A RIVERSIDE STROLL TAKES IN THE GLOUCESTERSHIRE MARKET TOWN OF LECHLADE
Nestled among the gentle hills and green fields of southern Gloucestershire, streets of mellow stone buildings glow in the sun. The golden tones are interrupted by occasional splashes of red or blue plaster. Crooked chimney pots perch atop steeply sloping roofs in the Cotswold market town of Lechlade.
For centuries, this small settlement was an important inland port, the highest navigable point of the Thames for goods-laden barges. Today, the river still draws visitors, travelling languidly downstream in barges and boats. Pleasure, not commerce, inspires these journeys though.
This 3½-mile walk starts in the town’s marketplace, below the soaring spire of St Lawrence Church, before taking a route along the winding River Thames. The furthest point is a tiny church with over 1,000 years of history written on its walls.
With a current population of 2,800, Lechlade owes its growth to its position on roads and river. The main roads into the town converge at the small marketplace. In 1210, King John granted the town a charter allowing a weekly market and an annual three-day summer fair to be held. The market probably stretched down what is now the high street. Traders from Lechlade and nearby villages sold fruit and vegetables grown in the surrounding fields. The good pastureland meant cheeses were a speciality.
Dominating the marketplace is St Lawrence Church, its spire climbing 140ft (42.5m) into the sky. It is believed that a church has stood on this site since Saxon times, but the present building was completed in 1476. Constructed of local Taynton limestone, the church was financed by local merchants, who had grown rich on the town’s thriving wool trade. Because of this, it was known as a wool church. Like other Cotswold churches similarly paid for, it was originally richly decorated, with beautiful woodwork screens that have now gone, and a fine oak panelled roof.
The church was initially dedicated to St Mary. Then in 1501, the manor was given to Katherine of Aragon, who had come to England to marry Prince Arthur Tudor. She changed the church’s name for that of a saint from her native Spain. Prince Arthur died soon after their marriage, and eight years later Katherine married his brother, the recently crowned King Henry VIII. Tudor roses are cut into the stonework, and a pomegranate, Katherine’s emblem, is among the carvings on the vestry door.
A summer’s inspiration
To the left of St Lawrence Church, a small path makes its way through the graveyard. This is Shelley’s Walk, named in commemoration of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s visit to the town in the summer of 1815. Shelley, his novelist wife Mary and two friends rowed up the Thames from Windsor, hoping to find the source of the river. They only got as far as Lechlade, however, as their boat became entangled in thick weeds. They stayed for two nights, reputedly at the New Inn, in the marketplace.
St Lawrence’s inspired Shelley’s haunting poem ‘A Summer Evening Churchyard’. “Here could I hope, like some enquiring child Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight, Sweet secrets,” he wrote. His words seem to linger among the lichen-encrusted tombs and trailing ivy.
Shelley’s Walk opens onto a small lane, and the route now crosses through the gate opposite. The path travels down the side of an open field, scattered trees breaking the skyline. After passing through another gate, it is raised above flood meadows. The trees lining each side intertwine to form a tangled archway. This route follows in the footsteps of medieval monks, who travelled the pathway between the church and the Priory of St John the Baptist which once lay ahead. Slightly less than half a mile on, the path ends at a main road.
At the road, a right turn is taken towards St John’s Bridge and the Trout Inn. The inn was once part of the priory, which was sited behind the present day building. Established in 1220, the Augustinian priory superseded a nunnery on the same site. Its monks were charged with looking after the sick and poor. The Trout was likely to have been the original Priory guesthouse. A steady flow of travellers visiting the Priory boosted Lechlade’s already flourishing economy.
It is near The Trout that the River Leach joins the Thames, before the enlarged river flows under St John’s Bridge. From this meeting comes the derivation of the name Lechlade. A lade is a muddy confluence of rivers. From 1234 a fair was held every year in a nearby field called The Lade. It is not known why the town took its name from the River Leach rather than the Thames on which it stands.
The monks’ bridge
Erected in 1229, St John’s Bridge became the first Thames bridge outside London to be built in stone. It replaced a wooden bridge swept away in a flood. Responsibility for keeping the new crossing in good condition fell to the priory monks. In return they were allowed to charge a toll on people and goods going over or under it. Chief among these were packhorses loaded with salt travelling the ancient Salt Way from Droitwich in Worcestershire. Cattle driven from Wales and the West Country along drovers’ roads also crossed the bridge. Some were sold at Lechlade, while others were put on boats to London.
The monks, however, did not always honour their part of the bargain. Several times the Crown had to pay for repairs to the bridge. This was not the only area where the monks were involved in irregularities. Reports from 1300 show that some monks were accepting money in exchange for saying masses. In 1472 the priory was finally dissolved, with stone from the buildings being used in the construction of St Lawrence Church.
The current road bridge dates to 1886. With no footpath, it is crossed with care. Over the bridge, there is an immediate right turn, down the steps and through a gate to St John’s Lock.
At 234ft (71m) above sea level, this is the highest lock on the Thames. It is also the first of 45 on the way to London.
The lock opened in 1789, to coincide with the opening of the Thames and Severn Canal further upstream near Inglesham. Before this, Thames locks were ‘flash’ locks, dams with sections that could be raised to let a boat through. Usually effective, there was a risk that the ‘flash’ of water that escaped might actually sink the boat. The flash locks were replaced with the new pound locks, still familiar today, which have a chamber with a gate at either end.
The new lock was capable of accommodating the big Thames barges. These giants of the river were 12ft 2in (3.7m) wide and up to 90ft (27.5m) long. Able to handle 85 tons of cargo, they constantly ferried goods up- and downstream.
