I didn’t intentionally set out to explore the Thames. It’s just happened that, on successive visits to the United Kingdom, my path has repeatedly coincided with the river’s course.
My encounters have been largely haphazard – much like the river itself. The Thames seems reluctant to reach the sea, epitomising the dictum: ‘the journey is more important than the destination’.
In his biography of the Thames, Peter Ackroyd calls the river’s flow ‘quixotic’. It doesn’t forge a straightforward, easterly path from rural Gloucestershire to its estuary on the Kent/Essex border. Instead, it curls back on itself. It meanders indeterminately. The Thames, says Ackroyd, ‘teaches you to take time, and to view the world from a different vantage’.
Here are some of my vantage points; the places along the Thames and its environs where I’ve chosen to ‘take time’.
In the Beginning, Gloucestershire
Where does the Thames rise? There remains some dispute about this but it is generally accepted that the river’s source is in a field near the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire.
Armed with a copy of David Sharp’s Thames Path, I followed the directions from the bustling A429 (overlaying a section of the old Roman Fosse Way), across a stile and through a field (dodging cow pats en route).
At the far end of the field, in the shadow of an ash tree, a chunk of stone sits on a low plinth behind a ring of smaller stones. The stone chunk bears an inscription:
The Conservators of the River Thames 1857–1974
This stone was placed here to mark the Source of the River Thames
There is not a trickle of water in sight but I take the Conservators’ word for it. I’m happy to believe I’ve reached the river’s source.
About 30km downstream from Kemble, and still in Gloucestershire, is the village of Lechlade. The Cotswolds Canal Trust runs skippered trips along this stretch of the Thames on a purpose-built launch, The Inglesham.
I was happy to wend my way along the water here, but I had just as much fun exploring Lechlade’s Christmas Shop. The store displays a bounty of trinkets ranging from (in my opinion) the terrifically tacky to the thoughtfully tasteful.
The Christmas Shop, Leclade
Flowing on another 30 kilometres, the river arrives in Oxford, home to the institution that lays claim to being ‘the oldest university in the English-speaking world’ (University of Oxford, History).
You don’t need an association with the university to take advantage of a stroll through Christ Church Meadow. The meadow path is bounded on one side by the Thames and on the opposite side by the River Cherwell. There is a detailed guide to the meadow walk on Christ Church’s website.
Walking the path provides an opportunity to reminisce about the college’s alumni. They include mathematician Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland), preacher and Methodist leader John Wesley and his hymn-writing brother Charles Wesley, botanist Joseph Banks, and a raft of British prime ministers. (The preponderance of male luminaries is due to the fact that the first women did not graduate from Christ Church until 1980.)
After a pleasant riverside amble, you might stop off, as I did, at The Head of the River pub for a bite of lunch or a drink or two. The pub’s Sunday roast, complete with Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes, is quite a feast.
To travel on the river, rather than simply meandering beside it, I took a picnic cruise with Oxford River Cruises. Departing from Folly Bridge (on the opposite riverbank from The Head of the River pub), the canvas-canopied boat chugs along a narrow section of the Thames crisscrossing the Bulstake Stream and the Castle Mill Stream. In addition to a delightful picnic selection, the cruise operators supply blankets, a much-appreciated provision on a chilly springtime evening.
About halfway through the trip, the boat passes through Osney Lock. There are records of a lock at this site dating back to the 13th century but the current lock ‘was built in 1790 by the inmates of Oxford Prison’ (Visit Thames). Passengers on board an Oxford River Cruise are invited to assist with the operation of the lock. No prior experience required.
With Port Meadow to starboard, the cruise breaks portside for a short stop at The Perch, ‘one of Oxford’s oldest pubs. There’s time to visit this establishment for a quick drink before heading back to Folly Bridge.
From Oxford, the river meanders south and east before flowing into Berkshire and taking a more northerly turn at Reading. I’ve only been through Reading once. It was a cold, wet and miserable summer’s day and I stopped there to grab a desultory lunch at Marks & Spencer. (It was my first trip to the UK so a visit to ‘Marks & Sparks’ was still a novelty.) After lunch, armed with waterproof jacket and umbrella, I scarpered the very short distance to the Reading Museum to see Britain’s 19th century replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. The original, 70-metre-long tapestry is held at Bayeux in Normandy, France, and depicts the 1066 conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy.
