the flat muddy fields, following this majestic and still modest river, I past scattered Cotswold towns and beautiful old bridges. There were times when my route took me away from the river, it didn’t feel right not to be able to see it, yet when I returned to its banks it felt like seeing an old familiar friend. After 26 muddy, frustrating yet beautiful miles I arrived in darkness at Shifford Lock. Looking at the met centre forecast on my phone I could see there was the threat of rain then a sharp fall in temperature so tonight the tent would go up. As I sat listening to the bubbling water boiling on my stove, I squinted through the beam of my head torch at the map that lay out on the grass in front of me; I still had 17 miles to go.
On Sunday I was awoken to my tent awash with golden light. Sitting up and re-adjusting my eyes and ears to where I was I could hear the wildlife alive and vibrant outside. Peering through a tiny gap in the tent I could see blue skies and the hushed river beside me. Excitedly I fought with the zip of my sleeping bag and climbed out to see one of the most beautiful mornings I had seen in a while. The skies had cleared during the night and the temperature had dropped to -2. A veil of frost cloaked everything around me. Although I had slept badly and felt fatigued I was grateful to be the only person here to see this. This is exactly why I was on this journey and what I’d hoped for. I wouldn’t have seen this at home.
After breakfast I crossed the bridge at Shifford Lock and took the first steps towards Oxford. The mist was hugging the still water of the river as I passed the old and time-worn villages of Newbridge and Eynsham. The frost, melting in the morning sun yet lingering in the shade made the river look more beautiful that I’d seen in recent days. Arriving at the outskirts of Oxford I could see the rowing teams practicing their unified strokes. At 2:30pm I sat at the station platform with tired shoulders and a hot latte in hand waiting for my train to arrive to take me back to Paddington. I was muddy, fatigued yet thoroughly happy that nobody had a clue of the 56 mile adventure I’d just been on. I just looked like I’d been drag through bushes, repeatedly and sideways for all they knew.
On the train home I couldn’t help but think that I’d found something more beautiful and more remote that I had originally thought. There was definitely something magical about following a river from its source, especially a river that i’d grown up around in London and my dad had fished on his whole life, it felt important to me. To see it flourish and grow at such a measured pace from its humble beginnings as a puddle in a meadow had made this all become a very intimate experience and an adventure I couldn’t wait to get back on the following week..