At the end of a dusty track in south-west England, where the Thames usually emerges first, there is hardly any moisture to be seen at the moment.
The driest start to a year in decades has shifted the source of this iconic English river several miles downstream, leaving scorched earth and occasional puddles where water once flowed.
It’s a striking example of the parched conditions plaguing parts of England, which have led to 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, while vacationing with his wife in the area known as the river’s official source.
The couple planned to walk part of the Thames Path, which stretches along its entire meandering course – once they find the waterway’s new starting point.
“It’s completely dried up,” the northern England IT worker told AFP in the village of Ashton Keynes, a few miles from the source, noting that it had been replaced by “the weird puddle, the weird muddy bit”.
“Hopefully we’ll find the Thames down the river, but for now it’s gone.”
The river rises from an underground spring in this scenic region in the foothills of the Cotswolds, not far from Wales, before meandering 350km to the North Sea.
It also supplies millions of households with fresh water, including those in the British capital of London.
– ‘So Dry’ –
After months of minimal rainfall, including the driest July in England since the 1930s, the country’s famously lush landscape has turned from shades of green to yellow.
“It was like walking across the savannah in Africa because it’s so arid and arid,” said David Gibbons.
The 60-year-old pensioner walked the Thames Path in the opposite direction from Sanders – from estuary to source – with his wife and friends.
As the group reached their final destination in a rural area of narrow country lanes and stone houses, Gibbons recounted the variety of wildlife they had encountered on their journey.
Normally much more idyllic upstream, the Thames, which becomes a navigable strategic and industrial artery as it travels through London and its immediate vicinity, is a haven for bird watching and boating.
However, as they got closer to the source, things changed.
“There’s been no wildlife for the past two or three days because there’s no water,” Gibbons said.
“I think the water stopped probably 10 miles from here; there’s a puddle or two,” he added of picturesque Ashton Keynes.
Andrew Jack, a 47-year-old local government worker who lives about 15 kilometers from the village, said locals had “never seen it so dry and empty as here”.
The river usually runs along its main street, which features pretty houses with flowered gardens and several small stone walkways over the water.
But the riverbed there is currently parched and cracked, the only wildlife visible, a few wasps hovering overhead, evoking images of some South African rivers during the subcontinent’s dry season.
– ‘Something has changed’ –
There will be no immediate respite for England’s thirsty landscape.
The country’s meteorological office issued a yellow heat warning for much of southern England and east Wales between Thursday and Sunday on Tuesday, with temperatures expected to reach the mid-30s Celsius.
It comes weeks after a previous heatwave broke the UK’s all-time temperature record, surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time.
Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that carbon emissions from humans burning fossil fuels are heating the planet and increasing the risk and severity of droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather events.
Local authorities are making repeated calls to save water and Thames Water, which serves 15 million people in London and elsewhere, is the latest provider to announce imminent restrictions.
But Gibbons remained confident.
“Having lived in England all my life, we’ve had droughts before,” he said.
“I think it will be green again by fall.”
Jack was more pessimistic as he and his family walked along the dry riverbed where a wooden dipstick measures non-existent water levels.
“I think there are a lot of English people who think, ‘great, let’s have some European weather,'” he said.
“But we really shouldn’t, and it means something has changed and something has gone wrong.
“I’m worried it’s only going to get worse and that the UK will have to adapt to hotter weather as we get more and more summers like this.”
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