Upper Thames Coach Trip
As everyone assembled at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, yes most people turned up early such was the keenness of our members and the guests from other Historical Societies. The topic of conversation for a change wasn’t football but the wet weather, for it had persisted it down over night and continued heavily as all registered their attendance with Helen at the front of the coach. By 8.25am all were accounted for and on board and Brian Draper MBE told our driver, Paul, to set the wheels a rolling, outlining the itinerary for the day which basically involved travelling South to the M5 Motorway and then down the A417 towards the source of the River Thames. He also gave assurance to passengers that there would be toilet stops at regular intervals - you just sensed the relief of some! His weather forecast also looked on the bright side, improving as we travelled South was his prediction.
We were quickly making good progress down the M5 when Brian gave his first snippet of information, pointing out a purple coloured pipe which was attached to the newly installed central reservation barriers - apparently this is for housing fibre optic cabling.
Brian then referred to a mysterious Mr Cartwright who then made his way down the coach early on to sell the raffle tickets at £1 each with the star prize being a litre bottle of Whyte & Mackay whisky - tickets sold well and everyone was sorted by Strensham Services, the first pit stop of the day. Another interesting fact is that there are 45 ladies toilets at these services - more than any other service station in the UK, Brian quipped however that they were all over the other side of the motorway!
After leaving the M5, we ascended Birdlip Hill towards the Air Balloon Public House, a recognised and well known landmark, a bit like The Stewponey used to be (and is still referred to by many). We saw the aftermath of a bit of a road traffic incident here where a HGV appeared to have failed to stop at the island and went straight over it, hitting a car on its exit - the police presence soon got traffic moving again. We took the right turn at the island down the A417 towards Seven Springs, claimed by many to be the source of the Thames. The claim that Thames Head is the source of the River Thames is still disputed. The Environment Agency, the Ordnance Survey and other authorities have the source of the Thames as the nearby Trewsbury Mead. Others hold that the true source of the Thames is at Seven Springs, Gloucestershire, eleven miles further north, and east of Gloucester. Officially, however, Seven Springs is the source of the River Churn, a tributary of the Thames that joins at Cricklade. Therefore and for the purposes of the trip it was accepted that Thames Head near the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire is now traditionally identified as the source of the River Thames, starting at 361ft above sea level and running 217 miles, ultimately going through the centre of London before ending at Teddington.
The monument at the official source of the Thames.
Dry at the time of taking the picture, the Thames would otherwise flow towards the photographer.
By 10 o’clock we were skirting around Cirencester heading towards the AV8 Café at RAF Kemble. Brian pointed out a number of interesting landmarks including Cirencester Park and its top quality polo fields, and the Agricultural College (attended by Prince William and a certain Arnold Jones a friend of a farmer known to him!). The route then went down the Fosse Way, an old Roman Road, traversing the first bridge over the River Thames though at this point just a dry river bed. RAF Kemble was built before World War II predominantly for use as a storage facility and not for military operations. Lady pilots used to transport Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers down to Kemble for them to be put into active service. It now houses the busiest aircraft scrapyard in Europe and indeed there were many old Boeing 747’s and 757’s on the ground awaiting deconstruction. For a while RAF Kemble was the base for the RAF Red Arrows Display Team and F1 teams and BBC Top Gear have used the runway for testing cars top speeds. Sadly the site is now being considered as a development site for 2000 domestic properties.
Leaving the AV8 Café, which was also hosting the Jaguar Owners club, we had a minor scrape with a badly parked VW Golf which delayed departure by 10 minutes and we were all invited by Brian to attend court on Tuesday prior to the public hanging of Paul, our driver, on the following Saturday ! Fortunately the sudden stop didn’t quite catapult Helen through the windscreen as she was standing in the aisle at the time of the 2mph impact!
