Today we have a tale of two towns.
Chertsey and Staines emerged for opposite reasons. One was for going to, the other for going through. Each owed this to a singular crux: in one case a house of the Christian cross, in the other a river crossing. Those structures are long gone, yet the towns they birthed stand to this day as important crossroads on the river. Add to that that one can hardly cross their paths without being made cross at the political situation, which has seriously crossed a line, and you begin to – well, that’s enough talking across them.
Although, it really did cross a line. And don’t take my word for it. In the present constituency, Runnymede and Weybridge, it was a line too far even for some individuals on the highest balconies of the party responsible.
On the electoral map we are now well into hardcore Tory Thames, blue surrounded by blue. In the December 2019 election they changed their minion in parliament regardless. This was because up till then it happened to be former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. It isn’t anymore.
|Chertsey Bridge is approximately the same colour as Philip Hammond’s lugubriousness.|
Hammond controlled this country’s treasury during some of the cruellest years of the Tory austerity programme and must take his share of responsibility for its dire human rights abuses. Yet relatively speaking, he was a moderate: more concerned with outcomes – however poorly he assessed them – than ideological zeal, preferring to deal in arguments rather than slogans. Ultimately this found expression in a stubborn resistance to a hard Brexit which turned him into a hate figure for the Brexit-rapture demagogues who clawed their way to power under Boris Johnson. At the crunch, Hammond was one of twenty-one Tory MPs expelled from the parliamentary Conservative Party, some of its grandest veterans among them, for voting against Johnson’s Brexit deal. Like many other conservatives he has since wandered into the political wilderness, no longer at home in a party he believes has left him.
It is one of the many subplots of England’s present crisis, and one which will most trouble the hearts of old Tory heartlands like this. The death of English conservatism, a tradition devoured by its own children. It always had its grievous flaws and made terrible mistakes. It had its part in the worst atrocities of industrial exploitation and colonial racism. But somewhere in there was also a more scrupulous dogs-and-meadows-and-fireplaces conservatism that meant something better than violence against dissidents and minorities. An honest and venerable tradition existed, born from legitimate shock at the carnage of the civil wars and the French Revolution, whose instinct was to place a steadying hand of caution on the shoulder of swift and hot-headed change; that enjoyed discussing disagreements over tea and earnestly sought to learn from them; that did not beat its chest about the wonders of industry and empire, but made pragmatic use of those systems to try to do good with their own little bits of them. A conservatism, that is, with integrity in its bones – integrity which to the Brexit revolutionaries, in their contempt for truth and hatred of dissent, has been totally indigestible. Those bones, spat out with dripping conceit, are all that remain of the English conservative tradition: scattered, lost, with a body no longer, washed away on the river.
|Today’s direction of travel: the view north atop Chertsey Bridge.|
But that is what the river does. To the people who live on its floodplain, it brings possibilities and it takes them away. But it does not choose from them. Only they, the English and their predecessors and successors, can do that. Let’s look at a few they did.
Start: Chertsey Bridge (nearest station: Chertsey)
End: Staines Bridge (nearest station: Staines)
Length: 6.4km/4 miles
Location: Surrey – Borough of Runnymede, Borough of Spelthorne
Topics: Chertsey Abbey, Laleham and the Earls of Lucan, the Penton Hook, Staines
Once upon a time there was someone called Cirotis (or Ceorot, as the historian Bede calls him, or Cerotus, which sounds like a Latinised variant). Of this individual nothing is known. Their name is Britonic, not Roman or Anglo-Saxon. And yet, it made enough of an echo for the Anglo-Saxon immigrants to give this site the name of Chertsey, that is to say, ‘Cirotis’s Island’. And it could easily have been an island back then, for it stands on a gravel outcrop in an area where all the water dumped in by tributaries like the Wey give the river a marshy disposition.
|Chertsey’s old town hall, built in 1851, at the head of its high street. A car crashed into its pillars last year which likely accounts for the nervous traffic barrier.|
From the fifth to tenth centuries, the Thames valley’s strategic position and resources made it hotly contested by the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This was not a heartland but a shifting frontier, which the kingdoms of Kent (southeast), Essex (east), Mercia (northwest) and Wessex (southwest) each controlled at least once. In the course of these contests they converted from traditional Germanic religion to Christianity, a complicated process that occurred for different reasons and in different ways.
