A Thames Journey: (6) From Marlow to Hampton Court

In this leg of the journey we move from the picturesque countryside of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire to the suburban outskirts of London. It’s a walk of around 33 miles, which we did in four stretches – the last of which was two years after the first. No sequentialism round here! A couple of the walks were upstream, but as before, I’ll sequence the photos in a downstream direction. The headings likewise.

Marlow to Maidenhead, 3 April 2016

This was one of the upstream expeditions, Maidenhead to Marlow. Around 7 miles. It was the second walk in our journey, and for reasons I can’t now remember, Jon wasn’t able to come along. It was just me, Kath and Maggie. He completed it later, of course.

I wrote about the bridge at Marlow in part five of the journey, but not All Saints Church, which nestles by the river. From the towpath side you get a good view of the church. The current building is a Victorian construction, completed in 1835. The old church dated from the 11th century, but it was undermined by centuries of flooding. The spire collapsed in 1831!

Just out of Marlow, you come to Bourne End, where you cross a bridge to the other side. You are soon in Cookham, another Thames town with an ancient heritage. We didn’t linger on our journey, but there are two megaliths in the town, the Cookham Stone and the Tarry Stone. Peter Ackroyd ventures that the latter may have been a meteorite. That would have made it sacred. An abbey was established here by AD 716, and a Saxon parliament, the witenamgot was held at the site of the Tarry Stone. Cookham is perhaps best known these days for having been the residence of the artist Stanley Spencer. Many of his paintings depicted the town, sometimes in biblical settings.

At Cookham the Thames path veers off the river for a while, and ascends a hill. We approached from the opposite direction. I remember the path up that hill being the steepest we encountered on our Thames journey. There are some lovely views towards the Thames – and Lulle Brook in between – from the top.

Across the river is Cliveden House: these days a grand hotel (with its garden opened to the public) but a place with some interesting history. It was initially constructed in 1666, as a residence for George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham. It had various owners of the years, including the wealthy political family, the Astors. In the 19th and 20th centuries they entertained the great and good – and not so good – here. A riverside retreat on the Cliveden estate called Spring Cottage featured in the Profumo affair in 1963, when the Conservative war minister John Profumo was involved in a scandal involving the model Christine Keeler and an osteopath (really) called Stephen Ward, who had links with the Russians. You may have seen the 1989 film Scandal about the affair. Anyway, it wasn’t the first spy scandal of the era, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, undermined by the whole business, resigned later in 1963, citing ill health. This part of the Thames, easily accessible from London but nicely secluded, has featured in all sorts of dodgy goings-on over the years: remember the equally notorious Medmenham Abbey and the Hellfire Club in part five? A retreat for the rich; and where there’s money…

The last word on Cliveden House, though, is that it has a connection with that great TV series of the 1960s, Thunderbirds. My obsession as a young schoolboy. I was delighted to read in the Cicerone guide that Cliveden is the home of Lady Penelope!

And then Maidenhead. Today, its image is rather staid – it is the parliamentary constituency of ex-PM Theresa May after all. Peter Ackroyd suggests that the name derives from the head of a maiden saint, one of eleven thousand virgins martyred with St Ursula at Cologne around AD 383. An alternative suggestion is that it comes from maegden hyth – a landing place for maidens, which, in days of yore, meant an easy place to land. Cookham, in its orginal form, meant boat place. Not surprisingly, the main towns on the river were located where it was easy to come onshore and establish the necessary infrastructure for trade.

Not quite sure where the next two photos were taken, but not far from Maidenhead. The third is just upstream of the road bridge, which in turn is just upstream of the railway bridge.

Today, the thing that interests me about Maidenhead is that railway bridge. This was built by Brunel and was completed in 1839. It heralded the age of steam-powered trains. It was a daring piece of architecture – even today it has the longest and widest flat brick arches in the world. Sceptics predicted it would collapse as soon as trains ran over it. One person who was enthralled by this was the artist JMW Turner. One of his great later paintings, from 1844, is Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts a train travelling over Maidenhead railway bridge.  At this time, many of his works had become more abstract in the way they dealt with colour, light, shade and objects. They were hugely ahead of their time, and many contemporaries hated them. Rain, Steam and Speed is a perfect example. The painting is part of the National Gallery collection, but has been lent to Tate Britain for its exhibition Turner’s Modern World. This opened just before we went back into lockdown. I managed to see it a couple of days before everything closed down again. It’s a brilliant exhibition. If you are in London or nearby, do try and catch it when we re-emerge into the light.

