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Britain Walking

Lock, Weir, and Barrel: a day on the Thames Path

Last August we walked the first two legs of the Thames Path, from its source near Cirencester to Cricklade, then onto Lechlade the next day. This past Wednesday we picked up where we left off, taking in the ten or so miles from Lechlade to the evocatively named Tadpole Bridge, where a lone inn sits on the river’s south bank along the edge of a remote road.

Before Lechlade, the Thames is not particularly convincing as a river, much less the thing that goes by the same name in London. It flows mostly underground to begin with, making fleeting appearances before it becomes a stream, then something eventually resembling a canal. Only near Lechlade does it become a full-fledged navigable water source and, as such, the defining feature of this stretch of walking is a series of locks and weirs.

Father Thames, reclining at St John’s Lock

There were also meadows of dandelions and buttercups; swans; herds of cows, some of whom had ventured into the river to cool off; and a collection of pillboxes, dilapidated concrete structures that are relics of the second World War and a last gasp of homeland defense, thankfully never used. The occasional matte-gray plane overhead, either from the nearby Brize Norton or Fairford bases, lent a more modern military touch. But it was the locks and their keepers and their hint of a sort of fairytale life that captured my imagination.

Leaving aside the current U.S. president, there is an unmistakable air of romance about jobs that come with their own houses. Princesses have palaces, but I’m thinking more of a park ranger’s lodge, the lighthouse keeper’s tower, or the shepherd’s bothy. I’m decidedly not thinking of the current crop of corporate high-tech campuses that cater to employees’ every quotidian need to ensure the worker never need leave work. Both categories of worker share a lack of separation between work and home life, but somehow the former’s proximity to nature lends it an air of desirability lacking in the latter.

Eaton Weir

Over the course of the day we passed a series of four locks and weirs, not counting the charming Eaton Weir, where there is a footbridge and cottage but no remaining weir. Pubs were equally as plentiful, and we stopped first in Kelmscott—also site of William Morris’s country home—at the Plough Inn, then in the beer garden of the Swan at Radcot before settling down in the garden of our lodgings for the night at the Trout Inn. It was, perhaps, a good thing we were on foot rather than attempting to navigate the locks on a narrow boat as some of our fellow travelers along the Thames were doing that day.

The next morning we returned to Buscot Lock in the car, where we offered a hand to the lock keeper as one such narrow boat made its way upstream. As he opened the sluices he explained that he works for the Environment Agency and that his main work wasn’t so much helping boats through—which he clearly enjoyed—but keeping the river navigable by managing the weir. He answered our lock-and-weir-101 questions without any hint of annoyance, noting that he had enjoyed “sixteen happy years” in his lock-side home. It was not the storybook cottage overlooking the weir, but a still-handsome, newer construction nearer the lock. The cottage, he explained, was a National Trust property rented out to the public. Turns out my fantasy of having one of those jobs that comes with a house is available for rent, for a minimum of a three-night stay.

Thames Path Tips:

  • Lynwood & Co Café in the Market Square in Lechlade is a stylish place to caffeinate before setting out for the day
  • Lunch at the the Plough Inn in Kelmscott, perhaps after a visit to William Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor, which is right off the Thames Path
  • Dinner and a bed at the Trout Inn at Tadpole Bridge
  • Rent the National Trust Cottage at Buscot Lock

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