This page describes the Thames Head source (everything to the west of the A429)
Thames Head website
Tetbury Road, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, GL7 6NZ
email@example.com / 01285 770 259
Food, wines and real Ales, and rooms.
THE THAMES HEAD by Hugh O'Connell
Welcome to the Greatest River Resource
In this Fair and Favoured Land,
And the reason for such a spectacular claim
Visitors soon understand -
When they take a short stroll away
To find the landlocked source,
That never fails to flow night and day
For the Thames Father,
Who grants and goads, guides and guards
Our nation's Longest River.
Yet, who would believe from such a spring
Such a Regal River could begin,
While close by discover yet another treasure,
"The Thames Head" for your pleasure,
Ten out of ten for sentiment, two out of ten for poetry!
To explore the source, (round trip 2.5 miles?) park at the first bridge where the arrow is.
(See layby view above);
and then walk north following the depression where the water would be if only you had not been sensible enough to choose a dry day in summer.
Notice the Thames Path (Thames and Severn Way)
Thames Head is on your right just before you get to the A433, Fosse Way (Roman Road)
It is usually a pool with an upwelling of water over the spring which feeds it.
This is called "Thames Head" (Lyd Well) but the place marked as the source is still a couple of fields away.
Crossing the A433, follow the usually dry depression across two fields
until you approach on your right the bushes which mark the embanked Thames and Severn Canal.
And there you will see the stone marker shown below
Wet or dry - you have arrived!
Make your obeisance to the stone, then scramble up the bank to see the Canal.
This is Trewsbury Mead; Trewsbury Fort is to the north.
1859: The Thames, Mr & Mrs Hall
Old writers, old maps, and old documents, unite in representing "Thames Head", near Cirencester,
as the head of the river Thames.
Leland (of the time of Henry VIII.) tells us that:
"Isis riseth at three myles from Cirencestre, not far from a village cawlled Kemble, within half a mile of the Fosseway, wher the very head of Isis is";
"the most excellent and goodly river beginneth in Coteswold, about a mile from Titbury, and as much from the hie way called Fosse";
"it riseth not far from Tarlton, hard by the famous Foss-way";
Atkins (1712), that:
"it riseth in the parish of Cotes";
Rudder (1779), that:
"it has been reputed to rise in the parish of Cotes, out of a well."
These authorities might be multiplied; and although Atkins and Rudder (the earliest historians of Gloucestershire) both write of the Churn, and its claim to be considered the head of the Thames,
"being the highest source from whence it derives its water"
- and no doubt such claim will have many advocates — we have treated the river Thames as rising at Thames Head, near "a village cawlled Kemble", hard by the "famous Foss-way".
"Where pleasant Thames from Isis' silver head begins her quiet glide
1610: Camden -
... Isis, commonly called Ouse, that it might bee by originall of Glocester-sire,
hath his head there, and with lively springs floweth out of the South border of this shire
nere unto Torleton, an upland village not farre from that famous Port-way called the Fosse.
This is that Isis which afterwards enterteineth Tame, and by a compound word is called Tamisis, Soveraigne as it were of all Britain rivers in Britaine, of which a man may well and truely say, as ancient writers did of Euphrates in the East-part of the world, that it doth both Sow and Water the best part of Britain.
The poeticall description of whose Source or first head I have here put downe out of a Poem entituled The Marriage of Tame and Isis , which whether you admit or omit, it skilleth both little.
Where Cotswold spred abroad doth lie and feed faire flocks of sheepe,
And, Dobunes ffor to see, in downes ariseth nothing steepe,
Within a nouke along, not much the Fosse and it betweene,
Just at the rising of a banke upright, a Cave is seene,
Whereof the entrie glistereth with soft stones richly guilt,
He Haul is seel' d with Ivory, the rouse aloft built
Of Gett [jet] the best that Britan yeelds. The pillers, verie strong,
With Pumish laid ech other course, are raised all along.
The stuffe full faire, yet Art doth it surpasse, and to the seate
Of Artisan give place the gould, stones, Y' vry and Geat.
