Thames Region Virtual Cruise Day 3 Staines to Cookham

The historic stretch of river above Staines has been written about so often, and plays such an integral part in British history, with events so well known to every schoolchild, that even first time cruisers here will be familiar with it all. Today we’ll cruise through all this history to Spencer’s Cookham, and another piece of traditional Britain.

Having been first built in 18ll, moved to its present site in 1817 and then collapsing under the weight of ice in 1866, our first lock, Bell Weir was finally built in stone in 1877. We enter just after slipping under the M25 road bridge, and with side, as well as gate sluices, vigilance is required to stop being pushed sideways as the lock fills.

Named, some say, after the first lock keeper, others propose the more interesting story which links it with The Bells of Ouzely, the Harvesters pub just above on the right bank, both named after the famous bells of the Ouzeley Monastery, rescued by the monks from Henry’s dissolution, and hidden in the river here to enable their more speedy escape. On their return, no trace of the bells could be found, nor a single sighting since, a fate shared by the monastery, as there is no record of it ever having existed. Some maintain that the bells in fact belonged to Oseney Abbey, higher up  near Oxford, the fleeing monks being overtaken here by Henry’s men, who took the bells back to Oxford, where they now rest in Christ Church Cathedral.

 One can only guess at the fury of King John as he was forced to give some power to the barons, who were prepared to slaughter all their peasants in battle, even against each other, to secure concessions from the King at the Runi-mede, or ‘council field’ now to port. The sheer number of all the baron’s hench-men, and those of the King, give doubt to the idea that the signing was done on Magna Carta island as, in such dangerous times, who would take to the water to get there, and lay themselves open to attack? However, the supposed stone on which it was signed apparently rests in the cottage on the island, and whilst the  2,500 year old nearby Ankerwycke Yew, sacred to the Druids, too may have a claim, Runnymede is the most likely spot, and a memorial stands on the field, placed there by the American Bar Association. A little further away is the Kennedy Memorial, a reminder of the days when American presidents were held in some awe, whilst up on Coopers Hill is the memorial to Commonwealth airmen who gave their lives in WW2. Redolent in history, Runnymede is also synonymous with freedom and democracy, and a more recent installation by Hew Locke, ‘The Jurors’, celebrates this with its intricately decorated bronze chairs. 

Linda Varney also came across this statue, being admired by a  group of statue gazers

We’re now heading for Old Windsor Lock, Old Windsor being the original site of Windsor, or maybe ‘windles ora’, a river bank windlass. Once through, we pass under Albert Bridge, which the Prince Consort had built to replace the rotting and rotten one at Datchet. Rotten because the shires on either side couldn’t agree on its construction, so one side was built of wood, the other of iron and 4 inches lower in the middle meeting point. Albert  built a further bridge, Victoria of course, and closed the road in between them to the public. The park is now part of the gardens of the present Queen’s favourite castle, which appears and disappears as the river winds towards the town itself, as Gill Oldham keeps a careful eye on the busy river traffic on this stretch.

The penalty for mooring on the Windsor Park bank is imprisonment in the deepest dungeons for life, or beheading should you prefer, so we keep going, giving Lucy Fisher a wide berth as she takes tourists down the river and we head up through Romney Lock into the very heart of Windsor.

The castle dominates Windsor and is of course its main attraction, and a great sight it is too, and both the castle and the town are busy with visitors. It’s extremely difficult to find a mooring conveniently close to the centre, although Alan Darby managed to squeeze ‘Another Knot’ onto the mooring just below Windsor Bridge, where they joined the cruise.

After the hustle and bustle of Windsor, and the tight squeeze under the 13’2” (4.01m) centre arch of its Bridge, its good to get back into open countryside, but first we meet up with more members who have been overnighting at Boveney Lock, where David Harrison obliged with the photographs of the wall to wall Brooms.

They’ve been having fun whilst waiting, and even erected a marquee to entertain everyone under cover, but the rain stayed away.

