Ellie Harrison travels along the Thames, trying her hand at double sculls with one of Britain's top young rowers and discovering rare orchids at Hartslock.
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Today I'm following the route of one of the main arteries in Britain -
the River Thames.
Steeped in history, teeming with wildlife and an inspiration to some of our finest novelists.
London provides many classic images of the Thames,
but England's capital is only a small part of its journey.
Rising in the Cotswolds, this mighty river winds and weaves for 214 miles
into the Thames Estuary at Southend-on-Sea.
I'll travel from Maidenhead to Stoke Row, near Reading,
and on to Goring, where I'll join the Thames Path to Sandford Lock.
Then it's up to Eynsham before ending my journey in the Cotswolds,
near the village of Bampton.
And along the way, I'll be looking back
at the very best of the BBC's rural programmes from this part of the world.
Welcome to Country Tracks.
My journey begins in Maidenhead,
on board a double scull with the junior national rowing champion.
Ailsa, how long have you been rowing?
Five years this summer.
-Just five years?
-And you're a tender age anyway!
You must have been pretty young when you started?
-Yeah, about 13.
-Even though you've only been doing it for five years, you are the national junior champion.
What an incredible title. Do you intend to keep rowing and represent Britain?
-What's the next step up?
-Great Britain, really.
-And how are plans going for that?
I'm back in full summer training now, starting some sprint work.
-What's it like, training and rowing on the Thames?
It's the iconic river of the sport, really.
There's the Henley Regatta and the Oxford-Cambridge race all on the Thames.
Have you got a favourite stretch?
I think anybody is drawn to the stretch that they train on, they know it so well.
So when it comes to the regattas on your stretch,
you know it like the back of your hand, you know how to steer it,
you know the best lane to take.
-Are we on that stretch now for you?
I can see why.
I can feel my arms are definitely getting worked.
What are the muscles that you work on when you do this rowing?
It's an all-body workout, really -
it's like swimming - but mostly your leg muscles.
-They're stronger muscles, so you're supposed to use them more than your arms.
My technique's all wrong. I'm definitely not using my legs!
It's a glorious day today and I'm having a lovely time, although I'm doing fairly badly.
But of course, this isn't how it always is, is it, for you?
-It's not glorious, sunny days all the time.
-Not at all.
Talk to me about some of your training.
-In the winter... We train every day throughout the year.
We have one day off.
-Even though you're a student, you train every day?
-Sometimes two sessions a day.
-Goodness. In the winter, I presume that means in the dark.
Seven o'clock, half past six,
weekend mornings out on the water just as it starts to get light.
Goodness, that's incredible dedication. I'm very impressed.
No wonder you're national champ. This river is absolutely beautiful.
It's glass flat,
it's a lovely day,
and although I'm pretty hopeless,
I'm having a really lovely time.
-Come on, Harrison!
'Enjoying a leisurely paddle with one of Britain's fastest rowers is an odd feeling,
'almost as if I'm holding her up a bit, especially when I keep losing my flow.'
If I lose my concentration for more than half a second, I've just lost the whole thing.
'Our jaunt on the river brings us to the famous Maidenhead Railway Bridge.
'It's the handiwork of a man whose name often crops up around bridges.'
The bridge was designed by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1838.
The railway runs over two brick arches,
which, at the time, were the widest and the flattest in the world.
Brunel had a battle on his hands with the cynics of his day.
The board of the Great Western Railway simply couldn't believe
the arches would hold the weight of the trains
and ordered him to leave the wooden supports in place.
But when they eventually washed away, the bridge didn't budge,
and finally proved the strength of Brunel's arches.
'As we face upstream, the right-hand arch is known as the Sounding Arch
'because of its impressive echo...
'which I couldn't resist trying out.'
Ben Fogle is no stranger to the River Thames.
He travelled here in 2005 to count the Queen's swans.
# As I went down in the river to pray
# Studyin' about that good old way... #
'For one week in midsummer, a group of men in red and blue blazers
'row in skiffs up the River Thames.
'These men are Her Majesty's Swan Uppers.
'I'm joining them for part of their journey,
'to search for swans and their cygnets, so that they can be checked and tagged.
'It's a traditional job that's been going on for centuries.'
'Swan Upping started in the 12th century.'
Of course, naturally then it was an important food source.
The Crown claimed all swans
in the United Kingdom,
and they've claimed swans ever since that date.
So, what exactly is Swan Upping?
Swan Upping is the way of monitoring the Thames' swans.
We go from Sunbury-on-Thames to Abingdon on a five-day journey.
'We have six Swan Uppers in each boat,
'and we'll go up the river
'and we'll lift each family of swans out of the river and we'll take them ashore.
'They'll be weighed, measured, checked, all for fishing tackle,'
and then a small ring will be put on their leg
so we can monitor them for the future.