Crisis over we continued with Brian pointing out the footpath to the source of The River Thames - currently dried up until winter-time. He described the source itself as literally a hole in the ground. An historic “Old Father Thames” statue has been sadly removed to avoid further vandalism and is now kept at St John’s lock. The river itself starts to become visible in the village of Kemble which boasts the All Saints Church which features a Norman tower (restored in 1870). The churchyard includes a number of graves of pilots killed at the nearby airport. Kemble was once an important railway junction. The Golden Valley Line from Swindon to Cheltenham passes through the village, and branch lines from Cirencester and Tetbury met here. Today, although the branch lines were dismantled in the 1960s, Kemble Station is still important for passengers travelling from Cirencester, with a direct link to Swindon and London Paddington in one direction, and to Gloucester and Cheltenham in the other. Kemble also has a somewhat unique beehive shaped fire hydrant but unfortunately our route didn’t pass by for us to see it.
Our onward journey then saw us traverse through a number of pretty villages, starting with Ewan which is a rather exclusive address, has a medieval tithe barn and a splendid old dovecote. The local watering hole is the Wild Duck. The Thames then feeds the Cotswold Water Park as does a number of other streams. The Water Park itself provides a facility for a variety of recreational activities and is formed from old gravel pits to create 140 lakes which contain more water than the Norfolk Broads - not many people know that!
Somerton Keynes is the next village on the Thames, an Iron Age fort being a site which was excavated by the Channel 4 Time Team. The village has ancient history as it was mentioned in 685AD as being part of the Malmesbury estate. The first beavers to be born in Britain for 400 years were born here at Lower Mill in the summer of 2008 before being released into the wild in Devon / Cornwall.
Next some “firsts” with Ashton Keynes being the first village on the Thames, the river flowing through it. The White Hart is then the first pub we see on the Thames. Crossing the Thames at Upper Waterhay we progressed to Cricklade, passing through England’s green and pleasant land dotted with stone cottages with the skies gradually improving as per Brian’s forecast. Cricklade is the first town on the Thames and marks the start of the non-powered craft byway. The head of the navigation for powered craft is Lechlade further down river. The River Thames actually forms a county boundary between Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Cricklade has some interesting places of interest: St Sampson’s Church (one of only 5 such named after this Saxon saint) and a large Jubilee clock, erected in 1898 in honour of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee the preceding year. Today, the town's main claim to fame is the large nature reserve, North Meadow, which preserves some 80% of Britain's wild Snake's Head Fritillaries in its 150 acres which flower in late April to early May. The meadow is situated between two rivers, the Thames and the Churn, and the unique habitat for the fritillary was created by winter flooding. Such meadows were once common in Britain, but with the advent of modern farming many were drained and ploughed for arable crops from the 1730s onwards. In the case of North Meadow, it escaped such a fate by virtue of the preservation of the Court Leet, the Saxon system of town governance which made sure the land was held in common. The land is managed by Natural England and is run with the support of the Court Leet. Brian commented that the fritillary features on the National flag of Croatia where it is common and this is why their football team play in red/white chequered shirts as this is similar to the pattern on the petals of the flower.
After St Mary's parish church of the Anglican parish of North Meadow (one of the smallest in Britain) was declared redundant in 1981 by the Church of England Diocese of Bristol, it was leased in January 1984 to the local Roman Catholic congregation. The building was founded nearly 1,000 years ago and stands on an earth bank that formed part of the Saxon ramparts. Its features include a fine 12th-century chancel arch and medieval preaching cross.
As we continued our journey the River Thames was now growing due to confluence with the River Churn and Swillbrook and started to head off into ‘open country’.
Our next fleeting visit was Kempsford, named after a ford over the Thames. Geoffrey Chaucer lived here for a while. The local pub, the George Hotel, also acts as home for the Arkells brewery. RAF Fairford built in 1944 is the next point of interest as we drive in parallel with the runway which was used by huge American B52 bombers. The airport has the distinction of being the only trans-oceanic abort site for the space shuttle as the runway is over 3000 metres long and can take the weight and size of such aircraft. Every year RAF Fairford hosts the Royal International Air Tattoo and in 2003 there were 535 different aircraft on display. The next event is 17-19 July 2015 and has adopted a theme of “Securing the Skies - Past, Present and Future”.