Boats were supposed to pay a toll to pass through St John’s Lock but this was often evaded by the rough and ready bargemen. Until 1830 the lock-keeper had traditionally been the landlord of the Trout Inn. Believing it would lead to improved efficiency and better revenue collection, the Thames Commissioners who ran the lock decided he should instead live on site in a purpose-built house. However, the first landlord to be offered the house, Benjamin Hodges, refused to move. In 1831 care of the lock was put out to tender.
Today the Thames barges have gone, but St John’s remains a favourite stop-off for boaters. Brightly coloured narrowboats and river cruisers line the basin.
On the way to the gate at the far end of the lock there is a statue of Father Thames, by Rafaelle Monti. This was sculpted in 1854 and exhibited at the Crystal Palace. Surviving the fire that destroyed the Palace in 1936, it was bought by one of the Thames Commissioners. It was placed at the source of the river at Thames Head Springs, before being moved to the lock in 1974.
A working river
The route now follows the Thames as it winds its way through expansive water meadows. Swans glide down the river as the breeze ripples the water, kingfishers a flit of blue as they search for food. Above it all rises the spire of St Lawrence’s, visible over the open fields for miles around, a beacon to the traveller of old.
On the far bank of the river is a squat concrete structure with thin slits for windows. This is a Second World War pillbox, one of a string built along the Thames in 1940. Designated GHQ Line Red, it was part of a strategy to stop a possible German invasion from reaching the Midlands.
In the distance, draped in willow, can be seen the honey-coloured tones of Halfpenny Bridge. The route passes through the small archway on the left to emerge at Riverside Park. On the opposite bank is the Riverside Pub, a former goods warehouse, standing on Parkend Wharf. This was one of several wharves built in Lechlade from the early 1600s onwards to replace the medieval ones originally at St John’s Bridge. Goods brought here could be transported on to London and the Continent. The wharves handled everything from livestock to coal, timber and stone.
The route continues along the river, passing over walkways and through gates towards Inglesham, which lies over the border in Wiltshire. After approximately half a mile, two buildings emerge on the horizon. The one to the right is the Roundhouse, where the Thames and Severn Canal once joined the Thames. Now part of a privately owned property, this was originally a lengthsman’s cottage. The occupant maintained a designated stretch of canal and operated the nearby lock. The ground floor was used as a stable, with living quarters on the two floors above. Inglesham is one of five roundhouses built along the canal in 1790, the year after it opened. It is one of only three with an innovative inverted cone roof which channelled rainwater to an underground storage tank.
The opening of the canal, linking the Rivers Thames and Severn, meant that goods could be transported between London and Bristol. Lechlade was an important link in the chain. Within a century, however, the canal had been superseded by the railways and fell into decline. It was little used after 1911, finally closing in 1933.
The walk now cuts across the meadows towards the building on the left, the church of St John the Baptist. It is reached by passing through the gate at the far edge of the field and turning right. This church is beautiful in its simplicity. Its essential medieval fabric is almost untouched, thanks to the efforts of William Morris. One of the leaders of the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement, he lived five miles away at Kelmscott Manor. From there he supervised the 1888 renovation of the church. His intervention successfully safeguarded the church’s medieval identity from any plans to restore or alter the interior.
Although the core of the building is Saxon, most of the present structure dates from 1205. Today the interior looks much as it would have done to worshippers in the mid 1600s, with the then-new box pews that allowed families to sit together during services, 15th century screens and font, and original timber-board roof.
What make this church so special are the paintings that adorn almost every wall. Ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries, they are several layers thick in places, with parts of earlier paintings visible among later ones. This, and their worn condition, makes them difficult to decipher. Even so, they give a sense of how this church would have looked to centuries of worshippers.
Several of the original consecration crosses survive, painted red. These mark the places where the church was anointed with holy water or oil as part of the sanctification ritual. It is also possible to see how the chancel would have looked when the church first opened its doors. It would have been decorated with imitation stonework, delicate foliage and flowers, and a pattern of red and white stripes, possibly mimicking a textile hanging. Fragments of 14th century paintings of St Catherine holding her wheel and figures from a Doom, a depiction of the Last Judgement, remain. There is also a vivid Tree of the Seven Deadly Sins emerging from under a picture of St Christopher. On the north aisle is a depiction of The Weighing of the Souls. This painting shows a golden-winged St Michael holding his scales as Mary shelters souls in her cloak.
The walls are also inscribed with texts, ranging from the late 16th to the 19th centuries. Some are framed with vividly coloured scrollwork and flowers. Later ones are more classical in style, bordered with simple lines. They include biblical verses, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
St John’s Church and nearby Church Farm are all that remain of what was once a much larger village. Ridges and furrows still visible in the surrounding fields mark the medieval settlement. This was abandoned with the passing of the wool trade over the centuries.
The route is now retraced back to Halfpenny Bridge, going up the steps at Riverside Park on to the bridge, to turn left down Thames Street.
Halfpenny Bridge was built in 1792 to replace the old ferry crossing. As the name suggests, a halfpenny, or ha’penny, toll was charged to pedestrians using the bridge. The tiny tollhouse, topped with a pyramidal roof, stands on the north side of the bridge. Public pressure led to the toll being scrapped in 1839.
At the end of Thames Street, a right turn is taken at the T-junction. Ahead lies the marketplace, the spire of St Lawrence’s, and journey’s end.
Words: Diane Wardle Photography: Alamy