PRAISE FOR FROM SOURCE TO SEA

'Chesshyre cuts an engaging figure… He has a true journalist's instinct for conversational encounters – Kurdistani picnickers in the river meadows upstream of London, pub thugs in the badlands of the lower Thames, other Thames Path pilgrims he rubs up against along the way. He also demonstrates a nose for a juicy tale, from a pre-Raphaelite ménage-à-trois at Kelmscott Manor to the discreet nookie column in the Marlow Free Press. Chesshyre's journey is rich in history and thick with characters, fables and happenstance – a highly readable and entertaining saunter along England's iconic river.'
Christopher Somerville, author of Britain's Best Walks

'Chesshyre's book stands out from other accounts of walking the Thames Path in its contemporary (post-Brexit, pre-Trump) immediacy. A portrait of England and the English in our time, it is peppered with fascinating historical and literary markers. It's also a usefully opinionated guide to watering-holes and B&Bs from the sleepy Cotswold villages to the dystopian edgelands of the estuary.'
Christina Hardyment, author of Writing the Thames

'Beautifully written and exquisite in observation, Tom Chesshyre's latest book, From Source to Sea is a fitting tribute to the mighty Thames that flows like a golden thread through the history of Britain.'
Harry Bucknall, author of Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim


PRAISE FOR TICKET TO RIDE

'Trains, dry wit, evocative descriptions, fascinating people and more trains – what's not to like?'
Christian Wolmar

'This is an engaging, enjoyable and warm-hearted book that will appeal as much to general readers as to lovers of trains'
Simon Bradley

'Like mini-odysseys, Chesshyre's railway journeys are by turns gentle and awesome, and full of surprises'
John Gimlette

'Funny and illuminating from Crewe to Korea, Ticket to Ride is a hugely entertaining account of the author's travels on the rails the world over – chance encounters fly like sparks'
Sara Wheeler


PRAISE FOR TALES FROM THE FAST TRAINS

'Compulsory reading'
Mark Smith, THE MAN IN SEAT 61

'Transforms seemingly unsurprising familiar territory – whether the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras or the cities of Frankfurt and Antwerp – into the stage for insights and adventures'
Dea Birkett, author of Serpent in Paradise

'If you've "done" Paris and Bruges and are wondering, "Where next?", then this may be a quiet revelation'
Andrew Marr

'Splendid twenty-first-century railway adventure. At last this IS the age of the train'
Simon Calder, THE INDEPENDENT


PRAISE FOR TO HULL AND BACK

'Tom Chesshyre celebrates the UK… discovering pleasure in the unregarded wonders of the "unfashionable underbelly" of Britain. The moral, of course, is that heaven is where you find it'
THE MAIL ON SUNDAY

'You warm to Chesshyre, whose cultural references intelligently inform his postcards from locations less travelled'
THE TIMES


PRAISE FOR HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?

'Highly readable Bill Bryson-esque travel writing'
Clover Stroud, THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
title
FROM SOURCE TO SEA

Copyright © Tom Chesshyre, 2017

Maps by Hamish Braid

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced by any means, nor transmitted, nor translated into a machine language, without the written permission of the publishers.

Tom Chesshyre has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Condition of Sale
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

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eISBN: 978-1-78685-184-0

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For Robert and Christine


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Tom Chesshyre is staff travel writer on The Times and the author of How Low Can You Go?: Round Europe for 1p Each Way (Plus Tax), To Hull and Back: On Holiday in Unsung Britain, Tales from the Fast Trains: Europe at 186 Mph, Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys, A Tourist in the Arab Spring and Gatecrashing Paradise: Misadventures in the Real Maldives. He lives in Mortlake in London.

www.tomchesshyre.co.uk


CONTENTS


Preface

Chapter One
Thames Head, Gloucestershire: A field with no water

Chapter Two
Thames Head, Gloucestershire, to Cricklade, Wiltshire: Quicksand and 'a rascally place'

Chapter Three
Cricklade, Wiltshire, to Newbridge, Oxfordshire: Poems, pies and a shepherd's hut

Chapter Four
Newbridge to Abingdon, Oxfordshire: 'See a bench… sit on it'

Chapter Five
Abingdon, Oxfordshire, to Pangbourne, Berkshire: Dream homes and a perfect cup of tea

Chapter Six
Pangbourne, Berkshire, to Marlow, Buckinghamshire: 'You really live by the river? What a jolly life!'

Chapter Seven
Marlow, Buckinghamshire, to Staines, Surrey: '£34,000 full board'

Chapter Eight
Staines, Surrey, to Kew: London calling

Chapter Nine
Kew to Bermondsey: A day in the life of the Thames

Chapter Ten
Bermondsey to Gravesend, Kent: To the barrier, the badlands and beyond

Chapter Eleven
Gravesend to the Isle of Grain, Kent: 'Look, there's another one of those useless arrows'

Chapter Twelve
The London Stone, Isle of Grain, Kent: River's end

Afterword

Acknowledgements

Distance Covered

Overnight Stays

Pubs Visited

Notes on Wild Flowers

Bibliography


Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
Edmund Spenser, 'Prothalamion'


We must build a kind of United States of Europe.
Winston Churchill, 1946


PREFACE


Iwas born in Hammersmith in west London less than a mile from the Thames. I grew up in East Sheen in south-west London within a mile of its banks. My first flat was in Oval in central London, a few hundred metres from the river. My current home is in Mortlake in south-west London, a minute's stroll from the towpath. I have worked all of my adult life by the river in east and south-east London. One way or another the Thames means a lot to me. I run along it. I walk along it. I take boats on it. I drink with friends by it. I love it. I am drawn to it. I always have been.
  Then something happened. One day I noticed a bric-a-brac market at a community centre by my local library, a short distance from the river (naturally). I went inside and the first object that caught my eye, propped against a trestle table as if waiting for me, was a beautiful map of the River Thames. It was a reproduction of an 1834 drawing by the renowned map-maker William Tombleson, showing the river twisting from its source near Cirencester to the North Sea.
  I bought this map, and an idea began to form.
  This book is the result.


