Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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TO THAMES HEAD - THE SOURCE OF THE THAMES - BY MOTOR CAR.
HAVING navigated the River Thames with all its creeks and tributaries from Cricklade (Wilts) to the Nore by motor boat or other craft, I at last carried out my wish to explore that unnavigable portion of the river up stream some ten miles from Cricklade to near the Thames Head village of Kemble. At this latter place is the source of the river, at a spot, Trewsbury Mead, not far from Cirencester. I may as well give a description of our detour, which was in this instance chiefly undertaken by motor-car a 14-16 h.p. Darracq. We left Shillingford Bridge Hotel, Berkshire, early on a September afternoon, and after passing Oxford, with its many fine colleges, we shortly came to the old English town of Faringdon, then passed through Lechlade, in Gloucestershire, and at length we reached Cricklade, the base of our operations.
It being early evening, we decided to make a start on our quest at once; so, accompanied by Lieut. Hawes, R.N.R. (a Thames Conservancy official), and my wife, we wended our way on foot to negotiate the reaches of the Upper Thames by the riverside. We endeavoured to procure information from" locals " as to our route, but the replies were of the haziest description; in fact, not to be relied upon, which clearly showed that our excursion was not a common one.
It is interesting to note that at this point - Cricklade Town Bridge - the jurisdiction of the Thames Conservancy commences, and extends some 200 miles to Yantlet Creek, in the county of Kent. The river here would be some 30 feet, but the width varies according to the season of the year.
All went well for the first mile or so, when our progress was rudely checked by a canal viaduct. This turned out to be the now abandoned North Wilts Canal, being the Swindon branch to the Thames-Severn Canal of the Wilts and Berks Canal - now also in disuse - which I may mention led from the Thames at Abingdon to the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington.
Here our progress came to a deadlock, and the question was how to get over the canal, and it was only after walking some considerable distance that we were enabled to cross the waterway, and that by the aid of a plank. From a solitary cottage we got the assistance of a young farm labourer, who lent his services to help us so far on our way. Darkness, however, set in rather rapidly, and as we found more and more obstacles ahead, we completely lost our bearings. We had ordered the car to meet us for the return journey near Waterhay Bridge, which we felt could not be far off. After groping about the surrounding fields for an hour and a half, and lighting matches at different points to discover our whereabouts, we at last found an outlet, and it was with much relief that we saw a light ahead and heard voices in the distance. The light came from a small farm, where the good people of the house gave us the necessary directions. We were within measurable distance of the spot where the car was awaiting us, as it proved.
Next forenoon we motored to the same spot and resumed our journey on foot, sending on the car to pick us up. The river at this point was quite a respectable-looking stream, but not so wide as we found it at the start. After progressing some distance we made for Ashton Keynes, a primitive little village, where the car was awaiting us. We then pursued our course to view the waterway and the respective bridges on our route up stream.
As we progressed to the higher reaches, the width of the river gradually became less and less; in fact, in some places the water was only visible in patches, until it practically disappeared.
Reaching Thames Head Bridge on the Thames and Severn Canal, we left the car and walked along that picturesque part of the canal for about half a mile till we came to some typically rural cottages on the farther bank, and hereabouts was our destination. After scaling a wall by the canal side, we scrambled down the steep and rough hillside, and after some little difficulty we were pleased to discover the famous tree at Thames Head, bearing the mystic letters " T.H." cut thereon, with the King's arrow overhead. The object of our expedition achieved, we celebrated the event by quaffing a bottle of champagne at this historic spot, and drank to the health of good Old Father Thames. It seemed difficult to realize that here in this secluded mead we were at the source of that great river which commercially is the most important in the world.
The tree at Thames Head - an ash - is of considerable height, and is partly entwined with ivy. There are at its base a number of stone slabs, and here in the winter time the stream comes gurgling through. There is, however, no trace at all of any waterway course. It must be mentioned, however, that there is a pumping station near at hand which pumped all the available water into the Thames and Severn Canal for navigation purposes. This canal. by the way, had not been in use for some time, and contained much less water than when the writer traversed it by motor boat some five years previously on a voyage from the Thames to the Severn and back to the Thames again by another canal route.
After our Thames Head experience, we motored to Sapperton, where there is the second longest canal tunnel in England, and there the view from the Dane way end, looking down to the Golden Valley, near Stroud, is perhaps as picturesque as one could wish. Later in the afternoon we commenced the return journey, by way of Cirencester to Lechlade, and the same evening brought our novel trip to a successful termination.
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