'The first boat to spot a brood of swans gives a call of, "All up!"
'This signals that everyone should move in for the catch.
'The birds then have their feet and wings tied so they can be given a health check.'
-First thing I look for is to check whether we know who it is.
-Right, so 12C?
Yes, it's got a metal ring with a long serial number on,
and it's got this one, which saves us trying to catch them,
and at other times of the year, we can read it in the water.
Just hold that there, do I?
'After the tagging comes the weighing.'
-And then you have to read it off. You need glasses!
3.5? 3.5 kilograms. Shall I take that?
If I open it...
Do I lift it out?
-Wow. There you go.
'The professor's been doing this since 1978.
'Back then, swans were dying at an alarming rate.'
A lot of the problems was lead-fishing weights
that they were swallowing and dying from lead poisoning.
'Most of that, not all of it, has been stopped.
'The population is recovering quite well.'
'You've noticed an improvement through the years?'
'Yes, enormous. The first year I ever did the lower stretch,
'we caught one cygnet in the morning,
'and this year, we caught about 30.'
'Swan Upping used to be about claiming ownership over the birds.
'But now it's more focused on getting the word out about how we can protects swans.'
It's changed now, we're in modern days now.
It's a conservation exercise, where years ago, it was bread for the table
and people were eating the swans at these banquets.
Now it's purely conservation.
'Of course, the swan has more of a difficult time now with all the boats on the rivers,
'their natural habitat disappearing, lots of fishermen around.
'So, it's quite a struggle.'
We lose, usually, probably about 40% of all the young cygnets that are born.
We lose them to fishing tackle problems, predators.
It's quite colossal, really.
'The boats snake after one another upstream through the Thames' locks.
'There's a growing crowd watching from the shore,
'and they're making me a little nervous
'as I've been given the chance to get more hands-on with the swans.'
(Look at this!) I caught this myself.
-Oh, listen to the, "Aww!"
Where shall I put this one?
There you go.
Oh, dear. I didn't do very well, did I? Let's try again.
I failed on my first attempt.
That's not very good. I don't think I'll make a very good Swan Upper.
'Once it's weighed, I get some advice on the best way to carry a young cygnet.'
-You hold them that way, away from you.
Because sometimes there's accidents.
'After the wise words, I meet some local children.'
Does anyone want to have a look at this one here? Stroke it very gently.
Is this the closest all of you have ever been to a swan?
-Once, I got pecked.
You haven't been packed by a swan, have you?
-I have, I have.
I'm going to put this back in the water now. Say bye, everyone.
'But I've long forgotten Dave's advice to hold the cygnet's bottom away from me.
'Suddenly, it does what babies do best.'
Ooh! That's nice!
See? I didn't listen to him, did I? That will teach me.
'It's been a long day of catches, checks and releases.'
There you go.
'This year's cygnets face a tough struggle
'if they're going to survive and graduate from ugly ducklings into white swans.
'But they've had a good start in life,
'and at least these little birds
'are no longer destined for the cooking pot.'
A glorious day on the Thames, and no trip along this river would be complete
without seeing the brilliant white of swans
gliding the surface.
I've left Maidenhead behind
and travelled upstream to Stoke Row, just north of Reading.
Just a little way off the Thames Path, there's a structure
you wouldn't expect to find in rural Oxfordshire.
This ornate well was built in 1864, thanks to the benevolence
of an Indian maharajah who took pity on the people of Stoke Row.
He'd been speaking to Edward Anderton Reade,
the British governor of India's northwest provinces and son of an Oxfordshire squire.
He told him the story of a boy on his father's estate
who'd been beaten for using the last of his family's water during a drought.
So the great king of modern-day Varanasi, a hot and humid region,
donated money to rainy old England.
Today it looks as good as new,
and its unusual story is well remembered locally.
Its depth is greater than the height of Nelson's Column.
The well was in use for 70 years
and provided 700 gallons of water per day.
The entire depth of the well was dug by hand.
The Queen owns an ivory replica of the well.
It takes ten minutes to wind a bucket up from the bottom.
The maharajah was apparently so touched by the story
that he financed the well
as well as the keeper's cottage and cherry orchard.
This area has provided inspiration to some of our finest storytellers,
and in 2007, Michaela Strachan went on the Thames trail
of Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind In The Willows.
-"Never in his life had he seen a river before.
"This sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal,
"chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle
"and leaving them to fling itself on fresh playmates
"that shook themselves free and were caught and held again,
"all was a-shake and a-shiver, glints and gleams
"and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble..."
The River Thames has provided inspiration for all sorts of writers.
Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll,
Jerome K Jerome.
But there's one author who lets the river flow through the book from start to finish.
This is Wind In The Willows country,
and I'm here to explore the world of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Mr Toad.
I'm travelling upriver along the Thames to follow in the footsteps of Kenneth Grahame.
