Five months on from our first engagement with the Thames Path – completing the trek from the source to Cricklade – we decided it was high time to undertake the second leg, taking us from Cricklade to Lechlade.
We were killing two birds with one stone since it was also my companion Tracy’s 50th birthday, so we wanted (well I wanted) to combine our walk with a memorable celebration of that event.
Given recent issues at our own end of the Thames, we checked carefully the river levels and flood alerts at the other end – and set out towards it with some confidence.
Our journey down lay via Paddington and Swindon, the final stage by taxi costing £25. There are comparatively few buses and very few stations surviving in this area. We arrived in Lechlade by 13:00 and, despite being early, were shown straight to our room.
Given the impending Big Event, I had reviewed the options with some care.
Advertised as a ‘Deluxe King Room’, with a four-poster bed, comfortable seating area, bath and shower, it fully met our needs and my expectations.
The Swan is the oldest recorded building in Lechlade, first constructed around 1520, though the present building dates from the Seventeenth Century.
There was some traffic noise early in the morning, since it is located directly on the A361 and the old windows are only single-glazed, but that wasn’t too obtrusive with the windows closed.
Some of the reviews spoke of problems with the hot water supply, but we always found it copious and steaming.
I had booked ‘room only’ given the wealth of classy eateries in this area, but it turned out that the Swan was anyway ‘between chefs’, so no food was available on the premises.
During our stay we visited three of the four pubs in central Lechlade – unfortunately omitting the Crown (said to house the Halfpenny Microbrewery, though that is allegedly now dormant) and this seemed the best-appointed of the three.
In my opinion the cafes of Lechlade were rather more outstanding than the pubs, which did not quite match Cricklade’s Red Lion.
That said, the Swan’s bars are spacious and comfortable, well patronised by locals. There is a rowing boat moored on the ceiling and a bar billiards table in the corner. The guest bitter when we stayed was well-kept Betty Stogs, from the Cornish Skinner’s Brewery.
Having unpacked, we investigated Lechlade. It boasts a number of beautiful houses dating from the town’s Eighteenth Century heyday, when it was an important trading centre, ultimately served by road, river and canal.
One of the most impressive is Sherborne House, on Sherborne Street, which is early Eighteenth Century. This boasts one of Lechlade’s five gazebos, built to allow the wealthy to observe passing streetlife in comfort and with due discretion!
After a preliminary walk we adjourned to the Riverside Inn for a sandwich lunch. Only a single Arkell’s bitter on tap. Here we encountered a bunch of geriatric cyclists, a round table meeting to plan the 2020 Lechlade Duck Race and a lady’s Spanish dog with gigantic ears akimbo.
Afterwards we explored a little more of the town, devoting most time to the parish church of St Lawrence. The oldest parts of the present building date from the late Fifteenth Century, the spire most likely added in the early Sixteenth when Catherine of Aragon took an interest in its modification.
We particularly enjoyed the restored roof boss paintings on the chancel roof, some splendid gargoyles and Shelley’s Walk, commemorating the poet’s 1815 visit and ensuing composition ‘A Summer Evening Churchyard’:
‘Thou too, aerial pile, whose pinnacles
Point from one shrine like pyramids of fire,
Obey’st I in silence their sweet solemn spells,
Clothing in hues of heaven thy dim and distant spire,
Around whose lessening and invisible height
Gather among the stars the clouds of night.’
As the afternoon chill deepened, we adjourned to the Lynwood and Co café for coffee and cake and from there, after a further short wander, headed back to the Swan.
Here we made initial telephone contact with our wonderful taxi driver for the week, aka My On Call Cotswold Chauffeur Private Hire, who promised to pick us up next morning.
He is an amazing man with several strings to his bow. Besides driving a taxi he is also an event manager, pastor and farmer. He has lived all over the country, including on a road just 200 metres away in our home town!
We took dinner at the New Inn Hotel, which seemed a popular evening eatery. I polished off a very tasty steak and ale pie, with a pint of Landlord on the side, followed by apple crumble and custard.
Returning once more to the Swan, the weekly quiz was still in full flow below. As I brushed my teeth I tuned in to the start of the Soaps round, and was asked to name the pub in Eastenders. Soaps aren’t my strongest suit but even I knew the answer to that one!
The Walk Part 1: Off Piste
It wasn’t the earliest start, as I’d managed to find space in my luggage for a few presents, principally some starry earrings to match the beautiful blue starry dress we’d bought together the week before.
Also two books: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, (which speaks to us both because of our bereavements and our joint South West Coast Path project); and Tombland by C J Sansom (which speaks to me because of the Norwich connection and hopefully to Tracy because she is an enthusiast for both Elizabethan history and crime novels).
Still, we had emerged by 08:30 and headed straight to Vera’s Kitchen, not far along the road, which seemed to have opened early and which served us both amazing Mini Cotswold Breakfasts (which were more than amply sized for us). The chef very kindly made us some equally nourishing ham and cheese sandwiches to take with us on the walk.
