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.

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