Mike, one of my brothers-in-law, kindly helped me out with the logistics on this leg and started the walk with me. Mike is a very fit man. He plays a lot of squash and goes running in order to keep fit for playing a lot of squash. After about a mile he decided he’d had enough and needed to go home for a bit of a lie-down so he turned back and I continued alone.
West of Tadpole Bridge the Thames Path resembles a broad, flat, neatly tarmac’d motorway. I crossed the river at Rushey Lock – with its shiny new weir – and the path reverted to type; that being a slighly muddy path with a meadow on one side and a river on the other.
A heron flapped its way into the air then glided serenely across the field in front of me. This was the calm before the storm – as I turned the next corner I came across a herd of cows. If you have been following this odyssey from the early legs you will know that cows and I do not get on. But these seemed fairly relaxed; there was one group hanging around under the trees and another by the river. They were all staring at me, but that’s what cows do. I passed the river group and some of them started walking along the path behind me. Nothing to worry about, I reasoned, they’re probably just going to see their friends by the trees. But they carried on past the tree group and kept following me.
I heard the thud of hoof-steps behind me and turned to find a bold bullock galloping towards me. He apparently understood Anglo-Saxon because when I suggested loudly that he might like to go away he literally jumped and turned around. However the rest of the herd was now taking a definite interest in me. The separate groups had merged and they were all walking purposefully towards me. I figured that I could make it to the gate before them provided they didn’t break into a run, so I pressed on at a brisk pace. I made it to the gate first and climbed over just as the cows arrived. “Victory to me!” I thought as the disappointed cattle stared at me. But they knew better… It hadn’t yet struck me as odd that I’d had to climb the gate because there was no stile. Nor did I notice the absence of the customary little round “Thames Path” sign. These things only occured to me when I had walked a bit further on to find that there was no path and no river. The tree cows had very cleverly hidden the path from me and then chased me out of the wrong side of the field. I really did not want to go back into the field so I was grateful to find a fenced track pointing in roughly the right direction. There were signs saying “Private” and I had to climb over another gate, but it did get me back to the river.
I was wearing a black top and pale shorts, but surely that didn’t make me look so much like a Friesian that they felt it necessary to investigate me quite so closely?
Back on the right path, I headed west towards Old Man’s Bridge where my way was blocked by… another herd of cows. A man on a bike caught up with me and said “I hope they’re more friendly than the last lot. They kept charging me!”. I resisted the temptation to say “That’s extortion, that is” and instead sympathised with him. As we pondered the situation a woman was walking towards us on the far side of the herd, so we bravely decided to wait and see what she did. Unfortunately she turned back before reaching the cows so we had to deal with it ourselves. It turned out to be a lot simpler than we had feared – as we approached we found that there was a second gate so we nipped through without upsetting the black and white brutes.
Now relaxed, I followed the curve of the river which had a couple more pill-boxes as a reminder of the Thames’ strategic importance in World War II. After a couple of miles who should appear pedalling in the opposite direction but the man on the bike. We had a bit of a chat and it turned out that he’s engaged in a similar project to me; he started his way up the Thames at the QE2 Bridge and was heading to the source, sometimes walking, sometimes cycling. He was interested in my experiences east of the QE2 Bridge, and said he might try that next. We parted company, him saying that he was going to head back via the A420 because he preferred to take his chances with the lorries rather than the cows.
The statue of Old Father Thames now reclines at St. John’s Lock, just east of Lechlade. He did spend many years at the source but was moved in the 1970’s to protect him from vandalism. The lock is the highest on the Thames and therefore the last I would see on this journey. The Thames Conservancy thoughtfully provides picnic tables on the lawn by the lock, so I stopped for a rest and a sandwich before continuing to Lechalde itself.
Lechlade is known as the limit of the navigable Thames, i.e. the highest point for “reasonably large” craft such as narrowboats. Halfpenny Bridge marks the limit, as well as marking the county boundary between Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
A short distance south-west of Lechlade, at the ancient village of Inglesham, the path makes one of its lengthy detours away from the river. It heads south along the unattractive and frankly dangerous A361 – which only has a footpath in some places – for about a mile and a half to Upper Inglesham. At the point where the path heads back into the countryside I met a couple walking in the opposite direction who asked me how safe the section was, as they had read a sign on a gate suggesting that walkers should call a taxi. I gave my honest opinion and they decided to carry on walking, albeit with a little trepidation. Although I was now back in countryside, I was still separated from the river by some distance until I reached the pretty village of Castle Eaton.
Approaching Cricklade, my destination for today, the path entered a field. On the gate was a warning sign saying “Bull in field”. What is it with me and cattle today? What was I to do?
There was nobody else around, just me. Nobody coming the other way I could ask… Nobody going the same way I could buddy-up with and possibly feed to the bull.
Should I turn around and find a diversion that would avoid the field altogether? It would have been a long diversion and, nearing the end of a 23 miler on a warm day, I was in no mood for that.
So, I tip-toed into the field taking care not to slam the gate. I walked carefully forwards following the well-trodden path. As I went I looked all around but kept special attention for the fence on my left checking for quick exits into the reed beds. The field opened up and was much bigger than I first thought. Also there was a hill in the middle of it, meaning that from the left side of the field I couldn’t see what might be stamping and snorting 50 yards to my right. Last year I took a walk in the bush in the Maasai Mara, where lions and hippos live; frankly I was more nervous in this field. Farmers are supposed not to put known aggressive animals where they might meet the public, but I still didn’t want to be the victim of a bull’s first act of aggression. Like dogs which are always “lovely family pets” until they kill someone.
To cut a long story less long I made it through without seeing anything more dangerous than a crow. And as I left the field, there was no “bull in field” sign to warn people coming in the opposite direction. So the farmer had either left an unnecessary warning to deter walkers going in one direction, or had scant regard for the safey of people going in the other direction. Either way, as someone had scrawled on the warning sign: “Thanks for that”.
The last mile or so into Cricklade was, happily, uneventful. Just before entering the town the path passes under the big, ugly bridge carrying the A419, but Cricklade itself is quite a pleasant old market town which claims to be the first town on the Thames. The river from Lechlade to Cricklade remains a decent size – you could still drive a small motor-boat for some distance upstream of Lechlade. But it becomes shallower and increasingly reedy. By the time you get to Cricklade I wouldn’t recommend anything bigger than a kayak, and I could probably stand up in the middle of the river at that point and still breathe. Happily the town is well served with a free car park and various shops, as I needed to stock up on drinks etc before the drive home.
Satisfyingly, I had steak for dinner.
Mileage today: 23.2
Mileage to date: 268.92
Mileage to date, as the crow flies: 111.3 miles
Mileage to go, as the crow flies: 7.8 miles