SUP’ing the source of the Thames
If you’re into your river SUP adventures, this is one of the most ephemeral or difficult to complete challenges. For most of the year, it’s not possible to SUP England’s most famous river Thames from its source. That’s because for most of every year, and for all of some years, the water level is below ground.
So in the summer if you head to the famous Wadworths pub, the Thameshead Inn, you won’t see the River Thames. In the very upper reaches of the Thames catchment, high up in the Cotswolds, the geology of the river is Cotswold chalk. Which is in effect a big sponge. And this sponge needs to become super saturated from prolonged rainfall before the river sits on the top of it. There are a number of signs in and around the Cotswolds that will let you know if the Thames is might be paddleable at its very source. And right now, early Jan 2018, those signs are evident. And one of the signs is the Thames being visible at the Thames Head Inn!
So to paddle the Thames at the source, what do you need to know?
Parking and access to SUP the source of the Thames
There is no confirmed right of navigation of the very headwaters of the Thames. It is not part of the navigable Thames. Therefore access is likely to be contested by the landowners. McConks believes that there is a presumed right of access for navigation for all inland rivers, and that as long as you access the river from a public highway, and you remain on the water, rather than on the land, you are not breaking any laws. But this is based on long standing traditions, legislation and byelways, and recent access rights cases have not been tested in the English Courts. So landowners might contest that you are breaking the law, and they might co
ntest this with dogs and guns and shouting, rather than pursuing through the courts. But mostly more by farmers shouting at you. If you are willing to take this risk, please make sure you park on public property and cause no nuisance or damage wherever you launch from. And ensure that you respond calmly and non aggressively to any challenges. And it might be a good idea to better understand the legal position and historic rights to be able to ‘discuss’ the matter with any landowners who challenge you.
In the interests of good relations, it might be better to start at Cricklade and paddleupstream as far you can get, rather than start at the source and paddle downstream. The reason for saying this is that the landowners around Cricklade are more used to seeing water users on river that flows through their land. But be aware, that the course of the Thames in the meadows around Cricklade might not be obvious when the river is out of bank, and that there are protected wildflower meadows. Any damage to these wildflower meadows is a criminal act under environmental legislation.
If the source of the Thames is above ground, the water will be fast flowing in places, and large sections of the Upper Thames are likely to be in flood and out of bank. Obstructions, and fast flowing debris could be an issue. You needs to aware of what strainers are, how to spot them and avoid them, and as an absolute minimum you need to be wearing a buoyancy aid designed for river white water, and quick release leash, and a helmet. You should consider whether a leash is a greater hazard than personal safety aid, and should also consider carrying a safety knife. And you will be an experienced whitewater river paddler.
If any of this is new to you, you shouldn’t be attempting to paddle the source of the Thames without a qualified instructor.
And never paddle alone!
You might not want to be using a brand new carbon paddle, because your paddle might become an obstruction clearance aid! So an indestructible plastic bladed paddle is recommended.
Standard depth fins are likely to keep catching the river bed in shallow sections. You should consider getting specialist river fins. These are shallower than normal fins, but longer to keep surface area up and improve tracking, and have a strong rake to cut through and shed weeds.
Obviously a mobile phone, well protected from water, is important, but be aware that the Upper Thames is quite rural, so there will be extended sections without mobile coverage.
And remember what we said about personal safety kit.
So there are many obstacles and barriers to trying to standup paddle the Source of the Thames, including access, lack of water, safety, and environmental legislation, which is why so few people have done it. But if you do, please share some photos with us on facebook!
And happy SUP paddling!