This photo is a shot of the reproduction of Rain, Steam and Speed that I have at home. On the left of the picture is an outline of the road bridge. The real Maidenhead is somewhat less dramatic!

Maidenhead to Windsor, 26 August 2018

This is another stretch that we walked upstream. It rained for almost the entirety of the walk, which was about 7 miles. We had all the requisite rain gear and it held out pretty well. But we were drenched on the outside. The abiding memory is going into a DIY store in Maidenhead to see if there was a café for a warm cup of tea, just after coming off the river. We stood inside the building with the water dripping off us, forming pools on the concrete floor. Needless to say, there wasn’t a café – not there or anywhere else on the way back to the station. We admitted defeat and took a train back to Ealing, damp and thirsty.

My diary tells me that there was some lovely countryside along the way, but it wasn’t a day that made you want to get the camera out of the bag. We stopped near Bray for our lunch – under the M4 bridge to be precise! It had the virtue of being dry. Something of a contrast in style to the nearby Waterside Inn, owned by the Roux family, which has three Michelin stars.

Bray is associated with its vicars in Tudor and Stuart times, who were known for their frequently changing religious affiliations, as England’s monarchs swung from Catholic to Protestant and back again. Being on the wrong side could mean burning at the stake. The civil war and Oliver Cromwell further complicated matters. One vicar, in the Tudor era, is said to have responded to accusations of being a turncoat, a changeling, with the riposte:

Not so, for I always kept my principle, which is this – to live and die the vicar of Bray.

Sounds like a good strategy to me.

Al fresco dining

Windsor to Chertsey, 17 April 2017

This was a longer stretch – 11 miles plus, downstream. We began from Windsor station, and were soon walking along the Home Park. Windsor Castle loomed in the background. The Queen’s residence, and an impressive sight. William the Conqueror built a castle on the knoll of chalk that rises here. Peter Ackroyd speculates that, being artificial, it may have prehistoric origins. William’s castle was rebuilt by King Edward III between 1360 and 1374. Hundreds of local men were “impressed” to do the building, against their will. Slave labour, basically.

Just upriver from the centre of town lies Windsor racecourse. There has been racing in the area since the time of Henry VIII, but the Royal Windsor racecourse began holding meetings in 1866. It has become best known for its summer evening meetings, typically on Mondays. You can get a train to Windsor Riverside station and then a boat from there to the racecourse. I used to go quite often in years gone by, when Kath’s law firm hosted an annual trip up there. We spent most of the time sipping champagne by the marquee, snatching glimpses of the racing on a TV screen. The live racing was quite hard to see, but you had a punt and experienced the roar of the crowd as the horses raced to the finish. Always a jolly evening out.

On the opposite side of the river lies Eton, home to England’s most famous public school. Which, for any overseas readers, means private school. The school that has given us David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson in recent times. I’ll say no more.

Old Windsor lock

Just past Old Windsor we came to the place I was most looking forward to seeing on this walk: Runnymede. Famous as the site where King John, in 1215, met his barons and signed the Magna Carta. While a lot of the text is devoted to the detailed concerns of the day, there are also some timeless expressions of individual rights and justice which remain on our statute book today. Our current government would do well to remember them when they talk about passing legislation which would allow them to ignore the rule of law, international or otherwise. The site commemorating the Magna Carta is simple but inspiring. Nearby there is a memorial to John F Kennedy. Both remind us that there is better way of governing than that we have experienced in the UK and the USA over the past four years. Fingers crossed that political events in both countries over the past couple of weeks do portend some light at the end of the tunnel.

By Bell Weir lock, just down from Runnymede

Soon after, we were in Staines. Home of comic character Ali G (played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame) and indie band Hard Fi, whose 2005 album Stars of CCTV painted a grim picture of hand-to-mouth suburban life. And what else? We weren’t expecting much. In fact, the passage of the Thames through Staines lends a rather more affluent perspective; and there is, again, a rich history. The name comes, most likely, from stones, which may have been part of a megalithic monument, and later marked the boundary of Chertsey Abbey’s lands. As Peter Ackroyd drolly comments, “The site is now a roundabout beside Staines Bridge.” Nearby is another stone, the London Stone, which marked the limit of the City of London’s jurisdiction of the river between 1197 and 1857. The Lord Mayor of London used to visit Staines annually to touch the stone with a sword. Don’t ask me why.

