There is a special magic about the Thames, especially in its upper reaches, which is hard to define. Partly it is the nature of the river itself. This is not one of those dramatic rivers that dashes along through rapids and falls, but an altogether more placid stream that seems to invite you to relax, take your ease and forget the trials of everyday life.
There also seems to be a timelessness about the Thames. For much of its length it runs through a pleasant, open countryside and where it does touch towns and villages, they usually show the river a face of old beauty, not one that has had modern cosmetic surgery. But timelessness does not mean that there is no sense of the past, for this is a river that has always had a central role in England’s history, and that sense is with you from the beginning.
This journey starts at the source of the Thames in the Cotswold Hills and follows the winding course of the river down to Reading. There are a variety of ways of making the trip. You can walk all 92 miles of it, following the Thames Path. You can travel most of the river by boat: the river is officially navigable upstream as far as Lechlade (below), Gloucestershire, but you can get a bit higher by canoe. Or you can get in a car to make your way along the route. Whatever method you choose, you will find a delightfully varied scene of water meadows and hills, villages and ancient towns, and one of England’s most beautiful cities.
The search for the source
We begin near Cirencester, in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. This was Roman Corinium Dobunnorum and still has its old amphitheatre, but its chief glory lies in the market square lorded over by its magnificent, ornate parish church. To find the source of the Thames, you have to go south, down the old Fosse Way, to a field near Kemble.
There’s not a lot to see, little more than a stone standing by a trickle of water, and in a dry summer sometimes not even that. Gradually other springs and tiny streams add to the flow as the infant river wanders off on the start of its long journey to the sea. It is often hard to distinguish among the springs and streams that gradually swell its waters, and even the main stream is, at first, insignificant.
You could easily jump across it, but if you had done so in Saxon England, you would have been leaping from one kingdom into another, for the Thames formed the traditional border between Wessex and Mercia. Armies crossed it in the past: in the eighth century, Offa led his men into Wessex and claimed the throne of all England, and in 825, Egbert of Wessex marched in the opposite direction and claimed Mercia.
It’s hard today to think of peaceful villages such as Ewen, with its old Wild Duck Inn, or Ashton Keynes, where the river runs alongside the main street, as frontier towns. But that is what they were.
The river now passes through an area of reclaimed flooded gravel pits that now make up the Cotswold Water Park, which has become a huge attraction for birdwatchers, especially in winter when it is home to tens of thousands of waterfowl and gulls. The old gravel pits come to an end to be replaced by a wide expanse of grassland.
This is North Meadow, a National Nature Reserve. It is rare today to find meadows that have been left to grow without the use of pesticides or artificial fertilisers, but here wildflowers flourish, and the area is famous for beautiful fritillaries in April, with their drooping flowers chequered in purple and white.
And where you get an abundance of flowers you also find a wide variety of butterflies. It is an area best visited in early summer before the hay is cut.
The stream soon reaches Cricklade, another ancient town, founded by the Saxons, where buildings of many different periods sit as comfortable neighbours. Now the Thames begins to take on a new character, no longer a modest stream but a recognisable river.
The river heads east through a gentle land of meadows and farms, briefly touching two more small villages before arriving at an odd little round tower, built to house a maintenance worker on the Thames and Severn Canal, which joins the river here. The canal is now largely derelict, but the long process of restoration is well under way.
Ha’penny Bridge, so called because that was the toll once charged for crossing it, leads into Lechlade. The market town owes its obvious prosperity to wool and the river trade, for this was the highest point accessible to river barges. In the medieval period, merchants came from as far away as Italy to buy Cotswold wool, which was then sent on its way to London for shipping.
Here we meet the first of the locks that form a watery staircase for the rest of the journey. Lock keepers, if they have time, are usually ready for a chat and have good river stories to tell. I particularly enjoyed meeting an old Thames waterman who had started his working life crewing his father’s trip boat in London. One day he hit a bridge and knocked off its life raft, which to everyone’s horror immediately sank! And he got a clip round the ear from his dad.
Once the town is left behind, the river takes a wandering line through peaceful countryside, scarcely touching villages along the way. The route is punctuated by bridges, including one toll bridge at Swinford, which was recently bought for £1m. Every one of the bridges seems to have an attractive pub right alongside.