CHAPTER ONE

THAMES HEAD, GLOUCESTERSHIRE

A FIELD WITH NO WATER


Beyond a row of oaks in a thistle-strewn field in Gloucestershire stands a stone by an ancient ash. So this is where the Thames begins. I take a look about. There is very little sign of river. To be precise, there is no water whatsoever. I read an inscription on the stone: The Conservators of the river Thames 1857–1974. This stone was placed here to mark the source of the river Thames. I would appear to be in the right place. Somewhere beneath my feet, presuming this is not an elaborate hoax, is a spring that trickles to the North Sea.
  No one else is around. I have the start of England's longest river (215 miles) all to myself. It is a pleasant sunny July day and there is a gentle breeze. I rest against the stone and sunbathe. I'm in no particular hurry. Wind rustles in the leaves. Dandelion pollen swirls in the air. A bumblebee lands on my hand (but does not sting). A bird makes a whooping sound. The horn of a train echoes and a distant metallic shimmer passes behind trees at the edge of the field.
  This meadow is called Trewsbury Mead and is also referred to as 'Thames Head'. During wetter periods water rises at this spot, I am assured: the Thames bubbles up. It is too dry for that now; hence the somewhat unusual sensation of being at the source of a river with no river to see.
  I inspect the trunk of the ash to check whether I can locate the initials 'T. H.', Thames Head, said to have been carved in the bark many moons ago (I can't). Then I retrace my steps down the trail of oaks to the A433, part of the Fosse Way, the ancient Roman route. From here, I turn right and a short distance along, past a dead hedgehog and a scattering of squashed shotgun cartridges, I reach the Thames Head Inn.
  This is where I'm spending the night, ahead of taking to the Thames Path proper tomorrow morning. I order a drink and take a seat by a sculpture of Old Father Thames on a mantelpiece. The most famous representation of this mythical figure used to be found at Trewsbury Mead but that version was vandalised so often it was moved for safety to a lock near Lechlade. I'll be going to Lechlade in two days' time.
  Meg, the assistant trainee manager at the Thames Head Inn, comes over to chat. She has blonde hair and heavy black eyeliner. She's from Cirencester, about three miles away, and has been working at the pub for a couple of years. 'Some people do the whole thing,' she says. By 'whole thing' she is referring to walking the distance of the Thames to the sea. 'They do it as a hobby; over a few years mostly.'
  My intention is to complete this feat in 21 days.
  Meg shows me a map on a wall with the route to the stone at Trewsbury Mead. 'People come back and say, "there's no water there", but in the winter you sometimes can't even get to the source because it's so flooded.'
  This local map is hung next to another that depicts the full length of the river, a print based on the one by William Tombleson that partly inspired my Thames walk. I take this to be a good omen and run my eyes over the stop-offs to come: Cricklade, Lechlade, Oxford, Abingdon, Wallingford, Reading, Henley, Marlow, Maidenhead, Windsor, Runnymede, Staines, Teddington (where the river turns tidal), Twickenham, Richmond, Kew, Mortlake (my home), Chelsea, Westminster, Southwark, Rotherhithe, Greenwich, Woolwich, Gravesend, Cliffe, Hoo, the Isle of Grain… and then, at last, the sea.
  So many places, such a long way.
  I am aware, of course, that I am not exactly the first to follow this route. It is possible to fill shelves with illuminating and learned books about the river. On top of all the guides and histories are countless novels and poems as well as famous utterances. The Thames seems to encourage a flow of words, with so many luminaries having mused on what the river means to the land through which it winds. Winston Churchill once said the Thames offers a 'golden thread of our nation's history', while the early-twentieth-century politician John Burns commented especially memorably that the river represents 'liquid history'.
  A tremendous amount has happened on and beside the river – from invasions by Romans and Vikings to the signing of the Magna Carta, the births (and deaths) of kings and queens, the execution of traitors, the import of exotic spices and goods from faraway lands, the embarkation to distant, unknown shores. And, not to forget, London has happened by the River Thames: the world's first metropolis grew up by its banks.
  On the terrace of the Thames Head Inn the sense of anticipation is tantalising. I am treating myself to a journey that has long lingered in the back of my mind. I am about to indulge in a dream: to embrace an icon of Englishness in the plum days of July and August, with the sun shining and weather warm (at least I hope so).
  I do not, however, intend to describe the trip ahead in a vacuum.
  I am setting forth on a very particular summer.
  Since I planned this walk, Britain has changed. Brexit, the yet to be implemented outcome of a decision in a referendum to leave the European Union, has become a fact of life. There are to be many spin-off consequences and the result of the referendum, one month old, hangs in the air.
  The country has altered. Fears about waves of immigrants, unhappiness with Brussels bureaucrats and a 'metropolitan elite' perceived to be in charge at Westminster, plus a much-repeated desire for 'the people' to 'take back control', have come together. The result? A slender majority (52 per cent) in favour of leaving Europe.
  Already, a prime minister has stepped aside. And Britain is coming to terms with a new reality. What will happen to the economy? What will happen to the pound? How quickly will Britain leave the EU? Will immigration stop? Will Scotland want to leave the UK? What happens to the border of Northern Ireland? What about inflation? What about a second referendum? What about trade agreements? What about a rise of the far right? What about an increase in hate crime? What about the security of nations in Europe now that post-war togetherness seems about to unravel? What about… just about everything?
  It is into this summer of Brexit that I stride.
  I am about to follow a trail that has offered reassurance and pleasure to many before me – writers, poets, politicians, amblers of all descriptions – at a time of great unease. I am looking forward to taking to the eternal Thames, if you like: the river that has seen everything and will always be there, no matter what goes on in the wider world. The turmoil of the early twenty-first century will, I hope, fade away, and the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other will come to the fore, along a river so full of stories. A river that is so loved.
  Meg delivers an enormous, delicious steak-and-kidney pie. I eat this enormous, delicious pie while reading the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard. Fire crews have been called after 'a large number of hay bales being transported by a lorry burst into flames'. No one seems quite sure how the bales were set alight. Meanwhile, a swarm of bees has been removed from a war memorial by a church in Cirencester. A local man is quoted: 'You don't see that every day.' Flaming bales of hay, swarms of bees in war memorials: big matters are happening in the world; small and somewhat peculiar matters too.
  I go to my little room by a courtyard at the back of the Thames Head Inn to get an early night.
  In the morning a river awaits.


