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A Walk Along the River Thames


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Article ID: 0205260001
Published on May 26, 2002 Blade, The (Toledo, OH)


After spending the better part of last month in England, walking along the River Thames, a few random observations (mostly ecologically inspired) seem in order this week. So, with a tip of the hat to author Bill Bryson, who was encountered out there in a Cotswold field, here are some of my own "notes from a long, long river."

* The otters are back in the upper reaches of the Thames, which speaks volumes for the improving health of this great river. Thirty months ago, when I last walked down through Lechlade, lockkeeper Bob Williams who has been opening and closing this first lock on the river since the mid-'80s, said that he'd noticed a number of "otter scratchings," but had no actual sightings of the creatures themselves. Now apparently, they're out there, bold as brass.

Lechlade on the River Thames

* Late April is also a grand time to be out along the riverbank, with the swans, the geese, and the ducks (mallards mostly) showing off their newly hatched offspring. Anything from 3 to 10 tiny furballs riding out the ripples under the watchful eye of proud parents, and then scurrying for shelter at the first signs of danger.

Other river birds seen were coots, moorhens, grebes, kingfishers, cormorants, and of course, the stately heron waiting patiently for the arrival of a tasty fish or frog.

* Swans can now be seen along the total length of the Thames. And there's no finer river display than a pair of these large (up to 30 lbs.) and elegant birds practicing their exuberant takeoffs and landings! While in flight they're simply awesome. Incidentally, every one of the Thames' 1,500 swans belongs to either the reigning monarch or to the Vintners and Dyers livery companies. Owners are identified by a pattern of nicks on the birds' beaks. And newcomers are marked during the annual July tradition of "swan-upping."

* Less majestic, perhaps, but equally enthusiastic, are the four and eight-man crews that energetically row the river from Oxford on down, usually accompanied by coaches on boats or bicycles megaphoning their stern instructions: "Keep your back straight, number 3!" Poor number 3, to be so publicly chastised. The regattas at Henley and Oxford and the famous Oxford vs. Cambridge boat races are apparently incentive enough to attract large numbers of male and female practitioners to this tough, but rewarding, sport.

Sculling on the River Thames at Oxford

* In great contrast to a previous downriver expedition in October, 1999, the Thames this time was angler-free, because the fishing season doesn't start until June. However, many of the angling clubs that lay claim to different stretches of the river were clearing up their patches in preparation for the coming season. According to stuffed denizens seen in cases on the walls of several riverside pubs, the most common fish are bream, perch, pike, roach chubb, and barbel - although a 7 lb., 7 oz. trout was caught (and stuffed) at Radcot back in 1958. Britain now boasts more than 6 million active anglers.

* Perhaps the most incongruous and unexpected sights along the river's upper reaches are the chain of concrete pillboxes erected in 1940 as a final and desperate defense to stop invading armies reaching the British Midlands. Known as "Stopline Red," they were fortunately never needed, and now they're not worth removing.

A defensive Pill-Box on the side of the River Thames

* For many centuries, the Thames was a vital link for London commerce, and barges laden with stone, bricks, timber, and lead, as well as cheeses, flour, wool, and meats were regularly towed downriver by teams of horses, sometimes as many as 14 to a team. The journey took at least five days. Then the barges, laden with London's waste of ash, rags, and horse manure, would start back on their malodorous eight-day upriver trip. With the advent of the railways in the mid-1800s, this commercial traffic came to a grinding halt, but large portions of the Thames Path still faithfully follow those old hoofprints.

* With commercial goods now moved by road and rail, river traffic is mostly touristic in nature, with cabin cruisers, narrow canal boats, and large pleasure boats dominating the popular downriver sections.

* From Roman times 'til the mid-17th century, navigating the length of the river was a most tedious and hazardous process, with many barriers to be overcome. But then in 1630, the first modern lock, based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci, was built on the Thames near Abingdon. Today more than 40 locks help keep the river traffic moving smoothly.

The River Thames at Abingdon Oxfordshire

* While few serious hikers were encountered on the trail in late April, there was never a shortage of dog walkers out for their daily constitutionals. And according to our totally unscientific survey, the most popular dogs in Britain today are border collies, West Highland terriers (Westies), and, of course, Labradors.

(Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.)


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