Out of that process emerged the individual who put Chertsey on the map. Little is known about Erkenwald (or Earconwald – Anglo-Saxon names are not standardised in modern English) except that he came from another frontier area, Lindsey (now Lincolnshire). It is believed he was of royal descent, possibly in the Essex kingdom, which was powerful early on and underwent one of the most internally turbulent Christianisations. Bede goes further and names him as the East Saxons’ bishop. As the case may be, in 666 CE Erkenwald decided to come out into this marshy, desolate and politically unstable middle ground to found the first monastery in Surrey, Chertsey Abbey. This is not something you just get up and do and suggests access to supportive people and resources (not to mention that he founded a second abbey for his sister at Barking, which likewise grew to great importance). These ventures seem to have done him little harm, because after serving as Chertsey’s abbot for a few years he received promotion to Bishop of London.
The original monastery was built of wood and seems to have made a soaring start. It received generous land grants from the Mercian client kings who came into control of Surrey, and got to bury the bodies of high-status Anglo-Saxon saints in its cemetery (always helpful because it means pilgrimages and therefore news and money). But then it got killed.
The Viking raid on Chertsey was not random. It fell under the steamroller of the great Danish invasion of 865, which by the time it got here had swept aside the Anglo-Saxon powers of the east coast – Northumbria and East Anglia – and would soon overwhelm Mercia too. There is a great deal of debate about how much of the Viking phenomenon was as violent as traditionally portrayed or in fact more peaceful – the Christians had a tendency to exaggerate the monstrousness of people not like them – but there seems little doubt that at its sharp end it was seriously atrocious. Monasteries were glinting, undefended treasure chests of wealth and hostile religious authority and therefore frequent targets, and Chertsey’s turn to discover this the hard way came in 871 when Vikings on an expedition down the Thames slaughtered ninety monks, Beocca the abbot and Ethor the priest among them, pillaged the monastery’s riches, and laid waste to its lands. Then they came back and did it again.
The threat subsided after Alfred of Wessex defeated the Vikings and they settled their conquered lands as the Danelaw, but perhaps understandably this violence appears to have left lasting trauma. It is only a century later that evidence arises of Chertsey Abbey getting rebuilt and repopulated, and by monks sent from outside at that. They in turn were chased off by King Edgar in 964 as part the Benedictine Reforms – a programme driven by fear that monasteries’ wealth and influence were being exploited by unserious monks, and thus aiming to give the rules and norms of monastic life more rigour. From where we stand now that may look little more than some religious quibble, but two patterns it strengthened would have enormous consequence later. First, it stuck the king’s authority in the driving seat of religious affairs, which was fine if state and church got on well like Edgar with his Archbishop Dunstan, but not so much if your name is Henry. Second, it drew heavily and deliberately on continental European standards.
Re-planted with Edgar’s regularised monks, Chertsey Abbey escaped the turbulence of its youth and from there the only way was up. King after king queued up to confirm the lands it held and grant it more. It not only survived the Normans but won them over, receiving extensive rights of hunting, foresting and security from William the Conqueror in person. By the time of his Domesday survey in 1086 its land was reckoned at over 50,000 acres, which only increased as his successors handed it more and more. Then in the 1110s a new abbot undertook a massive rebuilding programme, upgrading the church into a towering stone edifice and surrounding it with a full-scale self-sufficient monastic complex of not only chapels, a cloister and domestic buildings but brewing and baking facilities, vineyards, apiaries, and a hydro-engineering project that turned a side-channel of the Thames into its own Abbey River for drinking, cleaning, milling, fishing and sewage.