CHAPTER TWO

THAMES HEAD, GLOUCESTERSHIRE, TO CRICKLADE, WILTSHIRE

QUICKSAND AND 'A RASCALLY PLACE'


When committing to walking 215 miles – 184 of which are on the official Thames Path that runs to the Thames Barrier in east London – there are a few considerations.
  The first is quite straightforward: will I be able to walk so far? Earlier in the year I hurt my back and needed to see a physiotherapist. What if that flares up again or I pull a hamstring or twist an ankle? All the overnight stays, spread apart by distances of 8 to 15 miles, would have to be cancelled (and I'm not sure whether refunds would be allowed).
  Then there is: the backpack. Apart from three days on a hike in Bosnia, I have never walked a long distance with one before. Ahead of coming, I rooted out the backpack I used in the hills near Sarajevo. It was covered with attic dust and a clip was missing (the one that connects the straps at the top of your chest). The consequence of this missing clip – noticed at the last moment – is that I have to hand-tie the straps, making the bag slope to one side or the other depending on the knot.
  This is awkward, as I have already discovered on the mile-long walk from Kemble station to the Thames Head Inn. Another problem is the weight. I have packed the bag with several books, which I intend to read one by one and post back to myself when I have finished them (to reduce the burden). Some might argue that I would have been better off with an electronic reader but I cannot, frankly, stand those things. Anyway one of the books – Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1887 by Charles Dickens Junior, son of the better-known Charles – is unavailable as an eRead.
  The backpack is heavy, containing a few changes of clothes and a tube of 'travel wash' from Superdrug (I am not looking forward to doing the washing). I have also acquired 'travel' tubes of toothpaste, shaving cream and so on. I am wearing light North Face trousers with zips that can convert them into shorts, though I have never used those zips and did not realise they were there when I bought the trousers. I have high-cut boots made by Karrimor that I have worn enough times not to be especially worried about blisters. I have sun cream. I do not have a laptop (too cumbersome and heavy). I do not have a compass. How could I possibly get lost following a river?
  Along the way various friends and family members are to join me for short sections; there was surprising interest about walking the Thames among those to whom I mentioned my plan (proof that it's not just me who has a thing for the river). However, for the first few days I am on my own.
  Will I be able to make it the whole way?
  Answer: I guess I'm about to find out.