I'm starting in Cookham, passing through Henley-on-Thames
before finishing up in Pangbourne.
Kenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859,
but at the age of five, after the death of his mother,
he came to live in Cookham with his grandma,
to a beautiful old house called The Mount, with a rambling garden.
For the rest of his life, the natural world became an escape
from a rather claustrophobic reality -
working for the Bank of England.
In 1906, just before he started to write his Wind In The Willows stories,
Kenneth Grahame moved back to Cookham Dean
to escape the pressures of working life in London.
This was the house he bought, the perfect place for his son
to experience the same sort of outdoor lifestyle that he himself had had.
So how did the book, Wind In the Willows, actually come about?
It started with a bedtime story to his son Alastair,
who they called Mouse.
This had been going on since Mouse was four,
but in the summer of 1907,
Kenneth and Elspeth decided that the little boy, Mouse,
should go on holiday to Littlehampton,
which they didn't like as a place, but they would go to Cornwall.
So off went Alastair with his nanny.
But before he went, he said, "I must have the bedtime story.
"I'm not going unless I get the bedtime story!"
A stroppy little lad! So Kenneth said, "Well, all right.
"I'll tell you what I can do. I'll write them in letter form."
And so, here we have the hotel where they were in Cornwall,
the Fowey Hotel, the letterhead, 31st May 1907.
"My dearest Mouse, I hope you're quite well..."
And after a very few sentences about how Mouse is,
we're straight into the story of Toad.
These letters were kept, and eventually became The Wind In The Willows.
Kenneth added to them, added from early bedtime stories
and other chapters which he wrote towards the end of 1907,
and these were published as the Wind In The Willows in 1908.
Are any of the characters in the book like the characters
-in his real life?
-Very much so.
Toad was written initially as poking gentle fun at his son,
because his son was precocious and bumptious,
and he said, "You'll get your comeuppance like Mr Toad, so be a good boy."
The other characters are very much like Kenneth himself.
The shy, retiring, but rather gruff badger,
slightly at one, removed from the world,
and then Ratty, who loved boats - Kenneth adored boating and the river.
Then the little mole who, although a little animal, is actually quite keen to go on a big adventure.
In this book, Kenneth actually goes on a very big adventure.
-"It was a cold, still afternoon with a hard, steely sky overhead
"when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air.
"The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him.
"But with great cheerfulness of spirit, he pushed on towards the Wild Wood."
The scariest part of the book is the Wild Wood,
a place where stoats, weasels and foxes roamed.
"It led him on to where the light was less
"and trees crouched nearer and nearer,
"and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side."
This is a Quarry Wood in Cookham Dean, a place where Kenneth Grahame
would have spent many a day as a young boy,
and this is no doubt where he got his inspiration from.
It's hardly surprising that Mole and Ratty were so pleased
to find their friend Badger
in such a dark place so far from the river bank.
Here in Henley-on-Thames, it's easy to hire a rowing boat,
and as Ratty said, "There's nothing,
"absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
"The mole, intoxicated with the sparkle, the ripple,
"the sense and the sounds and the sunlight,
"he trailed a paw in the water and dreamt long, waking dreams."
As a poet and a local resident, what does Wind In The Willows mean to you?
I think for all poets, all writers probably, the river
is one of the great literary metaphors.
I think people understand this even if they are not writers.
There is something elemental,
unchanging about the river.
You stand by the river and you have a kind of sense
that you are in the still centre of something.
I think Grahame picked up on that in Wind In The Willows.
You helped set up the Wind In The Willows exhibition in the Rowing Museum.
How did that come about?
I think the museum was really keen,
knowing that this is Grahame territory here in Henley,
and, of course, what's possible for visitors now
is that you can go round the exhibition
where the models are all based on EH Shepard's classic drawings.
They're his drawings brought to life, really - 3D.
You step outside onto the meadow and you see the river, the Thames,
which Ratty was so in love with, and it makes sense.
Further up the river passed Reading is Mapledurham, a fine stately home on the banks of the Thames.
Many say that this is the inspiration for the famous Toad Hall.
Wind In The Willows was not an overnight success.
It grew in popularity in 1929 when it was dramatised by AA Milne
as Toad Of Toad Hall, focusing on the animals,
especially Toad's exciting adventures.
-"A poetry of motion, the only way to travel.
"Here today - in next week tomorrow.
"Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped. Oh, bliss!
"Oh, poop, poop!"
This was Kenneth Grahame's final home,
where he lived from 1924, Church Cottage, another beautiful location
situated not far away from where the Thames meets the River Pang.
Is this typical Wind In The Willows habitat?
Yes. Over here you can see the wet woodland
with the hazel, the alder trees, the occasional big ash tree,
and it is exactly the kind of thing
that there would have been in Wind In The Willows.
How much has it changed over the last 100 years since the author wrote the book?
