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Thames source is now scorched earth and the odd puddle

At the end of a dusty track in southwest England where the River Thames usually first emerges from the ground, there is currently scant sign of any moisture at all.

The driest start to a year in decades has shifted the source of the second longest English river (after the River Severn) several kilometers downstream, leaving scorched earth and the occasional puddle where water once flowed.

It is a striking illustration of the parched conditions afflicting swathes of England, which have prompted a growing number of regional water restrictions and fears that an official drought will soon be declared.

“We haven’t found the Thames yet,” confided Michael Sanders, 62, on holiday with his wife in the area known as the official source of the river.

The couple were planning to walk some of the Thames Path that stretches along its entire winding course – once they can find the waterway’s new starting point.

“It’s completely dried up,” the IT worker told AFP in the village of Ashton Keynes, a few kilometers from the source, noting it had been replaced by “the odd puddle, the odd muddy bit”.

“So hopefully downstream we’ll find the Thames, but at the moment it’s gone.”

A wood carving of Old Father Thames is seen at a home beside the River Thames which has dried up in Ashton Keynes, southwest England

The river begins from an underground spring in this picturesque region at the foot of the Cotswolds hills, not far from Wales, before meandering for 350 kilometers to the North Sea.

Along the way it helps supply freshwater to millions of homes, including those in the English capital, London.

Following months of minimal rainfall, including the driest July in England since the 1930s, the country’s famously lush countryside has gone from shades of green to yellow.

“It was like walking across the savannah in Africa, because it’s so arid and so dry,” exclaimed David Gibbons.

The 60-year-old retiree has been walking the length of the Thames Path in the opposite direction from Sanders – from estuary to source – with his wife and friends.

The shell of a dead American crayfish lies on the dried river bed near the source of the River Thames

As the group reached their final destination, in a rural area of ​​narrow country roads dotted with stone-built houses, Mr Gibbons recounted the range of wildlife they had encountered on their journey.

The Thames, which becomes a navigable strategic and industrial artery as it passes through London and its immediate surroundings, is typically far more idyllic upstream and a haven for birdwatching and boating.

However, as they approached the source, things changed. “In this last two or three days, (there’s been) no wildlife, because there’s no water,” Mr Gibbons said.

Andrew Jack, a 47-year-old local government worker who lives about 15 kilometers from Ashton Keynes, said locals had “never seen it as dry and as empty as this”.

The river usually runs alongside its main street, which boasts pretty houses with flower-filled gardens and several small stone footbridges over the water.

But the riverbed there is currently parched and cracked, the only visible wildlife are some wasps hovering over it, recalling images of some southern African rivers during the sub-continent’s dry season.

A vintage Mini is parked over the dry river bed of the River Thames in Ashton Keynes

There will be no imminent respite for England’s thirsty landscape.

The country’s meteorological office on Tuesday issued an amber heat warning for much of southern England and eastern Wales between tomorrow and Sunday, with temperatures set to reach the mid-30s.

It comes weeks after a previous heatwave broke Britain’s all-time temperature record and breached 40C for the first time.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that carbon emissions from humans burning fossil fuels are heating the planet, raising the risk and severity of droughts, heatwaves, and other such extreme weather events.

Local authorities are reiterating calls to save water, and Thames Water, which supplies 15 million people in London and elsewhere, is the latest provider to announce upcoming restrictions.

But David Gibbons was remaining sanguine. “Having lived in England all my life, we’ve had droughts before,” he insisted.

“I think that it will go green again by the autumn.”

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