Heritage on the River Thames

My father warned me never to believe anything I read/heard/saw in the news. Because the articles he read on topics he knew something about were invariably ‘rubbish’, in his view, it followed that the same must also be true for articles about subjects beyond his personal experience.

I was reminded of his contempt for journalism during the summer, when the BBC and scores of newspapers that consider themselves serious reported that the drought was so severe that the source of the River Thames had dried up. The Guardian claimed that ‘river experts said it was the first time they have seen it happen’, though the quote that followed from Dr Rob Collins, Director of Policy and Science at the Rivers Trust, did not actually say that, and the Rivers Trust is in any case a campaign group, not an official body, and is therefore likely to want to talk up the threat to rivers from climate change.

Reuters gave a more-accurate report when it said: ‘the natural spring that supplies the river, known as the source, dries up most summers. But this year the dry riverbed reached significantly further downstream than in previous years’. This accurate point was undermined by another Rivers Trust spokesperson, Engagement Officer Alisdair Naulls, who told Reuters: ‘the Thames would normally be at its source – and there’s a nice pub next to it’. The Reuters report went on to say: ‘the Thames Head Inn is a few steps from a stone that marks the source of the river in Gloucestershire’. In fact, the pub is more than 1km away, separated from the source by the Great Western Railway.

below This sculpture of Neptune, carved by Raffaele Monti for the 1851 Great Exhibition, was originally positioned at the head of the Thames in Trewsbury Mead, but was relocated in 1974 to St John’s Lock, Lechlade, due to vandalism.
This sculpture of Neptune, carved by Raffaele Monti for the 1851 Great Exhibition, was originally positioned at the head of the Thames in Trewsbury Mead, but was relocated in 1974 to St John’s Lock, Lechlade, due to vandalism. IMAGE: Philip Halling (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Father Thames

Sherds has lived for almost half of his life in Cirencester and Kemble, the first village through which the Thames flows – or, rather, doesn’t. Having walked the area on countless occasions, I have witnessed the river in all seasons. The truth is that there has been no water at the river’s official source in my lifetime. This is not a recent phenomenon: John Leland (c.1503-1552) visited the source on one of his ‘Itineraries’ and reported: ‘in a great somer drought there appereth very little or no water’.

Today, the official source in Trewsbury Mead is a forlorn and weed-infested spot that was once marked by a magnificent statue of Neptune, originally carved by the Italian sculptor Raffaele Monti (1818-1881) for the 1851 Great Exhibition and positioned there by the Conservators of the River Thames in 1957. Repeated vandalism (perpetrated by students at the Royal Agricultural College according to local rumour) led to the statue’s relocation in 1974 to St John’s Lock, Lechlade, the highest navigable point on the Thames, where it can be kept under the watchful eye of boat owners moored nearby.

In periods of exceptional rain, the shallow trough that forms the river’s occasional bed shows a few puddles, but the porous limestone geology of this part of the Cotswolds means that surface water is quickly drained. Close to the point where the river flows under the A429, north of Kemble, there is a spring so forceful that the water wells up like a fountain, to fill the riverbed for a short distance before disappearing into one of many sinkholes along this stretch of the river. From there to the next village of Ewen the bed is dry for six to nine months of the year, every year.

At Ewen, there are further springs, and the river could flow easily were it not for the fact that millions of litres are extracted by the water board to supply nearby Cirencester. You can stand on top of the manhole covers in the centre of the village and listen to the forceful gush of the underground water. One nearby landowner has been finding Roman coins and bronze figurines in his garden for decades: local archaeologists believe the springs there were marked by a Roman temple.

The true source?

Continue along the Thames Path from Ewen and you will eventually get to some water, but the water table there has been affected by gravel-extraction in what now glories in the name of the Cotswold Water Park, and where holiday homes cost £1m or more. Running alongside the river at this point is the overgrown bed of the Thames and Severn Canal, which enthusiasts hope will one day be navigable again – though it too was notoriously difficult to keep topped up with water and was lined by beam engines that pumped water into the canal from deep aquifers. The canal was completed in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, and its opening was an opportunity for the kind of anti-French sentiment that still has contemporary resonance. The Times hailed it as a stupendous achievement, and a sign of England’s stability and superiority by comparison with European turmoil.

This brings us to the vexed question of whether Trewsbury Mead really is the source. The lovely River Churn, which gives its name to Cirencester (‘Churn Caester’), meets the Thames in a meadow west of Cricklade. By this point the Churn is 37.3km in length from source to junction, whereas the Thames is 26km from putative source to that spot – but there the Thames is the bigger river, so the Churn is regarded as the tributary. Nevertheless, there are many who have argued for Seven Springs, the source of the Churn, to be regarded as the true birthplace of the Thames, and the arguments for and against have been raging for centuries.

left & below Seven Springs, near Coberley, Gloucestershire, photographed at twilight in August 2022 at a time when newspapers were reporting that the source of the Thames was dry.
ABOVE & BELOW Seven Springs, near Coberley, Gloucestershire, photographed at twilight in August 2022 at a time when newspapers were reporting that the source of the Thames was dry. IMAGES: Christopher Catling

Dry up

In 1937, the issue was even debated in the House of Commons. Robert Perkins, the Member for the Stroud constituency which then included Seven Springs, asked the Minister of Agriculture if he would undertake to ensure that future editions of the Ordnance Survey map would show Seven Springs as the correct source, in view of the fact that it was farther from the estuary.

The Minister for Agriculture, William Morrison – who happened to be MP for Cirencester, the constituency that included Thames Head – said that ‘the leading authorities agree that the name of the stream which rises at Seven Springs is the Churn’. Perkins then asked ‘is the Right Honourable Gentleman aware that the source known as “Thames Head” periodically dries up?’. The debate dissolved in raucous laughter after an anonymous voice cried, ‘Why don’t you?’.

The author Paul Gedge, writing in 1949, recorded a slab at Seven Springs bearing the inscription: HIC TUUS O TAMESINE PATER SEPTEMGEMINUS FONS (‘Here, O Father Thames, is your sevenfold spring’), and he observed that the Thames was seldom to be seen at Thames Head, while ‘this clear, natural spring pours out its waters all the year round’. Sherds visited Seven Springs at the height of the drought and can vouch for the fact that water continued to flow. In the Roman period, it provided water to several villas located along the Churn Valley (one of which, at Cowley, was excavated by Time Team in 2008, episode 180), while today it supplies trout farms and fills ornamental ponds and lakes at Cowley and Rendcomb, before it too suffers from over-extraction further downstream at Baunton.

Multiple sources

But perhaps Tobias Smollett was right to remind us in The Critical Review that the Thames has multiple sources. In the field alongside the Tunnel House Inn – built for the navvies who excavated the Thames and Severn Canal tunnel, and later used by the ‘leggers’ who propelled barges through the tunnel lying on their backs and ‘walking’ along the tunnel roof – there is another Roman temple complex, which Thomas Moore examined in 1996 and published in the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society (2001, vol.119, pp.83-93). He concluded that this probably marked the source of the Thames in the late 1st century, lying as it does some 2km from Thames Head, higher up the same valley – proof, perhaps, that the source of the Thames has been shifting for many centuries.