The early miles
On the path to Cricklade

In the morning I get ready to go along the A433/Fosse Way, heading towards its cross section with the Thames Path. This is a short distance away and I will be joining the Thames Path at this point to set off in the direction of the small town of Cricklade. The town is 12 miles further on and is where I have another pub room booked.
  When I leave at 7.20 a.m. no one else appears to be awake at the Thames Head Inn, including the staff. I put the key through the letter box and tramp off along the road, already busy with a stream of Audis and Land Rovers.
  At the cross section of the Fosse Way and the Thames Path, I pause to take another look at Trewsbury Mead, then traverse a field with a ditch on its left-hand side. This ditch is, I presume, 'the Thames', although there is still no sign of water. The sky is a delicate blue decorated with clusters of pearl-grey clouds. The field is nettle strewn, with orange weeds and molehills. A pair of crows flaps in the direction of a copse. I follow the ditch and shortly reach a wood.
  This is the first real landmark heading east on the River Thames, if you discount the stone at the start. It is also the first evidence that liquid actually exists, and it is known as Lyd Well.
  To see the well you must hop over a wire fence. I do this slightly precariously with my backpack full of books; I'm unwilling to take off the bag, which would require undoing the awkward knot in the straps. The small stone well is mossy and surrounded by beech and oak trees. I reach down and scoop out some water to try a drop or two.
  It tastes leafy.
  Act of pilgrimage complete, I continue along the ditch, which turns excitingly into a stream not so far away. I am on a wonderfully quiet stretch of the Thames in deep countryside. Yellow and purple wild flowers, thistles and brambles line the way alongside rolling wheat fields (at least, I take the crop to be wheat). A rusty barn stands in one of these, cutting an eerie silhouette and making me think of the American Midwest. Pools of crystal-clear water form at bends where the river seems to be taking a rest while contemplating the journey ahead. The pools are surprisingly big: hot-tub-sized but just a foot or so deep (without a button to press for bubbles). For a moment or two I consider going for a dip. Like a devotee by the Ganges, why not immerse myself in this river I've decided to follow? Plunge in and wallow in the water. Be at one with the Thames. There's no one around to witness such madness. I'm my own boss. I can make up the rules on this walk.
  The urge to move on, though, is too strong. I'm less than a mile in with 214 miles to go. Anyway, having left so early forgoing breakfast, I'm feeling hungry. Simple instincts are taking over: I want to find somewhere to eat.
  This is when I encounter my first local difficulty, down by the riverside. The Thames around here, close to its source at Trewsbury Mead, is very isolated indeed. I come to the village of Ewen, where there is a sign for the Wild Duck pub, a shortish walk from the path. I amble over but find that the Wild Duck is closed. Of course it's closed! It is nine o'clock in the morning. Pubs are not open at nine o'clock in the morning, although for some reason I seem to be under the illusion that jolly hostelries will magically pop up at all hours and places on long countryside walks. Quite where I picked up this notion I do not know.
  I return to the river. It's no big deal. I don't mind: breakfast can wait. The path here follows the Thames through more wheat fields and farmland with cows as the waterway widens almost imperceptibly before arriving at a place called Somerford Keynes. As I enter this village gunshots are echoing across the rooftops; presumably hunters are out in the countryside. Porsches are speeding by along a quite busy road. Dog walkers are walking their dogs.
  Yes, other people are walking. So far I've had the river to myself. I ask one of the dog walkers if there is somewhere to eat in Somerford Keynes. He scratches his chin. He is wearing a large green polo shirt and has an air of affluence (the houses round here look pretty wellto-do).
  'There's the Baker's Arms,' he says.
  'But won't that be closed?' I ask.
  'Yes,' he says. 'It will.'
  What use is this information to me?
  'Is there anywhere else?' I ask, trying not to sound like a typical, pushy DFL (Down From Londoner), a phrase I have heard used in the Cotswolds and West Country.
  'Your best bet is the tea room,' he says, waving a hand towards the far end of the village.
  I go to find the tea room, passing honey-coloured buildings with names like Jasmine Cottage, Rosemead and Pear Tree Cottage. Quaint… all very quaint, but there is no tea room that I can find. It has gone ten o'clock. I have been walking for a while now without water (lack of breakfast aside). I have not taken anything to drink so as not to add to the ridiculous weight of my library-like bag. I'd been under the impression there must be a shop or two along the way. There has been no shop. I am not used to carrying such a heavy backpack. The straps are cutting into my shoulders. The insole of my right boot seems to have slipped backwards, making my right toes uncomfortable. I have just gone on a half-mile diversion requiring a half-mile return, after a similar detour for the Wild Duck in Ewen.
  There is a place called Ashton Keynes ahead, referred to in my guidebook as 'the first village actually on' the River Thames, though I seem to have passed several 'villages' already. Ashton Keynes would appear to be a good two and a half miles away, beyond a series of lakes.
  I will, it seems, have to go to Ashton Keynes.
  I tell myself to get a grip. The backpack's fine really and I ate a huge meal last night. Silently evaluating the directions given by the man in the green polo shirt – who may well, I admit, have been absolutely right about the tea room – I set off along the river, wondering how I have messed up so quickly. The North Sea is a very long way away, with or without mile-long diversions to seemingly non-existent tea rooms. How have I found myself waylaid so close to the river's source?
  Passing a Thames View house with a Waitrose delivery van parked outside, I rejoin the river path, which skirts the edge of a high-end housing development. This estate is called the Lower Mill Estate. It is impossible not to gather the name. PRIVATE LAND: LOWER MILL ESTATE, says a sign. NO ACCESS: LOWER MILL ESTATE, says another. PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO PUBLIC ACCESS. LOWER MILL ESTATE, says a third, making the point twice for emphasis, while another says: PRIVATE LAND. STRICTLY NO TRESPASSING. LOWER MILL ESTATE. There's a little bridge across the Thames near here – linking to another part of the estate, it would appear. A sign says: YOU'RE CROSSING THE RIVER THAMES. LOWER MILL ESTATE.
  BOSSY AND ANNOYING. LOWER MILL ESTATE is perhaps more to the point. I pass the entrance of the estate where a security barrier is down to prevent intruders such as Thames walkers, while wondering who can afford to live in a place that contrives to be so exclusive (and has such a penchant for public signs). Hedge-fund managers, lawyers involved in public enquiries, council leaders with six-figure salaries and Jags, retired CEOs of banks, probably in their early fifties and playing rather a lot of golf in between Caribbean cruises?
