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  • River Thames: From Source to Sea by Steve Wallis

    642466 River Frome CVR.inddFor me, writing about rivers started off in 2013 when I was discussing possible books with my contact at Amberley. He mentioned the ‘From Source to Sea’ series on rivers. I live in Dorchester in Dorset so what came to my mind immediately was the river Frome which flows past the town. This Frome is one of several of that name in this country, and runs entirely within Dorset. It passes lots of historic locations and scenic countryside, so that suited both Amberley and myself, and off I went! There were several surprises on the way to finishing the volume – like trying to work out if the accepted source of the river was really the true one when there were at least two other candidates (I came to the conclusion that the Frome proper only started when all these streams had joined together), and also one or two interesting encounters with flooding!

    9781445648293A year or so later I was getting ‘itchy feet’ to try another river, and spoke again to Amberley. The publisher was now looking for a book on a larger river, and after a bit of thought we decided on the Bristol Avon. This was relatively easy to reach from Dorset, and though quite a long river, it flows within a surprisingly small area – the Bristol Avon is some 75 to 80 miles long, but I worked out that a South Gloucestershire village called Pucklechurch is no more than 15 miles from every point along its looping course. There was even more controversy over the source – two rivers called the Sherston Avon and the Tetbury Avon join to form the Bristol Avon, and each has more than one candidate for its own source. In the end I gave up and tried to describe them all! Thereafter the river runs through some lovely countryside, much of it in the Cotswolds, and some superb towns and villages such as Malmesbury and Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, then the cities of Bath and Bristol. Using the river as a reason to explore all of this was great fun, though I didn’t quite fulfil the requirement of the book’s title, as the Bristol Avon flows into the Severn Estuary, which is not quite the sea!

    the-river-thames-1 Whitish colouration marking the river's occasional course. (River Thames, Amberley Publishing)

    By now I was getting somewhat addicted to following rivers around the place, and Amberley and I agreed that I should have a crack at the Thames. On the face of it this all seemed straightforward – I decided to concentrate on the generally accepted source of the river and not worry too much about an alternative (admittedly one with a good case) that starts up near Cheltenham, and there was no doubt where the river flowed to as it has a sizeable estuary that joins the North Sea. Admittedly there was a couple of hundred miles of river between these two locations, but I could worry about all that later.

    the-river-thames-2 Finally the flowing water appears. (River Thames, Amberley Publishing)

    So in early March 2016 I set off to look at the accepted source up in the Cotswolds. I parked a mile or two away and set off to follow a footpath to the source. Getting closer I started feeling somewhat disconcerted that I could see no river, then came upon the stone set up at the source. Checking my map and reading the inscription on the stone left no doubt that I had found the correct spot, but there was still the not exactly minor issue that I could see no water. There was some softer ground here, though, and the grass looked whiter along the supposed course of the river, so I started following this. I did so for a mile before I found a flowing river, and it was only when I got home and did some reading that I found about the variable flow of water here.

    the-river-thames-6 The Tower of London and Tower Bridge. (River Thames, Amberley Publishing)

    Anyway, over the next six months I followed the river in a series of daytrips, and once again there were lots of fascinating villages, towns and cities, historic locations and lovely countryside. There were also many pleasant surprises – for instance, I had expected the section in the Cotswolds to be the most scenic, but while the villages there are very picturesque the landscape is relatively flat, it was the part that flows past the Chilterns that I found the most dramatic and attractive. Then there was the realisation that most bridges had a pub by them – all clearly well located to take advantage of thirsty travellers, although the rural crossing with a pub at either end seemed a little excessive! Then there were the discoveries that the river’s rural setting survives well into London, and that south Essex is much hillier than I remembered. On the negative side I got caught in the London rush hour on the Underground and still cannot understand how people are able to go through that every day!

    All in all I am extremely glad that I undertook all this exploration, and while of course I heartily recommend the book to you, I must also admit that there is much more than I was able to include, and so I recommend equally that you go and explore the river for yourself.


    Steve Wallis' new book River Thames From Source to Sea is available for purchase now.

  • The Bristol Avon by Steve Wallis

    I am not a very good tourist. I find it difficult just to go somewhere and enjoy looking around for its own sake – I need an added purpose like taking photos to show to friends or colleagues. So writing a book about the Bristol Avon was ideal for me – between January and August of this year I got to make a series of visits to a very attractive and diverse part of the country, some of it well-known to me, some a wholly undiscovered country, and explore, make notes and take pictures.

    The Bristol Avon was also an excellent subject because it occupies a relatively small area. Though it is around eighty miles long, it flows in a something of a loop so that every point on its course is no more than fifteen miles from a spot just north-east of Bristol. So people who live near the river can explore all the places along it with relative ease, and this is something I wanted to let them know about.

    This route takes it from the rural Cotswolds around the Gloucestershire-Wiltshire border, down through the historic towns of north-west Wiltshire such as Chippenham and Bradford-on-Avon, then back north-west past the Cotswolds (and through some particularly lovely countryside) until it reaches Bath. Not far on the river flows through Bristol, after which it is named, then its final stretch has more spectacular views, especially in the Clifton Gorge.

    The more I looked, the more I realised the importance of the river to the development of the towns and cities along its route as a source of power and enabler of trade, and this is especially the case for Bristol, which owed its original existence to the river and then grew rich on trade along it and out across the Atlantic. Bristol’s links to early exploration of the New World, possibly even before the time of Columbus, was something that I found utterly fascinating.

    It was not all plain sailing, though. I was following the ‘From Source to Sea’ formula of books in this series, but found this a little difficult as there is no single agreed source for the river, just a number of streams flowing out of the Cotswolds that join together around Malmesbury. Then at the other end the river flows out into the Severn estuary at a point that may not really be the sea!

    And then there was the wait for a train. One Saturday just outside Chippenham, I found a lovely spot where a bridge crossed the river. Nearby a family of swans were swimming around, and in the distance there was a railway line. What a lovely juxtaposition between the swans and a passing train, thought I, and settled down to wait for one of the latter. Very obligingly the swans hung around, but after twenty minutes there was still no train. This seemed odd, since this was one of the main lines from London to the South-West. Fortunately I then had the sense to check train times on my phone as this told me the line was closed that day for engineering works, saving me from a much longer wait!


    Steve Wallis' The Bristol Avon is available for purchase now.

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