The Great Thames Expedition

All tourists are essentially explorers, otherwise they’d stay at home straightening pictures on the wall and letting the dog in and out. It was certainly with exploration in mind that, in planning our fifth annual, Tour de Farce, I approached the offices of VisitBritain (formerly the British Tourist Authority). I reminded them that this year, 2006, marked the 150th anniversary of the Burton-Speke Nile expedition which departed from Britain to find the source of Africa’s most important river. I suggested that we explorers from Africa should mark the anniversary by embarking on a cycle-mounted expedition to find the source of Britain’s most important river – the Thames.

There is, believe it or not, still some controversy over its source. Even Jerome K Jerome’s famous Thames expedition, recounted in Three Men in a Boat in 1889, didn’t venture very far into the mysterious interior of the West Country where the river’s source is said to be.

Just as the Royal Geographic Society in Victorian times fell in with proposals by Burton, Speke, Stanley and others to explore Africa, so VisitBritain threw all its expertise into helping us plan an expedition to explore the Thames and open up for the people of Africa the wonders of the Valley from its source to the North Sea. They suggested we make our base camp the 500-year-old Wild Duck Inn in the village of Ewen near Cirencester. This, my colleagues agreed, sounded an excellent idea. Edwin Swan, director of VisitBritain in Johannesburg, said one of the supposed sources of the Thames was only 6 km from there.

Once again there was the advantage that the people of the Thames Valley were known to speak a form of English. Admittedly their pronunciation can sometimes puzzle. If, for instance, you ask a West Country man, “Kind sir, is this the way to Bicester?” (the natives pronounced it “bister” just as they pronounce Gloucester, “Gloster” and Worcester “Wooster”) he will say, “Eee-arrr” which, in West Country patois means, “Yes.”

Another attraction is that the valley is not only beautiful but, as somebody long ago said, “Every drop is liquid ’istory.” Its colourful story involves kings and queens, knaves, battles, Romans, Saxons, Druids, stormy royal love affairs, West Ham United and many bizarre customs. There’s even pre’istory in that there are intriguing clues to life in the valley going back to the time when the Thames was still a tributary of the Rhine. It stopped being a tributary when the Ice Age melted and the English Channel formed 10062 years ago. (I know the precise date because when I was at school we were told Britain became separated from the Continent when the Ice Age melted 10 000 years ago.)

And there are signs of Romans everywhere in the valley. That goes for the whole of England of course, but particularly the Thames. People are constantly coming across Roman coins (why were the Romans so careless with their money?) and archaeologists are excavating Roman sites by the score. We called in at Cirencester which isn’t far from Ewen. It was called Corinium in Roman times and was Britain’s second largest city after London. Roman artefacts are constantly being unearthed.

A few years ago, archaeologists excavated an enormous Roman fort called Vindolanda which, although not in the Thames Valley, gave a fascinating insight into how the Romans felt about being in Britain. Scored of letters and notes were unearthed written in ink on wafer-thin pieces of wood the size of postcards. The messages indicated that Roman soldiers were, according to scholars, “preoccupied with socialising and writing letters home begging their parents to send luxuries.” One letter challenged the image that Romans were master road-builders. It was signed by a Roman named Octavius and inferred that the Romans hated the English weather and, surprisingly, that, because of the climate, the Roman-built roads weren’t fit for wheeled traffic. I am not in the habit of reading other people’s mail but I can guess what it said …


Vindolanda Mars XV


Dearest Mama,

It has not stopped raining since Septem and my skin is all white and crinkly. My helmet has half-a-XII rust spots and my leather skirt is green with mildew. I beseech you, Mama, please send me some olive oil, a new toga, some vino and some dinars.

Our civil engineers are having a bad time building roads. Because of the weather the roads quickly become quagmires and the local savages have taken to them like ducks to water – they trundle up and down with their infernal herds and their crude ox-sleds which cause massive congestion. Yesterday I was stuck in an hour-long chariot jam on the MV, the new route to Londinium. O Jupiter – all those horses and cattle and ox-carts, cattle pads and horse droppings! By the time traffic eased the malodorous pollution was axle deep and steaming like Vesuvius.

The placid druids, who are quite creepy, say these gaseous odours will eventually change the climate causing Britain to become warmer and as dry as the Sahara. Flavius says the druids are insanely optimistic.

The worst drivers are women although there are not many of them. Down in Londinium there is one, a warrior named Boadicea, who has it in for us. Instead of hubcaps on her chariot she has curved knives and races through our garrisons whipping off kneecaps – and worse with the shorter fellows.

She is typical of the locals – they resent all we do for them. They seem to forget that until we arrived they had no idea what a shovel was! The Picts are not bad though. Flavius says that with C Picts and C shovels he could construct IV kilometres of roads per diem.

I cannot wait to get home and am ever grateful that your wise counsel led me to invest all my dinars in that little townhouse in Pompeii. At least there is no air pollution there.

