As my book Walks along the Thames Path has just been released in its fourth edition, I got to pondering the magical attraction that the source of a river has, and in the case of the Thames, the nagging doubts about its true origin. Then the pondering turned into a story, called...
SEEKING THE SOURCE OF THE THAMES
Locating the source of a river is not as simple as it may seem. For a start, most rivers have dozens of tributaries, all of which originate at springs, so just how do you decide which is the main source? Interestingly, there is no internationally recognized method of determining such an essential fact, though logic would suggest it is the spring that is furthest from the mouth of the river, or at the highest elevation above sea level, or that produces the greatest volume of water; yet this logic does not always apply.
The source of the River Thames is a case in point, and an exploration of what should be its source, what is its official source and what is its most common source in reality provides a great excuse for a ramble through the Cotswold Hills. All that’s necessary is some form of transport, a decent map, a good pair of walking shoes (or Wellington boots after heavy rain) and waterproofs in case of rain along the way.
This rural adventure begins in Cheltenham Spa, which is famed for its rejuvenating mineral springs. Only one of these springs concerns us here, and it lies around three miles (5 km) south of town, just west of the junction of the A435 and A436 roads. On the north side of the A436 is a lay-by, and in the dense woodland next to it, stone steps lead down to Seven Springs, from which water flows year-round. Above the clear, sparkling waters is a Latin inscription that reads “Hic Tuus O Tamesine Pater Septemgeminus Fons”, meaning ‘Here, Father Thames, is thy sevenfold fount (source)’.
Given the fact that Seven Springs is 190 miles (305km) from the Thames Barrier and is 700 feet (210 metres) above sea level (further from the mouth and higher than any other tributary), our quest should be over before we even start walking. But things aren’t so straightforward; the stream that flows from here through Cirencester to Cricklade has been called the River Churn for as long as anyone can remember. So, having looked at what should perhaps be considered the source of England’s principal river, it’s time to head for the official source, as decided by the Conservators of the Thames in 1958.
From Cheltenham Spa, drive south on A417 to Cirencester, just a few miles away, then head about three miles (5 km) southwest of Cirencester on the A433, which is an old Roman Road also known as the Fosse Way. When the road dips to pass under a railway bridge, turn right immediately after the bridge and park at the entrance to an old railway siding. Walk past the siding to a point where you can cross the railway track to a stile beside a dry-stone wall. From the stile, follow the footpath down a sloping field and then branch left to a copse, where a cluster of stones in a depression in the earth beneath an ash tree marks the official source of the River Thames in Trewsbury Mead, often referred to as Thames Head.
This is where all maps mark as the source of the Thames, though it seems a most unlikely spot since all the surrounding land appears higher. At 184 miles (294 km) from the Thames Barrier and 356 feet (107 metres) of elevation, it doesn’t qualify as the furthest nor highest source. Whether the stream that flows from here carries more water than the River Churn is also debatable, since at their confluence in Cricklade, a few miles downstream, it is difficult to tell which is the greater flow.
The official source is almost always dry, except after very heavy rain, when the entire field gets flooded. An inscription on a stone tablet here reads “The Conservators of the River Thames, 1957-1974. This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames.” Before 1974, the location was graced by a much more romantic symbol to mark the source – a statue of a reclining, bare-chested and long-haired Father Thames, sculpted by Rafaelle Monti for the Crystal Palace in 1854. The statue had to be removed as it was being vandalized in this remote location, and it is now under the watchful eye of the lock keeper at St John’s Lock, Lechlade, the first lock on the river.
There is no evident channel leading from this point, so it’s just as well that there’s a signpost pointing river seekers southward along the Thames Path. Inaugurated in 1996, this path now makes the entire river accessible to walkers, whereas before many sections were impossible to see except from a boat. The undulating hills around here are used for crops and grazing cattle, and the landscape is too gentle to be dramatic, though the dry-stone walls that are a strong feature of this part of the countryside bear closer inspection.
Dry-stone walls exist in various parts of Britain, but Cotswold stone lends itself particularly well to this type of structure. The walls are made entirely without mortar and are formed of stones of uneven sizes, slotted together like a jigsaw puzzle that forms an irregular but attractive pattern. A technique called ‘battering’ is employed, by which the wall is wider at the bottom and tapers towards the top, which affords stability, and stones are set to slope slightly outwards to allow water run-off. Gaps between the stones draw air through, keeping the walls dry. As such they can stand for hundreds of years with no maintenance, an ideal combination of functionality and aesthetic design.
Follow the Thames Path, which is signposted at regular intervals, across a couple of fields until you come to the Fosse Way again. Before crossing the road, take a peek at the lowest point in the field, about 65 feet (20 metres) to the left of the path, where a tiny culvert passes under the road, often obscured by bushes. Though there is still no discernible channel here, this is technically the first bridging point of the Thames.
Go back to the path, cross the road carefully and follow the path into the next field. The track may not be distinct, but you should head towards the distant spire of Kemble Church. At first there is no sign of any riverbed, but a short way into the field, a shallow ditch runs beside a few hawthorn trees to the left. Towards the end of the field the channel becomes more distinct and, if it is dry, you have a rare opportunity to walk along the bed of a river.
On entering the next field, look for a low dry-stone wall to the left in front of a dense copse of trees. The trees conceal a magical dell, which contains the Thames’ most common source - Lyd Well. After rain, this well is everything you’d imagine the source of a river to be – a hole in the earth from which clear water surges up, spirals away and flows through gaps in the dry-stone wall into the nascent channel of the Thames. However, it is a bore-hole rather than a natural spring, and after long dry periods, it also dries up and loses its magical aura.
From Lyd Well, continue south, then east, along the Thames Path towards Ewen, just a couple of miles (3 km) away. ‘Ewen’ is an old Saxon word that means ‘source of a river’, and even if you are walking at a dry time of year, you will almost certainly see the river’s first trickles before you reach the village. In Ewen make for the Wild Duck Inn, a welcoming tavern which dates back to 1563 and provides hearty meals, local ales and open fires in winter. This is an ideal setting in which to rest weary limbs and debate the merits of the contenders for the title of source of England’s principal waterway, before retracing your steps (or taking a cab) back to the car at the railway siding.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.