Arriving at Welford marks us crossing the River Coln which converges with the Thames at Lechlade. Approaching Lechlade we opportunistically spot a ‘proper’ steam roller going down a country lane - John James was just too late to get a photograph, much to Brian’s amusement! The River Lech also joins the Thames too near The Trout Pub. The 15th century Church of England parish church of Saint Lawrence depicts a pomegranate on its 400 year old doors and its spire dominates the landscape. The famous poet Shelley once wrote “Ode to a Churchyard” in Lechlade. Once again crossing the now much wider Thames at Halfpenny Bridge, so named due to the historic toll payable to cross, Brian talked about St John the Baptist Church in Inglesham which has Anglo-Saxon origins. Most of the current structure was built around 1205 and was a favourite of Sir John Betjeman. Continuing on through Buscot we learn about Buscot Park, family home of Lord Faringdon, who continues to care for the property as well as the family art collection, the Faringdon Collection, which is displayed in the house which has been a National Trust site since 1956 and also about St Mary’s Church which was built in about 1200. Glass enthusiasts were keen to hear that the stained glass in the east window of the chancel was made by Edward Burne-Jones in 1891 is well preserved.
The Thames is locked and ponded in this area which is ideal for walking. Apparently the Reverend Bloomer liked to swim naked in what is now known as Bloomer’s Pool. Turning right at The Trout Inn (which incidentally makes its own jam) we head towards Kelmscott Manor, home of William Morris. The house is open to visitors on Wednesday and Saturday and is highly recommended by Helen who allegedly has a bit of a thing going with the afore-mentioned Mr Morris. As we drive along we pass by the largest field of broad beans you have ever seen! Radcot Bridge is not too far away, claimed to be the oldest bridge over the Thames.
Radcot means “cottage by the road” and is mentioned in the Domesday Book as a two family unit with 24 acres of farmland. The ultimate owner was recorded as the King as was the common trend at the time. There has been a bridge of some sorts at Radcot since the 10th century, but the first stone bridge was completed in 1225 and parts of this still stand to make this the oldest “proper” bridge across the Thames.
Due to weight restrictions we need to take the route via Clanfield, passing through David Cameron’s Constituency to boo’s and cheer’s! Bampton, the village where Downton Abbey was filmed is the next place on the route. We pass yet another Trout Inn, there are 3 along the Thames, at Tadpole Bridge - amusingly a rather fishy tale emerges here as the licensee is a certain Mr Herring! Only 4 miles to go for lunch in Abingdon, though many on the coach had started already - perhaps looking to finish off with a nice cake or a local ale? Abingdon used to be on Berkshire but as a result of the 1974 boundary changes is now part of Oxfordshire. It is a nice town with the river passing through it, a bridge crossing, an Abbey, gardens and a Church dedicated to Saint Helen ( as stunning as its namesake!).
St Helen’s Church Abingdon - unusual in being almost square inside rather than the usual oblong, due to repeated additions of one oblong nave followed by another as the enthusiastic townsfolk of Abingdon added to their beloved church and raised its status as best they could, a little at a time. It is now a treasure of great importance to the town containing medieval ceiling paintings, a panorama of stained glass windows and one of the earliest known family tree paintings showing the 197 descendants of William Lee, five times Mayor of the town.
Abingdon also claims the finest Town Hall in Britain and is the location for the old traditional ceremony of bun throwing to the crowds below to mark important events such as a Royal birth - most recently done for Prince George. We passed close to Denham College, famous for being the home of the Women’s Institute which formed here in 1948 under the leadership of Lady Denham, affectionately known as Trudy. A 90 minutes stopover in Abingdon was sufficient to take in all of the sites, to refresh with ale, cake, tea etc. and for some to undertake retail therapy - shoes and pickled onions for Julie and Stan respectively!
