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THIS IS a long time ago. I am visiting my brother, who is living near Cirencester, and he says: "Let's go and see the source of the Thames." It's winter. We leave early, before the sun has taken frost off the fields, and park in a lane. There's a painfulhawthorn hedge with a stile. When we jump down, our boots gibber on the hard ground. Then we're striding, kicking the ice-dust off the grass, swinging our arms to look confident - because really we're not sure if we're allowed to be here. In fac t we'renot even sure that this is the right place. A friend of a friend has told us; it's all as vague as that.

In the centre of the field we find more hawthorn - a ragged semi-circular swipe - and water pulsing out of a hole in the ground. I tell my brother I have read about a statue that stands here, or rather lounges here - a naked, shaggy-haired god tilting anurn with one massive hand. Where is he? There's only the empty field glittering, and a few dowager crows picking among the dock-clumps. Where is Father Thames? My brother thinks he has been vandalised and dragged off by the fans of other rivers - they smashed the old man's urn and sprayed his bare chest and legs with the names of his rivals: Trent, Severn, Nene and Humber.

There is nothing else to do, so I paddle through the shallow pool surrounding the spring, treading carefully to keep the water clear. Then I stoop to look at the source as though I find it fascinating. It is fascinating. A little soft-lipped cleft with bright green grass right up to the edge, then a red-brown "O" of earth and the water twisting out like a rope of glass. It pulses and shivers as it comes, then steadies into the pool, then loosens and roughens again as it drains into the valley.

My brother and I are not 20 yet. We don't know who we are, or who we want to be. We stare at the spring, at each other, and at the spring again, saying nothing. A pheasant is making its blatant kok, kok, kok from the wood running along the valley floor. I stamp both feet and we disappear in a cloud.

ONE MARCH there is suddenly a day as warm as May, and my friend uncovers the punt he has bought as a wreck and restored, cleans her, slides her into the Thames near Lechlade and sets off up river. Will I go with him? No, I can't. But I'll meet him on thewater meadows at the edge of town.

I turn out of the market square, past the church, and down the yew tree walk. Shelley visited here once - it's called Shelley's Walk - but he was out of his element. Here everything is earth and water, not fire and air. The ground is sleepy-haired after winter, red berries and rain matted into it.

Where the yew-vault ends I go blind in the sun for a moment, and then it's all right. There's the river beyond the boggy meadows, hidden by reed forest sprouting along its banks. They are dead, the reeds -a shambles of broken, broad, pale-brown leaves and snapped bullrush heads.

And there's my friend making his slow curve towards me. The hills rise behind him in a gradual wave so that he seems at the centre of an enormous amphi-theatre. He is an emblem of something; somebody acting something. The punt pole shoots up, wagging itsbeards of light, falls, and as he moves ahead he leans forward, red-faced and concentrating. He is expert but it is slow work. As I get closer I can hear the water pattering against the prow of the punt, see him twisting the pole as he plucks it out of the gluey riverbed.

I call to him and he stands straight, giving a wobbly wave. We burst into laughter. He looks like a madman, floating slowly backwards now that he has stopped poling. I must look like a madman, too, mud-spattered and heavy- footed on the bank, wondering how I'm going to get on board without falling in. As I push open the curtain of leaves to find a way, I see the water for the first time: solid-seeming and mercury-coloured. Not like a familiar or earthly thing at all. Not looking as though it could take us anywhere we wanted to go.

I HAVE lived here in Oxford for a while, and up to now the river has been for pleasure. This evening , though, people in diving-suits have taken it over. Everyone else is been shooshed away into Christ Church Meadow, or, as I have, on to Folly Bridge. Noone is complaining. The summer evening expands lazily, big purple-and-gold clouds building over the Cumnor hills.

I have often stood here before. Away to the left you can see the city throwing its spires into the air, full of the conceited joy of being itself. Straight ahead the river runs calmly between the boathouses before losing patience again, pulling a reed shawl round its ears, snapping off willows and holding their scarified heads underwater until they rot. Yes, often. This match in a crevice on the bridge parapet might even be one I dropped here months before, some other slow evening when I was persuading myself that nothing need ever change.

Now there's a small rowing boat, a kind of coracle, below me, and two policemen in it with their jackets off. The men shield their eyes, peering, and almost rock overboard, they're so surprised, when bubbles erupt beside them and a diver bobs up - just his head, streaming in its black wet suit. The policemen shout at him. See anything? The diver shrugs, and one invisible hand twirls a murky torch light underwater. Everyone on the bridge stops talking. They think they're about to be shown the story of the riverbed - its shopping trolleys and broken boat-parts, its dropped keys, its lolling bottles, its plastic, its quick shoals of shit-eating fish, its blubbery and bloated corpse.