Mr Cotswold Chauffeur picked us up on time and ferried us across to Cricklade, stopping just outside the Red Lion, which looked as though it was undergoing refurbishment.
We followed the signposts away from the High Street, down to the meadows beside the Thames. Initially we encountered only sticky mud, but further on it became apparent that the path was seriously flooded.
We waded through a couple of stretches, finding the water well over the top of our boots, especially as we passed beneath the A419 and began to head towards Eysey and Water Eaton. Facing the third such immersion we paused to review tactics.
We could see that the path proceeded alongside the river through several more low-lying meadows all the way to Castle Eaton, some four miles away. We suspected that some of those stretches would be equally wet and, quite possibly, impassable.
Retiring to a nearby bench to confer and wring out our walking socks, we decided to retrace our steps and find an alternative route to Castle Eaton, where we could reassess our options.
There were two broad choices:
- Head south-east for a mile along the A419 and then pick up a smaller road at a point called Seven Bridges, heading north-east to Castle Eaton on the south side of the Thames; or
- Head north-west beside the A419 and then, crossing it, take a different road north-east, past Marston Meysey, afterwards turning right down to Castle Eaton.
The A419 is an extremely busy dual carriageway so we didn’t fancy walking along it for a mile, leaving the second choice as the only viable option.
However, this route took us much further out of our way. We had to follow a side road north for a couple of miles before we could cross at the bridge to Latton on the other side. It was irritating that car drivers enjoyed a short cut denied to pedestrians.
This slip road passed directly alongside the North Meadow, the end of the first stage of the Thames Path. We could see that it was completely impassable, so anyone undertaking that leg would also have had to curtail their walk.
Crossing into Latton we approached two horses waiting at the bus-stop, joined eventually by a third. They’d just missed the bus, which departed as we arrived. One in particular had beautiful blue, almost human eyes.
We admired the medieval preaching cross, but felt the need to press on with some urgency since so much time had been lost to our detour.
Briefly we entertained the possibility of striking across country, via a network of small back roads taking us through the village of Down Ampney and emerging close by the delightfully named Marston Meysey.
Hindsight might have made that the better choice, but our chilly, squelchy feet persuaded us to stick to our pre-planned route. We had hoped for a relatively quiet road but instead found a racetrack for lorry drivers featuring a procession of Z-bends.
Some were equipped with traffic lights enforcing single stream traffic, but full concentration was required for this extended yomp with precious few redeeming or even distinguishing features.
On reaching the environs of Marston Meysey, even that was invisible from our highway, and we had no great incentive to divert to its pub given the state of our feet and the warm welcome we anticipated at Castle Eaton’s Red Lion.
It was with huge relief on my part that we finally turned off the racetrack and headed down to Castle Eaton, passing the appropriately named Second Chance Holiday Park on our way.
But, as we finally reached the door of the Red Lion, our hopes were dashed by a notice declaring that it was closed until the evening (despite the website saying it was open). Presumably this had something to do with the building work taking place at the rear of the premises.
We headed – with some grumbling on my part and not a little discomposure – towards the beautiful Thirteenth Century Church of St Mary the Virgin to eat our lunch.
But, as we sloshed in that direction, we came upon an elderly couple who we’d noticed in both the Riverside and the New Inn the preceding day.
We stopped to converse, learning that they had walked from Lechlade that morning, and were able to keep their feet completely dry. They estimated it would take us about three hours to cover the remainder of the route, and were equally disappointed to learn that the Red Lion was closed.
Eating our lunch in the churchyard after once more wringing our socks (and, in Tracy’s case, changing into the spare pair she had wisely packed) we decided we had just enough time to eat a leisurely lunch then complete the remainder of the leg before darkness fell.
The Walk Part 2: Back on Track
It was just gone 14:00 as we struck out from the churchyard, heading along Blackford Lane, which shortens the route by eliminating the meander the Thames takes northward at this point, in the direction of Kempsford.
Leaving the road we followed the path back down to the River, which now returned to meet us, passing through fields containing the serried wrecks of sunflowers. We caught a brief glimpse of St Mary’s Church, which seems to have a colourful history.
We ploughed on, through a series of muddy fields, towards Hannington Bridge. After a brief patch of road and a series of handsome homesteads, we began to trek along an equally muddy bridle path routed to the south of the Thames in the general direction of Upper Inglesham.
The old route used to head directly into this village and then along the busy A361 but there is now fortunately a new path which heads due north before falling in alongside the Thames itself and following it into Inglesham proper.
Before arriving beside the church of St John the Baptist, we passed a solitary cabin cruiser, moored alongside its own little garden at the mouth of a tributary.
Immediately afterwards, approaching the Church across neighbouring fields, we encountered a gaggle of geese. Replicating a previous escapade in the Dales, I couldn’t resist chasing them into flight in the hope of a skein, a decent photograph or two, and much irate honking. My hopes were amply fulfilled, on all three counts!