Here panted is the Moon, that ruls the seal like Crystall glasse,
As she through roulling Signes above with traverse course doth passe.
And there againe enchac' d are both land and Ocean wide,
Conjoin' d as man and wife in one, with rivers great beside
Like bretheren all, as Ganges rich, strange Nilus, Tanais,
Yea, and the course of Ister large, which double named is,
Of Rhene also a neighbour streame. And here bedight in gold
Among them glitt'reth Britannie with riches manifold
Of goulden fleece. A Coronet of wheat-ears shee doth weare,
And for her triumph over France her head aloft doth reare ...
In waving Throne here sites the kind of watters all and some,
Isis, who in that Majestie which rivers doth become,
Wall rev' rend, from his watchet lap pours forth his streame amaine.
With weed and reed his haires tukt up that grow both long and plaine,
His hoary hornes distilling runne, with water stand his eies,
And shoot from them a lustre farre. His kembed beard likewise
Downe to the brest wet-through doth reach. His body drops againe
All over, and on every side breaks out some water veine.
In secret watrish rooms within, the little fishes plaie,
And many a silver Swan besides his white wings doth display,
And flutter round about
A429, Kemble Bridge, 1859.
A429, Kemble Bridge, 2004.
"Thames Waters I ½ Mile downstream, Thames Head"
from the series " Sweet Thames Run Softly" by Quintin Lake. Prints available.
1920: Fred Thacker -
To an imaginative Englishman, the scene amongst the hills and water meadows at THAMES HEAD is one of the most interesting spectacles of his native land.
The first water visible from the air was several
hundred metres further down from the official source, Thames
Head , close to the Fosse Way,
the old Roman road to Tetbury, not far from Kemble.
This photo is taken facing downstream. The road at the bottom is the Fosse Way, A433. Note that the blue water to be seen on the left, half way up the above photo, is the Thames and Severn Canal. The infant Thames is central.
Bridge in Kemble Meadow,. June 1, 1793. J. Farington R.A. delt. J.C. Stadler sculpt.
(Published) by J. & J. Boydell, Shakespeare Gally. Pall Mall & (No. 90) Cheapside (London).
The Thames a hundred yards below Lyd Well (April 2004)
Peacock: The Genius of the Thames -
Let fancy lead from Trewesbury mead,
With hazel fringed, and copsewood deep;
Where scarcely seen, through brilliant green,
Thy infant waters softly creep.
Lyd Well on the left.
This spring, called LYD WELL, welling up
from the ground, is the current source
of The Thames nearest to Thames Head in April 2004.
Accessible from concrete farm track over an insulated
portion of the electrified fence.
1885: The Royal River -
Half a mile [ before Thames Head ] is, near the Roman Way, a basin - another Thames Head - which is sometimes filled by a spring, and which is pictured [ below ] in the precise condition in which it appeared to our artist during the rains of early spring.
Thames Head, The Royal River, 1885
Yet another rill issues from a hillside;
and fourth, lower still, is perhaps most clearly defined and strongest of the group,
and best entitled to the honour claimed on behalf of the dried up well in the green glade
[at Thames Head]
The Thames Head district seems, indeed, to abound in springs, and in wet weather the level ground is probably freely intersected by brooklets, forming the stream which is the undoubted head of Isis, and which has been called the Thames from time immemorial.
Turn left onto concrete Farm Track Culvert. Beware
of impressive electrified fence. (Stile
Dry Field, bear right. Stile onto A433.
If there is water here it goes under the Fosse Way in a culvert.
Over the road and into another field, keep left beside wire fence, into next field and then bear right.
16th Century: John Leland -
Isis riseth at 3 myles from Cirencestre, not far from a village cawlled Kemble, within half a mile of the Fosse-way, wher the very head of Isis ys. In a great somer drought apperith very little or no water, yet is the stream servid with many of springes resorting to one botom.
1845: The Penny magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge -
Thames-head is about three miles south-west of Cirencester
and within sight of the Tetbury-road station of the Great Western and Gloucester Railway.
