Friday, 10 January 2014

Thames Path - Maidenhead to Bourne End

Friday 3rd January, 2014

Today I planned to walk from Maidenhead to Marlow but things didn't quite work out as I'd hoped. I drove to Marlow and found free street parking just round the corner from the train station. I caught the train to Maidenhead so I could continue my walk from where I'd left off yesterday. 

Taken from the train window

From the train window I could see an awful lot of flooding. It was worst on what would be the last section of my walk from Bourne End to Marlow. The Thames had overflowed so much that what should be green parkland running alongside the riverbank was completely under water. I could see the tops of park benches looking as though they were planted mid-river ready for any passing swimmers to take a semi-submerged rest. I couldn't see any option for getting round the flooded area as it was bordered by the fenced-off train tracks. The railway fortunately ran along the top of a higher bank, otherwise it would have been under water too. I had a feeling my walk would have to end at Bourne End, though I didn't want to make a decision until I'd actually got there and checked it out. 

Arriving in Maidenhead, I made my way down to the river. According to the official tourism website, Maidenhead is one of the most affluent areas of the UK with house prices often exceeding those of Central London. It goes on to give the reasons for this as being the ease of commuting into London from here, plus the proximity of the Thames countryside. There were some very posh houses along the riverbank and a few old buildings around the town centre, but on the whole it didn't do it for me. It was too bland. If I had money, Maidenhead would not be high on my list of desirable locations to reside in. 

Crossing the bridge to the far side of the river, I set off walking. The first part of the path on this section leads through a manicured riverside park. This soon turns into a roadside walk before reaching Boulter's Lock. The lock is the longest and deepest on the Thames. At one time it was also the busiest. 

The path was muddy with puddles, but I wasn't wading through long stretches of water as I'd had to do on my first day of walking. The Thames was very high though. I saw a lovely house on the far bank; it looked really idyllic and serene, but the serenity seemed to be finely balanced with impending doom. Another day or two of rain and the scales would be weighted on the side of doom as the bank would be breached and everywhere flooded. An elderly man was sat on the decking looking as though he was enjoying the bit of sun, but I wondered what was really going through his mind.*

Not long after this house, the grounds of Cliveden appeared on the opposite bank. Cliveden, a large mansion house, is a luxury hotel. In its former life as a private house it was the home of Nancy Astor who was known for her holding of lavish parties. Anyone who was anyone attended including Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, A J Balfour ... the list goes on. It gained notoriety in 1961 when it became the background setting for the Profumo Affair. Christine Keeler met John Profumo here and they began an illicit affair. As he was the Conservative Secretary for War and she was having a simultaneous affair with a suspected Russian spy, and it was the height of the Cold War, the resulting scandal brought down the government.

Although the house is now a private hotel, the grounds are owned by the National Trust and a few years ago I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around them. From my side of the river today, I could see very little. Knowing how lovely the grounds are made me wonder what else I might be missing out on by being on this side of the river. But of course, if I was on the other side of the river, I'd be thinking the same about this side. Ah well, grass is greener and all of that. I continued walking. 


Next up was Cookham. Here the path detours from the river to pass through the small town. Cookham is usually associated with painter Stanley Spencer and there is a small gallery here dedicated to his works. Although Spencer painted on an array of themes he is probably best known for his biblical paintings created with Cookham as the backdrop. I'd been into the gallery on a previous visit and so with the days being so short, and not knowing if I'd face a long detour further on, I didn't linger and followed the path through the churchyard. 

The dramatic statues of angels in the churchyard made me think of the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who, though I'm sure their sculptor meant for them to be figures of other-worldly goodness and not scary other-worldly creatures who preyed on humans and zapped them back in time. 


Meeting the river again the path continued along soggy grass to Bourne End. Houses, boats and small jetties lined both sides of the river. Crossing the  railway bridge the path continues on the far side of the river. This is where I came to the area I'd seen from the train window. The water was sloshing deeply along the path and I knew that this wasn't a short stretch I could easily wade through, but continued most of the way to Marlow. I wandered into the town away from the path to look for an alternative route, but with the railway line now between me and the path I would have had a pointless walk along the main road if I was to continue. Instead I made my way to Bourne End train station for the ride back to Marlow and my van.

*As it happened, a month after my walk the banks broke and the news was full of properties along the Thames being underwater. I didn't see my little blue house on the news, but it's hard to imagine it surviving unscathed.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Thames Path - Windsor to Maidenhead

Thursday 2nd January, 2014

It's always difficult timing walks at this time of year. I had a fairly long drive to Maidenhead, but didn't want to leave early and sit in rush hour traffic. On the other hand, without an early start, there aren't many walking hours before dusk. However, I think I got my timing right and had an easy drive to a multi-storey car park in Maidenhead town centre. I popped into a bakery to buy a pasty and ask for directions to the train station. Ticket bought, I was soon on the train to Windsor. 

I've been to Windsor several times in the past and so didn't feel the need to spend time poking around. I took a few photos of the castle and headed for the bridge across to Eton. I did digress from the Thames Path to take a quick walk up to the top of Eton High Street and back and took a few photos of the school. 

Formally known as Eton College this is the posh public school Princes William and Harry attended. Apart from the princes, it has also been responsible for the education of nineteen British Prime Ministers including current PM David Cameron. Oh, and Bear Grylls was a pupil here too. Does that mean he'll be Prime Minister one day? As it's the Christmas holidays, if there were any future prime ministers wandering around, I couldn't tell because they were not in the long-tailed jackets and pin-striped trousers that comprise the school uniform.