Needless to say, this was no longer some ascetic retreat in the middle of nowhere (if it ever had been). In its heyday, Chertsey Abbey was one of the heftiest privilege forts of the Thames valley: the brightest star of worship, wealth and scholarship for miles around and by far the largest landowner in these parts short of the king. When anything important happened in Surrey or anywhere near it, the Abbot of Chertsey was sure to be there.
|Chertsey Abbey’s entry in the Domesday Book, courtesy of the National Archives. Considerable paper is taken up to the list the widespread lands it held across Surrey and beyond. The Archives themselves feature in this earlier part of our river journey.|
Beyond the Abbey walls, the Chertsey settlement began to thrive off its success. The village grew into a town. The monks took an mounting role in its planning. In a matter of decades it was an overflowing breadbasket of garden markets and commercial fairs backed up by tile-making and brickworks and a leading centre of trade in this region.
|The Abbey in the fourteenth century, re-imagined in a computer image in the Chertsey Museum.|
Obviously something changed, because today the Abbey no longer exists and Chertsey is, if far from destitute, one of the more modest beads on the Thames valley necklace of glittering affluence. Much as today, the wealthy and successful get to control how the history is written; look through the cracks however and signs can be glimpsed of accumulating trouble.
The monastery’s holdings turned its community into a bunch of rich landlords in a world of downtrodden peasants and serfs. Then as now, as the victims of the present housing crisis will attest, big landowners in the English story tend to operate towards the villainous end of the spectrum. The National Archives records petitions that indicate angry disputes between the Abbey and the tenants and communities on its land. At times their grievances moved them to refuse to work or pay rent, in which case chances were they would be violently repressed for it. This was the kind of structural injustice that fostered the English middle ages’ explosive rural upheavals, most famously the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, whose revenge was bloodily ferocious but whose underlying grievances were legitimate and would persist.
|A fifteenth-century map showing the Abbey and its dominance of the surroundings. Its mills, bridge and causeway highlight the underlying importance of the river in enabling its rise.|
Such over-reliance on agricultural income from landholdings also exposed the Abbey to shifts in the weather and shocks to the labour supply, most especially from plagues like the Black Death. In spite of such vulnerabilities it kept up its prestige, reaching a high point during the Wars of the Roses when it was temporarily called on to bury the body of the almost certainly murdered King Henry VI of the Plantagenet house of Lancaster (who had severe mental health problems so English storytelling has not been kind to him). But by the rise of the Tudors it appears to have crept into serious debt, and from there reports by inspectors grow more scathing. Accusations appear about obsessive superstitions, dodgy relic stories, corrupt sales of land, and inevitably sexual inclinations of kinds the authorities found easy to whip into public prejudice.
It is hard to assess the fairness of these criticisms because the bulk of them came from the minions of Henry VIII, who as it turned out had it in for the monasteries and actively fuelled such grievances to lay a foundation for smashing them. But it is hard to imagine that without genuine cracks in its fabric, Chertsey Abbey, one of the top-tier behemoths of the English monastic system, would have given in as readily as it did. Many monastic communities, like Syon Abbey downriver, frustrated the king and his demolition squads for years and often paid a gruesome price for it. Chertsey surrendered without a fight in 1537. The monks’ sole condition was that they be allowed to keep practicing somewhere else, and they petered on upriver in Bisham, reduced from their erstwhile abundance to grinding poverty. Only a few months later they were forced to surrender again, when they were handed small pensions and this time dispersed for good. For a powerhouse of half a millennium it must have felt a wretched way to go.
Chertsey’s monks might have got away with their limbs intact, but what did not escape dismemberment was their great complex of buildings. Piece by piece it was picked apart, its best stones and tiles cannibalised for Henry’s other palaces (including Hampton Court) and the rest left to local scavengers. Knock on the doors of some of the older houses in Chertsey and nearby villages and you can probably still find some bits of it in their walls.
|Some of the most precious surviving pieces of Chertsey Abbey are its floor tiles, like these in the Chertsey Museum.|
Whatever the political aspects of Henry Tudor’s assault on the monasteries, it was also a colossal act of orchestrated historical vandalism. It destroyed not only buildings but monuments, artworks and libraries full of manuscripts, of which the monasteries looked after some of the oldest and finest in the country. This puts Henry Tudor on a list he really should not want to be on that includes the destructors of the ‘Four Olds’ in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Taliban, Da’esh, and most recently, Donald Trump of the United States with his threats to blow up Iranian cultural sites.
