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The Infant Thames at Cricklade

An easy ramble across water-meadows beside the Thames and disused canals from Wiltshire's northernmost town.

Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field paths and bridle paths, disused railway, town streets, 15 stiles

Landscape Flat river valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 169 Cirencester & Swindon

Start/finish SU 100934

Dog friendliness Dogs can be off lead along old railway line

Parking Cricklade Town Hall car park (free)

Public toilets Cricklade High Street

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1 Turn right out of the car park, keep ahead at the roundabout and walk along the High Street. Pass St Mary's Church, then turn left along North Wall before the river bridge. Shortly, bear right to a stile and join the Thames Path. Cross a stile and continue along the field edge to houses.

2 Go through the kissing gate on your right and bear left across the field to a gate. Follow the fenced footpath, cross a plank bridge and pass through the gate immediately on your right-hand side. Cross the river bridge and turn left through a gate. Walk beside the infant River Thames, crossing two stiles to enter North Meadow.

3 Continue to cross a stile by a bridge. Go through the gate immediately right and keep straight ahead, ignoring the Thames Path left. Follow the path beside the disused canal. Cross a footbridge and two stiles then, at a fence, bear right to cross a footbridge close to a house named The Basin. Cross a stile and bear right along the drive.

4 Cross a bridge and turn left through the gateway. Shortly, bear right to join the path along the left side of the old canal. Keep to the path for ½ mile (800m) to the road. Turn left into Cerney Wick to reach a T-junction.

5 Cross the stile opposite and keep ahead through the paddock to a stone stile and lane. Cross the lane and climb the stile opposite, continuing ahead to a further stile. In a few paces, cross the stile on the right and follow the path beside a lake. Bear right, then left and bear off left (yellow arrow) into trees where the path becomes a track.

6 Cross a footbridge and proceed ahead along the field edge to a stile. Turn left along the old railway, signed 'Cricklade'. Cross the River Thames in a mile (1.6km) and keep to the path along the former trackbed to a bridge.

7 Follow the gravel path to the Leisure Centre. Bear left on to the road, following it right, then turn left opposite the entrance to the Leisure Centre car park. Turn right, then next left and follow the road to the church.

8 Walk beside the barrier and turn left in front of The Gatehouse into the churchyard. Bear left to the main gates and follow the lane to a T-junction. Turn right to make your way back to the car park.

The River Thames begins life in a peaceful Gloucestershire field near Cirencester. Before long it graduates to a sizeable stream, also known as the Isis at this point, on its way to the Cotswold Water Park, a vast network of lakes and pools, before reaching Cricklade, Wiltshire's northernmost town and the only one situated on the river.

Although merely a meandering willow-fringed stream as it passes through the town, research in the 19th-century revealed that the river at Cricklade had been navigable by barges weighing up to six tons during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1607 the Burcot Commission was established for the purpose of improving the Thames as a navigable waterway from Clifton Hampden to Cricklade. Thomas Baskerville, writing in 1690, commented: 'So farewell Cricklade, come off ye ground, we'll sail in boats, towards London Town, for this is now the highest station by famous Tems for Navigation'. With the completion of the Thames and Severn Canal in 1789 river traffic was transferred to the canal and the upper reaches of the Thames gradually became overgrown.

Cricklade's advantageous position at the junction of four ancient roads may well be why it was established as the head of the navigable Thames. However, Cricklade's importance as a settlement began in Roman times when it was an important military post on Ermine Street, the Roman road linking Cirencester and Silchester. Evidence of the Roman's occupation has been found in and around the town, with villas to the north and south east. The later fortified Saxon town was built as a defence against the Danes and had its own mint. Today, the wide High Street has worthy buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries and two contrasting parish churches. You should not miss St Sampson's, characterised by its cathedral-like turreted tower which rises high above the town and dominates the surrounding water-meadows.

This walk follows the River Thames north, away from Cricklade, via the Thames Path. Beyond North Meadow, your route passes beside a shallow ditch that was once the North Wilts Canal, which opened in 1819 and ran the 9 miles (14.5km) between Swindon and Latton, linking the Wilts and Berks Canal with the Thames and Severn Canal. Soon you will follow the old tow path beside the muddy, weed-clogged ditch that was once the Thames and Severn Canal, opened in 1789 to link the River Severn with the Thames at Lechlade. The canal closed to all traffic in 1927, and was finally abandoned in 1933. Later the walk heads south along a disused railway line, part of the Midland and South West Railway which was closed to passengers in 1961. Although a pleasing reminder of the railway era, the ever-present drone of traffic from the A419 across the water-meadows keeps the mind firmly in the 21st century.

Where to eat and drink

You will find various pubs/hotels, notably the Red Lion near the Thames, and a traditional café in Cricklade. At the halfway point on the walk, at Cerney Wick, the family-owned Crown offers traditional home-cooked food, real ales and a large garden.

What to look for

Walk across North Meadow, a National Nature Reserve, in spring to see many rare plants and flowers, including Britain's largest area of rare snakeshead fritillaries. At Cerney Wick, note the restored lock and the well-preserved roundhouse, originally the home of the lengthsman whose job was to look after the canal, ensuring that the level of water did not drop below the necessary minimum. In Cricklade, look for the Victorian Jubilee Clock in the High Street and the medieval carved crosses in both churchyards.

While you're there

Visit Cricklade's small local museum where collections, photographs and maps illustrate the history of the town from the Roman era to the present day. Head for the attractive village of Ashton Keynes and the heart of the Cotswold Water Park, Britain's largest water park, with 133 lakes providing water sports, nature trails and a visitor centre at Keynes Country Park.

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