Back at the river, I turned right and continued along the path. Walking over a grassy meadow along the bank I passed under the railway bridge and over a footbridge on to a small island. The path skirts the edge of the island, alongside the main river before leading another over another footbridge back to the 'mainland'.

Continuing, I soon came to Athens. No, I hadn't taken a wrong turn, this Athens was an Eton College bathing place. Rules stated that boys who were 'undressed' when any boating ladies passed by must either get immediately into the water or else hide behind screens. These days there are no screens, but there is a nice bench to sit on.

Leading past Boveney Lock and Dorney Lake, the path passes under the M4 motorway. Before reaching the M4 I stopped to peer across the river at Oakley Court. The house was built in 1859 by an Englishman for his French Wife. The French connections continue with General de Gaulle who is known to have stayed there. In 1950 Hammer Films bought the house, possibly swayed by its Gothic style, and used it to film St Trinian's and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The house looked very sedate and peaceful when I passed by. Maybe because it's been a luxury hotel for the past 40 years? 

Once on the other side of the M4 more people start to appear as the path draws closer to Maidenhead. I passed under the railway bridge before reaching Maidenhead road bridge over which I crossed the river and headed back into town. 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Thames Path - Staines to Windsor

Tuesday 31st December, 2013

First view of Windsor Castle
Leaving friends in Kent, I drove to Windsor and parked in the long-stay park and ride car park. At only £3 a day including the shuttle bus in to town it was a bargain. I didn't need to take the shuttle bus as I walked a short way along the Thames Path from the car park to the Windsor and Eton Riverside train station where I caught a train to Staines.

Staines was a major linoleum producer
I was a little confused exiting the station and so used the GPS on my new smartphone to guide me in the right direction for the river. One of my objectives on this trip is to learn how to use my phone and to figure out all the different things I can do with it. I've brought my big camera, but want to use my phone as much as possible to take photos to check out its ability.

I soon found the path where I'd left it last new year and crossed the road bridge to follow the continuation of the path on the other bank. The weather forecast hadn't been good and there have been more flood warnings on the radio, though not for the part of the Thames I was walking alongside. It was a dry start to the day though, but as soon as I started walking on the path proper the heavens opened. I sheltered by some trees and struggled to get my waterproof trousers on and put the cover over my daypack. That was the rain set in for the rest of the day. It did ease a bit but never really stopped. I struggled with my waterproof pants all day. As it is a flat walk I wanted to take big strides, but each time I tried, the lack of flexibility in my trousers acted as a barrier my legs were pushing against. I felt like I was getting an extra workout and could feel my legs getting quite tired towards the end.

I was also trialling my Sealskinz socks on this walk. I've always been dubious about paying nearly 30 quid for a pair of socks, but several people have raved about them to me and I've read good reviews online so I'd decided to try a pair. They really got put to the test and failed miserably. As well as the Sealskinz socks, I was wearing gaiters and waterproof trousers and had waxed and sprayed my boots. I'm sure it all would have been fine if it wasn't for having to wade through water that came halfway to my knees on more than one occasion. As water poured in over the tops of my boots I knew the socks would have no chance and the 'test' was probably a bit too extreme.

The river was very deep. Even the boats were underwater

One of the flooded bits I had to wade through
Besides flooded bits of path, there were also a few parts blocked by trees which had fallen in the recent gales. Each time I was able to get around or under though, including one time where I had to force my way through the middle of what had become the equivalent of a very thick hedge across the middle of the path.

Leaving Staines behind, I passed under the busy M25. This is the motorway encircling Greater London and the first sign that I'd really left the city behind. The first bits of it were built in the early 1970s, but it wasn't completed until 1986. At 117 miles (188km) long, it's Europe's second longest orbital road, beaten only by the Berliner Ring which is a mere five miles longer. As one of the UK's busiest motorways it often seems more like a car park than a high-speed roadway, particularly the stretch near Heathrow Airport. 

Passing under the M25

Passing below, I could hear the hum of traffic above, but felt like I was in a different world. I walked on towards the day's second landmark: Runnymede.

Runnymede is a flood plain now in the ownership of the National Trust. The name is possibly derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'runieg' which means regular meeting and 'mede' which today is written as mead or meadow. This meeting meadow is considered to be where the signing of the Magna Carta took place in 1215. This charter was instrumental in the development of the parliament and laws we have today. 

There are several memorials in area including the Air Forces Memorial commemorating the men and women of the Allied Air Forces who died in the Second World War. Another memorial is that dedicated to former US President John F. Kennedy.

Continuing, the path heads towards Old Windsor and alongside Old Windsor Lock. Old Windsor is the original Windsor and only became 'Old' when the newer town of Windsor was built near the castle a few miles away. Elton John apparently lives in Old Windsor. Although I looked, I don't think he was one of the people I saw out walking their dogs.

Heading back to Windsor

At this point, it's possible to walk directly to Windsor. But as I was following the Thames Path my walk looped round via the village of Datchet. I crossed the Albert Bridge and had a bit of road walking before joining a riverside path again just before Victoria Bridge. Then it was past Romney Lock before following a lane back to the car park and my van.

Distance: about 8 miles