So at 3 o’clock sharp, with everyone accounted for, we set off towards Oxford via Drayton which once again required crossing the Thames giving a good view of the Didcot Power Station. Brian seemed to have a lot of local knowledge of the pubs on route in this stage of the journey, pointing them all out as we went along ... The Wheatsheaf, The Red Lion and so on! Sutton Courtenay was the next village of interest with Brian reeling off many familiar names who had an association there - Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell); Herbert Asquith ((Prime Minister 1908-1916); and David Astor (newspaper publisher) are all buried here. Jacques Goddet (organiser of the Tour de France) went to school here. Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, great-granddaughter of Herbert Henry Asquith, have moved to the village in recent times, purchasing the Mill House (which had been owned and improved by her grandmother, Violet Bonham Carter). A double bridge crosses the Thames here at nearby Culham lock and the Atomic Research Centre is just up the road. We saw red kites soaring over the shallowest navigable stretch of the Thames as the river runs on a rock bed so is unable to be dredged. The journey continued past the Golden Balls traffic island - named after a former pub situated at that site and not after a famous footballer and also past the Oxford University Arboretum. Originating from 1835 the Harcourt Arboretum has been part of the University of Oxford since 1963. The site comprises 130 acres containing the best collection of trees in Oxfordshire with some of the oldest redwoods in the UK. It is open daily and costs £4 (£3 concessions).
Just 5 miles south-east of Oxford, Nuneham Courtenay is a most unusual, perhaps unique village and as we drive down the main street it is amazing to see that it was constructed in “mirror image” with cottages either side of the street being uniform and identical for the length of the village. The cottages are brick built with tiled roofs and dormers in the attic and shutters to the windows on the ground floor. The name 'Nuneham' means 'new village' and the 'Courtenay' part of the name comes from the Curtenay Family, who lived here in the thirteenth century. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) author of Alice in Wonderland used to bring Alice and her sisters to picnic by the Thames just a short stroll away.
Approaching Oxford city Centre, Brian informs us that coach travel in Oxford is restricted by the Council in deference to local tour buses and the Park & Ride scheme. We passed over the Thames two more times where it is locally known as the River Isis. The Ordnance Survey calls it the Isis / Thames on their official maps. The River Cherwell also joins the Thames here. At Folly Bridge you can take a boat trip on the Thames in the shadow of Oxford cathedral and in sight of the ancient colleges including Worcester, Ruskin and Trinity. Passing by the Randolph Hotel, scene of a recent fire and location for many Inspector Morse scenes, Brian informed us of many of the famous politicians who had studied in the various colleges.
Oxford Randolph Hotel Fire- 17th April 2015
Heading out of Oxford Brian advised that a visit to Blenheim Palace was not possible because the Duke of Marlborough did not want any of the Earl of Dudley’s peasants, as he had enough of his own - it’s just great how Brian manages to merge history with humour! The final pit stop of the day was an hour at Wyevale Garden Centre which provided good opportunities for retail, refreshment and of course the last toilets before Amblecote!
At 5.10pm we left the garden centre for the roughly 90 minute journey back home with cute baby rabbits lining the exit driveway to see us on our way… ahh by everyone! As we headed North on the M40 past Banbury and the exit to Silverstone we caught up with the rain again but the anticipation of the imminent raffle draw kept all alert and the chatter was lively down the coach. A quick stop was necessary at Warwick Services and the opportunity was taken to do the raffle prize draw - the atmosphere became tense as everyone got their ticket in hand and memorised their ticket number. The first prize went to ticket 667 held by Fiona - congratulations and enjoy! The lesser prizes were then handed out - wine, cards, and chocolates all received gratefully by the lucky winner, but sorry no prize for ticket 666 (we had been joking about this all day long!). A National Lottery Ticket had been placed under one of the coach seats as a “spot prize” and the occupant was urged to find out if they had a chance to win millions - unfortunately despite extensive searches it failed to surface though it did induce a few good laughs and some innuendo in trying to find it despite the frustration - it was a good idea at the time!
And so to the final commentary from Brian and the traditional ‘passing the hat’ around the coach for the driver Paul. Mike Perkins gave a vote of thanks, concluding that the trip had been interesting and enjoyable. He thanked Brian for his excellent commentary throughout and for the knowledge he had shared. Helen was also thanked for her organisation skills despite the stress that arranging such events can cause - it all went great on the day despite the poor weather which actually didn’t prevent us doing anything. Final thanks were expressed to members and guests for supporting the event and to Paul for keeping us safe and comfortable on busy motorways and down winding country lanes. Loud Applause!
Footnote. The 'missing lottery ticket was found when we got back to the Ruskin Centre, and was presented to the gentleman who had been sitting in that seat. He is not a millionaire !
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