I lept on a bus to Swindon. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I was due to spend the night in the town of Cricklade, but looking at directions on my phone, it turned out that it would take me at least four hours to walk there down a succession of main roads. And even that was only possible if managed to keep to its overly optimistic walking speed of 3mph.
There wasn’t even an easy way to just skip a bit and return to the Thames Path a few more miles upstream; the local road network didn’t make that possible. So when I arrived back at Upper Inglesham and found that a Swindon bound bus was hurtling down the road towards me, I rushed to the bus stop as quickly as I could. Given there are only a handful of services a day from Upper Inglesham, my arrival was fortunate timing. It was clearly a sign and I took it for all it was worth.
I vaguely recalled reading that there was a bus from Swindon to Cricklade, and with that in mind, I swiftly formed a plan to meet up with the river again there. It would mean missing out several miles of the Thames Path, but frankly most of my attempts to stay near the river had failed disastrously, so who what was the point in even bothering?
But as I sat on the bus to Swindon, I began to wonder whether there was actually any point in heading to Cricklade at all.
If you look at the Ordnance Survey map of the Thames Path as it runs between Cricklade and the source of the river, you’ll see a lot of blue. And I mean a lot of blue. And as anyone who knows how to read an Ordnance Survey map knows, blue means water. There were lots and lots of lakes, with the Thames Path weaving its way through them on narrow channels of land. The town of Ashton Keynes, somewhere in the middle, seemed to be the only patch of dry land in an otherwise extensive area covered in water. And obviously the map was drawn in normal conditions.
This has occurred to me the night before as I’d studied the map in the bar at the Five Alls. Given the water levels, was there really much chance that the narrow slithers of land that the Thames Path used, would actually be passable? It didn’t seem very likely at all, and I’d resolved to take a quick look at it, but to have the number of a taxi company ready and waiting so that I could bypass the section between Cricklade and the village of Someford Keynes if I needed to.
And now I was on a bus, bailing out – for good reason – on the section between Inglesham and Cricklade. So what really was the point in even bothering to go to Cricklade in the first place, just so that the following morning I’d end up in a cab missing out on even more of the trail? The only reason I could come up with was that I’d already paid £50 for my room in one of the town’s pubs, and the money was non-refundable if I cancelled. But that was it.
As the bus carried its sparse number of passengers through a succession of towns and villages, it slowly dawned on me that I might as well just not bother. Yes I’d lose my fifty quid deposit, but if I did make it to Cricklade I would end up spending even more. An evening meal and a few pints would probably set me back about £30, and my accommodation didn’t come with breakfast, so I’d need to spend even more cash. Add to that the money I’d have to spend on taxis and bus fares as well, and the bill would be racking up. I might as well just write off the £50 spent, give the whole Thames Path thing up as a bad lot and head home early.
And then I had a brainwave. There was a third way. I could still make it to the source of the river, and thus the end of the Thames Path. And I could do that thanks to the source of the Thames being a mere mile and a half away from Kemble railway station; a station that would be easy to get to from Swindon as it’s just one stop down the line from Swindon. I might not be able to walk all the way to the source of the river, but if I could bloomin’ well be able to visit it, then I might as well go there.
At Swindon I rushed to the railway station ticket office to buy the required single to Kemble, and to try and change my ticket home so I could use it a day earlier.
It turned out that I couldn’t simply change my ticket. That’s because I’d bought it online. No, I was told, I needed to go online, cancel it and apply for a refund because – and I quote – “I might still use the original ticket”
This didn’t seem to make much sense given I could simply have given then the no-longer required piece of orange and green cardboard that represented my ticket for my next days travel. I mean, it’s quite a simple problem to solve really. If I gave them my didn’t ticket and they did something to it – say wrote “VOID VOID VOID” all over it – I wouldn’t be able to use it the next day. Job done. But there you go. There wasn’t exactly much point in arguing. It was clearly some bizarre railway policy designed to make things more difficult and admin-intensive than they actually needed to be, and so I simply shrugged, and bought the required new ticket
It turned out that a Kemble bound train would be pulling into the station mere minutes after as I’d completed this pointlessly convoluted transaction, so I ran up to the platform and fifteen minutes later I was many miles away and traipsing along a small trail called the Wysis Way that walkers can follow from Kemble station in order to get to the Thames Path.
Although the Wysis Way is a 55 mile trail, connecting the Thames Path with Offas Dyke in Wales, I only needed to follow it for a short distance, and before I knew it I was once more standing alongside the River Thames.
Here, the river was noticeably narrower than when I’d last seen it, and for good measure, it wasn’t flooding every field in a ten mile radius either. But the Thames was still far bigger than it should have been.
In the height of summer it can often be difficult to find any trace of water around here, but that wasn’t a problem for me. Indeed, the closer to the source I got, the more water there appeared to be, with several temporary lakes having formed in the fields nearby.
In the distance I could see the stone placed by the Thames Conservators many, many years ago, that marks the “official” source of the Thames.
The actual location of the source of the Thames is disputed by some. There are those that say the source is really at a place called Seven Springs, eleven miles to the north. And, of course, there are those who exhale with such passion that the Thames starts in Oxford and that everything upstream is the Isis, and won’t hear a word said otherwise. But it’s here, in a field in Gloucestershire, that the Thames Path nails its colours, and that was good enough for me.
This was it. This is what I’d battled to see.
Except I couldn’t really see the source at all; well, the stone marker anyway. There was simply too much water in the fields surrounding the stone, and it was too deep to cross. I had to make do with standing next to a gate some 50m away and admiring the source from afar.
Well, it would do. I’d got here. Nearly three years after setting forth from the Thames Barrier, and after many, many miles, and more than a few battles, I’d reached the end of the Thames Path.
For a moment I contemplated the significance of it all. I’d set off with a baby in a pram, walking down paved paths, and ended solo in a muddy field. My walk was done. And then I realised I was standing in a puddle, was up to my ankles in water, and that my boots were about to get soaking wet again. And with that, I decided it was time to return to Kemble, and begin the long journey home.