Idling along the Thames – Part I: Gloucestershire to Berkshire

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.

Thames Path signage at the source of the river

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).

Field near Kemble, en route to the source of the River Thames

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.

Stone marking the source of the River Thames by Ruth Sharville, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lechlade, Gloucestershire

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.

St John’s Lock, Lechlade

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

Oxford, Oxfordshire

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.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

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.

The Head of the River, Folly Bridge, Oxford by Richard Humphrey, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Osney Lock

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.

Path between the River Thames and The Perch

Reading, Berkshire

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.

Examples of Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins, Reading Museum

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.

Marlow, Buckinghamshire

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 only occasion on which I have photographed food in a dining establishment.

Rhubarb dessert, The Hand & Flowers, Marlow

Windsor, Berkshire

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.

The royal standard flying above Windsor Castle

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.

2.45m bronze statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Victoria Embankment, River Thames, London

(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.)

Next…

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 will continue at Idling along the Thames – Part II: Entering Greater London.

River Thames, between Kingston and Hampton Court

Links and sources

Photo credits

The Thames Path at St John’s Lock, Lechlade

The Mistress of Windfells – A Novel for Our Time?

Agnes Gwynne’s novel The Mistress of Windfells was published 100 years ago in 1921 when Gwynne was nearly 60 years old. The novel was barely noticed in newspaper reviews of the day. Given that it elicited scant attention when new, is it still worth reading today?

Gwynne’s first book of fiction had been published in 1916 by John Lane in London, but for her second novel she turned to a local Australian publisher, E. W. Cole’s Book Arcade.

The Book Arcade, creation of English-born E. W. Cole, was better known for its bookselling emporium in Melbourne. At one time, the vast bookstore was estimated to have held ‘two million volumes on the shelves’ stacked along ‘half-a-mile of walkways’ (Kirsop), but the Book Arcade also ran a publishing arm. Its first book, published in 1867, was of Cole’s own authorship and the company went on to publish some 150 titles, including about 30 novels. Of those novels, only two were written by women – Esther Hacknay’s slight volume A Question of Taste (1900) and Agnes Gwynne’s The Mistress of Windfells.

What’s It About?

The Mistress of Windfells centres on 24-year-old Joan Fetherston. Joan is ‘tall and fair and comely’, and her ‘hair of ruddy gold’ shines like ‘burnished copper in the bright sunlight’ (1). Physical attributes aside, she is also the sole owner of Windfells, a 13,000 acre sheep property in Victoria’s Western District. The novel, set in the first years of the 20th century, opens during the shearing season. There is disquiet amongst the shearers – a union rep has been active in the district, disrupting the usual salary agreements between workers and property owners.

Over the course of the novel, Joan survives an attempt to burn down her shearing shed, with her inside it; makes regular excursions to a neighbouring property, home to the Davenant family; loses one station manager and gains another; and, not uncoincidentally, rejects one marriage proposal and accepts the second.

Woven through Gwynne’s tale are references to the economic, cultural and social events of the time – the economic fallout from the 1890s depression and the rise of the union movement; the pressure on young women to marry; the popularity of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poetry; and the Spring Carnival in Melbourne, with its obligatory stay at the Menzies Hotel.

‘All [Mrs Davenant’s] friends were to be met with in town at Cup time – not her Victorian friends only – but those from Sydney and Adelaide as well. She could be sure of seeing a number of them at Menzies’, where Stephen and she always stayed when in Melbourne’ (108).

I want to focus on Gwynne’s handling of the class divide, as evidenced in the friction between pastoralists and shearers.

‘Beastly’ Shearers

There’s an air of disgruntlement around the sheds at Windfells when shearing gets underway. An agreement – drawn up between Windfells’ manager, Tom Rawlins, and the shearers – is subject to dispute following the intervention of the union representative. Becoming aware of the situation, Joan calls the shearers ‘beasts’ which Tom considers ‘an insult to decent beasts’ (5). He wishes the ‘confounded Union “Rep” [had] never set foot on the place’.

Joan thinks the shearers, rouseabouts and shed-hands are ‘all united for one purpose, the robbing of a helpless girl!’ (9-10). Exasperated by their demands, she cries out: ‘I hate them! Oh, how I hate them!’ (10). Life would be much better if the union rep would ‘try and find some honest work to do instead of living on the money [the shearers] earn and travelling about the country making mischief’ (15).

The ‘Confounded’ Union Rep

Who would this ‘union rep’ have been? And why would he be present on a sheep station in Victoria’s Western District?

Gwynne’s fictional mischief-maker reflects the reality of life in Victoria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1886, the Australasian Shearers’ Union was founded in Creswick in the state’s rural heart. The following year, that union joined with a similar NSW-based union to form the Amalgamated Shearers Union of Australasia (ASUA). By the early 1890s, the ASUA was ‘fighting a battle of survival in strikes that spread across the colonies’ (‘Amalgamated Shearers Union of Australasia: 1887–1894’).

To counter the union’s influence, pastoralists formed the Western Districts Sheepowners’ Association. Relationships between the two groups were not cordial. In 1888, a meeting of the Sheepowners’ Association in Hamilton considered ‘the ill success of the attempt of the Ballarat sheepowners to come to terms with the Shearers’ Union’. In light of that failure, the Hamilton group ‘resolved that the Association ignore the Union, and that all members shear under their own agreement’ (‘Rural Topics and Events’, The Australasian, 28 July 1888).

‘Bitter Class Hatred’

Gwynne uses a clever technique to straddle the views of the working and propertied classes. One of her characters, Wilfred Davenant, is the black sheep of Joan’s neighbouring family. Having received only half of his older brother’s share of the family property, Wilfred has recklessly frittered away his inheritance and fallen into destitution. He works at all manner of menial jobs and, when unemployed, dosses down on the benches in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens ‘with other men equally penniless and out of a job’ (230).

Wilfred’s experiences of both labouring work and abject poverty broaden his understanding of human society. Whereas Joan believes that ‘the promised reward … of joy and wealth, and happiness’ is available to ‘those who strive … in this golden land’ (56), Wilfred views life rather differently.

Speaking of those who live in financially constrained circumstances, Wilfred declares:

I have felt with them in their bitter class hatred of the rich man of the city, against the big land-owner, against the laws that appear to such men only made for the rich and prosperous on earth. I’ve joined their meetings; have stood up and preached the doctrine of the strike. (116)

Where Do Gwynne’s Sympathies Lie?

There is little evidence on the public record of Gwynne’s personal views about the relationship between employer and employee. Certainly, she dwelt in a world of privilege and wealth. She made her home in affluent parts of Victoria, including the Melbourne suburb of Toorak; she received considerable sums of money via inheritances; and she took several extended trips to England. But she also wrote regularly about matters of economic inequality. Whatever her personal sympathies, she was well informed about the issues of her day.

For myself, I’ve decided that reading The Mistress of Windfells 100 years after its publication is worthwhile. Yes, it includes a healthy dose of early 20th century romantic love (with all its assumptions about the place of women in marriage and society), but it shines a light on a period of Australian history when unions had begun to agitate for better wages and conditions for casual workers – an issue that is still pertinent today.

Links and Sources

Sheep at Shearing Shed [ca. 1900-ca. 1925]. Jones, S. J., & Newton & Co. State Library of Victoria