WESSEX

Young Whippersnapper Thames

pass Little Faringdon, we pass into Gloucestershire, briefly. There's a trout farm here, using the ponds of the Old Mill. There has been a mill on this site since Domesday (at least). Indeed, this one only stopped working some 20 years ago.

A mile or so further, and we're into Lechlade. It's an attractive country town, looking as prosperous now as it probably was when the wool trade paid for its substantial buildings. The main street isn't exactly buzzing with activity these days - no flocks of sheep being driven to market, no bales of wool being loaded.

I suspect that most of Lechlade's current wealth comes from old money, well-invested - or from those who have made their killings elsewhere and retired here to count the proceeds.

The most important factor in the town's make-up lies just beyond the main drag of tasteful, ivy-clad buildings - the River Thames. It's a simple country river here - the name "Lechlade" means (in Anglo-Saxon) "crossing over the muddy river"

It may be bucolic, but it's pretty substantial, nonetheless. Inglesham (a splash or two upstream) is the upper limit for powered navigation on the Thames. Technically, a right of navigation exists as far as Cricklade, a further 10 miles up-river, but the mud banks along that stretch are a more potent technicality. It's possible to get a canoe or a rowing boat up that far, and those that make it are entitled to a commemorative scroll to prove their achievement.

At one time, Inglesham (where the River Coln meets the Thames), was also the starting point for the Severn and Thames Canal, making narrow-boat navigation possible, all the way from London to Bristol. The canal pushed through the Cotswolds via the Sapperton Tunnel, which was regarded as one of the wonders of the 18th century. At 2¼ miles, it was the longest in the world.

The tunnel had no towpath; boats were propelled through the darkness by "leggers" - unfortunate drudges who "walked" against the tunnel sides.

The tunnel (and the canal) has been derelict since 1922. An ornate portal remains at this Eastern end, along with a number of idiosyncratic round cottages - built for lock keepers. There's a Thames and Severn Canal Trust which hopes one day to re-open the canal, but they've got a lot of work to do.

So, the business of Thames navigation starts at Lechlade, as it did in the 17th century, when the stone for St. Paul's cathedral was carted from Burford, to be loaded on to barges at Lechlade, for trans-shipment to the City of London.

Brize Skies Brize Skies Messing about on the River Messing about on the River
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