The habitat hasn't really changed. We've still got a lot of the species
that would have been in Wind In The Willows - the badgers, the weasels, the foxes.
Over there, you can see the molehills.
Unfortunately, the really sad thing is that we don't have the water voles here any more.
The water vole is Ratty from Wind In The Willows,
and seven to ten years ago
I would come here and find little holes in the ground, the burrows where the water voles lived.
But they are no longer here now.
Do you think Wind In The Willows has inspired people to want to protect this sort of area?
Very much so. We appealed to the public to get £250,000 to buy some more land over there.
It has been fantastic how members of the public have responded.
We raised over £300,000 to buy that land.
It's really Ratty and Wind In The Willows that inspired people.
People have logged on to our website, donated money from Canada,
America, France and New Zealand.
It has been fantastic
how people have embraced Ratty and Wind In The Willows.
Has the appeal enabled you to try to bring Ratty back to the area?
Very much so. The new land that we bought enables us to link
this site where the water voles were once living with a site a mile or two away
where they are still living in a healthy population.
I'm sure Kenneth Grahame would be delighted to know his book helped
the Wildlife Trust 100 years on from him writing it.
Definitely. I wish he could be here now to see it.
Hopefully, when we have the water voles back - with a bit of luck -
for hundreds of years more, people will be able to appreciate
all the creatures that are here from Wind In The Willows.
-"As he sat on the grass and looked, a dark hole in the bank opposite
"just above the water's edge caught his eye
"and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice, snug dwelling place it would make
"for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence
"above flood level, and remote from noise and dust."
Kenneth Grahame died here in Pangbourne in 1932.
Or, as his epitaph says, "He passed the river,
"leaving literature and childhood through him the more blessed for all time."
He certainly left a great wildlife literary trail behind him
and his story lives on in all of these locations.
I'm sure that the adventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Mr Toad
will continue to inspire and delight children for many generations to come.
-"Terribly sleepy Mole had to be escorted upstairs by his considerate host
"to the best bedroom, where he soon laid his head on his pillow in great peace and contentment
"knowing that his new-found friend, the river, was lapping the sill of his window."
The timeless words of Kenneth Grahame
who, through his memorable characters, captured the gentle pace of life on the Thames.
You can still catch that Wind In The Willows exhibition
at the River And Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames.
I've moved on from Stoke Row to link up with the Thames Path south of Goring.
What a spectacular view.
You can see the Thames from up here snaking off into the distance.
This is Hartslock Nature Reserve.
The Wildlife Trust recently bought an extra 15 acres
of neighbouring farmland,
which boosted the reserve to just over 25 acres.
That may not sound very big, but this small patch of grassland contains
over 2,000 different species of plants and animals,
including a rare monkey and a tiny lady.
They are rare types of orchid.
Back in the 1980s there were only a handful on this site,
but thanks to careful management by the local wildlife trust,
they've made a significant comeback.
Debbie Lewis is the reserve's ecology manager.
-Oh, good afternoon, Ellie.
Cowslips I know, but what are these beauties?
These are a special type of orchid, a Lady Orchid.
They are basically named after what they look like.
It looks a little bit like a lady with a big bonnet
and little arms and a big skirt.
Now you point it out... It is actually quite detailed.
Yes, these are quite rare orchids.
They're found across the UK but in a variety of sites.
We also have some special orchids that are much rarer.
Goodness! Which are they?
The ones down here are a hybrid between the Lady Orchid
and a Monkey Orchid which also grows on the site.
The Monkey Orchids are very rare and only found on three sites in the UK.
Hybrids are only found on this site.
What makes this site so unique that they have colonised here?
It's not that they have colonised here. This is what is left over.
Monkey orchids and Lady orchids were spread wide across the country in all sorts of areas,
wherever there was chalk grassland, but because chalk grassland is being destroyed
and ploughed up - particularly after the Second World War - they have lost their habitat.
This is an island where they are left.
They must be protected here then?
Yes, not only is this a Wildlife Trust nature reserve,
they are also protected under the law,
so it is illegal for people to pick them.
Do you know how many you have here?
We actually know precisely how many we have here because every year,
a dedicated team of volunteers come out
and count each orchid individually.
Every single one?!
Every single orchid is counted, jotted down and noted
-so we know precisely how the population is doing.
-How many are they?
-Last year, 2008, there were 477 orchids.
'When you think that there were once only seven orchids on this whole site, that's a big achievement.'
-Here we have...
-A rather tiny...Monkey Orchid.
It's quite early in the season so it's just coming out.
It's got lots of wiggly arms
and much longer legs and a teeny weeny tail.
Oh, yes. Although you have to use your imagination!
Yeah, later on in the season they look bigger
and slightly more obviously "monkey".
It's great to see such a thriving plant habitat
in the densely populated south-east.
