Source of River Thames dries up and shifts 10 miles east amid heatwave

·4 min read

There is no running water or sign of any marine life within almost 10 miles of the usual source of the River Thames, and the climate crisis means this temporary shift could permanently change in future, experts have said.

The source of the river, fed by limestone aquifers in the Cotswolds, is in a field marked by an old stone behind a pub named The Thames Head Inn.

While the springs that set the Thames on its course for London do often dry up in summer, conditions are "much worse" this year, and the ground is currently little more than a dry and dusty hollow.

To find free-flowing water, visitors must walk for around two hours downstream to cover the nine miles (15km) to where the river is running.

"When you go and look at the world’s longest rivers, British rivers come in pretty low down. The Thames is our second-longest river after the Severn, so to be talking about 15 kilometres of it essentially going missing, that is shocking," Alisdair Naulls from the Rivers Trust told The Independent.

This week, Mr Naulls visited the source of the Thames to look at the impact of the hot weather and to raise awareness about how droughts affect water courses.

"This dry hot weather is chasing the river down its course. Any idea that you can walk for miles down a river, kicking dusty stones – in Britain – is shocking," he said.

Asked where the "new" source of the Thames is, Mr Naulls said: "You are moving quite a distance down the river to find signs of an actual river – I stood in the Thames that was wet and river-like on Wednesday, just up from Cricklade. So, you would need to go a little further back upstream to find the Thames new source."

The lack of any discernible river for miles on end is of particular concern to the pub named after it.

Manager Dave McMeeking told The Independent: "We get people walking from this pub constantly, from all over the world. It’s a big draw for us being here – sort of the whole point. And people are now obviously mentioning that they can’t see water for miles."

"It’s never this dry. In the winter it’s a bubbling spring and starts as more of a flooded field than a stream, but half a mile away it becomes more of an established stream."

He said if these kinds of dry periods became more common – as expected due to the worsening climate crisis – then it "would be a worry" for the business.

‘It’s never this dry’. The stone marker of the source of the River Thames in Gloucestershire on 8 August (Getty)
‘It’s never this dry’. The stone marker of the source of the River Thames in Gloucestershire on 8 August (Getty)

Major rivers across Europe have suffered even worse water shortages than the Thames, with alarming images of the riverbeds of the Rhine in Germany, the Danube in eastern Europe and the Loire in France all underscoring the arid conditions the series of summer heatwaves has brought.

In Romania, activists have staged protests highlighting the role of emissions in worsening the climate crisis that has raised the likelihood of intense, prolonged heatwaves occurring.

The low river levels mean only reduced shipments of Ukrainian grain can be landed in Romania.

On the Rhine, activists have pointed out the irony of ships full of coal being unable to navigate the shallow waters of the river to reach the coal-fired power stations.

The ecological impact is "huge", Mr Naulls said.

"All along those riverbanks are all sorts of plants that like to ‘have their feet wet’ as the Gardeners’ World team would put it – they will struggle. And the birds, mammals, reptiles, that live along these vital, green and blue arteries will also struggle as their food source is impacted"

Mr Naulls warned that when it does eventually rain, the result could be flash floods.

He said: "When it does rain, the infiltration rate – the speed that water is absorbed properly into the environment – will be much reduced. Why? The rain will be falling on shiny, concrete-hard ground, it will bounce and flow away much faster than usual.

"Without doubt we will soon be reporting floods and at this stage, we must remember, we will still be in a climate crisis. These extreme weather events are the new normal.

He said: "We have to manage our water resources much better as a country. This must come from government and the water companies. Yes, we each can do our bit, however, it’s hard to tell someone standing in a metre of water in Islington the other night that they need to cut down on their shower time to help preserve water."

He added: "We have a 20 per cent leakage rate of our drinking water. We must fix this. We cannot go forward with, quite literally, broken infrastructure and be prepared for this new normal."