What should be the spring lies in a hollow close to a bridge over the Thames and Severn Canal, known as Thames-head bridge. The field in which it rises is named Trewsbury Mead, and the hill at whose foot it is placed has on its summit a circular earthwork, probably Roman, called by the country people Trewsbury Castle.
Leland notices this spring, and calls it the "very head of Isis"; and adds that it "is in a great somer drought, and offereth very little or no water, yet is the stream servid with many of springs resorting to one bottom."
This peculiarity of many springs as he calls it resorting to one bottom, is yet noticeable, but it does not need a great summer to make the head dry, for now little or no water issues from it at any time.
In Cooke's "Views on the Thames", which are generally correct as well as picturesque, there is an engraving of this 'Source of the Thames' which represents the water as bubbling up so as to make a moderate-sized fountain, and overshaded by a rich group of trees; and this appears to have served as the original of most subsequent views of it. Nothing can be less like the spot. The field is a bare and barren one. The spring is only distinguishable by a circle of naked pebbles, with one large upright stone near it, which marks where once stood a sort of grotto that covered the spring. The spring itself has long ceased to flow.
At the farther end of the field is a powerful steam-engine that is almost ceaselessly at work pumping up water from a well sixty feet deep into the canal ... This has effectually drained all the springs that here originally contributed to form the Thames. When the engine has left off working for a few days - which is only when there is what the manager of it calls "a glut of water" - the water flows out from the head spring; from another spring, two or three hundred yards lower, the water issues after the engine has been still for a few hours.
Ordinarily, however, this stream is now first traceable at Kemble, where a plenteous supply from one or two other springs enables it to spread out into a pretty brook. It then passes Somerford, where, it will be remembered, there is evidence in Abbot Aldhelm's charter, quoted by Gibson, that the stream was anciently called the Thames.
At Ashton Keynes it meets the Swill brook, which rises in the high ground about four miles from Tetbury.
Leland, as we have seen, calls Thames-head the very head of Isis, but in other parts of his Itinerary he mentions other heads.
"Thus", he says (vol. ii. p. 25), "the head of Isis in Coteswalde riseth about a mile on this side Tetbyrie."
By this he must mean the Swill brook, which, however, as we have said, rises four miles on this side Tetbury.
By its union with the Swill our stream has become considerably enlarged, and flows on without further augmentation till it unites with the Churn at Cricklade. In its course hitherto there has been little to notice. Nowhere could it be called picturesque, and there has been no place possessing any claim to our attention.
We will now turn to the other and, as we think, principal stream [ie The Churn and Seven Springs] ...
The Source at Thames Head.
Either the artist had a developed imagination or the source was at one time very different to the dry hollow under a tree which it now is! Unfortunately I don't have a date for this print.
Thames Head. June 1, 1793. J. Farington R.A. delt. J.C.Stadler sculpt.
(Published) by J. & J. Boydell, Shakespeare Gally. Pall Mall & (No. 90) Cheapside (London).
In Boydell's History of the Thames, William Coombes wrote the text and said of Thames Head -
The spring rises in a well of about thirty feet
in depth, inclosed within a circular wall of stone, raised about eight feet
from the surface of the meadow, with a trough of the same materials before it,
into which the water is thrown by a pump to supply the cattle of the adjacent
villages. In the driest season this
spring never fails; and in the winter, it sometimes not only flows over the
wall, but issues from the earth around the well, and, forming an ample stream,
winds through the meadow.
In the month of June when we visited the spring, it was sunk considerably beneath its natural margin; and its winter course was discoverable only by a path of rushes, which serpentined along the valley.
So William Combes did not actually see what the print shows ...
1811: "The Thames - or Graphic Illustrations of Seats, Villas, Public Buildings and Picturesque Scenery on the Banks of that most Noble River" the engravings executed by William Bernard Cooke from original drawings by Samuel Owen Esq. -"
Source of the Thames, Cooke, 1811
Source of the Thames. Drawn by P.Dewint. May 1, 1814.
A very copious spring (the water
shooting up a foot or so). A mast on a
barge on the canal behind, and the tower of St Matthew, Coates in the distance.
Look at the change between 1793 and 1814! I'm not sure I believe it ...
