Today’s walk from Windsor to Chertsey is 12 miles and rather more urban than previous stretches. Rain was forecast from 3pm so I wanted to get a move on,
As The George didn’t do breakfast, I went just across the road to Costa which opens at 7am and sat beside the river in the shadow of Windsor Castle having my breakfast at 7:30 as a huge flock of swans flew in and landed. I left The George in Eton at 8:00, because I had a long day ahead and the rain that was forecast later. The George is actually on the path, which then crosses Windsor Bridge. Glimpses of Windsor Castle off to the right along Thameside as you pass The Boatman pub – which they tell us is the only riverside pub in Windsor. It was closed, but it was only 8:05 am. Looking back gives a great view of Windsor Bridge.
The path ambles around the U turn of Home Park, and under Black Potts railway bridge. Opened in 1850 this carries the railway from London to Windsor, and is supported in the middle on a small islet called an “ait” – Black Pots Ait. Going under you get a further view of the castle and on to Victoria Bridge, where the path crosses the river to keep you away from the Royal home. After crossing the Bridge and rejoining the path there is a stretch of fabulous woodland until it rejoins the B3021 toward Datchet.
In Datchet you pass a house called Old Bridge House at the crossing with the High Street. Full details inside the house can be seen from Saville’s Estate Agents who recently sold it. It is so called because there was a bridge here which replaced a ferry in 1706. (It features in Merry Wives of Windsor) The ferry was replaced on 1811 by the bridge which spanned the county boundary of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. Buckinghamshire built their half in wood, Berkshire in metal, leaving a gap in the middle. Queen Victoria did away with this and replaced it with two bridges named after herself and her beloved Albert, which kept the public away from the royal Park. The path skirts past the edge of Datchet, with a short twisting stretch around fields, and along to the blue Albert Bridge, which you cross to rejoin the towpath.
On the far side of the river is a fairy tale house called Honey Pot Cottage. This was built in 1933 with local thatch and for 44 years was the home of Beryl Reid, from 1952 until she died in 1996. Her ashes were scattered in the gardens.
You soon come to another lock cut where the river meanders northward creating a 125 acre peninsular called Ham Island which contains the water treatment works and 37 private houses. The path cross the road that leads into Old Windsor to the right and goes down a long drive down to Old Windsor Lock (here).
A short distance after the lock is a slight detour off the path that leads into Old Windsor, and the Church of the two brothers, St Peter and St Andrew. Old Windsor predates the current Windsor, and was where Edward the Confessor had a palace. Significantly it was here in 1072 that the synod met and decided that the Archbishop of Canterbury would take precedence over the Archbishop of York.
After passing by some attractive houses on both sides of the river, with small riverside gardens, you come to the busy A308, and to the Bells of Ouzeley pub. This was built in 1936 and refers, apparently, to the bells of Osney Abbey in Osney. These were removed by the monks in 1538 to keep them away from Henry VIII. The barges came unstuck here and the bells sank in the mud never to be found. It is now a Harvester pub.
After passing a busy road junction (A308/A329) you come to the open meadows of Runnymede. Many books have been written about the significance of the events here in 1215. The path closely follows the river and in order to visit the monuments, you need to make a detour across the road, through the two gatehouses, designed by Edwin Lutyens, (who also redesigned Lindisfarne Castle) one of which is a National Trust tea room, and walk across the field. Runnymede was once owned by Lady Fairhaven, who donated it to the National Trust, and commissioned Lutyens to design the two Fairhaven Memorial Lodges. Her husband Sir Urban Broughton bought Runnymede in 1928 to safeguard its future.
To get to the Runnymede and JFK memorials you need to walk across the field to the hedgerow on your right. For a monument of such significance, it is very poorly signposted.
On the way to the monuments is The Jurors, an artwork by Hew Locke, installed in 2015 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The 24 surfaces of the front and back of each chair are decorated with images and symbols representing freedom, the rule of law, and human rights and include (see first six below): the house where Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest, a teacher and pupils in a classroom discussing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the National League of the Blind march in 1920 under the banner “Justice not Charity“, Portrait of an African-American women commemorating Phillis Wheatley and Mary Prince, Shredding of documents, such as Stasi files, Refugees on a boat, and the names of vessels involved in important cases establishing maritime law, Chinese characters for the Confucian principles of Ren, Li, and Yi (humaneness, ritual, and justice), Nelson Mandela’s prison door, the suffragettes, and several others.
You first come to John F Kennedy Memorial, a seven ton block of Portland stone, which was dedicated on 14 May 1965, by the Queen and Jacqueline Kennedy. The memorial consists of a garden and memorial tablet inscribed with the famous quote from Kennedy’s Inaugural Address:
Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.JFK
Visitors reach the memorial by treading a steep path of irregular granite steps, intended to symbolise a pilgrimage. There are 50 steps in total. Each step is different from all others, with the entire flight made from 60,000 hand-cut granite setts. The area of ground on which the memorial is situated was given as a gift to the United States of America by the people of The United Kingdom. (Though property ownership was transferred to the federal government of the United States, the area remains under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.) It is maintained by the Kennedy Memorial Trust, which also sponsors educational scholarships for British students to attend university in the United States.Wikipaedia
Just further along the footpath is the Magna Carta Memorial owned by the National Trust. This monument was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association. The memorial marks the signing in 1215 of the Magna Carta by King John, an unpopular monarch who ascended to the throne on the death of his brother Richard (the Lionheart) in 1199. Richard upset the Barons in 1214 by imposing higher taxes after unsuccessful forreys into France. After much fighting the two sides agreed terms (a Grand Charter) for a truce. Although the outcome is controversial and contested, the truce was signed in this field in Runnymede. It is claimed by some to have been the first step toward a democratic legal and political system. However after 800 years, all vestiges of democratic accountability had been eradicated in England by 2020 shortly after the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. However it did break with an absolute monarchy.