It's an area where natural resources are under constant pressure.
In 2007, Miriam O'Reilly reported on plans for a new Thames reservoir.
These acres of farmland just south of Abingdon in Oxfordshire
could soon disappear under billions of gallons of water.
The biggest water company in the UK, Thames Water,
want to build a reservoir half the size of Windermere
on this very spot.
It would be the largest stretch of open water in the south of England.
The reservoir would cover an area of approximately four square miles
or about the same as 2,500 football pitches.
It is likely to cost £1 billion and will take around ten years to build.
Despite strong local opposition, Thames Water says the reservoir
is vital if future water supplies to the south-east are to be guaranteed.
We expect to have an additional 1.2 million customers
wanting water from us by 2030, and because we expect climate change
to give us hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters.
Where will the water come from?
It will come from the River Thames just down there.
Hopefully, in 10 or 12 years' time, if we get permission to build the reservoir,
we will be extracting water at this time of year into that reservoir
to serve Swindon and Oxfordshire and London during the summer.
Thames Water are keen to convince local people that the reservoir would benefit the area.
Displays like this one show the design they are proposing.
Not surprisingly, the plans have been met with scepticism.
For those most affected, the reservoir threatens their livelihood.
Bob Tyrrell's family has farmed the land at Steventon for over 200 years
but part of it lies in the area earmarked for the reservoir.
We would probably lose over half our land.
It may not leave enough for us to continue farming
or for me and my son to get a living
so we don't really know what we're going to do.
This is where the reservoir will be. There is winter wheat growing there at the moment.
That's right, this is winter wheat.
Unfortunately, this is one of our best fields.
We will lose this 110-acre field.
It is just going to be devastating.
As well as laying waste to hundreds of acres of high-quality agricultural land,
there are concerns that swamping a huge area
will damage the environment, displace wildlife and destroy habitats.
This is a very big project. It is four square miles,
its floor area is around the same size as the town of Abingdon.
There is a huge embankment surrounding it. It is 80ft high.
The church tower behind us is only 50ft high. So we're talking 30ft higher than that.
It is a massive project and would totally change the character of the landscape.
What impact will the reservoir have on wildlife habitats?
The reservoir will be very destructive of the landscape around here.
There is a lot of wildlife in it.
It is true to say there are no so-called "triple SI" -
Sites of Special Scientific Interest -
and that is one of the reasons why Thames Water chose this site.
But it is quite a rich marshland
and it's part of the community and part of the village landscape.
The Environment Agency believes water companies aren't doing enough
to make the public more aware of water conservation.
What people need is information and advice
so they can take ownership of the water-use issue.
I don't think water companies do enough
to provide information to customers
so they can take those options.
The reservoir, though, is being created in Oxfordshire.
It is supposed to, according to Thames Water, be the solution
to future water shortages in the south-east. Do you buy that?
Well, looking ahead, I mentioned the 60,000 new homes a year.
We believe we will need new water resources in the south-east
and that may be reservoirs or desalination plants.
It could be more re-use of our sewage effluent.
Those are all options to increase supply, but we have to press home reducing demand
and we think water companies need to show a lot more energy and interest in reducing demand,
whether that's leakage - and Thames Water have a big programme on leakage -
but they haven't hit their targets for the last three years
and they have to deliver on some of their promises.
Last year, Thames Water's profits reached £386 million,
the largest figure of any water company
and there are those who believe that they are building the reservoir to make more money.
It is going to cost about £1 billion.
If that goes into building this huge grass/earth box in the countryside,
it goes into their balance sheet and adds value to the business.
If they spend it on repairing the water mains in London,
it reduces their profits by spending that money over several years.
I think there might be some financial motive behind it
in that the way they are choosing to do it will add value to the business.
That is their plan - to grow their business?
That is my guess. I haven't had a satisfactory answer to that.
I'd like to hear Thames Water address it.
Is Thames Water building its business?
Is it improving its assets by creating this reservoir in Oxfordshire?
We our improving our service to our customers by making sure that by 2020
we can continue to supply them with water
and we don't have to restrict their use with hosepipe bans or, worse, water rationing
if we get long, dry spells that we are forecast to get under climate change scenarios.
As of March this year, that project has been put on hold until 2026 at the earliest.
The economic downturn has meant that fewer houses are being built,
meaning the pressure for water has eased for now.
But climate change means water shortages are an ever-growing global concern
and the idea of a Thames reservoir may not be out of the spotlight for long.
I'm journeying along a stretch of the River Thames.
I started out at Maidenhead,
rowing under the magnificent Brunel railway bridge,
before heading to Stoke Row
and picking up the Thames Path near Goring.
I'm getting back on the water
for the next leg of my journey to Sandford Lock.
So far, my journey has been under my own steam,
but if I wanted to walk the whole of the Thames Path,
it would take me two weeks.