The Reading replica is a precise copy in almost every detail but it does include some minor alterations. In the borders of the original, ‘there are several naked men’ but in the Reading copy ‘their modesty has been protected with pants’. This was not an act of prudishness on the part of the Victorian women embroiderers – they diligently replicated the partially clad men from ‘the set of photographs that had been “cleaned-up” by the male staff at the South Kensington Museum’ (‘The History of Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry’).
The surprise packet of my visit to the museum was the gallery devoted to Huntley & Palmers, at one time ‘the largest biscuit-making company in the world’. Examples of the company’s extraordinary range of biscuit tins now fetch a far greater price via online marketplaces than their contents ever did.
It’s only a few hundred metres from the Reading Museum to the Thames but I didn’t see the river for myself. The torrents flowing from the heavens provided enough water for one day.
Continuing northwards through Henley-on-Thames (home of the Henley Royal Regatta) and then in an easterly direction, the Thames reaches Marlow in Buckinghamshire. Once again, I failed to reach the river’s edge although my stopping point was less than a kilometre from its banks. Instead, I was distracted by a celebration lunch at The Hand & Flowers, ‘the only pub in the UK with two Michelin stars’. (Fortunately, I wasn’t paying the bill.)
Despite not visiting the Thames, the day was memorable – as my rhubarb-themed dessert attests. Its marvellous construction led to the only occasion on which I have photographed food in a dining establishment.
I had made a number of trips to the UK before I ventured to Windsor. I had previously visited several of the Historic Royal Palaces – the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and the Banqueting House – but I hadn’t been to an ‘occupied’ palace.
The castle at Windsor is the ‘oldest and largest occupied castle in the world’ (Visit Windsor Castle) and, on the day of my visit, the royal standard was fluttering above the battlements, indicating the presence of the sovereign – at the time, Queen Elizabeth II.
Entering the rooms of Windsor Palace, I began to feel a little like Miss Elizabeth Bennet during her visit to Derbyshire (Pride and Prejudice): ‘She must own that she was tired of great houses; after going over so many, she really had no pleasure in fine carpets or satin curtains.’ But in the castle’s chapel, I unexpectedly found something that did give me pleasure.
While tourists like me were ushered along the side walls of St George’s Chapel, a gaggle of primary school students gathered for a rehearsal. Chairs clattered, children fidgeted, teachers attempted to corral their charges and, eventually, the choir master brought order to the assembly. A moment of silence, and then the children erupted in song. The sound of their voices was more uplifting than any ‘fine carpets’ or ‘satin curtains’.
Leaving the royal residence, I joined a French Brothers cruise for a return trip to Boveney Lock. In the course of this short trip, the boat passes under three bridges, the second of which is the Windsor Railway Bridge, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
After several jaunts through England, it was becoming evident that I couldn’t move without bumping into Isambard. Tunnels, bridges, railways, ships. He seemed singlehandedly responsible for getting 19th Britain on the move.
(Eventually my bemusement at Isambard’s ubiquitous presence gave way to fascination. I even travelled to Bristol to visit the SS Great Britain – a Brunel-designed ship that carried many English migrants to their new home in colonial Australia between 1852 and 1875.)
After flowing through Windsor, the Thames travels another 30 kilometres and reaches Hampton Court Palace. The palace is just inside the bounds of Greater London. My peripatetic travels along the river in this region continue at ‘Idling along the Thames – Part II: Entering Greater London’.
Links and sources
- Thames: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
- Thames Path by David Sharp (Aurum Press, 2010), more recently published in two volumes: Thames Path in the Country: From the Source to Hampton Court by David Sharp and Tony Gowers (Aurum Press, 2016) and Thames Path in London: Hampton Court to Crayford Ness by Phoebe Clapham (Aurum Press, 2018)
- Cotswolds Canal Trust
- Christ Church Meadow walking guide
- Oxford River Cruises
- Visit Thames
- The Perch, Oxford
- The Hand & Flowers, Marlow
- Historic Royal Palaces
- Windsor Castle
- French Brothers, Windsor
- Stone marking the source of the River Thames by Ruth Sharville, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
- The Head of the River, Folly Bridge, Oxford by Richard Humphrey, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
- All other photos by the author. This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.