Now with a considerable convoy of Brooms, we head further up the Thames, passing the entrance to Racecourse Yacht Basin to port, with brief glimpses of Dorney Lake Rowing Course, the site of the 2012 Olympic races, to starboard, and a little higher, a backward glance gives us the last fine view of the castle’s Round Tower. Queen’s Eyot slips past to port, the up-stream tip of which hides the entrance to Bray marina, another popular Broom long-term mooring. This is Fat Duck country, and an overnight stay at Bray would be an ideal stopping point for a visit to Heston Blumenthal’s culinary mecca, where dinner for two will set you back the equivalent of a month’s mooring fee for a 42’ Broom, in the marina itself.  For some reason most skippers look over to starboard at this point, with mutterings of ‘must press on’, and start talking of Monkey’s Island, just ahead, the last site of England’s only colony of native monkeys, sadly now extinct.

Although that story’s not true, the name deriving from Monks Eyot, after a monastic cell that used to be there, its diverted attention away from fat ducks, until we arrive safely into the welcoming Bray Lock, and the crew can busy themselves with rope duties, and forget about Mr Rosenthal’s imaginative creations.

The lock itself takes its name from the area, a bray apparently being a muddy, marshy place, and not from the eponymous vicar who faced the vicissitudes of life with aplomb, according to legend and song, through four reigns, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth, switching from catholicism to protestantism and back, and then back again. To confuse matters, and according to which version is sung, the vicar may have faced such uncertainties through the reigns of Charles I, the Civil War and Commonwealth, The Protectorate and the restoration of Charles II. We only have Covid-19 to face!

We are now on the Maidenhead reach, with Brunel’s bridge masterpiece ahead. Built to take the Great Western Railway over the river, these are the longest and flattest brick arches in the world, each span 128 feet, with a rise of only 24 feet, to meet with Thames Commissioners insistence that the original design created a navigation hazard. Brunel met the challenge by spanning the river in two glorious strides, using the mid-stream island as a stepping stone, creating the beautiful brick structure still widely admired, and certainly by Don Walker, who moored his Freeman there on a previous visit.

Whilst passing underneath, give a big 'hello' to fellow boaters. The arches are echo chambers, often called the Sounding Arches, and your friendly hello will echo back with perfect clarity.

The many arches of the next bridge let us know that we have arrived in Maidenhead itself, once a town of great attraction to ‘flappers’ and day-tripping Londoners. There are many claims to explaining the etymology of its name, but the most realistic, and perhaps a little boring, explanation is offered by EAS Brooks in his book ‘Maidenhead and its Name’. Head was thought to be a corruption of the ‘hythe’, or wharf, in OE. This wharf had apparently been the disembarking point of some relics of the 20,000 virgins massacred by heathens in present day Germany, but one wonders about the likelihood of finding so many virgins together, and then at the prospect of the heathens massacring them, something one imagines they would not generally do. Some had thought that the wharf belonged to a mill on the great hill nearby, ‘mai dun hythe’ but Brooks says the name comes form the ancient town seal, which showed the shoulders of a saint knight, pretty and long haired as was the tradition, and easily mistaken for a woman, a maiden’s head.

 Beyond comes Boulter’s Lock, perhaps the most famous on the Thames, and in previous times the last lock before the sea. The name probably derives from the first lock keeper, like Day’s lock higher up, and other locks long since abandoned, and he probably got his name from the activity of boulters, or flour sifters, in the nearby mill.

 

In Edwardian times, the lock was so popular that a boat escalator, powered by a steam engine, was installed to lift traffic up and down, as straw-hatted and blazered beaux punted their delicate and fragrant young ladies up and down, in emulation of the future Edward VII, who many times set tongues wagging as he locked through with his latest companion. Today, the area is enhanced by the site of ‘Gloriana’, the Queen’s row-barge, being taken through the lock in all its glory, as Branco and Karen Bagovic looked on.