1835: The Thames by James Bird -
OLD THAMES! thou babbler! noisy tyrant! proud
Thou art, and mighty in thy devious course!
Methinks thou need'st not be so rudely loud -
Look to the tiny dribbling of thy source!
But thou art like the wild and noisy crowd,
Vain and tumultuous - rushing on with force,
Regardless of the mud from which, forlorn,
A puny thing thy Rivership was born!
Not that we deem a humble birth a crime
Blest are the poor, the humble, and the meek
But thou go'st wallowing on, o'er weed and slime,
Swelling, all pompous, arrogant, and weak,
Thou only roar'st a short and fitful time:
What doth thy long, yet futile history speak?
Thy waters still to flow - those flowed before,
Have been, or will be, swallowed at the Nore!
And after all thy tumult and thy strife,
What are thy waters to the boundless sea?
A viewless drop ! Can Neptune and his Wife
Extend their empire by the help of thee,
Thou slight humidity ? Upon my life,
Thou scarce would'st fill the kettle for their tea,
When to a picnic party they invite
Their green-eyed sea-nymphs on a gala night.
Yet let the Muse no more condemn thy waters,
On whose rich banks in days of old were seen
Struggles for empire, and the strife of slaughters,
That dyed with tyrant's blood thy valleys green!
And there have dwelt, and dwell, thy peerless daughters
Of grace and beauty while thou flow'st the Queen
Of Albion's Rivers by the glorious City,
Which holds the fair, the rich, the gay, the witty.
Yes! thou art London's boast! sufficient praise
To give a wild and rambling stream like thee
That huge metropolis ! her vitals raise
A race of heroes, bold of heart and free;
What wondrous men are in her crowded ways,
Rare imps of science and philosophy!
There are heads too, which never dare aspire,
With all their brains, to set the Thames on fire.
Flow on, fair stream ! and, as thy waters speed
To Ocean's bosom, nor return again,
In this we may a timely lesson read,
And think how swiftly to that troublous main,
Where our frail bark will a true pilot need,
Time bears us on, through pleasure and through pain
And as the waves pass rapidly away,
We pass as certain and as swift as they!
1882: England, Picturesque and Descriptive, Joel Cook -
Source of the Thames, Joel Cook, 1882
1885: The Royal River, also 'The Thames from Source to Sea' 1891 -
The friendly branches of a wild rose hustle my elbow, or, rather, would do so,
but that a sturdier bramble bough interposes. On the otherside of me there is a charming
tangle of hazel and blackberry bushes. There is also a more than commonly bushy
hawthorn overspreading the wall at a portion where thick ivy covers it.
A spreading wild rose is established in the very middle of the glade,
which is graced with quite an unusual quantity of large and old hawthorn trees.
A strong west wind soughs and sighs in the trees;
blackbirds and thrushes, by their liquid notes, blithe and merry,
seem to protest against the melancholy undertone, as does a grand humble bee,
in magnificent orange-velvet smallclothes, who contributes a sympathetic bass solo
as he drones by.
But the object to be chiefly noticed at this moment is the aged ash-tree yonder. It is of medium size and no particular shape, though the ivy covering its bole and lower limbs gives it an air of picturesque importance. Ragged hawthorns and brambles surround it. The importance of the tree lies in the circumstance that it marks the spot which the old writers, and many modern authorities following in their footsteps, have pronounced to be thesource of the Thames. The supposition is that in former times a perennial spring of water issued forth here, forming Thames Head.
The well, however, out of which the water might once have gushed, and miscellaneously overspread the pasturage on its way to form a brook, has in these days lost potency. For a long time past it has ceased to yield water, and, as a matter of prosaic fact, from one end of the glade to the other, there is no sign of water in any shape or form.
Thames Head lantern slide 1883-1906, W.C.Hughes, research by Dr Wilson, courtesy of Pat Furley
Thames Head lantern slide 1883-1906, W.C.Hughes, research by Dr Wilson, courtesy of Pat Furley
THE head-spring of the Thames is, in summer, not
so easy a place to find. It rises on the borders of
Wilts and Gloucestershire, and has been marked down
and written about sufficiently often ; but the exact
spot is quested for with difficulty, and when the
traveller has found it, he is, after all, not sure of his
find, for the place is supplied, in these latter days, with
no recognisable landmark, and even the road-men and
the infrequent wayfarers along that ancient way, the
Akeman Street, which runs close by, appear uncertain.
