Three Points of the Compass is taking a sedate summer wander along the west section of the Thames Path. This is no frenetic high level backpacking trip. Instead, it is eight days taking in good eating and drinking, while following an infant river from chalk to clay, from source trickle to middle-age.
Summer 2022 was to be the first holiday for Mr and Mrs Three Points of the Compass together in over two years as a result of covid. I had suggested a fortnight abroad in the sun, but no, a leisurely long distance trail was mooted. It has been a long time since Mission Control has joined me on a multi-day trail. Over a decade in fact. She felt it was time to see what I am up to on these longer trails and we agreed the gentle descent of the River Thames, from source to sea, would be an ideal choice. There were stipulations. No camping, no heavy packs, short days and decent overnight accommodation. I bit the bullet and agreed to something I have never tried before. We not only engaged a baggage company to carry our luggage from overnight halt to overnight halt, but also let them do all the admin and booking. I felt a bit of a fraud but looked on it as an early opportunity to see how we might use this type of hiking in our 70s and 80s (if we make it there!). I will be back to my solo lightweight backpacking excursions later this year, but more on those hikes in the future.
A bonus for me is that the Thames Path is also one of the ‘official’ National Trails in England and Wales. I have set myself the task of working through all of these eventually. So, in 2022 we are hiking the western part of the Thames Path. 87.5 miles or so will take us from just outside Kemble to Goring. The plan is to return and finish off the remaining eastern section to Woolwich in 2023. If the weather holds together this year, it will be an enjoyable summer amble. If it gets wet, hmmm…
Another reason for our choosing modest daily miles is that the Thames Path passes cathedrals and churches, castles and palaces, galleries and museums, historic houses, pubs and inns. Where we can and where we feel like it, we will visit any place that we wish to en route, be it a tea room or cultural diversion. I suspect there will be far more tea rooms than anything else.
The Thames Path was included as one of the country’s long distance recreational routes in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 but it took a further half a century before it became what it is now. In the 1970s the Ramblers, River Thames Society and local campaign groups were busy negotiating access with landowners and attempting to restore the old towing path and the Thames Path National Trail was eventually inaugurated at the Thames Barrier on 24 July 1996. This is where the Thames Path used to end (or begin), however as of 12 January 2022 the trail grew in length. It has been extended by 1.2 miles to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel so that it can meet up with the new England Coast Path. A trail that has yet to be completed. This extension has promptly ensured that just about every map, guidebook and website is (just slightly) out of date and incorrect. So the ‘new’ Thames Path is 185.2miles (298 km).
The two of us left Kent and drove to our first night’s halt, deep in the Cotswolds. I had originally planned on using public transport but rail strikes were promised and I’m not getting messed about by that, this is supposed to be a holiday. Frustratingly, I could not book the railway station carpark for the period I wished to use it and had to book an entire month, not cheap, but necessary. We arrived early enough in the day so that we could walk the short distance from Kemble to the source of the Thames. Then back to Kemble, then the equally as short trail to Ewen, and back to Kemble. This would remove such backtracking from the following day.
There are many supposed sources, which is not surprising, as all rivers begin as a trickle from springs and multiple dribbles from wet higher ground. Everything was dry however and today was also the only day where we could walk across the River Thames!
Source to Ewen, 2.3 miles
The generally accepted source for the River Thames is a spring rising in a field in Gloucestershire. Trees keep guard and act as a guide to those who bother to hunt them down across the wild flower meadows. No doubt many who walk the Thames Path simply set off from Kemble itself as the spring a mile and a half away can be dry in some years. We parked at Kemble railway station and took the path out of the village.
Beside the bone dry spring, we found the replacement signage pointing out the direction of trail and ‘new’ distance in addition, the Conservators of the River Thames had marked the source with a simple carved stone. Founded in 1857, that august body is no more. Renamed the Thames Conservancy, responsibility for the upper and lower river estuaries was passed to the Port of London Authority in 1908. In 1974 the Conservancy was subsumed into the Thames Water Authority, itself devolved to the Environment Agency.
Once at the head of the river and photos taken, it was return the way we had come and on to Ewen and back to the car and the short drive to where our little Bed and Breakfast accommodation for the next two nights was to be found. A taxi would bring us back here from Cricklade at the end of tomorrow’s walk and another deposit us back there the following morning. Despite the source being a few short miles away, Ewen means ‘source of the river’. The infant Thames used to be deeper centuries previous and the first water mill on the river used be situated at the west end of the village.
Thankfully we have the car for both nights in Kemble so are able to drive to a pub for an evening meal. Tonight, we visited the Royal Oak in South Cerney to enjoy good beer, cider and perfectly cooked steaks.
- The Thames Path: Kemble to Cricklade
- The Thames Path: Cricklade to Lechlade
- The Thames Path: Lechlade to Tadpole Bridge
- The Thames Path: Tadpole Bridge to Bablock Hythe
- The Thames Path: Bablock Hythe to Osney Bridge, Oxford
- A day off in Oxford
- The Thames Path: Osney Bridge, Oxford to Abingdon
- The Thames Path- Abingdon to Shillingford/Warborough
- The Thames Path- Shillingford/Warborough to Goring