Disposables – by Selwyn Morgan
I knew it was there, just over the other side of the Fosse Way from Kemble village. I’d taken the walk along the nascent Thames valley a few times but had turned back as frequently as the weather changed and I never made it to the river’s source. But, today, the weather was beautiful (a summer we would remember) and I was determined to make use of it. As it turned out, it was only one field further on from the field I had reached on my last attempt. It was confirmation that I would never successfully circumnavigate the World or cross Antarctica on a sled; even with the noblest of huskies, the first sign of a snowflake and I would be off. But I had finally made it to the jumble of rocks that an adjacent engraved marble slab told me was it, the source of the Thames. I took the engraving at its word, that when the winter rains came the Thames would, indeed, spring from the ground and gurgle it way east. To be honest, it was a bit of a disappointment and my thirst for adventure was far from quenched by the dry rock and parched valley floor. Intriguingly, a footpath sign for the ‘Thames Valley Path’ directed intrepid ramblers further up the slope? I wasn’t going to let my achievement be denigrated by some bloke in the pub… ‘Oh! So you didn’t get to the start of the Thames valley then?… just the Thames!’… Off I set.
It wasn’t far, and wouldn’t have been worth the effort, especially as there was no sign that said, ‘Valley Ends Here’, or a map that confirmed, with an arrow, the very spot. But what I did find was a canal; The Thames and Severn Canal. Now, that was a find, and another sign pointing along it announced, ‘Tunnel Inn, 1 mile’. I was off again.
Immediately, I was transported back a couple of hundred years. The canal, long unused, ran straight, its towpath worn of vegetation by others who had spotted the pub sign, I assumed. The canal was dry and overgrown.
The effort to excavate across the Cotswold landscape must have been immense. The canal had begun to cut into the Cotswold’s heave, in readiness for the tunnel, I supposed. The ancient limestone was exposed by the navvy’s pick and shovel and shored-up by the honeyed brick that had been excavated whilst digging.
The inspiration for the canal is in its name. Some entrepreneur would have seen the commercial advantage of connecting the two waterways; an obvious dream in the days when roads weren’t mettled and oxen trod its rutted path a cart at a time.
Disused canals have a beauty that is their own. A linear strip that nature has reclaimed whilst the modern world, beside and above it, passes at speed: the glimpse of a lorry, the thrash of a train on an overhead bridge or the thrum of a tractor spreading its muck for next year’s crop.
Along the way, there were hints of the labours of the people from the times that had past. Sitting in the middle of the canal was the remains of a horse-drawn plough, discarded when the canal was unused; obsolescence heaped upon obsolescence. Further on, a curious round house used to collect tolls?… or to house maintenance workers, perhaps? Though they were long gone, it was almost possible to hear their plea rending the calm that surrounded the remnants of their life’s work, asking us not to forget.