About a quarter of a mile across the fields from the King's Head pub on the A433 outside Kemble, a simple monument beneath an ash tree bears the inscription:
THE CONSERVATION OF THE RIVER THAMES
THIS STONE WAS PLACED HERE TO MARK THE
SOURCE OF THE RIVER THAMES
Ten feet in front, a small basin of stones in the ground may, if you are very lucky, be submerged in clear water. If you look closer you will see sporadic bursts of tiny bubbles making their way to the surface; gently, so that, if you did not know, you might think they were raindrops. This is, indeed, the source of the river up which the Romans sailed at about the time Christ was born, on which, in 1536, Anne Boleyn took her final tragic journey and for which Handel in 1717 composed the sublime Water Music for a homesick German king. The river on which, during Victoria's reign, three men in a boat undertook an hilariously memorable holiday and on which Ratty and Mole will adventure forever, just messing about in boats.
From here until it reaches Oxford, the Thames is called the Isis, after the Egyptian fertility goddess, sister and consort of Osiris, god of the underworld and judge of the dead. Jung saw Isis as anima, the feminine principle present in the male unconscious: guide and mediator to the inner world.
Here is quiet. From the thicket of blackberries and briar beyond you may hear the bubbling of wood pigeons, or a lone song thrush may burst the silence. If you have made your way here from the Pool of London or from the Thames Barrier it could seem that it would take but a small leap of faith to follow Isis into a higher, more spiritual world.
Again, if the season has been abundant in rain, you may look south-eastwards from the tablet and see a series of shallow pools receding into the distance. Follow them, and stop occasionally to look closely. Here and there the tell-tale bubbles will surface and at some point you will notice that the shallow water is moving; flowing forward with a sense of purpose, and you can almost begin to believe that you are at the beginning of a secret that will in time become apparent as the most historic river in the world.
In winter, after snow, to believe that this is the source of a great river requires a larger leap. Crows cronk and caw derisively from the frost-laden thicket behind. Huge bulls lounge in the snow disregarding one perhaps just a little too carefully, and the apparently seamless fields stretch far and white down to the Fosse Way, or the A433 as it is more likely to be known today.
The Fosse Way is the road the Romans built between Lincoln (Lindum) and Bath (Aquae Sulis), just part of the 6,000 or more miles they built: straight, no-nonsense highways, many still serving today. A fosse is a ditch, and the Fosse Way was so named because of the deep trench either side which it has still. Along to the left, before the road to Ewen, you will have to clamber over it to read a plaque in a little stone bridge almost obscured in autumn by probably the best blackberries in the world. This is the old Thames Head Bridge of 1789, which realignment of the road in 1962 rendered redundant. Below ran the visionary Thames and Severn Canal, which effectively converted mainland Britain into two islands, long disused and now dry.
The Thames, however, as land form dictates, soon contracts itself into a deeper, swifter channel where river crowfoot spreads out its mermaid tresses. Its artless white flowers will caress the surface of the water in spring as its less aquatically inclined cousin, the tiny, yellow-flowered, celery-leafed crowfoot, shyly hugs the bank of what is clearly a river with ambition.
There is far more to the basic river Mersey than meets the eye. At source the river is fed by three smaller rivers; the Tame with its origins at Saddleworth in Yorkshire, the Etherow from Featherbed Moss beyond Ashton-under-Lyme, and the Goyt flowing from Goyt Moss and Axe Edge near Buxton in Derbyshire. It is true to say that the river Goyt is the most significant and direct river passage with the Etherow joining it first between Marple and Stockport and the Tame at Stockport. It then becomes the river Mersey. Its waters pass through the towns and villages of Whaley Bridge, New Mills, Marple, Stockport, Didsbury, Stretford, Urmston, Flixton, Cadishead, Hollins Green, Warburton, Rixton, Woolston, Warrington, Great Sankey, Moore, Norton, Widnes and Runcorn before heading out into the Irish Sea through the estuary past Ellesmere Port, Liverpool and Birkenhead.