It also makes this a significant point on our river journey. Chertsey Abbey marks our first encounter with a central Thames privilege fort that fell. This shows that they can fall, but the circumstances are unfortunate because it was brought about by a far more oppressive and authoritarian locus of privilege – the monarch – and would go on to enable the rise of another – the new landowning class. Such is England.
But before its collapse into rubble the Abbey did unwittingly sneak in one last little surprise for the people who brought it to its end – a time-bomb of sorts. In 1538, enough of its buildings remained serviceable for Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, to compile the Book of Common Prayer here. This would later become the official prayer book of the English Protestant church and a symbol of the authority of the monarch who now dominated it. A century later it would be the flint that ignited the conflagration of the civil wars when Charles I tried to impose it on the Scots (whose Protestantism was different). In other words, though Chertsey’s power had gone, it did get a last laugh of sorts by planting the seed of a quite spectacular flower: a package of Protestant zeal that would drive the new landowners in Parliament, the lopping off of the king’s head, and the ultimate shunting of the institution which had wrecked it, the monarchy, out of the English political scene.
Except, of course, for the faction that were always uneasy about this and coalesced in Parliament to fight back, at first for a continued strong monarchy, then, when that became a lost cause, for fewer loppings of authoritarian leaders in general. They came to be derided as tóraidhe or Irish bandits – Tories – which brings us back to where we started.
|Another index of Chertsey Abbey’s holdings from the fifteenth century is held by the National Archives and stands out because the scribe doodled all over the margins. At bottom left, he illustrates a nightmare about a terrible creature that would take power in this land six centuries later – notice how the top left appears to begin with a B, for Boris – and prophesies that it can only be forced to reveal its true form by inserting it through a lamp-post.|
So descended Chertsey, which deprived of its nucleus had to make the best of things. At least those things, inherited from the Abbey – a thriving agricultural base, eminent name and strategic position on the river – could have been worse. It recovered fast, then leapt on board the Wey Navigation in 1777 and railways in 1848 to draw in new markets, tourists, a dash of industry – particularly an iron foundry – and monied London bigwigs in search of comfortable places to live (among them Charles James Fox, a figurehead of the Tories’ bitter rivals the Whigs – later the Liberals, later still a component of today’s Liberal Democrats). A further population expansion came with the housing boom after World War II, which swelled Chertsey into roughly the shape it holds today and looked to the local gravel pits for construction materials. Today’s Chertsey no longer towers like the palaces of Hampton below and Windsor above, but thus far it seems to have secured its roots well enough in the wreath of Thames valley prosperity.
|St. Peter’s Church in central Chertsey, built around 1300 as the town expanded though much restored since.|
|Chertsey High Street. Observe how the shopfronts are roughly level, representing their core historic structures, while extensions of varying height and shape were later stacked on top.|
It is not far upriver to the other town in this area, Staines. Yet the area in between is not truly of one or the other. It cannot quite yet be called rural because residential belts and public works have reached out to occupy most of it, while it also provides passage for the principal river crossing in present times, the M3 motorway. But parts of it do introduce a tinge of remoteness, a sense of being neither here nor there. It is a hint that our journey slowly but steadily begins to penetrate into the English interior.
|Chertsey Lock, along with its weir one of several built in the 1810s to manage the Thames’s notorious navigational difficulties in these parts.|
|An old City of London coal tax post, indicating where tax was due on coal being shipped to London. This will be one of the last encountered on this journey – the City’s former jurisdiction ended at Staines.|
|Several bodies of water alongside the river here appear to be filled-in gravel pits, perhaps dug for construction materials during this region’s post-WWII housing boom. Some have now been repurposed by watersports clubs.|
|The river flows on. From here there will likely be more and more stretches that look like this.|
A smaller road called Thames Side follows the river up to Laleham, perhaps the first true village (as opposed to suburbanised village) on this route. Laleham had its own manor house held by Westminster Abbey, whose old grounds we now encroach on.
