National Geographic : 1958 Jul
A highway of history, Britain's longest river shows many faces to travelers using foot power, canoe, punt, and cabin cruiser The Thames MIRRORS ENGLAND'S VARIED LIFE BY WILLARD PRICE With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Robert F. Sisson UNDER a big ash tree lay a stony spring a few inches deep. It seemed perfectly dry. I knelt beside it, brushed away the pebbles at the bottom, and pressed my finger against the earth. There was a thin film of water on the tip of my finger. "That," I said to my wife Mary, "is the Thames.' British Government maps mark this point as the official source of Britain's longest river. I rose and wiped the Thames off on my slacks. Nothing in the upper reaches suggests that this is one of the most important rivers in the world. It rises in a buttercup-spangled meadow in the dreaming Cotswold Hills and flows to the wild North Sea. The source is not even as impressive as it was 19 centuries ago, when legionaries from a near-by Roman camp visited the spring and filled their ewers with its water (page 49). First Bridge Only a 4-foot Culvert Celebrating the beginning of our Thames journey, we had a gypsy breakfast under the great ash. Then we took off on our voyage down the river-afoot! There was as yet no channel, but the meadow sloped gently toward the center. Following the low places, we came to a bridge, a culvert some four feet in diameter arched with stone under an ancient Roman road (page 55). What a contrast between this first Thames bridge and the last, mighty Tower Bridge at London, 231 feet high, affording passage for seagoing freighters! From under the tiny bridge we emerged into another quiet pasture. The path of the stream was now more or less clearly marked as we walked down the dry bed. High above a skylark circled, spilling a cascade of mel ody. There was no other sound, and no one to be seen. The velvety hills stretched away to the horizon. And yet all this region once hummed with activity. Only three miles to the northeast stood the second city of Roman Britain. Co rinium, now called Cirencester, covered 240 acres to London's 330 (page 51). It is inter esting that Britain's two greatest cities lay in the Thames Valley, one toward each end. But the Thames has always been the back bone of England. It was in the lush lands along the river that prehistoric man found the most favorable conditions-abundant water, fertile soil, plenty of game. And for in vaders the Thames served as a ready-made road to the heart of England. Sheep Brought Wealth to Cotswolds Britain was considered a great prize. Julius Caesar was the first noted Roman to visit here, followed in the next century by the Emperor Claudius, who also came leading troops. Corinium was founded soon after the latter invasion, A.D. 43. The Saxons succeeded the Romans as con querors of the Thames Valley. After the pil lage of the Anglo-Saxon invasion and cen turies of petty wars, came William the Con queror. In the Middle Ages, sheep growers discovered that the Cotswold Hills were ideal pasture. The wool trade financed the build ing of lovely villages and beautiful churches. The villages and churches still stand, but the wool trade is gone, and the Cotswold country has relapsed into a sort of perpetual Indian summer of charm and contentment. The Author: In 18 books and uncounted maga zine articles, Willard Price has described his travels in some 75 lands. National Geographic readers have accompanied him on three other adventures afloat: by felucca down the Nile, by junk through Japan's Inland Sea, and down the Grand Canal of China. At 71, when most men are content to rest at home, Mr. Price still answers the siren call of far places. After reading proofs of this article, he left his Cali fornia home once again-this time for Africa.