Just up river is the Cliveden reach, one of the prettiest stretches of the river, with the elegant Italianate mansion, Cliveden House, (Cliff over the dene, or valley, and originally the home of the 13th century de Clyveden family) perched atop the Chilterns, 130 foot above the river. Now a popular NT property, the house has a checkered history. In recent times causing a major political scandal, 350 years earlier the notorious Duke of Buckingham had brought home the Duchess of Shrewsbury, scandalising his wife who threatened to leave. The  duke, (who later died in abject poverty in a scruffy inn in Yorkshire) told his wife he had thought she might do so, and had already ordered a carriage prepared, to send her back to her father’s house. In the 1920s and 1930s Cliveden was more famous for the many intellectuals who came to visit the Astor’s, at the behest of Nancy, wife of Viscount Astor.

The property was given to the NT in 1942, although the Astors continued to live there until 1966. Its now leased as a very expensive hotel, and in its previously extensive grounds is an over 55s retirement village and a war cemetery, resulting from the Canadian Red Cross’ use of the grounds to build a hospital in both world wars.

 Its a lovely area to cruise, especially towards the end of the day as we now lock up through Cookham Lock and head for our over-night mooring area. Immediately after the lock is Cookham footbridge, lower even than Windsor at 12’6” (3.81m), so keep to the centre arch.

MTB 102 left the lock first, ahead of Branco and Karen Bagovic on board ‘Lady Flo’, perhaps heading for moorings in Cookham too, probably taking up more room than it should. However, there’s plenty of room, and Lady Flo managed to moor in a lovely little spot, making it easy to explore Cookham.

Opposite, on the other bank is DB Marine, with its full range of services should any cruise members require assistance.

Cookham itself is famous these days as the home of the painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Tate Britain has the largest collection of his paintings, whilst his complicated private life is well illustrated in a number of paintings in galleries around the world, but the Stanley Spencer Gallery here is certainly worth a visit. One of the Tate paintings is ‘Swan Upping at Cookham’ (1915-19), which portrays Frederick Turk getting ready for the annual event.

The tradition of swan upping goes back 800 years, and the first Royal Swan Master, Gerveys Thomas, was appointed in the 12th century, so there was a lot of history behind Frederick Turk’s (1881-1965) appointment to the role in 1922. He came from a long line of Cookham boat-builders, who can trace their business back to 1195, and he held the post until 1963, when John Turk was appointed. The Present Queen’s Swan Marker and Barge Master, David Barber, MVO, took over in 1993, ending a long tradition of Turk family involvement.

Originally marking swans from the City to Abingdon on Thames, now the start point is Sunbury, as river pollution stopped mute swans from breeding in the lower reaches. The Swan Uppers skiff up the river, duly rigged out in ceremonial attire, with the skiffs bearing the flags of the three owners of the swans. Until the 12th century, there were many swan owners, but gradually royal pressure reduced them until, since the 15th century, only The Crown and two livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners, have ownership rights to mute swans on the Thames. All unmarked swans belong to the Crown, whilst those with one nick belong to the Dyers, and those with two, to the Vintners.

These days mainly conducted to carry out a survey and health check on the swans who are now ringed, originally the Uppers would allocate ownership by nicking the beak of all cygnets according to the nick of their parents, the cob deciding the nick if he and the pen differed. The upping is normally carried out in July, but for only the second time in its long history, swan upping has been cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 epidemic, to the great disappointment of the many who follow this five day river spectacle. Turk and Sons too are no longer in Cookham, having re-located to Chatham, although the name carries on in Turk Launches, who provide popular trips up and down the river, thus ensuring the continuation of a famous Thames name.

This all makes Cookham a worthwhile and pretty stop-over for the night, after a cruise through a beautiful stretch of the Thames, steeped in English history and tradition. Tomorrow we will be cruising through one of the iconic sporting arenas of England. For now we’re snugged down in comfortable berths, those on board Lady Flo enjoying a magnificent Thames curtaining of the day.

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