Instead, it's time to relax on this beautiful narrow boat.
-Nice to meet you.
-Carol is waiting for you.
'Paul Stephens and Carol Tidy swapped a cottage
'for a 57ft long, 10ft wide boat four years ago.
'But this is no retirement project.
'They both have a full-time jobs and still commute by road,
'leaving their floating home moored up in nearby Sutton Courtenay.'
Hello. How are you?
'The rest of their time is spent cruising up and down the Thames.'
This is beautiful in here. What was it that made you decide to not be on land any more
and take up a life on a boat?
First of all, we went on a boating holiday which we loved so much
we decided we would quite like to live on a boat.
That's how it started.
But you guys aren't retired, are you? You still have all the practicalities of commuting.
Yes, we've still got full-time jobs
but we still need to get away
from the everyday life, like traffic lights,
the city of Oxford, things like that. The hustle and bustle.
What would you say are the best bits of having made this move?
What is great about life on the water?
The peacefulness, the views of the river, the sun coming up in the morning, the mist...
-What about you, Paul?
-I like everything about it. I mean...
I love waking up in the morning and you hear noises at the side of the boat and you wonder what it is.
It's the birds pecking the algae off the side of the boat at half past four on a summer's morning.
Things like that. You open the hatch wide every morning, there's always something happening.
New chicks, swans, geese fighting, things like that.
When it pours with rain on the roof and you're in bed, it's so peaceful it sends you to sleep.
-And what is it about the Thames that you love?
-It's a beautiful river.
We've been down to London, we've been up to Lechlade. We've travelled the whole lot, really.
So you've seen it all?
-We have, yes. Every stretch of the Thames.
You've brought Millie. How did she adapt to life on the water?
Well, she loves the water.
She swims, we take her for walks down the river bank,
throw a stick, she's in.
And she loves running up and down the top of the boat.
Yes, she loves it.
She's got a nice life.
We bought the boat and Millie the same year.
It was within a couple of months, because we always wanted a springer spaniel and the boat.
We're just about to head into the lock, so lifejackets on.
I heard this amazing fact about Sandford Lock from a local boatman, and that is when it's full,
the water level is a foot higher than the cross on top of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.
It's the second-highest lock on the Thames.
What fascinates me about these locks is just how old they are.
Huge feats of engineering, way before the Industrial Age was born.
Sandford Lock was one of the first to be built on the Thames, in 1630.
-Thanks for the lift, Carol.
-Thanks, see you again.
'I'm back on the Thames Path following in the footsteps
'of all those writers who've found this river such an inspiration.'
As we're so close to Oxford, it's not surprising
that there are so many literary connections in the area.
Back in 1991, John Craven reported on an argument between natural and literary conservationists
over the management of an Oxfordshire Woodland that inspired CS Lewis' Narnia stories.
Welcome to Narnia, or at least to Narnia Woods.
This small pocket of woodland on the outskirts of Oxford is said to have been the inspiration
for the imaginary world created by CS Lewis
in his classic children's books The Chronicles Of Narnia.
The author planted the trees himself,
and now this place has become a kind of memorial to his imagination.
But it's also a nature reserve and it's now the unlikely setting
of a battle, between literary conservationists and nature conservationists.
CS Lewis was an Oxford don who found wider fame with books like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.
He loved the countryside, and 60 years ago he started planting this plot just a few yards from his home.
He died in 1963.
Today the President of the CS Lewis Society is David Dodds.
Why did Lewis decide to plant this wood?
Lewis was always a great outdoorsman.
He loved to go on country walks, walking holidays,
and the prospect of having his own land
and being able to have his own wood on it was a great joy to him.
'Lewis planted a wide variety, including non-native species
'like larch, sycamore, and even bamboo,
'because his brother had spent some time in China.'
The wood thrived, and more than 20 years ago, it was bought
by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalists Trust,
known more simply as BBONT.
For a long time, they left Narnia Woods just as Lewis had created them.
More recently, they decided to get rid of all the foreign trees,
to create space to plant oaks, ash and rowans,
much to the annoyance of David Dodds, who lives in the author's old home.
I woke to the sound of chain saws so I came up and said,
"Look, you can't do this. Please don't do this."
And I sat there on a stump, reading CS Lewis,
while they chopped down another tree, at least.
Did you win that little battle?
Well, they chopped some trees down and I saved some, so...
Why do you object so strongly to BBONT's conservation plans for this wood?
Well, I realise conservation is important, but Lewis deliberately preserved a certain mix of trees,
including keeping sycamores, including keeping larches, and I think that should be respected.
It's possible to practise preservation and conservation together.
BBONT say the place is overgrown and they believe that CS Lewis would have
approved their plans to bring in new life to his woods.
They contend that if they don't thin the trees, the dense cover will mean
very little will survive in years to come on the floor of the wood.