But nothing happens. The diver taps his mask once, twice, and disappears, his fart-trail surging raucously for a moment then subsiding. The crowd in Christ Church Meadow starts to break up. On Folly Bridge people start talking again, and as someone stepsoff the pavement on to the road, a passing grocery van - irritated by the press of people and impatient with whatever might have brought them together - gives a long, wild paaarp as it accelerates away.

NOW THE children are old enough to see what there is to see, we take them to Tower Bridge and explain how the road lifts up, how traitors arrived at Traitor's Gate, how this was a brewery and that was a warehouse, how the river starts many miles inland and changes and grows, changes and grows, until it arrives here. London, where we live, then winds past Canary Wharf (which they've done in school), and eventually out to sea.

Afterwards, we lean on the railing outside a cafe. It is autumn. The river is speckled with leaves, and a complicated tangle of junk bumps against the embankment wall below us: a hank of bright grass, a rotten bullrush stem, and fragment of dark polishedwood.

One of the children asks if people drown in the river, and I think of Anne, who was on the Marchioness. After her death, I met someone who had survived. He had been in the lavatory when the dredger hit, and fumbled his way out along a flooded corridor, his shoes and clothes miraculously slipping off him, so that when he at last burst into the air, he felt that he was a baby again, knew nothing and was unable to help himself.

I lean against my wife, and the children gather round us. We are the picture of a family on an outing. I love it. I love the river and perky tour boats with their banal chat. I love the snub barges. I love the whole dazzling crosshatchery of traffic and currents, shadows and sun, standing still and moving forward.

The tangle of junk bumps the wall below me again and I look down. There is Anne swimming back upstream, her red party dress flickering round her heels as she twists through the locks and dreams round the slow curves, slithering on for miles until she haspassed the ponderous diver at Folly Bridge and the reed forests at Lechlade, accelerating beneath bridges and willow branches, slinking easily among the plastic wrecks and weedy trolleys, speeding and shrinking and silvering until finally she is slidinguphill over bright green grass and into the small wet mouth of the earth, where she vanishes.

BY RIVER OR SEA THIS OTHER EDEN If I had to pick a personal Garden of Eden, Botswana's Okavango Delta would be high on my list of contenders. This geological freak is a hauntingly beautiful, watery wilderness in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. Most ofit is completely inaccessible

by car. To view the 600 bird species and the game, you steal out in the early morning in local canoes, poled silently through the maze of reedy lagoons. Camps are dotted about the island, some of them even luxurious, with open-air showers, electric lights and piped Mozart.

Africa Exclusive can tailor-make Delta safaris or combine Botswana with Zimbabwe and Namibia from around £2,000 including flight.

For those who wish to do it independently, STA can provide flights to Harare from £529 return. From there you take a train to Victoria Falls and a short flight into the Delta, but camps can be expensive to book individually.

Africa Exclusive: 01604 28979

STA 0171-937 9962

MED CRUISES For 41 years, Swan Hellenic has been exploring every nook and cranny of the Mediterranean. Two countries make a welcome return in 1995; on its two-week "Civilisation in the Western Mediterranean" cruise (from £!,660), you dock at Tripoli in Libya for a visit to the museum and excursions to Sabratha and to Leptis Magna, one of the greater Roman provincial cities. Other highlights of the cruise: Syracuse and Agrigento in Sicily, Valetta and Medina in Malta, Sousse, Tunis and Carthage and the Roman amphitheatre of El Dijem in Tunisia, Pompeii and Monaco.

Three other cruises visit Croatia. One of these, "The heroes of Troy", starts in Venice and stops at Dubrovnik en route to Greece. Other sites visited include Mycenae, Troy and Gallipoli, with military historian John Keegan among the guest lecturers. It costs from £1,625.

Swan Hellenic cruises: 0171-800 2200

AFTER SAILS SERVICE Holidays on the high seas, with a variety of special interests, are part of the P&0 programme for 1995 on its brand new MS Oriana. Chef Anton Mosimann gives lectures and demonstrations during the "Iceland and The Fjords" 15-night cruise, departing on 9 June. The Earl of Lichfield will be on board in September to offer advice on photography, while Richard Baker hosts cruises on both the Oriana and the Sea Princess with a programme of concerts, lectures, interviews and quizzes. The former cricketer Freddie Trueman, with wicket-keeper Bob Taylor and Derbyshire colleagues Geoff Miller and David Steele, host a cricket cruise in April, with games ashore against local sides, as well as crew versus passengers.