Lastly, high up on Coopers Hill to the right, almost invisible from the path, is the Commonwealth Air Force Memorial whose pinnacle peeks above the trees.
This is dedicated to some 20,456 men and women from air forces of the British Empire who were lost in air and other operations during World War II.Those recorded have no known grave anywhere in the world, and many were lost without trace. The name of each of these airmen and airwomen is engraved into the stone walls of the memorial, according to country and squadron.Wikipahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Forces_Memorialedia
Having visited the memorials, cut back across the meadow, cross the road and take the riverside path now looking across at Magna Carta Island apparently sold to the Chinese. The river takes a beautiful sweep left, past a monument showing a timeline of English history and across Runnymede Pleasure Grounds, past Wraysbury Skiff and Rowing Club and some very pretty bungalows and moorings. Shortly coming to Bellweir Lock (and here) built in 1817, named after Charlie Bell who opened the Angler’s Rest Hotel here in the 18th Century.
The Angler’s Rest is now Runnymede-on-Thames Hotel, a large sprawling riverside hotel and spa, whose grounds stretch down as far as the M25 Runnymede Bridge which carries the M25, A30 and pedestrians across the river. It is arguably the start of London.
By a superstore car park, there is white iron post – called a “coal tax post“. This was a warning that as a result of the Act of 1831 merchants had to pay a levy on coal from this point onward.
Straines may not today excite much, but it was here in 1215 that the Barons gathered in advance of their meeting with King John at Runnymede. The original wooden Staines Bridge was built some 7 years later. Staines was the end of the tidal reach of the river until 1812 when locks were built further downstream. Along the towpath toward the Swan Hotel, is a row of pretty black and white cottages called The Hythe. The Thames Path however crosses the bridge to the opposite bank, and goes over a footbridge across the river Colne and skirts the town.
Staines is rather pretty, and has a long history as a place of river crossing since the Romans. shortly after the bridge is The Riverside Gardens, and The London Stone. “Dating from 1285, the London Stone used to mark the jurisdiction of the City of London over the River Thames in terms of trade and revenue, as far as Staines-upon-Thames. It is located at the Staines Memorial Gardens along the River Thames” . This is however a replica made in 1986.
In medieval times before the canalisation of the Thames, Staines-upon-Thames was the highest point at which the high tide was perceivable for a few minutes every semi-diurnal tide (twice a day), adding some millimetres to the water depth compared to more upstream parishes. This London Stone marked the upstream limit of the City’s rights. The official role of a Corporation of London stone of 1285 beside Staines Bridge was set out with a grant of associated privileges in a charter of Edward I. Its use by the river is indicated by the indentations (on the right-hand face in the photo), caused by tow ropes of horse-drawn boats rubbing against the stoneWikipaedia
Staines Town Hall is an attractive Italianate building just off to the left, and faces the War memorial. Along the river is a stature commemorating Swan Upping. This is an 8700 year old tradition held in July.
The Swan Master and his team of Swan Uppers row along the Thames for five whole days. When they see a brood of cygnets, they stop to count and measure them. It’s a way of monitoring the mute swan population. A cygnet census. Maybe once upon a time the census was carried out so the king would know how many swans he could have for his dinner. But now, it provides a good opportunity to give the swans a health checkRigid Rogues Gallery
Staines Railway Bridge was built in 1856. The yellow stripes are supposedly to stop swans flying into it. The towpath switches banks here, though the Thames Path carries on.
After the railway bridge, the path passes a number of rather delightful houses, and bungalows, including St Peters Church which opened in 1894. It was financed by Sir Edward Clarke QC who defended Oscar Wilde in 1895.
We then come to Penton Hook an impressive river loop which used to regularly flood. This resulted in the construction of Penton Hook Lock (and here) in 1815. Debris dredged out to form the lock was used to create Penton Hook Island now a wildlife and nature sanctuary, well worth a visit.
Past the inlet for the Queen Mary Reservoir we come to a turn off to Laleham, the home of the Lucan family. The missing Lord Lucan was president of the local golf club, and patron of All Saints Church. The poet Mathew Arnold, born on Christmas Eve 1822, is buried in the church,
The path continues along the main road, and at some points is very narrow. Shortly the view – and sounds – of the M3 makes is presence felt ahead.
A very short distance after the underpass is Chertsey Lock (and here) and Chertsey Bridge, where we find a second Coal Post. The bridge dates from 1783 replacing the original that was built in 1410. The bridge features in Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
I never really intended to stay at Chertsey, because it is some 20 minutes walk from the river. However the Bridge Hotel at Chertsey Bridge and the Crown Hotel in Chertsey, for some inexplicable reason, was refusing to deal with customers’ luggage (because, they said, of the Covid pandemic). So I booked in at The Old Swan In Chertsey. I arrived on the first day of the new regulations dealing with bars and restaurants but the staff were lovely. The room was small, but well furnished, clean, and comfortable.
Chertsey is one of the oldest recorded towns in the country, originally built around Chertsey Abbey founded in 666 until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1536. Stone from some demolished buildings was taken and used in improvements to Hampton Court.