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Cotswolds Walking

Thames Trek

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Emboldened by the success of our hike in May on the Cotswold Way, husband and I set out on another of Britain’s National Trails, the Thames Path, last weekend. We only had two days this time, so we stuck to the twenty-three plus mile stretch of the path that’s in the Cotswolds. It runs from the Thames Head near Kemble to Lechlade, with Cricklade perfectly positioned midway for an overnight stop.

The Thames Head Inn on the Tetbury Road (A433) seemed like a reasonable enough guess at where we should be dropped off to start the walk. The pub has a huge framed map with directions to the trailhead in its doorway, but I walked right past them without noticing and asked a waiter for directions. He showed me back to the doorway without batting an eyelid, apparently used to this kind of behavior from walkers. Luckily the Thames Path is so clearly signposted it requires negligible navigational skills. In less than fifteen minutes we had found the start of the path, marked by an old ash tree, a pile of rocks, an illegible monument stone, and a very legible finger post declaring that the Thames Barrier London was a mere 184 miles away.

It was 11:00AM by the time we set out, having waited out the morning in the hope of letting the worst of the day’s rain pass. There was more rain—and little sign of a river save an overgrown riverbed—on the first two miles of our journey, but that just made the Wild Duck in the village of Ewen all the more welcoming when we arrived bang on time for lunch. We ate and drank better than we deserved for the distance we had walked, but the food was so good that I recommend a late morning start on the Thames Path regardless of the weather.

Back on the trail the waterway gradually became a stream before widening out to something recognizable as a river running between the lakes collectively known as the Cotswold Water Park. The name is a bit misleading; while there are leisure activities like boats and fishing, there are no water slides or wave pools. Of the 150 lakes in the area, only three are open for swimming. We stuck to dry land, walking on through the architecturally diverse village of Ashton Keynes, then back by the lakes of the Cleveland Lakes Nature Reserve, along an old railway track, and finally the ancient North Meadow of the Cricklade National Nature Reserve. It was 6:00PM by the time we arrived at the Red Lion Inn in Cricklade, our quarters for the evening.

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Cricklade’s High Street, described almost 200 years earlier as a “villainous hole”

Conveniently, the Red Lion has its own microbrewery on site, Hop Kettle Brewing Company, and we sipped hyper local IPAs in the beer garden as we eased off our boots. Our spacious room was on the ground floor of a converted outbuilding adjacent to the garden, its only downside being a temporary plumbing problem that meant no cold water. After cooling down the bathtub with buckets of ice, we headed to the pub’s restaurant, hidden behind the main bar through a small side room. The gastropub menu included beer pairings for everything on offer, and, even though it was the restaurant’s recommendation, I felt awkward ordering a canned American IPA to accompany my excellent sole, peas, and homemade gnocchi. If you’re beginning to think this walk was just an elaborate excuse for gluttony, well, you’d be right.

Fortified by a locally sourced full English breakfast the next morning, we set off early in an attempt to miss the gales promised by the weather forecast (they never arrived). The path continues for a couple blocks along Cricklade’s High Street, past a plaque that points out the town’s less than illustrious past. In 1821, the journalist William Cobbett called Cricklade a “villainous hole” in his book, Rural Rides, noting that “…certainly a more rascally place I have never set my eyes on.” We left Cricklade by following the Thames under the A419, where the only sign of rascals was some graffiti under the overpass. Even that, though, had a gentle Cotswoldian slant: “Make tacos not war” it implored, complete with an illustration of a taco adorned with some frilly-edged lettuce.

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Once under the motorway the path continued for a couple hours through gentle farmland, crossing the river at various points over wooden pedestrian bridges. There’s another Red Lion in the village of Castle Eaton, this one stuck in an early 1980s time warp complete with David Essex’s Silver Dream Machine playing in the background. The pub’s placement on the Thames Path is perfectly timed for a lunch stop, but even we were too full to eat. Instead we took liquid refreshment, connected to the achingly slow WiFi, and bantered with the genial landlady about her collection of tunes, which also featured Status Quo.

Leaving the village we walked through more farmland. Harvest was done and Swiss rolls of straw dotted the fields. After a few more pleasant miles, the path left the river and we spent an unfortunate mile along a busy road, the A361. This most unpleasant part of the journey was partially redeemed by the reward of a tiny thirteenth century church, St. John the Baptist, that greeted us in Inglesham just as we rejoined the path. William Morris, whose country house was in nearby Kelmscott, oversaw the church’s restoration in the 1800s, and it was well worth looking in before we continued on the last mile along the river to Lechlade.

The Halfpenny Bridge in Lechlade marked the end of our endeavor, just a mile or so short of a reclining statue of Old Father Thames at St. John’s Lock. We will have to wait to meet him and the rest of the Thames Country Path, which ends at Hampton Court, until spring. Instead we headed to the churchyard of St. Lawrence in the center of town that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his poem Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade—on a day, I imagine from the first stanza, that had been much like this.

THE wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray,
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

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The Thames between Cricklade and Castle Eaton

 

The Details:
The Wild Duck Inn
Drakes Island
Ewen, Cirencester
Gloucestershire
GL7 6BY
+44 1285 770310

The Red Lion
74 High St
Cricklade, Swindon
SN6 6DD
+44 1793 750776

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