That it is "over there, somewhere" is the most
exact information the enquirer is likely, at a venture,
There are excellent reasons for this distressing incertitude. The winter reason is that Trewsbury Mead, the great flat meadow in which Thames Head is situated, is so water-logged that it is often a morass, and not infrequently a lake. In summer, on the other hand, the spot is so parched, partly on account of the season, but much more by reason of the pumping-works in the immediate neighbourhood, that not only the Thames Head spring is quite dry, but the bed of the infant Thames itself is generally dry for the first two miles of its course.
Thames Head is situated three miles south-west of Cirencester, that beautiful old stone-built town whose name we are traditionally told to pronounce "Ciceter", just as Shakespeare wrote it.
THE SOURCE OF THE THAMES by Joseph Ashby-Sterry (The River Rhymer 1913) -
Half-hidden in its grassy bed
You'll find that slender silver thread
The tiny Thames ; which, here set free,
Begins its journey to the sea I
'Tis sweet in the Cotswolds to wander
And muse under blue summer sky,
To muse and do nothing but ponder
And dream in the joy of July !
In groves where Pope strolled it is pleasant
To roam, and the roamer receives
A peep of the past in the present,
Enshrined in a lyric of leaves !
So, when weary of town and of riot,
And if for calm rest you have need -
You will find the most exquisite quiet
In Trewsbury Mead !
No sound but the lark gaily singing
And magical music of trees :
Which seems, in its melody, bringing
A far distant song of the seas.
Though shady the Hayley plantation,
Though sombre the Pinbury yews,
Though grateful indeed the sensation
Derived from the Sapperton views
You feel there's a surcease of worry,
A peace that's delicious indeed,
Quite free from all bustle and hurry
In Trewsbury Mead !
From banks that are mossy and broken.
From hollows all rugged and torn,
'Mid docks and 'mid nettles well soaken,
'Neath shade of the ash and the thorn -
The Thames, with a flash and a quiver,
Comes glinting with silvery gleam,
The tiniest thread of a river,
An infinitesimal stream !
It winds amid tall nodding grasses,
It hides 'neath the leaf and the weed
And, almost unnoticed, it passes
Through Trewsbury Mead !
The silvery rillet progresses
And, as it goes dancing along,
Forget-me-nots, brooklime and cresses
Keep time to its rhythmical song !
It gleams and it dimples and glimmers
And pebbles flash bright as it flows :
It sparkles, it wrinkles, it shimmers,
A thousand reflections it shows !
It ripples, it babbles, it bubbles
As, gathering volume and speed,
It flees to the world and its troubles -
From Trewsbury Mead !
Now this, beyond question, the Source is
Well known to the Rhymer who sings
So heed not the man who endorses
The right of the Cubberley Springs !
The claim of the Colne you must bar well
And only regard as a joke
All those who believe in the Cherwell,
Or plead for the Well of Penoke :
The Source is, you'll find, truly very -
Authorities all are agreed,
From Leland to J. Ashby-Sterry -
In Trewsbury Mead !
1920: Fred Thacker in 'The Thames Highway' -
The song that the River sang
Ere he merged in the infinite sea;
Like a brave life turned without pang
To its rest in eternity:
And ever he chanted and ever he ran,
And ended with joy as with joy he began;
And thus he sang to me:
I rise in a western hill,
In a covert of dew and moss,
A murmuring musical rill
A maiden's leap will cross:
Small furry creatures and snakes that glide
Come stooping to drink in the hot noontide,
And birds my waters toss.
By Lechlade I murmur and run,
Then linger with children at play
In meadows whose lover the Sun
Has filled with the burden of May:
And love has not dimpled the face of a girl
More softly than mine as I eddy and whirl
Where islands check my way
Mine ancient course I keep
Where Oxford sets her spires,
And out and away I sweep
Through fat and leafy shires;
And clear and strong I hurry me down
By the old grey bridge at Henley town,
In a flight that never tires.