Just when you think you are getting close to Oxford, the river turns away to make a great sweeping U-turn round the hill at Wytham to approach the city, not from the east but from the north.
The river arrives at the outskirts of Oxford at Godstow, but never quite reaches the famous dreaming spires. The city sits well back, holding its skirts clear of the flood plain of Port Meadow. There is just a glimpse of the old Oxford at Folly Bridge, and then you head back out to the countryside again and a junction with a tributary, the River Cherwell, which is always popular with punters. This is a busy part of the river, lined by the boathouses and gaudily painted barges of the Oxford colleges.
Abingdon soon appears, a town that shows its best face to the river. Here are two streets of fine old houses leading down to the water, the imposing parish church, a set of picturesque almshouses and a surprisingly handsome gaol, no longer in use. But the centre of the town comes as a disappointment, largely ruined by later developments.
Leaving the town, you pass an iron bridge with the name Wilts and Berks Canal Company, but although built by the company it actually crosses the River Ock – the canal entrance is a little further downstream. A long bend of the river brings Clifton Hampden, where the Barley Mow is just one of many pubs with claims to be the oldest in England. Judging by the way you have to duck to avoid braining yourself on low beams, it was certainly built at a time when people were a lot shorter than they are today.
The scenery begins to change now, a little more undulating, with the tree-crowned Sinodun Hills up ahead as a prominent landmark. Here the River Thame arrives, having flowed past the ancient Oxfordshire village of Dorchester. In Medieval times, this was the start of the Thames – the river travelled so far was then known as the Isis, as it still is in Oxford. The waterman poet John Taylor explained it all in verse in the 17th century:
There Tame and Isis doth embrace and kisse,
Both joyn’d in one, cal’d Tame or Tame Isis.
So Tame-Isis became Thames, and it’s very different from the river above Oxford: slow, wide, majestic and busy with boats. Towns turn up at more regular intervals, but the river is no less attractive and many of the towns have their own special appeal, none more so than Wallingford. This is an old Saxon fortified town, or burgh, where you can still trace the outlines of the original town walls and the mound once topped by a Norman castle.
Up ahead, the line of the Chiltern Hills seems to be closing off the route, but the river heads for the V-shaped Goring Gap. This is a splendid spot, with a huge weir, a lock, a watermill and two delightful villages – Streatley, in Berkshire, to the west, and Goring, in Oxfordshire, to the east.
One of the great pleasures of this journey is the way in which the scenery keeps changing. Where, in the upper reaches, meadowland bordered the river, now woodland becomes much more of a feature, and tree-shaded reaches become ever more common. This may not be a river of high cliffs and dramatic views, but occasionally it comes up with something special.
A short way past Goring, woods seem to tumble down to the water above low, chalky cliffs, and then after that comes the second toll bridge at Whitchurch, on the Oxfordshire bank of the river. This is one of those spots where all the elements seem to come together to make the perfect scene: the lock with its long weir, old mill and mill pond, with the church and old cottages tucked away behind it. Pangbourne on the opposite, Berkshire, bank has a very different character. The river is lined with a row of fantastical houses, all turrets and parapets.
There is one more stretch of open country, passing the Tudor manor at Mapledurham, Oxfordshire, with its old timber watermill tucked away down a backwater. The journey is nearly over, and it would be good to be able to say we’ve saved the best for last, but it is not to be. The river reaches Berkshire and Tilehurst, a built-up area with the railway running between houses and river, and it stays built up all the way into Reading. Today the town has been heavily developed, and it is here that this journey ends.
But the river, of course, does not, and there are many more delights to enjoy between here and its arrival in London.
The PloughClifton Hampden, Oxfordshire OX14 3EG
This 16th-century thatched inn, in one of the most attractive of the Thames villages, is comfortable and offers oriental cuisine.
The Old Parsonage
This really is an old building – the ‘new’ wing was built around 1500. Beautifully restored by the Landmark Trust, the Parsonage’s beautiful garden runs down to the river at Iffley lock.
Oxford and Streatley-on-Thames
There is a choice of two, offering either a modern city stay or a grand Victorian mansion in the country.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 45 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
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