  Maybe (definitely maybe) I'm just being jealous… it's a lovely, peaceful spot.
  I stop on one of the estate's bridges. The water in the Thames is still about a foot deep. I read before coming that it was on this stretch that the first beavers to be born in Britain in four centuries were bred in recent times, though I can't see any sign of them. Leaning against the bridge, I look up more information on my smartphone (a good signal to be had here, by the Upper Thames) and discover the Lower Mill Estate's owner was behind this breeding scheme; that the two pairs of beavers he introduced were named Tony and Cherie, and Gordon and Sarah, after the politicians and their wives, and that the estate is in fact the location of various holiday lets.
  So much for my hedge-fund managers and retired CEOs rant. Lower Mill Estate is a place where good-hearted people reside, taking care of cute little animals that have been neglected for 400 years.
  Beyond a kissing gate the lakes begin and the river winds between them, about six metres wide now. To put this in perspective, where the river meets the North Sea the estuary is 16 kilometres wide. These are very early days for the River Thames. Dappled sunlight filters through reeds by the riverbank. Water ripples in the gentle but steady current. The Thames begins at about 110 metres above sea level, with much of the river's descent in elevation within the first 20 miles, and here the pace of the stream has picked up surprisingly quickly. It's intriguing to see how the river develops and grows so fast – from nothing to something quite substantial, all in a couple of hours' stroll.
  I go through a gate and pass an electricity depot with a sign warning: DANGER OF DEATH. This marks the outskirts of Ashton Keynes. The first village actually on the River Thames is in Wiltshire; Gloucestershire has been and gone. A house is for sale on the edge of this picturesque village, offered by an estate agent named Bishop Property. How much does an abode in a quiet spot in the first village actually on the River Thames set you back? There's still an internet signal, so I check: £425,000 for a three-bed cottage. You'd hardly get a studio flat for that in some parts of riverside London to come.
  I follow the path onwards and come to the stump of an old stone cross destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's army in the Civil War. Here I turn right for another small riverbank detour. Ahead is a pub: the White Hart. Surely now it's eleven o'clock this will be open? No. A message on a blackboard informs me that 'weary walkers' are welcome and that food is served at noon. Beyond, however, is a village shop; the first village shop in a village actually on the River Thames, though it's slightly annoyingly away from the river. I have found a place where money can be exchanged for something that can be eaten or drunk. I buy various rolls, energy bars and pieces of fruit, along with water and a Lucozade Sport, and lean on an old crate next to the wall outside. I consume the lot in rapid succession, watched by an elderly man passing time on a bench. The bench is by the shop window, which features a picture of an Avro Vulcan XH558 nuclear bomber jet dating from the Cold War; Ashton Keynes is close to the former RAF airfield at Kemble.
  It is hard to imagine what the elderly man is thinking. Within a few hours of departure, I seem to have gone feral. Bits of brambles have become attached to my trouser-shorts, the back of my polo shirt is soaked in sweat (where the backpack was) and I have just eaten a meal consisting of enough energy bars, rolls and fruit to feed a small family in the time it might take to boil a kettle.
  An electric-blue Range Rover with a personalised number plate pulls up. The number plate includes a name, presumably the owner's. I'll call him 'Jez'. Jez gets out, leaving his dog sitting in the passenger seat looking like an extremely regal hound. Jez has well gelled hair and a slouch. The elderly man knows him and they exchange hellos. Jez enters the shop and soon exits with a cigarette packet.
  As the electric-blue Range Rover pulls away, the elderly man turns to me and says, 'That dog gets more drive rounds than walk rounds – that ain't no good.'
  That is all he says as he almost immediately breaks into a fit of coughs that tapers into silence after a while. He nods at me as though he's well used to such spells. I leave him, hoping he'll be OK, and pass along a lane with cottages and weeping willows. Ashton Keynes really is picturesque, undeniably gorgeous and almost serenely peaceful (if that's not laying it on a bit too heavy). I keep on going. The streets are completely empty. It's as though there's been a terror scare and everyone has been confined to their homes. Where is everyone? It is remarkable how few people seem to walk along the river near its source – this is, after all, the height of summer. It's the tourist season! This is the perfect moment for a stroll along the river! The peak period! Where are all the Thames tourists?
  I keep on going, once again. Weeping willows billow in the breeze: wind in the willows indeed. These trees, I know, were introduced to the Thames from China, first planted in Twickenham in 1730. I can also tell you that they consume 1,500 gallons of water a day. Which seems an awful lot. You do risk picking up a large amount of this kind of information (accurate or not) if you read up about the river before setting off.
  Beyond the willows, Rolls Royces and Audis occupy the driveways of pleasant-looking cottages. At the end of the village I come to a narrow path lined by nettles and purple loosestrife. This appears to be the way forward. I edge onwards, stepping carefully where somebody has used red spray paint to circle dog mess. A wood pigeon shoots out of a bush. A sign, rather unexpectedly, warns: DANGER: QUICKSAND, KEEP TO PATH. I do as I am told. Who would have thought such perils lurked by the banks of the Thames in Wiltshire?
  The scenery opens to farmland. Cows huddle in a field. A peacockblue dragonfly buzzes past banks of meadowsweet on the edge of Elmlea Meadows, known for its purple snake's head fritillaries, says a sign. These are a rare and much-loved type of flower, though it's apparently not the right time of year to see them (April is best).
  The Thames turns into a proper-sized river here; previously it might have passed as a stream or a brook. Tall reeds line the banks and lily leaves float on its surface. The reason for the leap in size is that the River Churn has joined the flow. The Churn is the first tributary river and some consider its source, a place called Seven Springs, near Cheltenham, to be the true origin of the Thames. Were this so, the Thames would be 12 miles longer. However, historians have long agreed that Trewsbury Mead is where the river begins. So, apparently, that is that.
  Beautiful bucolic scenery continues as far as a weir where old Fanta bottles and sandwich wrappers bob by the barrier. Here 'bucolic' abruptly stops. I cross a bridge and come to a decrepit farmyard with an old, roofless, brick building. A path leads to an estate of modern housing with white vans and Nissan Micras. I pass the elegant tower of St Sampson's Church and find the high street. I have reached my destination: the ancient town of Cricklade.


