Walking the Isis Way
(5-7 May 2018)
Over the May ‘bank holiday’ weekend (a funny way to mark a very special time of year – Beltane or International Workers’ Day are far more meaningful) blessed by glorious weather (for once!) I walked a 50 mile section of the Thames Path, a national long-distance footpath. Earlier in the year, when it had still felt chilly, I had run to the source from my house – a brisk, muddy ten miles – where a stone in a sleepy meadow near Kemble marks the official beginning of the 2nd longest river in England. It is rather shy to begin with, and doesn’t show its face until a field or two away. By the time it intersects its first road, it is a mere gleam in the grass, pristine as a May morning. It seems delicate, vulnerable, like any young soul – but it tentatively makes it way in the world, growing more confident with each winding mile, nurtured by supportive brooks and underlying acquifers, and in its hesitant movements it is as beautiful as a foal. Reeds flow like a mane beneath its transparent veil. It is hard to imagine this pellucid stream grows up to become TS Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’ but a great destiny awaits it – monarchs and bards will grace its currents, commerce and history will crowd its banks.
I walked this first section, to Cricklade, with a poet friend of mine, Brendan Georgeson, a couple of years ago. And then I walked the next section, from Cricklade to Lechlade, with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, in the early Spring – when it was still a bit nippy and dreary. Still, a lovely pub lunch awaited us, which made it all worthwhile.
And so to this early May weekend – with temperatures reaching the hottest on record – I set off for a solo three-day trek, picking up where I left off, from charming The Riverside Inn, Lechlade, and making my way to Dorchester-on-Thames, a sweaty forty-five plus river miles later. Although the Thames Path continues all the way to the Big Smoke, officially ending at the Thames Barrier, I was most interested in this section, the bulk of the Upper Thames, which technically terminates at Goring and Streatley, but I had walked into that area in 2004, when traversing the Ridgeway. And I had my sights set on the prominent and well-loved landmarks of Sinodun Hills, aka Wittenham Clumps, aka Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, as an end-point. Immortalised by the landscape painter, Paul Nash, who painted them obsessively, I had been drawn to them for years and finally visited them while researching folk tales of the county (Oxfordshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2011). They once were claimed by Berkshire (hence another one of their saucy epithets, the ‘Berkshire Bubs’), but for the purposes of this trip, I was claiming them as my place of psychogeographical pilgrimage.
Wittenham Clumps sketch in watercolour, ink & chalk, Paul Nash (1912)
Also, the idea of walking the Isis rather than the Thames, appealed to my mythopoeiac sensibilities – reclaiming the name from its contemporary negative connotations (it belonged to an Egyptian goddess long before silly men got hold of it), this is the traditional name of the river until it reaches Dorchester-on-Thames (where it is conjoined by the river Thame), only then is it truly the Thames. Interestingly, its Celtic name was Tamesis (‘darkly flowing one’), which is uncannily like a compound of ‘Thames’ and ‘Isis’. To the Celts every body of water, spring, well, pool, lake and river, was a potential gateway to the Otherworld and many had a resident spirit to which offerings were made. In Bath, where I used to live, the goddess of the springs, Sulis, was worshipped. Even the conquering Romans acknowledged her, shrewdly assimilating the local cult by rebranding her ‘Sulis-Minerva’, and naming the city Aquae Sulis. Around Bath flows the river Avon, not the Avon of Stratford fame, but this is a common river name, derived from ‘Afon’, a Brythonic word for water. I suspect the locals were reluctant to reveal the name of the goddess, although we know of Sabrina (Severn), Belisima (Ribble), and of course the Thames (Tamesis), to name a few. Note they are all female. It is so telling that a feminine river is turned into a man: Old Father Thames. His statue (a hefty patriarch by Raffaelle Monti) once adorned the source, but was moved to St John’s Lock in the mid-70s after vandalism. It is an impressive sculpture, but I can’t help feeling it should be in Dorchester, and the Upper Thames should be graced with a monument to Isis (or Tamesis). After all, it has its own distinct geology and ‘feel’, as distinct from the Middle (London Borough) and Lower (downriver and estuary) Thames.
- Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet (1863)
Walking the river in solitude and peacefulness for three days I became intensely physical aware of the shape of the river, its sinuous meanderings, which it was hard not to see as feminine curves. The slow, breathy rhythm of my effort became a kind of extended foreplay, as I traced the hypnotic dance of Isis – mesmerised by her soothing song and constant flow. For much of the time I was in a non-verbal, liminal space. Thoughts were softened into impressions. I was reading the river in an embodied way, beyond language, beyond even conscious thought. The heat, light and near silence worked its spell. The scintillation of the sunlight upon the shifting surface intimated at unfathomable mysteries. Waterfowl, water- and river-bank users, the passing detail of a house, a moored vessel, a tree, or a bridge, occasionally arrested my attention – but all seemed like part of the river’s dream. It was easy to see why so many great literary classics have been borne by its waters: News from Nowhere, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat, Heart of Darkness…Ironically, I hardly wrote a thing. What inspiration the river gave me I carried away in my soul and soles. I taught me some valuable wisdom: surrender; grace; quietude and solitude; patience; effort and reward; flow, guidance and release. All seem blindingly obvious, but mean little without an embodied, visceral experience to hard-wire them into the body-mind.
Bathers at Asnieres, George Seurat (1884)
Yet the egalitarian gifts of the river await all – and one need only spend some time on its banks, or in its water, to receive its gifts. A real highlight of the whole weekend was the wild-swimming. On the first day I went for a sneaky dip in the middle of nowhere and it felt almost illicit (but certainly most welcome after a hot day’s hike); but on the second I arrived at Port Meadow, on the edge of Oxford, to discover a kind of free festival of the river taking place. Crowds of water-worshippers had descended along the banks equipped with picnics, BBQs, inflatables, books, sound systems, and high spirits. It was like walking into an updated French Impressionist masterpiece: the sublime languor of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres, the bold sensuality of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the crowdedness of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.
The atmosphere could have been overwhelming after two days of near solitude, but the prevailing energy was of sheer delight. One could almost hear a collective whoop of joy at the final unequivocal arrival of summer. There seemed to be a competition to display as much flesh as possible. Bright young things flung themselves with giddy abandon into the awaiting embrace of the Isis. The pool by Fiddler’s Island was especially popular, with teenagers lining up on the bridge to dare each other into increasingly wild dives and hysterics. Passing by much of these antics, I finally acquiesced to the irresistible tide of hedonism and, stripping down to my shorts, plunged in. Emerging from the refreshing coolness to bathe my beaded limbs in the strength of the sun, I savoured the endorphin glow – feeling wonderfully alive and thoroughly blessed by the Isis. All can enjoy the democracy of water.
Bathers at Fiddler’s Island, K. Manwaring, 6 May 2018
‘A River Runs Through It’: my 4 page Thames Path feature appears in the summer issue of Cotswold Life. available from newsstands across the region now, or direct from the website:
For information on the Thames Path national trail visit: