Day 10 – Marlow to Windsor

Today was a long 14 miles from Marlow to Windsor and weatherwise was the most overcast and gloomy day so far – the only day with rain.

The day begins at the Marlowe Bridge, by the church.

There is no riverside towpath between Marlow Bridge (looking very like Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest) and Marlow Lock, so the path follows an alleyway next to The Two Brewer’s pub, called locally “Seven Corner Alley” for obvious reasons.

The path winds around several (seven?) corners and then follows a road until you reach the river by Marlow Lock, (see here). The Thames Path here goes past the lock, which is well worth a slight diversion across a footbridge on the right. The lock island gives a good view of the white weatherboard Marlow Mill, now turned into housing.

One of the three mills here in 1697 was leased by a Dutchman by the name of John Lofting who noticed there was no production of brass thimbles in England, all needing to be imported from the Continent. He set up a factory in Islington where he patented a machine to make thimbles which he then relocated to Marlow.

At first his business got off to a slow start as he found a shortage of appropriately skilled workers in Marlow. However he must have surmounted this problem because, before long, it is reported that the change from horse to water power allowed Lofting to double the output he had achieved in Islington, and before long he was able to produce up to two millions thimbles a year.  A significant proportion of his production was exported to Europe which had been the centre of thimble manufacture, but whose businesses had been in slow decline. In the year 1694 records show that he exported 145,000 thimbles through the Port of London. Being an astute business man,  in addition to thimbles, he also used the Mill for grinding a variety of seeds to produce oil

Marlowe History

Shortly after the lock, the path passes under the A404, and the rise of Quarry Wood can be seen across the river. This is followed by the view of a number of very large Thames-side properties, with spacious gardens stretching down to the river. One such is a castellated pseudo castle. Prices here would start at £1,500,000, rising to £4,000,000 at least.

The path then passes open meadow as the hill falls away, leading to the final house on the opposite bank – the blue and white Spade Oak Ferry Cottage with a Zoopla estimate of £1,000,000. There was a ferry here until 1962 and the crossing was not replaced until the Borne End footbridge was built in 1993 a littler further downstream. From here, the path passes between some really nice small cottages on either side, onto the Upper Thames Sailing Club and past a terrace of houses, We are now passing by Bourne End, somewhat invisible to the left – one time home to Enid Blyton,

in just under 2 miles the path crosses the river via the footbridge attached to the raIlway crossing at Bourne End, crossing into Cock Marsh, a site of Special Scientific Interest, owned by the National Trust. The Bourne End Railway Bridge was opened in 1894, replacing the previous wooden bridge that was built in 1854 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The footbridge was added in 1992 to carry the Thames Path and replace the ferry at Spade Oak.

Having crossed the river we are now in Cock Marsh, a lovely stretch of lowland marshland with more mansions over the river.

About a mile further on, the river bends and the blue Cookham Bridge comes into view. The original bridge built in 1840 was replaced by the current one in 1867 and it was a toll bridge until 1947. The path does not go over the bridge, but turns right intro Cookham just before it and goes across the churchyard toward the tower of the 16th-century Holy Trinity Church, (where Susan George married in 1984) and towards some white buildings ahead – Churchgate – originally built in the late 14th-century, extended late 16th and altered late 19th.

We are now in Cookham, a favourite of the artist Sir Stanley Spencer. Just beyond, the river splits into four channels, two of which enclose Formosa Island and this requires a diversion through the town, and along Cookham High Street, conveniently passing a Wesleyan Chapel that now houses the Stanley Spencer Gallery (and here). Opened in 1962 it is the only gallery in Britain devoted to a single painter. When I visited, there was an exhibition of his paintings depicting his sad married life.

Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham in 1891. After studying art at the Slade School of Art in London, and serving in the Second World War, Spencer returned to Cookham and panted many local scenes, including View from Cookham Bridge, (below left) now in the gallery itself, and Swan Upping at Cookham, (below right) now in the Tate.

After some winding through roads and meadows, you come face to face with the river at a bench, the location of an old ferry point, the “My Lady Ferry” overlooking the Clivedon Estate now owned by the National Trust. The ferry ran until 1956, operated by Thames Conservancy. The path continues right, through enchanting woodland with views of the embankment of the Cliveden Estate to the left.

A mile further on brings us to the outskirts of Maidenhead and Boulter’s Island and Ray Mill Island. Boulter’s Island is only accessible by motor vehicle via Boulter’s Bridge across the tail end of Boulter’s Lock. The island has a number of private houses, a restaurant and a small boatyard. It was famously the home of Richard Dimbleby, whose house can still be seen through the trees – still with a model of Dimbleby sitting in a deckchair.

The path passes more large houses and gardens until it comes to the main A4094 that skirts the eastern edge of Maidenhead. The river continues over a weir to the left but the path follows the lock cut along the attractive promenade. Boulter’s Lock is the longest and deepest lock on the Thames. (A boulter is another word for a miller). At the southern tip of the lock island is a bridge over to Ray Mill Island and the Boulters Restaurant which was originally a flour mill built in 1726. In 1773 Richard Ray became the lock keeper. The island is some 4 acres including public gardens.

As a result of the location and its size, Boulter’s Lock was once one of the busiest locks on the river.

Stephen Lambe in Three Men in a Boat Companion, reports that Ascot weekend 1888 was its busiest with over 800 boats passing through.

This is reflected in Edward Gregory’s painting “Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon“, now in the Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool (see left).

Beyond the lock the path follows the promenade until Maidenhead Bridge comes into view. This is a very old crossing point on the river, and has had a bridge since 1280. The current bridge was built in 1777, designed by Sir Robert Taylor, and similar to his Swinford Bridge that we passed by on day 4 on the way to Oxford. Whilst Swinford is still a toll bridge, tolls stopped at Maidenhead in 1903 after some financial scandal over revenues. The path crosses the bridge and continues along the far bank. As you cross the bridge, you can see the Roux at Skindles restaurant, Michel and Alain Roux’s new Brasserie.

The path goes through a boatyard and soon the iconic redbrick Maidenhead Railway Bridge, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1839, comes into view carrying the Paddington-Bristol line.

The bridge features in Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed on the GWR, now in the National Gallery (see below).

Rain, Steam and Speed on the GWR, JM Turner, National Gallery

More large houses can be seen on the far bank as you pass Bray home to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck (and here), and onto Bray Lock (and here).

The peace of the lock is soon broken by passing under the M4 at New Thames Bridge.

Ahead of you now is Monkey Island, which has a long history going back to 1200. in 1666 barges dumped rubble here from the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, which created the foundations for subsequent development.

A fishing pavilion built in 1723 was turned into a hotel in 1840 and was visited by Edward VII and Queen Mary, along with their sons who went on to become George V, Edward VIII and George VI. It was only accessible by boat until a footbridge was built in 1956. It went into some decline in the 1980s but has since been extensively renovated into The Monkey Island Estate. Perhaps its biggest recent claim to fame is that the “Birmingham Six” spent their first night of freedom here, after their release from prison in 1991.

The Birmingham Six were six Irishmen: Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, who, in 1975, were each sentenced to life imprisonment following their false convictions for the Birmingham pub bombings. Their convictions were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory and quashed by the Court of Appeal on 14 March 1991. The six men were later awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million

Birmingham Six

To our left, and largely invisible due to hedging is Dorney, Dorney Reach and Dorney Common. The path goes under Summerleaze Bridge, built in 1996. This was not only a pedestrian footbridge but also carried a conveyor belt (no longer in evidence) to take away the gravel from the excavation of Dorney Lake.

Dorney Lake is part of Eton College and is now a Conference Centre and a world class rowing centre, home to the rowers of Eton College. It hosted the rowing, kayaking and canoeing events of the London Olympics. While some schools struggle to provide sufficient glue sticks….

Past the Lake, and through the trees can be seen the castellated Oakley Court. Built in 1859, General de Gaulle stayed there. It was bought in 1950 by Hammer Films where amongst others they made St Trinians, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1970 it was sold again to became a hotel. Shortly after is Windsor Marina.

At the foot of the lake is Boveney, and the delightful church of St Mary Magdalene (see here) in the care of Friends of Friendless Churches. The oldest parts go back to 12th and 13th century and the tower goes back to 15th century.

The approach to Boveney Lock gives a view over the river of Royal Windsor Racecourse.

Almost missable now is the Athens Bathing Site. This is little more than a concrete slab with a bench and a plaque, but it has history as a bathing site for the boys of Eton College.

Before arriving at Windsor, you go under the A332 flyover and the Windsor Great Western Railway Bridge designed by Brunel and opened in 1849.

The riverside here is called The Brocas, after the Brocas family gave it to the college, and then the iconic image of Windsor Castle towering over the town.

The path goes through a gate and along Brocas Street to the end, where you come to The George, where I stayed on the Eton side of the river, just a straw boater’s throw from the school that is such a site of privilege and Windsor Castle, the Queen’s main home.

Eton was originally land owned by Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, but was appropriated by William the Conqueror in 1066 and gradually the hamlet grew. It was the first village in the UK to have its own post office and modern drainage system. It still has, on the High Street, the earliest Victorian postbox in the country – with a vertical slot.

Very quickly you became aware of the presence of the College but this is not the only school on the street. In 1812, Porny’s charity school was founded by the estate of the late Antoine Pyron du Martré, otherwise Mark Anthony Porny, French master at Eton college. Later named Eton Porny it became the school for local children at 29 High Street. In 1863, moving to the school’s current site at 14 High Street Eton.

Eton College was founded by Henry VI in 1440 as a charity to educate 70 underprivileged boys. But of course the upper classes and aristocracy as is their wont, purposed anything good for the poor as their own. It now serves as a bastion of privileged, though of questionable educational merit. Apparently part of the Eton Uniform is a black tail coat, worn in mourning, not for the poor and homeless who die on the streets of London, but for George III.

Windsor Bridge, links Eton to Windsor and has marked a crossing point for at least 800 years. It was a toll bridge until 1897 and the Toll House still remains. The present bridge built in 1822 was the first arched bridge on the Thames and was pedestrianised in 1970. Windsor bridge leads us to Windsor, and to the home of the monarch. It was also the first place on the path itself where I encountered homeless begging on the streets.

As you cross the bridge you come to a statue of Prince Christian Victor, a grandson of Queen Victoria who died in South Africa aged 33. Curve round the castle to the statue of Queen Victoria at the foot of the High Street. Windsor is dominated by Windsor Castle (website here) which sits on a slight hill overlooking the town. It is the oldest and largest continually occupied castle in the world as home of the monarch since since Henry I. Originally built by William the Conqueror in 1070 to protect Norman dominance around the outskirts of London and oversee a strategically important part of the River Thames. During the English Civil War, it was controlled by Parliamentarian forces and used to imprison Charles I.

It was seriously damaged by a major fire on 20 November 1992, that lasted for 15 hours and caused widespread damage. The restoration programme was completed in 1997 at a total cost of £37 million.

The town itself took its name from the original village of Windsor, which then became OId Windsor which we pass tomorrow. Apparently the name comes from Wyndesore or “winding shore” describing the river nearby. The centre consists of a number of old narrow streets, the first of which is Queen Charlotte Street (below) which at 51ft 10” is claimed to be the shortest streets in the country. One side consists of the Crooked House – once a tea house, now a jewelers called Jersey Pearl. Built in 1592, but rebut in 1687 with unseasoned timber.It isa next door to The Guildhall, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built in 1687.

Since 1974, the guildhall has been used by the borough council for ceremonies and committee meetings. On 9 April 2005, it was the scene of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles and on 21 December 2005, it hosted one of the first same sex civil partnership ceremonies to be held in England, that of Sir Elton John and David Furnish.

Wikipedia

Towards the end of the High street is St John the Baptist Church, built in 1822, and further on as The High Street becomes Park Street is a commemorative stature to Irish Guardsman behind of which is an ancient well plus a blue post box, commemorating the first air mail service introduced in 1911 for George V’s coronation.

Blue post boxes began to be introduced into some British cities and other locations of note in 1930 and were used for postal airmail services to send and receive mail mainly to and from Europe. The blue post box at Windsor Castle, which is near the site of the old Windsor Post Office (1887 – 1966) commemorates the first United Kingdom airmail service. On the 9th September 1911, Gustav Hamel flew a Blériot monoplane (which looks a bit of a death-trap) from Hendon aerodrome in London and landed on the Long Walk behind Windsor Castle. This 19 mile flight took only 18 minutes and his cargo was a sack of mail celebrating the coronation of King George V. Following this first official airmail flight the use of airmail slowly increased and became firmly established in the 1920’s when improved post World War I aircraft and pilots became available to support the service.

The use of these bespoke blue post boxes was short lived however and by the end of 1938 they had fallen out of use. A number of reasons for their withdrawal are citied including: the rise of air travel; the build-up to the Second World War and the re-allocation of aircraft assets; and the cost associated with having bespoke post boxes solely for airmail. Whatever the true reason, come the end of 1938 it was acceptable for airmail to be posted in normal red post boxes and the only reference to the blue boxes remained in the blue airmail stickers that adorned the envelopes of airmail letters.

Random encounters with the unusual

Finally as you walk back to the bridge is the beautiful Duchess of Cambridge pub, apparently the only pub in Britain with that name.

I only had a short while to explore a small part of Windsor, as the light was fading and the weather was worsening.