Shortly afterwards, the honking was replaced by the drone of a military aircraft, presumably heading into land at nearby RAF Fairford. I’m no expert, but it closely resembled a USAF Lockheed U2 ‘Dragon Lady’ reconnaissance plane.
Meanwhile the old Church patiently awaited our arrival. Though now redundant, this predominantly Thirteenth Century building – which attracted the interest of both William Morris and John Betjeman – boasts a double bell cote. A small wooden smiling creature guards the entrance.
Proceeding northwards beyond Inglesham, the River meanders through a graceful S-bend and, on the outer side of the top curve, a rather nondescript roundhouse marks the junction with what is left of the Thames and Severn Canal which links those two rivers, stretching the 30 miles from Lechlade to Stroud.
It was completed in 1789 and contributed something to Lechlade’s prosperity as a trading town. But it was never hugely successful and eventually fell into prolonged decline before finally closing in the 1920s.
As one turns towards Lechlade, the graceful spire of St Lawrence’s Church strikes up through the trees and the River itself curves into Riverside Park. Several boats are moored along the opposite bank, but the busy marina behind is almost obscured from view.
Eventually one reaches the Riverside and, immediately afterwards, the Thames passes beneath Ha’penny Bridge, built in 1792. The tiny square tollhouse – where all those ha’pennies were collected – is still attached on the Town side of the Bridge.
Rather footsore, we crossed to our base at the Swan and, after scraping much mud from our boots, managed to enter without spreading too much of it around. After a well-deserved bath we strayed down to the bar where a celebratory pint of the aforementioned Betty Stogs was very much called for.
The bar billiards had me reminiscing nostalgically about playing in Norwich Airport bar in the late Seventies. I was at the time a UEA student living in the neighbouring Fifers Lane residences, formerly the accommodation blocks for RAF Horsham St Faith.
In those days the Airport hadn’t much more than a single daily flight to Amsterdam, so the bar barely survived, relying on our custom when occasionally tempted away from our own student bar, where Abbot was just 19p a pint.
It had taken us something less than two-and-a-half hours to complete the leg and, over our drinks, we decided that we had done enough to tick this leg off: we wouldn’t need to return to rectify the omission of that early four-mile stretch.
That evening we continued our celebration in honour of Tracy’s new-found quinquagenarian status.
I had pre-booked a table at the swankiest local restaurant I could find – the Ox Barn at Thyme, which describes itself as ‘an English country destination nestled in the heart of the Cotswolds village of Southrop’.
The restaurant itself is
‘…a 56-seater destination restaurant under the direction of Head Chef, Charlie Hibbert. Rooted in a passion for the local land, food and entertaining, the carefully curated menus are farm-based and plant-inspired. His team and the gardeners at Thyme work together to select and grow the fruits, vegetables and herbs used to create his Modern British Countryside fare.
The nineteenth century former oxen house…A state-of-the-art piece of agricultural architecture at its conception, Caryn Hibbert worked meticulously to preserve the soaring archways and original Cotswold stone rubble walls, to now house a modern, dining destination – including a contemporary bar and seven and a half metre Charvet open kitchen – to allow for an authentic, heritage-rich dining experience, enabled by today’s best culinary technologies.’
A little pretentious, so perfect for the occasion!
We began with some bread and a glass of English sparkling wine and made our choices with generous advice from a youthful waiter who was very patient and neither arrogant nor obsequious.
My starter was Rabbit rillette, mustard pear and cornichons; Tracy had Artichoke, fennel, ricotta and lemon.
My main course was Hogget, beans, bagna canda and cime di rapa; hers was Hake, potato and sea vegetables. (She had to explain to me what hogget was. I had no clue about the other ingredients either, except for ‘beans’.)
For dessert I chose Medlar and pear tart; she Walnut cake with chocolate sauce and praline ice cream. Then there was a bonus lemon curd ice cream with a candle stuck in it, and coffees to finish.
We had matched glasses of wine for our starters and main courses, but passed up the option of a dessert wine. I, for one, was already feeling a mite squiffy.
As we left we admired the fireplace and especially the life-sized sheep standing, thankfully motionless, on either side of it.
We were met by our friendly taxi driver, who swiftly transported us back to the Swan, tired, emotional and replete.
Next morning we returned to Lynwood and Co for breakfast. I was very much in need of two of their excellent long black coffees and just about had space for an excellent shakshuka, spicy and warming, while Tracy polished off her smashed avocado, feta and chilli, washed down with English breakfast tea.
Our taxi driver was there again to pick us up by 10:15, delivering us to Swindon well in time for our 11:10 train back to Paddington.
I look forward to our return to complete the third leg of the Thames Path, from Lechlade to Newbridge, though it is a daunting 16.75 miles, the guide describing this as ‘the River Thames at its remotest’.
But we shall wait a while, for the waters to settle.