Two pints of bitter and a Diet Coke
Cricklade

Cricklade has a surprising amount of rather intriguing history. Romans engaged with local tribes here in the period after 54 bc, following Julius Caesar's earlier defeat of forces by the Thames either at Shepperton or Westminster (no one is sure precisely where). Later, during the Saxon period, around ad 700, it is believed there may have been a university at Cricklade, when the town was known as Greeklade. No one is certain about this either, but if it is indeed true Cricklade would have predated Oxford as the location of Britain's first university by several hundred years. What is known is that St Augustine (ad 354– 430) visited the town to spread the word about Christianity. And it has also been established that Alfred the Great (ad 849–899) built a wall around Cricklade to keep out the Danes. It's worth noting here that the Thames (very sketchily) marked the boundary between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, which Alfred ruled, in the south and Mercia in the north, ruled in Alfred's time by Ceolwulf II. I say 'sketchily' because this boundary was a movable feast.
  King Alfred's walls were effective for a while, although King Canute of Denmark eventually broke through. From ad 979 to ad 1100 the town was home to a mint in which 'Cricklade coins' were produced; the location was chosen as defences were by then particularly strong. By the eighteenth century, however, the 'streets had become thick with mud… household garbage mingled with slops and the dung of horses – in summer flies, dust and strong odours took the place of mud'. This is according to a tourist information board by the police station on the high street.
  This board goes on to quote the impressions of William Cobbett, a journalist who visited the town in 1821 while researching his book Rural Rides: 'I passed through that villainous hole Cricklade, about two hours ago, and certainly a more rascally place I never set my eyes on. The labourers look very poor; dwellings little better than pig beds and their food nearly equal to that of a pig. This Wiltshire is a horrible county.'
  'The first town on the river Thames', as the guidebooks say, is a riot of pink and red flowers with hanging baskets along the high street. All sweet and lovely: no odours, dung or flies these days. Cricklade's 'villainous hole' period would appear to be long gone.
  I'm staying at the White Hart, a prominent building adorned with a fine array of flowers. The best word to describe my abode for the night is, perhaps, 'unpretentious'. I step inside the seventeenth-century inn to find a solitary drinker at the end of the bar, where a message framed on a wall says: Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder… buy one pint of beer for the price of two and receive a second pint absolutely free. Another framed piece of communication says that, at the end of the evening, drinkers who are still not fully refreshed may purchase five cans of Carlsberg to take home for £5. To place this order they should 'ask for cold'; an expression I have never heard before. A pair of men poke buttons on a fruit machine. A map of the River Thames – I'm not surprised to see – hangs near the fruit machine. Techno-style dance music plays.
  I do like the White Hart (maybe I'm just easily pleased).
  I go upstairs to drop off the backpack in a simple room overlooking a Tesco Express and come straight down to order a ham and tomato sandwich along with a pint of lime and soda. As I do so, two hikers, a man and a teenage boy, enter the bar and ask about a room. There isn't one. They are disconsolate and look utterly worn out. They have truly massive backpacks with coils of bedding dangling, and the man is clutching a large metal object that looks like some kind of canister.
  Simon and Jamie are father and son, British, but living in Germany. The large metal canister is a very big tea flask. Simon tells me he calls it 'the King' and that it holds two litres of tea.
  'I'm a tea junkie,' he says, soon after we get talking.
  Long-distance Thames walkers, I am quickly learning, tend somehow to gravitate towards one another. Even though my backpack is in my room, my trousers and boots mark me out as a walker. A simple look is all it takes to get the conversation going. Casual strollers with dogs are a different breed to us. We are going the whole way. We're in it together. We've got 215 miles to travel – and we've got stories to share.
  I soon learn that I am the only other such walker they've met. They set off this morning from a campsite in Somerford Keynes after seeing Trewsbury Mead the day before. They intend to go as far as Hampton Court or possibly the Thames Barrier, depending on how they do for time. They will camp out most of the way. We fall easily into chatter. Simon is quite a motormouth. He is in his fifties and Jamie is 16. I rapidly learn that Simon married a German woman, Jamie's mother, but they have separated. I also find out that he used to work as an IT director for a US software company but 'had a breakdown'. Now Simon gets by on insurance: 'Like so many Germans I have insurance against being unemployed or unemployable.'
  He also tells me that he and Jamie had considered walking the religious pilgrimage route known as the Santiago de Compostela in Spain first but 'in summer one thousand five hundred people a day finish that walk. I worked out that that means that every kilometre there are about seventy-five people. That's a no-go for me. I don't like crowds at all.'
  Jamie confirms this: 'He's been known just to walk out of supermarkets or subways.'
