It was the 150th anniversary of the Speke-Burton expedition into Darkest Africa when, in 1856, the two explorers set out from England to find the source of Africa’s most important river, the Nile. We six retired South African journalists (average age 68) decided to mark the event by mounting an expedition from Africa to find the source of England’s most important river - the 338km long River Thames - and follow it the North Sea.
It was our fifth intrepid cycle-mounted expedition into Darkest Europe - part of a series of annual rides that have become known as “the Tours de Farce”.
It would, I assured my companions, be easier than previous expeditions because the people of the Thames Valley spoke a form of English. Admittedly they pronounce Bicester as “bister” and Gloucester as Gloster and “Eee-arrr” means “Yes”.
Another attraction was that the valley is not only beautiful but as somebody long ago said, “Every drop is liquid ‘istory”. It involves kings, queens, battles, Romans and West Ham United.
The journey was to take a week of steady pedalling on hired bikes and constant refuelling on low octane English ale from which we achieved 30km/litre.
Our base camp was the 500-year-old Wild Duck Inn in the village of Ewen near Cirencester. From Ewen we pedalled 6km to a knoll and walked down into a pretty glade where we found a slab of granite next to a dried up hollow proclaiming “Thameshead: this is the source of the Thames”. But we heard of a rival source near Cheltenham. A companion said, “The world has come to a pretty pass when one can no longer believe what is cast in stone”. As it was practically lunch time we unanimously agreed to repair to the Wild Duck Inn where we dined in a cosy corner and mused about earlier customers who had sat at the same table arguing whether inserting tadpole juice into the ear was a genuine cure for the Black Plague or just another apothecary’s story.
Next day, as titular leader, I led the peloton from the inn but a few minutes later our route deposited us back there. This triggered a number of unhelpful comments. We set out again and covered 2km before, again, becoming disoriented and there was Wild Duck again. We have little or no trouble when on straight road; it’s only when there’s a junction that everybody starts arguing and offering opinions, loudly. I sometimes join in - like a dog that is set off barking when it hears others barking. Thus we disturbed many a sleepy village that had been at peace since Saxon times.
The upper Thames is intensely beautiful. Sometimes we pedalled along tree-lined roads; sometimes past broad water meadows patrolled by swans the size of Volkswagens. The grass verges were filled with wild flowers. Spring sunshine beamed down on us.
We leaned over wooden bridges admiring Monet-like water lily scenes. At one bridge Harvey remained leaning over for some time and we thought he was throwing up. It transpired his expensive wrap-around sunglasses had fallen into deep water and he was gloomily staring at the spot. We told him he should have made a wish.
One can follow the Thames Path - once a towpath for horses - most of the way to the coast but where the going became spongy we chose the smooth country lanes some bearing the sign, “Quiet Road” which meant cars were not allowed to knock cyclists down. Britain has almost 20 000 kilometres of cycle-friendly routes - even clean through the heart of London as we were to discover.
We first hit civilisation at the pretty little town of Lechlade where the river becomes navigable to pleasure cruisers. The leisure craft moorings are the 17th century wharfs from where the Cotswold stone that built London’s St Paul’s Cathedral was loaded onto barges. By mid afternoon we entered the quiet town of Clanfield whose name means “clean field” (ie: free of timber) a reminder of when this was a canopy forest until felled by the Romans for building Londinium (London).
We spent a night in Oxford and sauntered down to Jalals, a popular Indian restaurant, for dinner. It was filled with merry university students some sitting with shoes on their heads (England is funny that way) and girls wearing skirts that in our day were called belts. The Queen was visiting the city next morning so there was the smell of fresh paint everywhere. The English, as soon as they hear the Queen is coming, quickly paint everything and then line the pavements waving little flags and smelling of turps.
After three hours of cycling we reached Dorchester and stopped for lunch at a half-timbered coaching house called The George. We parked our bikes in a yard largely unchanged since the days when stage coaches parked there and the steaming horses were rested.
One night we arrived late and exhausted at Eton and were sorry not to have had the time to visit the school and, just across the river the world’s largest inhabited castle - Windsor .
We took a wrong turn at Staines and as I puffed my way up a hill far behind the peloton a school was disgorging into the street and an unseen schoolgirl shouted, “Go for it Grandpa! You can do it!”
We passed Runnymede where the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215; past Hampton Court, past the former royal hunting grounds on Richmond Common and crossed the river at Hammersmith after which London becomes a maze of little roads. We forsook the cycle way and carried straight on into London past Buckingham Palace and up the Mall to our hotel next to the London Eye.
Waking to a cold and rainy dawn we resumed our journey eastwards passing under many famous bridges as well as past the Royal Festival Hall, the National Film Museum, the Tate Modern (gallery); Billingsgate, the Tower… and on to Greenwich where, in retrospect we should have ended the tour. But, in the late afternoon, wet, hungry and triumphant we arrived 75km east at Gravesend and the sea - the schoolgirl’s voice still ringing in my ears.
© James Clarke 2011 Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Designed by SKALLIE
James Clarke (in resplendent Tour de Farce livery) and Harvey Tyson on the Thames Trail