Staines is located at the confluence of the River Colne with the Thames. It is thought to have had a river crossing before Roman times. There was a Roman town here, called Ad Pontes (by the bridges). The current bridge opened in 1832, a little upstream of its predecessors. It was designed by John Rennie. Staines used to be the limit of the tidal Thames, which is presumably why the London Stone was located here. The locks downstream, notably Teddington, which we shall see in the next instalment, have changed that.

Staines Bridge

The Swan, by the bridge. Stopped for a drink here

Church of St Peter, by the river

Modern living, bungalow ranch style…

We ended the walk at Chertsey. It was quite a long walk from the bridge to the station. We were blissfully unaware that Chertsey was the site of the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, from the 7th century AD – or I was, anyway. Ackroyd writes that it was “ravaged” by the Danes and rebuilt by King Edgar in 964. It, and Chertsey, thrived until Henry VIII’s reformation did its worst. Some of the stone was taken down to Hampton Court and used for the palace there. The present bridge dates from 1785. The first was constructed in 1410 and was maintained by the abbey.

So much of the history along the Thames centred on the great abbeys and their religious orders, as we have seen. Henry VIII destroyed it all.

Chertsey Bridge

Chertsey to Hampton Court, 2 April 2018

Quite often, before we finished our journey with three walks between Inglesham and Farmoor (see part two of this journey) we reminded each other, we haven’t done Chertsey to Hampton Court yet. I can’t say that I recall being excited by the prospect, but it had to be done. It was a good bit of exercise, and the Thames always has its compensations. It was another dull grey day when we completed this stretch. There had been a lot of rain, and there was a bit of flooding. Peter Ackroyd says that Chertsey has the last of the Thames’ “water meadows”. So it was a fairly unremarkable walk, but the destination was splendid, even if it didn’t stand out on the day.

Looking downstream from Chertsey bridge

Walton Bridge, opened in 2013. It had five predecessors.

I think this is West Molesey – it’s all a suburban blur

The area around Hampton Court bridge is rather lovely. Just recently I met my friend Dave for a walk downstream. He lives in East Molesey on what we might loosely call the south side of the river. The photos below of Hampton Court bridge are from that day. On the day of the walk I’d given up taking photos, on account of the damp greyness of everything.

A glimpse of the palace, through a fence. The grounds were shut.

Hampton Court Palace is, of course, the focal point of the area. It is a magnificent building, with some lovely gardens, all beautifully maintained. It was the home of the ogre Henry VIII, and I have no wish to dwell on that. Instead, I want to celebrate one of its present uses, at least before the pandemic, which is to host concerts in the summer. They take place in one of the large quads, and it is a wonderful setting – as long as it is not raining! We have had some great moments there over the years: Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry solo (twice), Lisa Stansfield, Ringo Starr, and best of all… Kylie! That was in June 2019, and it was an amazing evening. There are a few photos below, but for a longer account of a fantastic evening, have a read of the blog I wrote about it at the time.

So, we are at the end of this leg of the journey. But before I finish, I’d like to mention a French restaurant in East Molesey, on Bridge Road, called Le Petit Nantais. I have had many an awesome meal there, especially the seafood spread, which I, with my good pals Dave, Jon and Tony, enjoy before heading for our annual summer trip to Sandown races. Washed down with the finest of white wines. The host, JP, is a true Frenchman, passionate about rugby, as well as food and wine. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area – when we are allowed to indulge in such pleasures again. In the meantime, there is a good delivery service, Dave tells me.

June 2016 version

Next time, in part seven, we head down to Kew, moving inexorably towards the heart of London.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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4 Responses to A Thames Journey: (6) From Marlow to Hampton Court

  1. dc says:

    It would be fair to say that this blog covers a lot of ground. Doubtful if word press includes another one which takes in Cromwell, the Magna Carta, Theresa May, Ali G and Kylie. All human life is here. Good shot of the lobsters too. And the last photo is a stunner- almost like an oil painting.

  2. Dood says:

    Yes, greatly enjoyed. I like the fact that you wear your learning lightly – stacks of detail, but all conveyed very easily and punchily. And the ideal combination of narrative and images.

    You’re name-checking Ackroyd a lot, and appropriately so. But is it THAMES: THE BIOGRAPHY, or SACRED RIVER, that you’re principally sourcing? I’ve read a lot of Ackroyd over the years, but funnily enough, neither of those. He’s rather lost his way in recent years, sadly, but I recall that SACRED RIVER, especially, was very warmly received.

    • John S says:

      It’s Thames, Sacred River. There’s another called London: The Biography. I’ve read that too. Both are erasure troves of facts and details and are labours of love. Both are long and at times a bit repetitive, but they reward the effort.

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