Conquering the Thames

26th June: Kemble (the source) to Cricklade

12 miles

As the “Thames Walk” sign beckoned me out of Kemble station towards the start of today’s walk, I had two thoughts in my mind — one of excitement and one of trepidation. Standing near the source of the Thames, I knew the prospect of finishing my Thames Path journey was becoming very real. I had only the segment from the source to Newbridge left to complete. However, not having done any walking for 2 months, I also realised this was not going to be a walk in the park. I was about to cover just under 40 miles in 3 days.

From the station, skipping the official source, I took the Wysis Way footpath to join the Thames. (Sze Kiu and I did incidentally walk the start of the Wysis Way when we climbed up to Kymin from Monmouth Bridge in March — here I was, 55 miles away, at the end of the Wysis Way) My first sight of the river was of just a pool of water gathering near a small tunnel opening.

I followed the river to reach Ewen, coming across a few people who appeared to be partaking in some sort of a running/orienteering competition. At this point, the Thames is still very much an “infant” Thames. It was pretty weird to see that the mighty Thames which had shaped the culture and commerce of London and many other towns and cities downstream was nothing but a gurgling stream at the back of someone’s house. Here the water was shallow and pristine.

It took me some time to get into a proper walking rhythm, but soon I reached the intriguing Lower Mill Estate. The estate was filled with new-build holiday homes in various styles, from Victorian cottages to Nordic modern houses. I even spotted a house with what I would assume to be faked pebbledash rendering! It reminded me of a smaller, but wackier version of Prince Charles’s Poundbury.

According to the map, the path at this spot was meant to be flanked by huge lakes (part of the Cotswold Water Park), however if you are expecting Norfolk Broads-style walking, you would be disappointed. For most of the way, one could only catch glimpses of the lakes as the walk followed a enclosed path leading to Ashton Keynes, which itself was a nice but somewhat unremarkable village.

Beyond Ashton Keynes, the walk carried on through the rest of the Cotswold Water Park to reach North Meadow in Cricklade. However, before that, I had a few obstacles to overcome. While the walk so far had been nothing but mud and puddles, the Thames Path at this point was almost turning into a swamp. I had to take either massive detours or tiptop on tiny grassy lumps to make progress. At one point, there was a swan chilling in a pool of water, which would certainly have jeered at my clumsy manoeuvres, if it had been able to speak. In the end, I was only too glad to see that my leather walking boots lived up to their expectation and my feet remained dry.

After such struggle, having to cross the meadow to reach Cricklade felt very much like a chore. My only interest at this point was to finish the walk, until suddenly I looked around and realised how beautiful North Meadow was— a lush canvas dotted with blues, yellows and whites. It is far too easy to lose sight of the beauty around you when you are pre-occupied with reaching the destination, the end-goal. After all, this is why I like walking — being able to slow down, and to appreciate the world that is around you.

Luckily, I made it to Cricklade before it started to rain. But, unluckily, I managed to just miss the 51A bus to Swindon, where I was staying for the night. As a result, I had to wait 2 hours for the next one. How much I love the Sunday bus timetable! And of course, being a Sunday, nothing was open in Cricklade.

27th June: Cricklade to Lechlade

11 miles

I could conveniently travel to the start and end of this walk from Swindon, so today I set off with a lighter backpack, having left most items behind in Swindon. Also, today’s walk was only 11 miles, so it should indeed be a walk in the park — so I thought.

I took the 51A bus back to Cricklade. Unlike the day before, the sun was out to greet me, and Cricklade seemed immensely more appealing with quaint shops and cafes. But it wasn’t time to indulge, as I had a mission to complete. I followed the river to an open meadow. Soon the terrain became a little more interesting as it was no longer just flat. (Not surprisingly, inclines are far and few in between along the Thames Path).

After a couple of miles, It suddenly occurred to me that I had been mostly walking on mown grass, as if someone had just taken a heavy-duty lawn-mower along the Thames Path for a spin. And that is exactly what happened, as I next came across a couple of people mowing the Thames Path. Of course, someone somewhere had to cut the grass, but it was just too easy to take things like this for granted. If not for the thousands of volunteers and professionals looking after our countryside, we would simply not be enjoying it. I tipped my hat to them (without physically doing so).

With this positive thought, I rambled on, but I soon realised that I was literally walking along miles of mown lawns, which was not a good idea if you had hayfever. So I suffered all the way until I reached Castle Eaton, where I felt like kissing the tarmac. I took a brief snack-break outside the Red Lion pub, and as soon as I started walking again, I realised my feet were starting to hurt in all sorts of funny places. The concern I had the day before was not unfounded after all. I suddenly became so much more aware of the rough terrain underneath my feet. After a mile of flat tarmac, the path became muddy again before it turned into a stony and uneven footpath, which did nothing to soothe my pain, as the Thames Path veered way from the river to reach Upper Ingleham.

I had previously read about the following mile which would involve walking on a narrow grass verge along the busy 60-mph A361 from Upper Ingleham to Inglesham village, but I had decided it was not going to a big deal. Now, standing on my sore feet in front of an official Thames Path notice telling me to either call a taxi or flag down a bus, I was starting to wonder whether I should just follow the advice. And why was I not surprised to find that taxis would not be available for another few hours, and the next bus would not arrive until much later? So, with much reluctance, I started to embark on the most awful and certainly most suicidal mile of the Thames Path. After 20 minutes of imagining myself being in various Bear Gryll scenarios involving deserts, rainforests and dreadful creatures, I finally made it alive to Inglesham village. There was supposed to be a Saxon church (St John the Baptist), but I was in no mood to pay it a visit.

Carrying on, I was very happy to see first the river again, and then the church spire of Lechlade. The river here suddenly became wide, and there were all sorts of boats moored to the towpath. This is officially the furthest navigable part of the Thames upstream. Lechlade has a handsome stone bridge, and compared with Cricklade, Lechlade seemed a whole lot posher. I even had a choice of two places to have a flat-white before I caught bus 74 back to Swindon.

My feet were hurting too much to carry on tomorrow, and the weather forecast was looking terrible. My aim to complete the last stage of my Thames Path was not to be. I would go back to London tomorrow.

To add insult to injury, the 74 bus travelled down A361, whizzing past Upper Inglesham just after 2 minutes of setting off from Lechlade Market Square.

This has been a strangely humbling experience, and I will look to come back and conquer the last 16 miles before long!