Swim-Walking the River Churn: field notes, 24th April 2021

For the next in the series of blogposts leading up to our symposium, Talking Place, J.L.M. Morton is (literally) immersed in the River Churn.

An idyllic day, I began by visiting the source of the Churn (some say the source of the
Thames) with my partner, two children and our dog. My littlest child crouched down
to watch the ‘lice’ wriggling in the water close up. We jumped on the stepping-stones
and cleared some litter from the area – cans, cellophane, a barbecue charcoal bag.
I looked over the road where the Churn ran under the A436 – the headwaters empty
initially into a pond in the garden of the currently closed Severn Springs pub –
fenced off (like so much of this river) and weedy.

Got back in the car and drove to Rendcomb – parked beyond the Post Office on the
Chedworth road and took the footpath down in the valley. The scene was almost a
cliche, softly bucolic with the newborn lambs frolicking on the slopes and the sun
shining brightly in a clear sky. A very warm day – but a cold wind when it blew to
remind us that April’s cruelties are still with us. My mum joined us from her home
nearby – to have had her and my immediate family – almost my whole family – with
me on that first day of swim-walking the river was an unfamiliar joy.

Swim-Walking the Churn

The first place I was able to access the river was beyond the lamb field after the
electrified fence came to an end. In Conigree Wood, where young wild garlic carpeted
the floor, I climbed over the waterfall – a Romantic construction of manmade stone
and boulders – and swam under the bridge at the old gatehouse to Rendcomb
College. A carved stone Father Thames head looked on from the arch of the bridge as
I passed below. I walked and swam the river almost to North Cerney. It was shallow
in many places – ankle deep – gravelly, irises shooting out of the riverbed. Weeds
beginning to grow at the margins. A strong smell of water mint pervaded the air and
a young deer drank from the water at the riverbank, leaping away over the field at
our approach.

Father Thames

Lots of fencing, barbed wire along each bank and at intervals bisecting the river itself.
Much of the riverbank on the upper reaches of the Churn is not a public right of way,
but private farmland, Rendcomb College grounds and Bathurst Estate. It felt
appropriate to be walking this forbidden riverbed on the same day as the mass
trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 for which around 500 walkers did a walking protest
to secure their right to access open country. Today all around the UK, groups and
individuals have been taking action for the #RightToRoam and to prevent the
criminalisation of trespass.

We left the river and climbed the hill up and over to North Cerney – picked up a
climbing rose and a blue lily from a house selling them along the way and stopped at
the Bathurst Arms for a drink and crisps for the kids. It was busy – only the second
Saturday of opening after lockdown. A huge wigwam in the garden was decorated
with a papier-mache zebra, peacock wall hangings and garlands of fake flowers. We
sat by the river and the children played in the shallows. One of the great sadnesses of
my life in recent years has been the absence of a wider family – most of them are now
dead and my mother and brother who remain are hard to reach. As I watched thekids, I wondered if perhaps my strong attachment to place is a kind of family and
precaution against grief. A holding close to permanence.

Seven Springs – the source of the River Churn

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