BBONT's objective is to preserve a better future for wildlife.
This is a nature reserve, one of more than 100
that we have throughout the three counties.
So our objective here is certainly not to destroy the woodland at all.
It's a lovely piece of woodland on the outskirts of Oxford.
But to enhance and enrich it a little so that it can support
a much greater variety of wildlife than it does now.
But couldn't you make an exception here and just keep it as it was?
The problem that we face as a wildlife conservation organisation
is that we're here for nature conservation purposes.
If we were to say that we were not going to try to do what we're doing here under a proper management plan,
there wouldn't be a lot of point in BBONT having an interest in this site.
That's the dilemma we face.
But certainly, we need to talk more with the CS Lewis Society about this
and we do plan to have a meeting with them very soon.
-Will you resolve it?
-I hope we do. I think that we should.
The whole objective of conservation these days
is to work in partnership with others, so we must resolve it.
Nearly two decades later, that woodland is managed and protected
by Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust,
who say they're still working to maintain a diverse and healthy mix of trees.
So far, my Thames journey has taken me
from Maidenhead to Stoke Row near Reading,
on to Goring where I joined the Thames Path.
Then I took to the water through Sandford Lock
and I'm now travelling along the river just south of Eynsham.
This Georgian bridge at Swinford,
made from the famous honey-coloured stone,
was built in 1769 to replace a ferry.
It's a secluded little spot, the tranquillity shared only with the cows.
It's hard to believe
that this beautiful old bridge is at the centre of a massive row.
Oh, yes, it feels all peaceful and calm down here,
but it's up there that's the problem.
It's because there's a 5p toll to cross the bridge.
Now, 5p won't break the bank but the time it takes for motorists to pull up,
rummage around for coins, wind their window down, pay the toll collector, wait for change
and drive off again, is causing huge tailbacks every morning and evening.
This is the B4044.
It's the main route into Oxford from commuter villages like Witney, Eynsham and Burford
and it's estimated that 10,000 cars cross this bridge every single day.
It's a beautiful bridge, lovely crossing over the Thames.
I just wish they'd collect the money faster.
It's old-fashioned. It ought to be done away with.
You have to have a 5p. If you don't have that, you're stuck.
I'm afraid it's a bit of a bottleneck.
I think it's frustration.
It's a lovely piece of architecture but it hassles us every day.
I think the bridge is quite unusual.
In all the places I travel around the country,
I don't see many of these.
It's time they built a new one. It's a pain in the bum in the mornings.
It's queued right back into Eynsham.
I'm not sure where the 5p goes, and that might help - a little sign telling us what the 5p is used for!
The answer is that all these 5ps,
which add up to around £500 a day, go towards the upkeep of the bridge.
Except on public holidays, when the money is donated to charity.
Having done a quick straw poll of opinion, I'm heading back to my quiet spot
to meet the woman who's leading the campaign to make Swinford Bridge toll-free.
And she doesn't pull any punches.
So, Jane, what's your problem with the bridge?
My problem with the bridge is that the real cost of it
is much more than the 5p toll.
It's a complete waste of time.
Is there some argument for it being a quaint English tradition?
You pay the bridge man 5p.
I've never bought the tradition argument.
If anyone wheels out the old tradition argument,
it doesn't cut the mustard with me.
So if you don't buy into the tradition argument, do you not buy into the idea
that we should all just slow down, that everybody's racing around all the time.
Absolutely! Yes, absolutely!
So sitting in traffic's not that bad?
Well, why add to our stress levels by having to sit in a queue every morning and every evening?
And what's your personal experience of commuting on the bridge?
You see, I've found my own solution.
After 13 years of wasting my life in the queues,
I decided that I would buy myself a small motorcycle.
So now I just filter steadily and calmly and stress-free
past the queues of traffic.
I don't pay the toll,
and I can get to work in 17 minutes rather than 50.
But on the other side of the bridge lies the other side of the story.
To find out why this unusual toll has stood the test of time,
I'm going to meet a local journalist and historian
who can explain the success of the Swinford toll bridge.
-Hi, Chris. Good to meet you. How are you?
-Very well, thanks.
You've written lots of articles on the history of the toll bridge and the debate.
Legally, is there anything that can be done to change the toll bridge?
Well, it would take an Act of Parliament.
Which seems rather extreme.
And...it was introduced and sewn up so that it still exists now,
by probably the most famous lawyer who ever existed,
Sir William Blackstone,
when he had his hat on as estate manager for the Earl of Abingdon.
In most cases there was a time limit, or some way whereby pontage, as it was called -
the toll is called pontage - could run out, and they could get it back.
But he was so clever that it's sewn up, really, for ever.
You must be able to understand the frustration of sitting in traffic for a 5p toll.
It seems maddening in this day and age.
-Not only do I understand it, I've experienced it a lot.
