National Geographic : 1958 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine The Thames plunged into a picturesque wood that arched over the river, admitting only long arrows of sunlight. The stream ran two or three inches deep, and the bottom was a level spread of small pebbles. The water, transparent as air, looked like a coat of clear varnish over a tessellated pavement. But the pavement didn't feel as romantic as it looked. We dried and shod our sore feet and walked along the right bank. A thunderstorm threatened, and we found refuge with a kindly farmer who insisted that we stay all night. Typical of the well-in formed English countryman, he knew his Thames. Thames Once Joined the Rhine "We've dug up many interesting things hereabouts," he said. "I like to think of the Thames as it was long ago. Of course, you know that England wasn't always an island. Winston Churchill reminds us of that in his History of the English-speaking Peoples, but the scientists knew it long before. England at one time was attached to the Continent. Part of the North Sea was a great plain. The Thames joined the Rhine and ran out into this plain-hard to imagine, isn't it?-and together they flowed into the sea. "This valley has been the home of great beasts. Remains of the giant mammoth, musk ox, cave bear, hyena, great elk, lion, bison, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and elephant have been found here." The thunder growled and roared, and it was easy to believe that prehistoric beasts were besieging the farmhouse. But the morning dawned clear and bright, and we met nothing more fearsome than a weasel as we walked on to Cricklade. Just outside the town the Thames is joined by a river that has churned up no end of con troversy. As lusty a stream as the Thames itself, the Churn reaches farther into the hills. Many persons contend, and with Some reason, that it should be called the Thames, and that the stream originating at Thames Head should be considered a tribu tary. The true source, they say, is Seven Springs, a morning's walk from Cheltenham. For the springs give birth to the Churn. After a night in Cricklade we journeyed in a hired car up the road of generals, kings, and emperors to spend a few days in the Cotswolds and see Seven Springs. In a rocky hollow we found the bubbling waters emerging from a hillside; on a stone has been engraved in Latin the words, "Here, O Father Thames, is Thy Sevenfold Source." We circled through the Cotswold villages of the Thames watershed. Bibury (page 58) has been called "the loveliest village in Eng land," but so has Broadway, and we could not decide between them.* Some days later we were back in Cricklade to pick up a canoe that had been delivered by lorry from a boathouse downriver. We slipped the canoe into the ankle-deep Thames; it sat placidly on the bottom. This seemed to amuse an ancient Crickladian bystander. "You'll have to carry that thing more than it'll carry you," he chortled. We proved him wrong. We didn't carry it at all, though frequently we had to go over board to walk it through shallows, haul it through weeds, or let it down gently through stony riffles. It gave us just enough exercise to relieve canoe cramp. Fast water only finger deep alternated with quiet stretches several feet in depth. The sun was bright, the air warm, the countryside a paradise of perfume and song. The silence of the gliding canoe allowed us to hear the wind in the grass, the "peek, peek" of the moor hen, the dart of a startled fish, the paddling of a stoat in pursuit of a water rat. We found ourselves speaking in whispers. Landscape Known in Middle Ages The incredibly green and pleasant land stretched away to a wooded skyline. It was good to think that here was something un changed in a changing world. "In such a landscape," John Buchan has written. "you can cheat the centuries, for all that is pre sented to your ear and eye is what medieval England heard and saw." We pulled out on the shore to have lunch vegetable soup heated on a tommy cooker (the British counterpart of Sterno), cheese, biscuits, apples, oranges, and chocolate mixed with sunshine, solitude, and comfort. We shot some brisk rapids, then paddled down a long, solitary stretch past a round stone tower at the point where the Thames, the River Coln, and the Thames and Severn Canal join. The canal was opened in 1799 to link the Thames and Severn Rivers, thus providing a * See "By Cotswold Lanes to Wold's End," by Melville Bell Grosvenor, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, May, 1948.