There are "Swinging Sixties" cruises, as well as arts and crafts themes, birdwatching and many other subjects, featured in the 1995 P&O theme cruises brochure. Prices start from £575 for a nine-night birdwatching cruise.

P&O Cruises: 0171-800 2222

FULL STEAM UP THE MISSISSIPPI The paddle steamer is the ultimate image of Mississippi and the Deep South. Delta Queen is one of these legendary craft that have cruised the Mississippi since the 19th century. It offers cruises of between three and 12 nights, with departures from New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville and seven other destinations, and sails through a region steeped in history: Natchez has over 500 antebellum buildings, Baton Rouge a working plantation, while Vicksburg was the site of a Civil Warbattle for control of the river. A three-night voyage costs from £339 full board, excluding flights from Britain, which Premier Travel can organise independently.

Premier Holidays: 01223 516688

ZAMBEZI ADVENTURES Africa's lifeblood, the Zambezi pumps water from its source for nearly 2,000 miles through the heart of the continent. Africa Exclusive runs canoe trips for those who want to see the glory of Africa at water level. This one is not for softies: you go wit h a guide, pitch tents each night, and help to cook and wash up. For even more thrills, Africa Exclusive arranges rafting trips - Batoko Gorge on the Zambezi is one of the wildest white-water runs in the world.

All kinds of water adventures, safaris, birdwatching and beach holidays are tailor-made for independent travellers in East Africa. A two-week walking, canoeing, fishing and boating holiday in Zimbabwe would cost around £2,000, including flights and most meals.

Africa Exclusive: 01604 28979

BOATING FOR BEGINNERS The Norfolk Broads, Britain's latest national park, is still the best place for messing about in boats, whether it is skippering a sleek cabin cruiser or learning to sail a small yacht (as Admiral Nelson did on these waters as a child). It is easy for beginners: the Broads are lock-free, and there are ample free moorings, frequent boatyards and - contrary to popular belief - plenty of quiet backwaters, particularly on the southern Broads, even in high season. Cabin cruisers and yachts come in all shapes and sizes, with mod cons: an average four-berth cruiser (take one size bigger than you think you need) costs about £230-£500 a week. The prettiest boat on the river is the White Moth, sleeping up to 10, built in 1918 and with a skipper in charge. Cost: £1,340 a week.

Blakes: 01603 782911

Hoseasons: 01502 501010

BON VOYAGE Sailing the oceans in a tall ship carries a romantic appeal to boat lovers. The Anna Kristina is a trader built over a century ago for commercial service, abandoned, rediscovered in 1977 and refitted over a decade. Together with a former Scottish fishing ship, the Gaelic Rose, and the Danish-built Soren Larsen, these vessels offer a series of cruises. On a 16-night cruise on the Soren Larsen from Sydney to Auckland, the 1,100-mile voyage begins by sailing urder the dramatic Sydney Harbour Bridge before heading east.

The Gaelic Rose, as befits her pedigree, is dedicated to showing visitors the Scottish islands: she is 60ft by 18ft 6in, renovated to provide comfortable, if not luxury, accommodation for nine passengers, plus the professional crew. The Scottish cruises cost £350 per person. "Whales, Sails and Trails" in the Canary Islands, on board the Anna Kristina, costs £468 for a week, while New Zealand and South Pacific voyages on the Soren Larsen cost from £218 for three nights (Auckland to Haurake Gulf) to £1,420 for 17 nights (Fiji to Vanuatu). All meals included on all the voyages, but not the cost of travel to the departure point, which can be arranged.

Twickers World: 0181-892 8164

EUROPE BY RIVER Continental Europe's five navigable rivers, the Rhine, Elbe, Danube, Seine and Moselle, are now offered in the programme from KD Cruises, which also includes the Nile in its brochure. The seven-night Elbe cruise starts in Hamburg, with plenty of time to visit the historic town en route, before flying back from Dresden. Return flights and all meals are included in the price of £1,180-£1,535. Another seven-day cruise, starting on the Elbe at Wittenberg, and continuing to Prague, costs £1,155-£1,415.

KD River Cruises: 01372 742033

UP THE AMAZON Although those joining two to five-day river and jungle trips leaving mainly from Manaus, in Brazil, are unlikely to meet remote tribes or rare wildlife, they will experience a taste of life under the vast green canopy. You get what you payfor - boats vary from canoes to vessels with bars and libraries, and accommodation can be hammocks in camps to lodges with private bathrooms.

Tours can be booked independently, or through tour operators: five days from Cox and Kings costs £995; three days from Journey Latin America, £239. Flights and other arrangements can also be pre-booked. Cheaper trips can be booked on the spot.

Cox & Kings: 0171 873 5001; Journey Latin America: 0181 747 8315