  Simon shrugs. He doesn't seem to mind opening up about his mild agoraphobia – to a fellow Thames walker, at least.
  'You'll probably have no difficulty avoiding crowds if today is anything to go by,' I suggest.
  Simon beams a big smile. He knows he's on to a winner: that the Thames Path here will serve up the peace and quiet – and solitude – he craves. He and Jamie have clearly, despite their exhaustion and ongoing accommodation troubles, had a marvellous day.
  Their current dilemma is that the campsite they had planned for tonight is still a long way off, they are tired out by their huge backpacks, and a taxi to the campsite would be just as expensive as staying at a hotel in town – or so they have been told.
  'I thought that if we ever got stuck there would be hundreds of B & Bs. I thought that round here we'd be in B & B heaven. That's what's thrown me,' Simon says.
  He seems genuinely surprised at the lack of B & Bs. Jamie says nothing, but smiles quietly to himself.
  'These backpacks, I think we underestimated how much they would hurt,' says Simon, looking at the offending items. Inside, they tell me, are sleeping bags, self-inflating mattresses, a camping gasstove, changes of shoes for evenings (something I have not bothered with), three pairs of socks each and three pairs of underwear each.
  Both Simon and Jamie have long, scraggly hair and are large, hulking figures; like father, like son. Simon wears a red T-shirt and jeans, while Jamie is in a blue T-shirt with tracksuit bottoms. Simon is given to flamboyant pronouncements and seems more than happy to delay worrying about the camping site while having a pint at the White Hart.
  I offer to buy a round and go to the bar to fetch two pints of bitter (and a Diet Coke for Jamie). Techno-style dance music is still playing (not loudly, just in the background) and the men by the fruit machine continue to dab the flashing buttons. I return with the drinks and ask what made the duo think of walking so far along the river.
  'Jamie has had an interesting time in school recently,' says Simon, choosing his words carefully. 'A drinkee during school hours. That's why he's on the Coke now.'
  He is taking his son on an adventure to remove him from bad influences and instil an appreciation for the simpler things in life, it transpires.
  They have already had a few run-ins. Near Somerford Keynes they came across 'a couple of unfriendly natives: surly, they were. Not surprising, I suppose – all those idyllic houses on the water and then we come along. I told them that actually we were more civilised than we looked.'
  Jamie cuts in: 'They looked quite alarmed.'
  In Somerford Keynes itself they had gone to the Baker's Arms pub at 9.15 p.m. the previous night only to be told that 'the kitchen closed at nine o'clock'. So they had eaten only packets of peanuts and crisps.
  'A very limited range of snacks,' says Jamie.
  They check again how much a cab to their campsite would cost. It is much less than they were told earlier. So they order one.
  Simon brings up Brexit: 'It's a disaster. I do not understand it. From the beginning to the end, outright lies. Lies from the Brexiteers. They should be called up on this. My nephews and nieces feel as though their future has been sold. Now France is very far to the right. The right-wing Christian Social Union in Bavaria is putting forward a candidate for chancellor in Germany…'
  Simon continues in this vein for several minutes until their taxi arrives. We finish our drinks and agree to meet in Lechlade the following night, though I do wonder whether I'll ever lay eyes on them again.
  They disappear down Cricklade high street. It is late afternoon now. I go to Cricklade Bridge, which dates from 1852; there has been a crossing here since the ninth century. Little brown fish swim in the clear water rushing below (my first Thames fish). I poke my nose inside the charmingly old-fashioned Red Lion pub, with its low ceiling, framed pikes, fly-fishing hook collections and microbrewery. I visit St Sampson's Church, which dates from the twelfth century and is notable for having the four suits of playing cards inside its tower. Some believe that this tower was built with the proceeds of a gambling win. I peer up at the playing cards, wondering if there is any other church in the world built thanks to a bet.
  Then I return to the high street, passing a man leaning against a wall, with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and listen to a couple bickering loudly in the street.
  Her: 'I wanna walk. I don't wanna go in the ****in' car.'
  Him: 'So you wanna go for a walk?'
  Her: 'I ****in' do, yeah.'
  Him: 'Go on then.' And he indicates that she should walk, infuriating her even further.
  A stag group passes.
  First lad, wearing a T-shirt with SLUT written on it: 'I don't give a **** if you don't like it.'
  Second lad: 'You've had too many beers, mate.'
  First lad: 'I wasn't slaggin' him off.'
  Second lad: 'You're being aggressive.'
  First lad: 'Oh shut the **** up. Who's got a ****in' lighter?'
  Back in my room, I read a Swindon Advertiser article about a 'drug-driving arrest' involving a 43-year-old driver from Cricklade who collided with four parked cars, and another about a drink-driver who 'careered into a hedge' and has been banned from driving for two years.
  I go to bed early, but then late at night, I am woken by yet another argument taking place in the high street outside my window.
  Woman: 'Tony, **** off!'
  Tony: mumbles something.
  Woman: 'I ain't joking. **** off.'
  A cab arrives.
  Woman: 'See ya!'
  Silence.
  Yes, Cricklade has plenty of pretty hanging baskets these days, but ghosts of the 'rascally place' remain.