Hail Caesar and all that,


  1. PS: Don’t forget the money. I really don’t know where all my coins go.


Once again, wearing the mantle of leader, I had the onerous responsibility to lead my five faithful companions into the unknown and bring them safely back to their loved ones. What was, in 2002, a one-off idea called the Tour de Farce, had now become, like the Tour de France itself, firmly established as an annual event. Why were we doing it? We were still uncertain. As Lance Armstrong said, “It’s not about the bike.” That much we knew. Alan said it was more about the stomach.

The Thames is only 338 km long. That’s not far, I can hear you say. After all, the Eastern Cape’s famous giant earthworms are longer than that. I can only repeat that I do wish readers would refrain from interrupting. Yet to cycle from the Thames’ source to its estuary was to take a week of steady pedalling and refuelling on low octane English ale from which beverage we were, nevertheless, able to achieve 35 km a litre.

Our route and stopovers were organised by a Buckinghamshire company, Capital Sports, whose motto was, “Gentle Cycling.” The lads squirmed with embarrassment when I mentioned “Gentle Cycling” for although our average age was by now sixty-seven, we were a rugged bunch who, even in the South African winter, could sometimes be seen outside without jerseys.

There was even more shuffling of the feet when I broke the news that after the Thames we were going to cross to France for a week-long celebratory tour of the Lower Loire Valley, to celebrate the completion of our fifth expedition. This I had booked through a widely known Manchester group called “Cycling for Softies”, which specialises in cycling in France. It seemed “Softies” did everything for the cyclist except pedal. I had to remind Susi Madron, “Softies” proprietor in Manchester, that we were not softies. She said she fully understood but what did we expect Cycling for Softies to do – change its name to Cycling for Toughies?

There were the usual misgivings when we discussed the finer details of the Thames expedition. Only days before we were due to leave, Richard emailed to ask if I’d seen the current temperatures along the Thames Valley. They were as low as 1 degree Celsius. Even our campaign-hardened photographer, Alan, was worried about his pixels freezing. I told them to pull themselves together. It would be the Merry Month of May, the height of springtime in England.

To save time we decided to fly the first 10 000 km from Johannesburg, once again using a British Airways aeroplane. BA agreed to drop us off at London’s Heathrow Airport which, they pointed out, was in the Thames Valley. Capital Sports would then bus us to Ewen where our bikes were tethered and the Thames Eye was waiting to be discovered.

We found Cirencester a pleasant little city and we visited its ancient cathedral built centuries ago by the wool barons of the Cotswolds. The contrast between Britain’s austere and poorly illuminated cathedral interiors and Europe’s flamboyant basilicas with their gilded statues and unrestrained baroque ornamentation is profound and says a lot about the differences between Continentals and the Brits, though I am not sure what.

Accompanied by Wendy Carter who had met us at Heathrow Airport and who is a guide with Capital Sports, and Mike Dunmore, an Oxford-based guide (he is also Capital Sport’s Mr Fix-It) we then drove a few kilometres from Cirencester to some undulating farmland near the village of Ewen whose name means “river source.” We stopped at an open farm gate from where we walked a kilometre or so over a knoll and down into a pretty glade with a copse whose floor was covered in bluebells.

Here Wendy pointed out a shallow, bath-sized depression of exposed limestone. An adjacent slab of engraved Cotswold rock proclaimed that this was it – this was the source of the Thames – “Thameshead.” It was bone dry. We found it very hard to believe that this was the eye of Britain’s most famous river.

Rex said the world had come to a pretty pass when one could no longer believe what was cast in stone. We stared at the hole for as long as seemed appropriate before trudging back over the knoll.

Wendy told us there are people who say that the Thames’ real source is a few kilometres north of Cirencester, a little south of Cheltenham. This is where the River Churn rises. The Churn, at an elevation ever so slightly higher than the Thames, joins the Thames east of Cirencester and many people say the Thames should be renamed the Churn. Anyway, the Thames is properly called the Isis all the way down river until it passes Oxford. In Oxford itself people hiss if you refer to the river as the Thames. It is always the Isis.

We found this all very confusing and, as we’d forgotten to bring a tape measure to measure distances.  As Rex said, “It’s all too much.” As it was practically lunchtime, we unanimously agreed to return to the Wild Duck Inn.

With Wendy and Mike, we dined in a cosy corner of the ancient tavern and discussed the week that lay ahead. My mind wandered off on its own, as it so often does, and I thought about earlier customers who had sat in this very corner of the tavern, centuries ago, debating even weightier matters – matters such as whether the earth was flat and whether you’d fall off the edge if you sailed too far out to sea, and whether inserting tadpoles into the ear was a genuine cure for The Plague or whether it was just an apothecary’s trick to sell tadpoles.

We ordered our first English pint of ale and solemnly raised our glasses to the Tour de Farce V.

[Extract from Blazing Bicycle Saddles available via Smashwords or Kindle.]