In search of Thames Head
The Cotswolds glow with Autumn as we ride along narrow lanes that disappear down tunnels of trees. Leaves drip and swirl golden onto the carriageway and horse chestnuts lie split and smashed on the tarmac. The land sits flat and open, farmsteads hemmed in by sand-coloured walls constructed from slabs of Cotswold stone. The villages are moulded from the same, each building rising uniform yet charmingly different, a ramshackle collection of homes, shops and public houses gathered around the lane, with the church spire acting as a beacon across the surrounding miles.
The little town of Lechlade is an expanded version of the villages we have seen, lying on the confluence of the Rivers Leach and Thames. Down at the riverside we roll past the pub, cafe, canoe hire and swans to see the water where narrowboats line the banks. This is the limit of the navigable Thames, and a mile or so upstream is the Inglesham roundhouse and the junction with the derelict Thames and Severn canal, where barges once transported goods between London and Bristol.
We roughly follow its course. The Ordnance Survey is scattered with the disintegrated remnants of infrastructure but few traces remain. A farm track leads to a humped bridge under which the waterway once flowed; the guardian’s roundhouse still stands but has been incorporated into a modern home, the foundations of which interrupt the canal’s course. The deep cut has been converted to a pond with a neat set of steps forming part of an ornamental garden under the bridge. On the other side a water-filled ditch passes into the distance. Later we glimpse a sunken gully beyond the trees; later still, we stumble across the skeletal remnants of a mooring basin. What had been such a significant feature of the landscape is now mostly lost, the cut filled in, converted to road or border-hedge, or clawed back by nature.
Next is to find the source of the Thames, tracing the river backwards from the limit of its navigation to its heart. In Cricklade it is reduced to little more than a brook, a trickle flowing along a shallow channel, dramatically reduced in the few miles from Lechlade. We are soon deep in the Cotswold water park, the old gravel pits lying submerged to create vast lakes inhabited by wildlife and the rich. The roads continue their slow roll; it’s a cyclist’s paradise of gently undulating lanes, few vehicles and picture-postcard views.
The day is growing old as we near Thames Head where the famous river rises. Our tyres stumble on tractor ruts: tracks across a field lead to the ceremonial stone and a signpost for the 184 miles-long Thames path. There is no suggestion of water here, yet this is the source of the river that will meander through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and into London, the majestic waterway upon which our capital and many major towns are built, growing in size and gaining flow along the gentle Thames valley. We stay for a while, reading the inscription on the stone, feeling as pilgrims do. It’s almost spiritual, to have found the point where life for so many begins. In this way, a simple ride becomes so much more.
In time we will drink a pint in the Thames Head pub, cycle home, and the sun will set on this day of exploration. For now we contemplate our adventure and dream of adventures to come.