CHAPTER THREE

CRICKLADE, WILTSHIRE, TO NEWBRIDGE, OXFORDSHIRE

POEMS, PIES AND A SHEPHERD'S HUT


At breakfast I eat scrambled eggs on toast in a room at the White Hart decorated with pictures of butterflies and dragonflies found by the Thames. Asian tourists are munching toast. Tracy Chapman is on the stereo, singing about a fast car. When I express an interest, the cheerful, heavily tattooed waitress shows me a close-up of the swirling patterns on her arms and tells me her ink-art cost 'One hundred pounds an hour. I've done 'em in the last two years.'
  It's a Sunday morning and as I head to the river to begin the day's walk, I see that churchgoers are congregating at St Mary's, near the bridge. I go to take a look and am soon being shown round by Monica.
  Monica is a church volunteer. She's wearing a flowery dress and a long gold necklace with a ring attached. She informs me that the foundations of a Saxon gate chapel lie in one corner of the church and that 'if the Romans were going to Cirencester, they would cross the river round here'.
  She shows me the remains of a Roman pillar at the back. There are, she adds, 'more than one hundred places named "St Mary's" along the Thames. Saxons were keen on that dedication.'
  'Why?' I ask.
  'Just because they were,' she says. 'There was a legend that England was Mary's dowry in the Saxon period.'
  Monica lives on the high street near the White Hart. I mention a dreadful mechanical scraping noise I heard at around six o'clock this morning; I'd half considered going down and asking whoever it was to stop.
  Monica knows all about this.
  'Someone's burning off paint – and that's not very considerate, is it?'
  She gives me her email address and says to write if I have any further questions.
  What a very nice Crickladian. (I may just have invented that word.)


A little bit of liquid history
Cricklade to Castle Eaton

It is hot at nine o'clock. I have a medium-length hike ahead: 11 miles to Lechlade, followed by a long day's tramp after that to Newbridge, 17 miles, and then a more modest 14 miles to Oxford. A total of 42 miles, excluding diversions, in three days; I do not think I have walked so far in such a short space of time in my life. During this Upper Thames stretch of the river I'm going to learn a few things. Such as: will these boots start playing up? Will this backpack drive me mad? Will I decide to pack it all in and catch a train home?
  Beyond the boundary of Cricklade, Saxon agricultural ridges mark a field as though the landscape has grown a ribcage. Ducks (my first Thames ducks) skip across the shallow water and dip down to explore the contents of the river weed. Tall rushes with purple flowers rise from the banks. I pass beneath a busy road, the A419, and the noise recedes as I follow a tunnel-like path with yellow and white wild flowers and cabbage white butterflies. Swallows swoop and screech above. A breeze rattles the reeds.
  The Thames Path begins here on the south side of the river before crossing a bridge into a field with cows. There is no one else in sight. Flies buzz on cowpats. Birds trill. The cows pause to regard my progress. I make my way to a gate where I discover a sign saying, BULL IN FIELD written on the other side; good to know, I suppose, even in retrospect. Mellow warmth rises from the soil. The path continues through a crop field. More electric-blue dragonflies dart between clumps of nettles. Clouds billow on the horizon. I cross back to the south side of the water over a wooden bridge. Gunshots echo; another hunt must be in full swing out there somewhere. A pair of swans (my first Thames swans) glides by. On the far bank, a campsite with caravans arises. Was this where Simon and Jamie stayed? Pondering this, I come to a row of pebble-dash houses and the Red Lion pub.
  I have reached Castle Eaton.
  This is a small village and the Red Lion has a claim to fame: it is the first pub from the source to here to line the banks of the Thames. And it's closed. But I really want to go to the first pub lining the banks of the Thames, so to kill time I decide to take a detour to see a church in the village of Kempsford on the opposite bank, which will require me to cross a little road bridge into Gloucestershire.
  Kempsford comes with two Thames-related stories and a (possible) poem.
  The first story is from the late thirteenth century and concerns Henry, Earl of Lancaster, who hereabouts murdered his wife Maud as he believed she was having an affair, probably incorrectly. After seeing her meet a stranger, he went into an uncontrollable rage, stabbed her and tossed her body into the Thames. Some claim to have seen a Maud-like apparition by the water, which has become known locally as 'the lady of the mist'.
  The second story regards Henry's son, who was so distraught at the death of his own son – who had drowned in the Thames – that he rode from Kempsford, never to return. As he departed, his horse cast a horseshoe. Villagers retrieved this shoe and nailed it to the door of the church. This horseshoe is, apparently, still there.
  The Thames poem is the handiwork of none other than Geoffrey Chaucer. John of Gaunt – from the same family as Henry, Earl of Lancaster, and who lived in Kempsford in the fourteenth century – erected the church in memory of his departed wife Blanche. Chaucer was known to both Blanche, who had been his patroness, and to John of Gaunt, who commissioned him to write The Book of the Duchess in her honour. From his visits to Kempsford it is believed that Chaucer could have drawn inspiration for his poem The Parliament of Fowls:

A gardyn saw I, ful of blosmy bowes,
Upon a ryver, in a grene mede,
There as swetnesse everemore inow is,
With floures white, blewe, yelwe, and rede;
And colde welle-stremes, nothyng dede,
That swymmen ful of smale fishes lighte,
With fynnes rede and skales sylver bryghte.

Which translates from Middle English as:

A garden saw I, full of blossomy boughs,
Upon a river, in a green mead,
There as sweetness evermore enough is,
With flowers white, blue, yellow, and red,
And cold well-streams, nothing dead,
That swimming full of small fishes light,
With fins red and scales silver bright.

A village with a 700-year-old horseshoe and an equally ancient poem; a little bit of liquid history to start the day.