|The road from Chertsey to Laleham, with a playground marking the south end of the old Laleham manor grounds.|
|The west bank here is taken up by the Chertsey Water Treatment Works. It has a little reservoir whose rim is visible here. This is also the start of a kaleidoscope of houseboats moored along the riverbank all the way to Staines.|
|A couple of boat clubs are the only facilities amidst the willows on the east bank which probably give Laleham its name. There used to be more willows but many were lost in the Great Storm of 1987.|
|A rosebush which has only produced one flower because of the election result.|
The lael in Laleham means twigs, most likely those harvested from the local willows to make osier furniture. Positioned on a relatively straightforward site for a river ferry, this village goes back to at least the tenth century when it appears in the records of Chertsey Abbey, which of course controlled much of its surrounding land. Henry VIII annihilated the option of a tasty baked lunch at that monastery for this walk and therefore necessitated a brief inland exploration of Laleham, which fortunately found a satisfactory alternative in a local café that runs out of the pavilion of its cricket field.
|Laleham’s outskirts as seen from the river. The roads look remote and are certainly not congested, but a fair bit of traffic does trickle along them.|
|One of a series of quiet lanes that run between the river and village. River access must have been of prime importance and would probably make these some of Laleham’s oldest routes.|
|Occasionally in the English interior one comes upon residences whose exteriors have been lined with eccentric figurines like this, often hatted, dressed up or otherwise equipped. This was the most eye-catching of this particular dwelling’s.|
|Laleham’s All Saints Church. The brick tower is a 1730 replacement job but the structure’s oldest parts are more than 800 years old.|
Laleham’s former manor house is called Laleham Abbey, which slightly misleads. It is not an ancient monastery like Chertsey Abbey but a neoclassical mansion born as Laleham House in 1805, which only picked up Abbey status because it was let out to a community of Catholic nuns through the middle of the twentieth century. This being England it is now private apartments, but previously it was notable for the branch of the English nobility who made their seat here: the Bingham family, better known as the Earls of Lucan.
That might sound familiar on account of either of two members of it who pushed their way into the history books for all the wrong reasons. One was the third Earl, George Bingham (1800-1888), who carved a bloody trail of torture and eviction through the population of Ireland during the great famine of the 1840s before sallying off to command a cavalry division in the Crimean War, fought with Russia over ostensibly a religious dispute but really to limit the benefits to Russian power from the decline of the Ottoman Empire. His division consisted of heavy armoured cavalry and fast light cavalry – the ‘Heavy Brigade’ and ‘Light Brigade’ respectively. The latter, whose name might instantly identify the calamity in question, was commanded by Lucan’s brother-in-law; the two men despised each other. This may have influenced the cavalry command’s miscommunications at the 1854 Battle of Balaclava whose outcome was the Light Brigade charging headfirst into the maws of Russian artillery and getting utterly blown to pieces for no reason. In the acrimonious bickering that followed the other officers pinned responsibility on Lucan and he was hauled back to England, where he continued to insist that he was right and the others were to blame. But class is everything in England so his reputation largely got away with it, while the disaster was reborn in imperial romance as the Charge of the Light Brigade. An unpardonable mistake and scandalous waste of life metamorphosed into a glorious tragedy about the courage and heroism of ordinary British soldiers betrayed by the blundering donkeys in command. They later got this narrative out again for World War I and have never really put it away.
The other outstanding Lucan story isn’t much better. It concerns the seventh earl, Richard John Bingham (1934-?), likely the Lucan known to the greatest number of people because of his disappearance in 1974 in unsavoury circumstances. ‘Lord Lucan’, as he remains known, lived a life marked by conspicuous gambling, drinking, high-speed driving and boating, general extravagance and rancorous marriage problems until he vanished into oblivion from his London home after apparently attacking his wife and bludgeoning to death his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, with a lead pipe. He was never seen again, and as is culturally typical here the main concern has been less for the female victims of Lucan’s violent upper-class masculinity and more for the legend that has grown up around the possible whereabouts of what England’s sensationalist tabloid media has turned into the titillating mystery of a dark and dapper aristocratic folklore figure. Initial suspicions of suicide or escape abroad have since been overwhelmed in a profusion of conspiracy theories and claimed sightings from West Africa to New Zealand, with each lead pursued by police ending in frustration. He has since been officially presumed dead, but it is unlikely his name has been uttered for the last time.
