To head west from London these days almost invariably involves the depressing trudge along the M4. So much is fast and rushed that it easy to forget, despite the snatched glimpse, that there is an older England resting not so far away. In the Thames Valley, as it passes in a great loop from just above Windsor, through Cookham and on to Wargrave, we enter just such a world; it touches ancient times in England long ago.
Thoroughfares to the World
Rivers were – are – great thoroughfares. In the early days, Saxons and Vikings, like the Romans and those before them, knew and used them to make incursions inland. While today they are largely the preserve of pleasure craft in this part of the world, the landscape and its associated buildings and monuments reveal that the river here was once a force of great significance.
Indeed, the haunting flatness of the Thames valley floor, combined with the slowly rising valley sides, are deceptive. Only a few years ago, huge swathes of this area were submerged under floods so great that they shook the complacency of Britain’s south-easterners to its core. Make no mistake, the river even now is a hidden power.
Our ancestors knew and respected this. Folk in far off times understood the river, its power and their own sense of place in a much greater way than we might perceive. Once, among the flood and reeds, the water was a marker of possibility. There was a perception of inland, hinterland, outer-land, and coastland. Water was a chain to the world beyond, linking folk around the land and far beyond the seas.
A world once empty yet bejewelled
Hence, in this part of the world, with its splendid views towards Windsor and Eton, we need just to close our eyes to the present and then, in a blink, open them to the past. Now, in a quiet, vast expanse of valley, there is the odd settlement, a lonely chapel, and markers in the landscape which tell of mighty kings.
At Taplow, on its hill above Maidenhead, a Saxon king lies. Here, as the land drops away, is the low of Taeppa – a mound of great statement on its hill top, to be seen from miles away. As the night goes down here, we commune with a king who knew a land which once saw barely a million folk from shore to rocky shore. In such a desolate place, culture blossomed notwithstanding. He lies in Britain but the river takes him home.
When this mound was excavated in the 1880s, great riches were revealed of such significance that they are now displayed in the British Museum. A glorious buckle, feasting vessels, weapons, gaming pieces, a pair of drinking horns… All how we imagine the lives of Saxon princes, asleep below the barrow.
Today, though the mound lies empty, the spirit of the unknown king lies here. His grave lies within an earlier Iron Age hill fort; a later church was built nearby, only to be demolished as a great mansion was built in later Victorian pretension. But all are here because of the river – from here, all can be seen. From below, the hill asserts its power.
Into the valley
There is a spirituality in landscape, in particular one which is flat and isolated. Descending from Taplow onto the flood plain below and then downstream towards Eton, we come to the ancient chapel of St Mary Magdalene at Boveney. This is an ancient church, right by the lowing Thames as it slopes slow towards the west.
A church has stood by these banks for over a thousand years; we must conclude that its location has a geographical and holy basis much older than its twelfth century fabric and later tower. Certainly, to see the church sleeping in its field as it is approached by Boveney is itself uplifting; the landscape contrives with its architectural spirituality to create a great sense of bliss and wellbeing.
The whim of God
Its situation certainly depends on the whim of God. Damp is a constant threat and the ever-present Thames in the days before its locks must have presented a unique sense of fear and isolation. Perhaps, at its founding, it was on a low island, separated by rivulets; who can tell? We are told that the church was built to support the barging community on the Thames, though I suspect such an argument places too much emphasis on industry rather than spirituality; certainly larger riverside settlements are not too far away.
Today, the building is in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches, which, likes the Churches Conservation Trust, is a charity which seeks to preserve churches and chapels which can no longer support themselves and have long since become redundant. We are indeed blessed that others value these wondrous monuments enough not only to care for them but also to ensure that they retain their unique sense of place and decorum in the landscape.
Christ comes to Cookham
All of which brings us neatly to our final destination, the small town of Cookham on its bend in the Thames. Today, Cookham is one of the wealthiest places in the land yet strip away the cars and lifestyle of the modern day and we are once more in older days.
Grand buildings, rich in Berkshire vernacular, create a village-scape which would not be out of place in the illustrations of the Boys’ Own Paper in its nineteenth century heyday. We can see the squire in his buggy, lovely ladies dressed in white and here and there the old, old ways, each person in their place, so to speak.
It was at Cookham of course that grace found its conduit in the works of Stanley Spencer. His astonishing paintings, frequently rotated in the small but excellent gallery dedicated to his works, perhaps tell us all we need to know about this part of the English countryside and its slow and winding river.
If Christ came to Cookham through the work of Sir Stanley Spencer, here indeed was the spirit of the land released into its people. The walkers of the olden ways found their door unlocked. Here, where that unknown Saxon king lies deep within his low, the spirits of the Thames walk again once more abroad.
Author, Translator, Printmaker
I am indebted to David Gilbert for introducing me to this wonderful part of the United Kingdom.