Where the Thames begins (or not)

I’m going to post a bit more on here about my adventures with @moongolfer for our Curiously Specific Book Club podcast, as part of a general effort to use this blog as a vehicle for creating sentences again.

There’s some lovely places to talk about and some nice stories to tell, so in deliberately obtuse style I’m going to start by being underwhelmed by a place, although its underwhelming nature is interesting in its own way.

On Monday we made our way to the source of the Thames – at least, the official source, more of which in a bit. It took some finding. It’s at a place called Trewsbury Mead in Gloucestershire, just outside Cirencester. This is what it looks like on the OS:

The nearest village is called Coates, there’s no obvious access or car park or even a road sign. We turned off the main road looking for a way to drive into it, only to find all the entrances to lands beyond gated off by Trewsbury Farm and Trewsbury House. Adding to the get off our land vibe was the sight of dozens of Range Rovers and other random SUVs parked up along the roads, outside which were gaggles of folk of a certain age bedecked in green gilets and wellington boots. It didn’t take long to work out what they were up to, as we quickly caught a glimpse of a pair of local specimens on horses wearing red jackets. It had never occurred to me that there might be people who got kicks from watching a hunt.

We drove round all four sides of a square which we believed contained the Thames Head, eventually figuring out that there was a public footpath from the main road which would take us up to the source. We left the car on one of those tractor openings to a field which serve a nationwide double purpose as illicit parking spots in the country. A five minute walk took us across an open field, apparently owned by the National Trust, because what isn’t? We found ourselves at a slight declivity at the bottom of which was a pile of yellow stones. Behind this was a stone monument, next to which was a fingerpost.

And that, if you are to believe it, is the official source of the River Thames. Dry as a bone – Brockwell Park is wetter. Apparently there’s only water here when the water table is high, and it has been a pretty dry few months. But I smell a rat here. There’s apparently a second candidate for the source of the river – Seven Springs, a place 11 miles further to the west, where seven separate springs feed into the River Churn, which itself feeds into the Thames. So the Churn is a ‘tributary’ of the Thames, rather than the Thames itself. But who decides these things? Why isn’t the Churn the Thames? Shouldn’t the place that’s furthest away from the estuary be the source? Call me old-fashioned, etc. Matt Brown has a very good piece here on the two places – but even he can’t unpick why we have the situation we have.

Inevitably, the French do this better. The source of the Seine isn’t debated. It’s even got a town named after it – Source-Seine, a name that actually has its source (arf arf) in the anti-clerical fervour of the French Revolution. It was a source of pilgrimage. It has a park and a statue. It even has a bloody Tripadvisor rating.

Come on, Brexit Britain. We can do better. Get King Charles to build a town at Thames Head (or Seven Springs, just pick one for pity’s sake). Stick a car park on it. And give the hunt watchers something better to do.

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