The dry grass path borders a small valley. Then, sheltered by the trees, a dusty, branch-covered hollow appears without a trace of moisture. It is, however, the source of the Thames.
A source that is now theoretical: for several kilometers downstream, the course of this emblematic river in the United Kingdom is summarized in the best of cases with mud puddles, in a shocking example of the drought that affects a large part of the country. .
“We haven’t found the Thames yet,” says Michael Sanders, a 62-year-old computer scientist who came with his wife to explore the “Thames Path,” a marked path that follows the river’s winding course from its source to its estuary.
“It is completely dry. There are puddles, mud, but not at all water that runs up here. We hope to find the Thames downstream, but so far it has disappeared, ”she tells the AFP this man, on vacation, in the town of Ashton Keynes, a few miles from the source.
It is in this picturesque region in the foothills of the Cotswolds, not far from Wales, that the river rises from an outcropping of the water table before winding its way some 350 kilometers to the North Sea, passing through London.
But for those who have in their imagination the English countryside as a golf course, the blow is hard this summer, after a winter and a spring almost without precedent since rainfall records exist.
“I would say that we walked through the African savannah, it is so dry,” says David Gibbons, a 60-year-old retiree who, along with his wife and a group of friends, walks in stages the reverse path of Michael Sanders, from the mouth to the source.
A few hundred meters from the objective, he is surprised by the fauna found when going up the river, a strategic and industrial waterway in the London region that is transformed upstream into a tourist attraction, between a river walk and bird watching.
“But these last two or three days we didn’t see any animals because there is no water. It disappeared about 10 miles (16 kilometers, NDLR) from here,” according to David Gibbons.
“We have never seen it so dry and empty,” says Andrew Jack, a 47-year-old local civil servant who lives about 15 kilometers from Ashton Keynes, which is accessed through narrow country lanes dotted with stone houses.
Between the main street of the town and some charming buildings, the river bed shows through the bridges that cross it cracks overflown by wasps, which recalls images of African marshes in the dry season.
No respite in sight in the near future: the national weather agency issued an orange heat alert for southern England and eastern Wales between Thursday and Sunday, with temperatures reaching 35-36C.
Local authorities are multiplying requests to residents to save water, and the company that feeds London announced future restrictions on consumption, which will be added to those already in force in a part of the south of the country.
But David Gibbons doesn’t want to panic. “I’ve lived in England all my life, we’ve had droughts before,” he says. “I think he’s going to green back up by the fall,” he adds.
Andrew Jack, who came with his family to walk along the river where a lonely graduated scale no longer has anything to measure, is more pessimistic: “There are many English people who think ‘great, let’s make the most of the time’ (…) but this means something changed, and for the worse.” (YO)