Here’s a new word for you: potsherd.
While it sounds like an unlikely coraller of ceramic goods it is actually a shard of pottery; a fragment of something a potter crafted long ago for some woman’s kitchen or some priest’s temple, some wedding which needed its wine-jars or even some Arabian thief with a comrade to stash.
They can be humble or grand, of great or minor architectural significance.
Many potsherds tell a story. An expert, who has seen many thicknesses of clay and qualities of glaze, can pin a shard down to an era.
There’s this potsherd. It is Roman, and it was discovered at Oxford. What marks it out as interesting is its inscription.
It bears the name of its maker. It says: “Tamesubugus fecit.” Made, in other words, by Tamesubugus.
There are those who say this is early proof of an ancient name which has dogged a river ever since: the Tames bucked the London trend and picked up an aitch, it is popularly thought, during the Renaissance. Those multi-faceted men liked their Greek mythological nomenclature and fancied the ‘h’ so prevalent in Hellenic writings.
The Thames flows very softly indeed at its source. Indeed, it is difficult to catch it flowing at all.
Thames Head is close to the Roman town of Cirencester. Some dispute the Thames even starts there, but rather it begins at Seven Springs eleven miles further north.
But there’s a name at Thames Head to add to its pedigree and a Victorian stone which adds kudos.
On the stone is an inscription: “The conservators of the River Thames 1857-1974: This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames.”
Nearby is a little bowl of stones to hold the first drops of a river which has fuelled folklore and industry and founded one of the great cities of our globe.
Except that, in all but a very wet winter, it’s usually dry.
Today’s featured picture comes from Wikipedia’s entry on Thames Head, and includes the following observation: “The monument at the official source of the Thames. Dry at the time of taking the picture, the Thames would otherwise flow towards the camera.”
So: use your imagination, for Pete’s sake.
The Thames has many faces: a grave little working waterway at Kemble Mill in Somerford Keynes; a wider leisureway navigable by tipsy student and flat punt at Oxford; a statuesque stretch which carries loaded tourist pleasure boats and Eton rowing teams beneath the matriarchal gaze of a great old castle at Windsor.
And it is the face of a city, a river separating two sides of a cynical old civilisation which has profited from, and mistreated, the vast waterway which has carried wealth from the sea right to its very heart.
The Thames has been forded and paddled in, skated upon and tunnelled under. Samuel Pepys’s diary, charting his movement in London society in the latter part of the seventeenth century, seals the Thames as a central part of every Londoner’s life.
Open the diary at many a page and there that stretch of water will be. Take April 13th 1661, as preparations were bustling ahead for the coronation of King Charles II: “To Whitehall by water from Towre-wharf, where we could not pass the ordinary way, because they were mending of the great stone steps against the Coronation.”
Another diary chronicles not only a boat journey, but a swim in the Thames. Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is pure affable leisurely joy: a gentle chronicle of three men and their dog, Montmorency.
The early morning swim, taken by jumping off their boat, seemed such a good idea the night before. But by morning the concept is considerably less attractive.
Jerome writes: “We pulled up the canvas, and all four of us poked our heads over the off-side, and looked down at the water and shivered.
“The idea, overnight, had been that we would get up early in the morning, , fling off our rugs and shawls, and, throwing back the canvas, spring into the river with a joyous shout, and revel in a long delicious swim.
“Somehow, now the morning had come, the notion seemed less tempting. The water looked damp and chilly; the wind felt cold.”
Three men and a dog were deterred: but one of our foremost comedians in Britain seems determined not to be.
Next week, David Walliams – of Little Britain fame and so much more – will be launching into the Thames with a view to swimming most of its length.
The experienced swimmer, who swam across the Channel in 2006, will start at Lechlade in Gloucestershire on September 5, and during his eight-day attempt will swim 140 miles, all the way to Westminster as part of the Big Splash campaign which encourages swimming for all abilities.
He will cover two-thirds of the ancient waterway, and once again all eyes will be on Father Thames as the old river’s girth grows ever wider on his journey towards the sea.