On these ignominious notes, let us refrain from bothering the present Earl of Lucan and instead head further up the river to where some interesting water features await consideration.
|The towpath out of Laleham leads to a tentacle of riverside housing which has stretched out from Staines, colonising what would otherwise be a backyard of fields and disused gravel pits turned into lakes.|
For most of this section the river has glided gently along. Then all of a sudden, for reasons known only to itself, it twists into an extreme loop of a meander. It then curves back to within a stone’s throw of where it left and continues as it was as though nothing has happened. This is Penton Hook, and it is quite weird.
|The main river course is at left, swinging back from its loop. At right it now short-cuts through the lock they built.|
Penton Hook looks like a classic case of ox-bow lake formation in progress – or at least it was until they put the lock through in 1815 and broke it. Before it had a lock on it the ‘neck’ used to flood on a seasonal basis and indeed was narrow enough that impatient captains would sometimes force their barges over it rather than bother to go all the way around. It would probably have eroded and eventually become the main river channel, leaving the loop to subside into a lake, but the English have made quite clear of late that they like to have their cake and eat it so have engineered it in such a way that they get to keep both the loop and the cut-off.
The question then is how long it will last. It can be surmised that the river dislikes their attempt to mess with it and they will have to keep sinking money and labour in to keep it this way.
|Penton Hook Lock. The large weirs on both the loop and the cut-off appeared later to further help with flood relief, though there used to be smaller weirs nearby going back to the milling and fishing of the Chertsey Abbey days.|
Penton Hook was also important to the Chertsey Abbey complex. In the course of its great expansion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the monks marched out here to dig a side-channel coming off it into the Abbey River, their very own parallel aqueduct to power their mills and water their fishponds. In effect this turned the land between Penton Hook and Chertsey into an island, the north known as Laleham Burway and the south as Abbey Mead. The division suggests a long history of dealing and quarrelling between Westminster Abbey, which held the manor of Laleham, and Chertsey Abbey which held about everything else. Nowadays this middle ground is shared between a golf course and the water works we saw earlier. In later times they dug out more gravel to the west of Penton Hook, but this too has been filled and is now a 600-berth marina, the largest such inland facility in Britain.
From here the southward residential sprawl of Staines makes first contact with the river, although the town centre is still some kilometres away. The bulk is on the east side, outside of the river bend, which has at any rate hosted the town’s centre of gravity since ancient times. After industrialisation anything which didn’t fit spilled over onto the west side, including the tail of riverside bungalows it has dangled all the way down to Penton Hook. That bank was historically more rural but has long carried the name of The Hythe, meaning a landing place or inland port (compare Rotherhithe and its like in London), and was likely of great strategic importance in that capacity with its access to Staines’s bridge.
|The bungalows begin. From here to Staines the west bank has been almost entirely monopolised for this residential riverside romance. Most of the houses look like they were built or restored fairly recently.|
|The riverside idyll continues. It is quiet and a little suspicious.|
|Steps down to the river like these are common here and look considerably older than the houses.|
At another meander the west-bank bungalows agglomerate into Egham Hythe, a clutch of late nineteenth and twentieth-century settlement brought to the old Hythe by industrialisation and the railways. Various large corporations still keep their headquarters in the business parks between there and the west bank of Staines.
|The inside of the meander opens out to provide a small park between houses and water, where this animistic spirit was found accompanying a man panning for evidence of otherworldly material with his cap.|
|A gathering of waterfowl by Egham Hythe. Swans appear of tremendous importance to Staines’s identity.|
|Nowadays the towpath contends with different kinds of obstructions. But it is the attitudes that have changed, not the material itself: as a working towpath it must have been decked with horse deposits.|
|And now Staines itself materialises on the horizon.|
Then comes the final kilometre into town, where churches and pubs (which so often go together) pop up in the gaps between the houses.
