Tales from the riverbank

IT’S hardly surprising to hear the mental health charity Mind saying how time spent surrounded by nature benefits both our mental and physical wellbeing.

It’s almost self-evident that nature heals, connects and gives us a clearer sense of perspective, not to mention all those measurable bonuses in terms of blood pressure, heart rate and reduction of stress hormones.

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Half an hour out of the house and striding through open meadowland with only the whistle of the red kites for company, I’m already feeling the benefit of escaping from the computer, the news feeds and the endless soul-destroying political intrigues about Boris, Brexit and our relentless destruction of our beautiful planet.

Apart from the startling view over the valley and the site of the soaring kites riding the thermals, there’s also a flurry of activity among the wild flowers as a handful of small heath butterflies flutter about in the breeze.

I wish I could accurately identify more of the insects and plant life around me, but for once, this one hung around long enough for me to see the markings…

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I’m nipping across the fields to explore a section of the ‘Berkshire Loop’, an extension to the Chiltern Way created in 2010 by the Chiltern Society to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the 134-mile circular walking route.

As explained by Pete Collins on his excellent walking website, the 28-mile loop starts near Penn and branches south from the Chiltern Way, passing just west of Beaconsfield to cross the Thames at Cookham.

It then heads west through Cookham Dean, before re-crossing the Thames at Henley and eventually meeting the southern extension of the Chiltern Way at Harpsden Bottom.

From my lofty perch in the meadow on the climb up to Kiln Lane, it’s a picture of Buckinghamshire peace – although in times past from here you might have spotted a puff of steam across the valley from a train taking the old Great Western line from Maidenhead to High Wycombe.

Nowadays the rails stop at Bourne End, but they used to run through single-platform stations in Wooburn Green and Loudwater, closed with the line in 1970.

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I pick up the Berkshire Loop in Wooburn Common just past the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub with an interesting menu which will provide a welcome venue for my evening meal at the end of my six-and-half-mile ramble.

For now, open country is beckoning and I’m heading down a road marked as unsuitable for motor vehicles before taking the picturesque path through the woods which heads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas.

The footpath leading across the field up to the church is particularly inviting – a real flashback to a bygone era and a well-trodden path across the centuries.

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Given the spectacular location, there may well have been a Saxon church on this site – or even an earlier Pagan temple, as an old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames at Hedsor Wharf close by.

Hedsor Wharf is the where the route heads next, past a field of what look like coal-black dragonflies dancing in the breeze as the path leads down to the Thames at Cookham.

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It’s not hard to see why this area has known different civilisations across the past 4,000 years. There is a small Bronze Age settlement between Marlow and Cookham, signs of a Roman settlement to the southern end of Cookham Rise, and crossing points were always crucial on a great river like the Thames.

Here, the stylish Ferry pub harks back to earlier times, before the building of a bridge in 1840 provided an easier crossing point. The current single-track road bridge dates from 1867 and was a toll bridge until it was bought by the council in 1947.

From here, after the briefest of encounters with the traffic queueing to cross the old bridge, it’s a pleasant and much less polluted riverside ramble west to Bourne End, accompanied by swans, coots and geese, and still pleasantly warm in the late-afternoon sun.

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The narrow boat and cruiser owners are out tinkering with their mooring ropes, the dog walkers from Cookham are taking the air and there’s more of a bustle on the footpath than on the deserted sections north of the river.

But then this is a popular saunter down to Bourne End, and a more conventional route would be to cross the river there on the railway bridge and continue to take the Thames path on the other side on into Marlow.

Past the rail bridge, families are chilling out in the terrace of The Bounty pub at Cockmarsh, and an alternative option would be to follow the four-mile National Trust circular tour back across Cock Marsh to rejoin the Chiltern Way near the Winter Hill Golf Club.

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Or you can stick to the riverside path a little longer before cutting away at an angle towards Winter Hill, another section of National Trust land where the terraces are known to have been colonised by the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age (350,000 – 10,000 BC).

Habitation at the site has continued ever since, as is evident from the Bronze Age burial mounds at Cock Marsh, and huge amounts of Roman pottery were removed from the foot of Winter Hill in 1906, which is thought to have been the site of a ferry across the River Thames.

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For now the marshy terrain looks slightly less welcoming, although it’s a very pleasing outlook over the valley and runners and dog walkers are out on the main paths, where the National Trust is working to maintain what it can of the surrounding chalk grasslands.

It makes a perfect hunting ground for a sneaky heron, however, whose hungry stance is a reminder that it’s time to get a move on and complete the final lap of the journey towards Marlow and dinner…

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The weather becomes a little duller for this stretch, as I depart from the Chiltern Way again and make tracks towards Marlow, utilising part of the 11-mile Cookham Bridleway Circuit and being side-tracked through Longridge and Bisham before finally emerging onto the welcome last leg.

The historic bridge beckons, along with the equally iconic image of All Saints Church. From here, it’s an easy wander through the town’s picturesque back streets to the station, from where the weary traveller can still catch the “Marlow Donkey” back to Bourne End or Maidenhead.

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It seems likely the nickname was actually bestowed on the little Great Western Railway 0-4-2 saddle tank locomotive which used to provide this service back in the early part of the 19th century rather than the two-coach multiple units which run the service today, but the name lives on the local Greene King pub and is too atmospheric not to treasure.

Back at the Chequers Inn for dinner, there’s  time to ponder an earlier form of transport. What must it have been like travelling in these parts three centuries ago, when the first regular stagecoach services began?

By the mid-18th century, England was crisscrossed with coach routes, and hundreds of inns were spread out at seven to 10 mile stages across the land. The coach stopped at the end of each stage to change horses and allow passengers to refresh themselves.

From the 17th century onwards, a stage coach service was well established from London to Oxford, passing though Uxbridge, Beaconsfield and High Wycombe. By the end of the 18th century as many as twenty coaches might come by in a day – and as Clare Bull explains on the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society’s website, those early travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort.

Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to pass through some of the most notorious highwaymen’s haunts, it seems.

From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses. The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite drinking dens.

On the Oxford Road the most notorious marauder was Jack Shrimpton, a native of Penn who was hanged in 1713. Earlier still, Claude Du Val, renowned for many stories of his gallantry, was hanged at Tyburn in 1670 at the age of 27.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery in the area was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury – a suitably gripping fireside story to regale the weary traveller before a welcoming bath and bed.

 

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