Of course it's frustrating, but it's quirky and I quite...
In some ways I quite enjoy it.
In fact, I took some German people from Hanover...
here, and we were in a hurry to catch a train because they had to go back to Germany,
to get the train from Oxford. They were fascinated by it.
They said this could only happen in England.
When I explained the history of how George III had allowed this bridge to be built...
Of course, George III was also King of Hanover, and they said where they came from you wouldn't get
a link to history like that, and they were absolutely fascinated by it.
I'm told that one person or another
has been campaigning against the bridge for the past 100 years.
Given how solid the stonework is...
Hi there. Thanks, cheers.
..and how solid the paperwork is,
it looks like they're going to be campaigning for many years to come.
I'm travelling along the Thames Path
and my route has edged into the Cotswolds.
Driving through Bampton, it leaps out at you straight away,
this typically English town filled with that oh-so-familiar golden stone.
And not wanting to stray too far from my path,
the Thames is never far away.
I've experienced a Thames lock from a boatman's point of view
but I've come to see it from the other side by trying my hand at lock keeping.
There are 45 locks lifting and lowering boats along the Thames.
The height of their falls range from less than a metre to almost three metres.
Rushey Lock is 113 years old.
Making sure all those boats have a safe and smooth passage
is lock-keeper Graham Margesson.
Hello, Rushey Lock.
He's been a lock keeper on the Thames for 40 years.
The cottage here at Rushey Lock has been his home for the last 25 of them.
Just minutes after I arrive, it's time to get to work. There's a boat coming.
There's always a little bit of water will have drained in there.
-We won't be able to push it open until it's completely empty.
-It's quite heavy!
Look at those biceps.
-Got to move quickly.
-What we do,
we always open the sluice on the same side as the boat first
because the angle of the gate, we send the water on the outside of it.
That's it. Keep going, keep going.
-That's it. Carry on.
See you later.
Cheers. All the best to you.
We didn't even have a chance to chat.
We got straight to action, there, Graham. That was great fun.
-You've been lock keeping for 40 years.
-Yes, 40 years.
What made you decide to start?
I used to do something different.
-What were you?
-I was in the catering trade.
-I was a chef.
That's a very different life.
What was the reason for that?
Just long hours... I suddenly thought, "You're only here once.
"Make the most of it." I was born and brought up near Richmond Lock. I always spent my time on the river.
Just went to Teddington Lock,
told me that if I saw the inspector, I could sign up.
There was a waiting list and I just kept pestering the inspector.
And he said, "You must be keen.
-"We'll push you in the front of the queue."
I've never regretted it. Wouldn't have done any other job.
You must have seen some changes in the lock over the last 40 years.
I think one of the biggest ones for me is, in the '60s, late '60s, '70s, in the '80s,
we used to get lots more hire boats.
The sad thing is, from my point of view,
is that a lot of the families we saw come back year after year,
when the cheap package holidays abroad came in,
Mum, Dad and the kids, for the same money, could get guaranteed sunshine and a beach.
-So, unfortunately, a lot of the hire boat companies have gone under.
You've presumably seen a lot of the Thames in your time.
-What do you love about this river?
-When I'm away from it,
-the first thing when I get back is the smell of it.
Yeah, musty, muddy old smell.
It's horrible but it's lovely.
I wouldn't swap it. Yes, it's the smell of it. And I'm at work.
I'm being paid for this.
And it's just a way of life.
You do get a lot of people say, "Aren't you lucky, living here?"
They don't think that you're the one who actually cuts the grass and plants the shrubs and whatever.
I'm quite surprised there are still lock keepers. Are there many left?
Oh, yes. I'm not sure.
I think it's about 90...something.
Yes, they've been cutting down a little bit, but yes,
most locks are manned and there's reliefs.
You're planning to retire next year. What do you think you'll do? Will you miss it?
Oh, yes, I'll miss it. But I'm going to be very hard to please.
I'm looking for the right place at the moment and...
..I haven't yet found it.
It needs to be by the river?
Preferably. Preferably by the river, within the budget.
So you can still smell the Thames?
Yes. Yes. Lovely and muddy and musty.
At 214 miles long,
the Thames is the longest river to run its course entirely in England.
It has supported human activity from its source to its mouth
for thousands of years
and has been an inspiration to artists and writers.
It was the politician John Burns at the turn of the last century
who called the Thames "liquid history".
After my journey along its waters, that's just how it feels.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Ellie Harrison goes on a journey along one of Britain's most famous rivers, the Thames. En route she tries her hand at double sculls with one of the UK's best young rowers, finds rare orchids at Hartslock and encounters controversy at Swinford's beautiful Georgian bridge. Journey's end is Rushey Lock near Faringdon, where she meets Graham Margeson, Thames lock keeper for 40 years.
Along the way Ellie also looks back on the best of the BBC's rural programmes.