|Staines Railway Bridge, built in 1856 to carry trains between Waterloo and Reading. The yellow stripe along the top is a more recent addition, painted on in the 1990s to bring the bridge to the notice of flying swans so they don’t crash into it.|
|And here is Staines Bridge in person. The present white granite span was opened in 1932 but the history of bridges on and near this site is much, much older and is what seems to have brought this settlement into existence.|
Staines comes from Old English stānas, meaning ‘stones’ (recall the ‘stony ford’ of Stamford Brook). This may refer to the great pile of gravel on which it is built, by far the most significant patch of hard stone in an area of shifting soils and marshes. It was only here, it is said, that you could ford the river without having to put your foot on unstable ground.
But this would have been of significance long before anyone speaking Old English showed up here. The town precedes the string of Anglo-Saxon hamlets downriver, and Staines is not its original name (nor its most recent, as we shall see). There has been a permanent settlement here since at least the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE, though the evidence of archaeology suggests its importance as a river crossing goes back far further still. There are several candidates for its name in Roman Latin, but their common motif is unambiguous: Pontibus, ad Pontem or Pontes (‘at the bridges’ or simply ‘bridges’).
|Just short of the bridge the River Colne arrives from Hertfordshire. This tributary has put up with a lot of human interference, such as Grand Union Canal interactions and cuts to supply water features in both Syon Park and Hampton Court. But its valley further north is quite pleasant and can be experienced on the London Loop.|
In England one of the most symbolic legacies of Roman occupation is their roads, paved and shaped to superb engineering standards to assist troop movements and trade. The image of the ruthlessly straight Roman road lingers in the English imagination to this day as a stamp of Roman regimented authoritarianism that has permanently disrupted the natural landscape, yet people continued to use them long after the Romans left and in many places they form the basis of the modern national network.
Staines’s present site was where the main road west out of London reached the river again. Its proposed Roman names are in plural form, suggesting they built not one bridge but several. If this was a deliberate taking advantage of the ease of fording at this site then it is likely the bridges determined the road placement and then the settlement's, much indeed as with London itself. And once they made it across the river, the road continued to the major crossroads town of Calleva Atrebatum (the Iron Age centre of the Atrebates people, taken over and expanded by the Romans).
This arrangement did not long outlast the Romans’ departure, after which much of this route fell into disuse. Calleva Atrebatum was abandoned a few centuries later in mysterious circumstances, possibly a result of this infrastructural decline or of devastation by the Plague of Justinian; its ruins are now in the shadow of the village of Silchester in Hampshire. At some point the road beyond Staines acquired the name Devil’s Highway, suggesting a sense of mystery or menace had overtaken its original purpose in the eyes of later inhabitants.
Nonetheless, the site had taken on the life of its own that two millennia later presents us with the current town. At first it was important because they came to cross the river, not to visit the ford in its own right. But bridges concentrate hungry, tired and safety-conscious travellers in one place and are ideal for people trying to sell them things, especially if one can unload them in bulk onto armies or catch some governor or general passing by to lubricate one’s prestige with their patronage. Then the merchants themselves need houses to live in, as do the craftspeople who come in to build them. So grew the town-by-the-bridges.
It must have been important enough to make a long-term imprint, because though it fades into obscurity after the Roman departure and the road system shifts around it, it reappears in the records a thousand years later and appears quick to resume business as usual, now under a new name. Stanes is listed in the Domesday Book as a large settlement of 140 households under the control of Westminster Abbey. Soon after that, three crucial things take place on its watch one after the other. In 1215 a bunch of barons assemble there before crossing the river to a field, where they press King John’s nose into the Magna Carta (to be encountered in the next instalment). The following decade a bridge resurfaces in written records in the first of many requests to the government for timber to repair it. Soon after that Staines’s ‘London Stone’, marked 1285, appears by the river, a first sign of the City of London’s assertion of its rights up to this limit that it would hold until 1857.