By eyot and wind-swept down,
With toll from many a rill,
I wind through the royal town,
And past sweet Coooper's Hill:
And broad and strong and full to the lips
I cradle at last the mighty ships
Whose sails the sea-winds fill.
So Thames rejoiced and sang
As he drew to the sea and his rest;
His strong soul knew no pang,
Though he flung one sigh to the West:
And brave hearts end like the noble stream,
Having lived life full and "followed the gleam";
Having sought and won the best.
1994: Mollie Harris in her book named after Fred Thacker's Book 'The Stripling Thames' writes -
Rising in a valley meadow
Shaded by a giant Ash tree,
This infant stream
Meanders through those early villages -
Ewen, Coates, Kemble and Summerford Keynes.
This bubbling stream, soon to gather strength
Before reaching Cricklade, Castle Eaton and Kempsford
Then on to Lechlade and St John's Lock -
Where 'Old Father Thames', reigns over the widening water.
Tumbling on to Radcot Bridge,
Where many a battle was won and lost.
Lovely names and lonely spots, like
Tadpole, Rushy Lock, Chimney and Shifford,
Where King Alfred held his first parliament.
Old Newbridge, Northmoor and Bablockhythe,
With memories of 'The Scholar Gypsy'.
Pinkhill, Swinford, Eynsham, and skirting Wytham Woods -
Under a canopy of oak and beech.
Then on to King's Lock, an easy reach, and on to Godstow,
Where fair Rosamond won the heart of a King.
Next to lonely Binsey Church and Saint Frideswide's well -
And Port Meadow where cattle are grazing, nearby to Tumbling bay.
Too soon to Osney, where once a famous abbey stood;
Then on to Folly Bridge, where the infant Thames becomes of age.
And where strong undergrads become 'Head of the River'.
1851: Old Father Thames made by Rafaelle Monti, cast in Portland Cement
and displayed at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace.
(Can anyone find a picture or catalogue detail to confirm this? I can't.)
1936: The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire and, it is said, the statue was bought by the Thames Conservancy.
1958: The statue was presented by H Scott Freeman, a Conservator, and the Thames Conservancy installed Old Father Thames here at Thames Head.
In this sketch you can see the water flowing and Father Thames in his second home -
1966? Father Thames at Thames Head
© Richard Green and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence.
1974: Old Father Thames was removed to
St John's Lock
following persistent vandalism.
You would think at his age he would know better!
2002: The stones are where the spring at Thames Head apparently used to be.
Jim Groves took this picture in April 2018
The stone is not easy to read.
(I have cheated and enhanced the lettering.
Elsewhere it will be found misquoted.)
And here is Father Thames in his third and current home at St John's Lock -
In that blest moment from his oozy bed
Old father Thames advanc'd his rev'rend head,
His tresses dropped with dews, and o'er the stream
His shining horns diffused a golden gleam.
Old Father Thames doesn't fit the neat background of the lock house
at St John's Lock. Thames Head suited him better,
had his wilder children been willing to leave him alone.
However I reckon that Temple Island on the Henley Reach would be the most suitable home.
See "You are Old Father Thames" at St John's lock.
Straight up hill from Thames Head, through a gate, is the Thames and Severn Canal, only 30 yards away.
The Thames & Severn Canal at Thames Head.
Thames Head from the Thames & Severn Canal, 1811
The Thames and Severn Canal pumping house at Trewsbury, c.1878
The part of the Thames and Severn Canal passes beneath the road
from Cirencester to Tetbury, and so on to Bath, and at a small distance from the first rising of the Thames,
in the parish of Cotes, in the County of Gloucestershire.
The Steam Engine, which [seen above], has been erected to throw water from springs below, to supply the Canal above. This engine throws up three hogsheads at a stroke, and gives sixteen strokes a minute.
The Spire in the distance, rises from the Church of Kemble, a pleasant village, in which is the seat of Charles Cox, Esquire.