With all this attention Staines could hardly not revive itself into a bustling medieval market town. Still on a strategic junction and at a convenient distance from London for a first night’s rest for road and river travellers, the processes which birthed it a millennium earlier repeated themselves as churches and coaching inns sprang up, boosted by the produce of the farm fields of Middlesex and Surrey while drawing traffic, commerce and big-named customers with its proximity to sites of national significance like Chertsey Abbey and Windsor Castle.
|Staines wants people to know how much swans mean to it. This sculpture depicts a uniformed ‘swan-upper’, for whose tradition (as discussed at Kingston) Staines is a key centre.|
|More swans: the Swan Hotel, on the opposite riverbank upon the old Hythe. It is eighteenth century or older, refers specifically to swan-upping and traditionally provides the teams that do it with lunch.|
From there Staines nestles into the familiar pattern of the Thames valley towns, embracing the fruits of industrialisation and the railways to swell with housing and relatively genteel varieties of manufacturing to eventually take the shape it retains today. Its standout was a massive Linoleum factory, built in the 1860s to become the first and world-leading producer of that composite floor covering, and the cornerstone of its economy, till its closure a century later; the Two Rivers shopping centre stands where it stood now. Most of Staines’s surviving buildings date from the same period, including its present bridge, which despite the storied footprint it stands in has not been spared the other Thames bridges’ catalogue of embarrassing design failures and replacements. This might stem in part from its experience as a notorious traffic bottleneck after the rise of the motor car, especially in holiday periods, a burden only relieved by the M25 above and the M3 below in the late twentieth century.
|The centre of Staines, with a sighting of the critically endangered Greater Spotted Debenhams.|
|Behold – not just any iron bridge as you find anywhere, but The iron bridge. The one and only. Tremble in fear.|
Thus did a place for going through rather than to outgrow the structures that birthed it and stake a new identity by the river, much as Chertsey did after it lost its monastery. Yet in Staines there is one more chapter which reminds us that history does not end in the present.
In 2012, amidst some controversy, its name changed again: the town known for the best part of a millennium as Staines became Staines-upon-Thames. This is now the official name by which it appears on maps, but in recognition of persisting dissent and respect for the spirit of democracy, which does not allow majorities to impose things on people who have not consented, let us continue to call it Staines till we can be sure everyone there is alright with the change.
It might appear a trivial tweak, but names are important, not to mention expensive to alter in a hyper-bureaucratic age – otherwise we might ask why the council went to the trouble in the first place. The ostensible reason was to bring it in line with the names of other settlements along the Thames and emphasise its connection to the river. But this is not exactly convincing. They do not call its neighbours Chertsey-upon-Thames or Windsor-upon-Thames, and as we have seen there is no settlement whose riverine heritage better speaks for itself along here than Staines, the town by the bridges. A different explanation was soon doing the rounds of the newspapers: that the real reason was to break the town’s association with Sacha Baron Cohen’s television character Ali G, whose satirical portrayal of a gangster upbringing in the ‘Staines Ghetto’, it is argued, did it a similar disservice to that done by Borat, another of Cohen’s characters, to the nation of Kazakhstan. Staines’s chieftains want business to come to it now rather than merely crossing through it, under which consideration it seems they were upset at the thought of Ali G giving them a repellent reputation. If so it is still unclear what adding -on-Thamesto its name does to change that, nor whether people won’t be bothered to get used to the extra syllables.
As the case may be, Staines, upon Thames or not, is the place where this journey rests for today. Once its name was moored to its bridges as Chertsey’s was to its monastery, but clearly that is no longer the case. The river erodes their stories much as it does the earth beneath them, liberating the fragments that fall off when the humans break them but also bringing fresh nourishment to nurture new ones, as though it never gives up hope they will learn the lessons.
If this country really does head for ruin, then unless they truly screw up beyond comprehension the river will still be there afterwards. Perhaps then, in remembrance of the better things they made here, from linoleum to monastic bread, they can rebuild something that will not, this time, project violence out of this valley and around the world. Like the legacies of the abbey and bridge, it may take a few hundred years, or a thousand. If these words somehow survive that long and you are reading them in that era, please take a look and see if they are still calling it Staines-upon-Thames.
A special thank you to the Chertsey Museum for much of the information in this section.