|The cannon is because they knew we were coming.|
There is no straightforward way to handle this one. Most English people know of Eton College, if more through its mythos than the thing itself. And one does not simply know Eton College. Generally speaking, to know Eton College is to either adore it or to resent it to every monied brick in its crenellations.
Why, indeed, does a school need crenellations?
Perhaps to call it a school is misleading. It is a school, of course – the most infamously exclusive in England (and needless to say, one of the most expensive) – but only in the first instance. In the ways that matter it is so much more.
What we have here is an England. Eton College is an embodiment of this country, or rather of a specific vision of it which, though only a tiny minority of its population ever passes through its doors, wreaks so reekingly powerful an impact on the majority that it needs no introduction. A vision so storied, so intractable, that to its detractors, and there are many, Eton is no less than the principal sausage-factory of England’s white, male, upper-caste forces of destruction and the ultimate locus of fault for the ruin of their land.
Thus while physical Eton nests safe and snug in the Thames Valley, imaginary Eton is a castle under permanent siege. And behind its walls, as much as anywhere else in the world, there is no hard border between reality and imagination. That, perhaps, explains the crenellations.
Is it fair to lay guilt for so supreme a crime at the gates of one mere school? The real significance of the condemnation of Eton in these terms is perhaps less literal, more mythic: a permanent counter-mythology which, in crashing upon the school’s mythology, becomes half the dialectic nest of narrative power which sustains the legend of Eton. But in factual terms the case is not without grounds. To say nothing of its graduates’ perpetual dominance in media, commerce, religion and the military, the twenty prime ministers it has manufactured include both the individual who instigated the Brexit crisis for no reason, David Cameron, and the one who now consummates its descent into the abyss of authoritarian nationalism, Boris Johnson. This entire saga can and has been read as the continuation of a tussle between these two bully-boys which started in Eton’s playgrounds: rollicking, soaked in seven varieties of bodily fluids, now spilt out to nation-wrecking scale. And then, goes this telling, once the country’s breaking is complete, the lives of everyone in it laid waste, and their chisel lodged securely in their mortal wound to the post-World War II European peace settlement, these Etonian man-boys will bear none of the consequences but march away across a burning horizon, underpants overflowing with multiple multimillion-pound incomes for doing nothing while they slap each other’s backs, chortling at what a fun game it all was – and really believing it.
The game. Here and in the wider English public-school universe, this seems to be the operating principle, the nexus to which everything returns. The world is your game, and this is how you play it. If that means the Boris and Dave Show is Eton’s doing, how often has the same been the case for the political currents that shaped England and Britain in the past? Conspiracy theories are dangerous and should not be mistaken for serious consideration. But the distance between reasonable suspicions on the one hand, and the mythic image of this place as the puppeteers’ tower behind so many of England’s imperial misdeeds and perennial structures of oppression on the other, is not great enough to satisfy scrutiny.
What shall we do with it? There is no getting around it, because cross the bridge from Windsor and there it is, lording upon the northern bank where it secretes a power uniquely its own. A power not jewel-studded or glintingly solid like the stone towers of royalty it faces across the river, yet nonetheless every bit its equal and in practical terms quite possibly its superior. Its crown is made of different material: subtler, less tangible, wafting and oozing and sausaging rather than towering, all the more challenging to pin down for how it is in that very swirl of myths and symbols, ever elusive to those they are designed to ward away, that is concealed the source of Eton’s power.
|Upon Windsor Bridge, facing upriver (west) with Windsor at left and Eton right. The college’s old boathouse facilities at right have been re-done into apartments; instead of the river they now train at a colossal artificial lake further upstream.|
Less a school, then, and more a phenomenon: one built right into the heart of both the stories and power relations of the phenomenon called England. Its class system, its problems of race and gender, its land, its empire, and now its post-imperial nervous breakdown – everything refracts through the Etonian prism in ways that are impossible to grasp, because as soon as you get close, it moves, teasingly, just enough, like the well-timed evasive twist of a cricket bat, then chuckles down at you that you’ll never really get it because after all, it’s just a game, and you’re not special enough to play it.
Maybe so. But it so happens we’re playing a larger game here and Eton is in the way. Let’s devour some sausages.
|Your barricades will be of no use, Eton College.|
Start: Windsor Bridge (nearest stations: Windsor and Eton Riverside; Windsor and Eton Central)
End: Maidenhead Bridge (nearest station: Maidenhead)
Length: 10.5km/6.5 miles
Location: Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; Buckinghamshire – South Bucks
Topics: Eton College, Eton’s backyard, Boveney and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church (which is special), vampires (Oakley Court) and cannibals (Monkey Island, Headpile Eyot), Bray, Maidenhead
Though synonymous with the school these days, the actual settlement of Eton pre-dates it by some centuries. Its origins are unclear, but the etymology is as plain as they come – Old English ēa (river) or ēg (island), and tūn (farmstead/estate/settlement), hence ‘town by the river/on an island’ – and its growth, for what there was of it, came for no more glamorous reason than its service to the London-to-Windsor road in an age when most traffic would have gone by river anyway.
|Traditional chronometry still in use points to the underlying rusticity of this area.|
Then the school, or rather the phenomenon, materialised. The hamlet of Eton was eaten. It serves the school now.
Penetrate the high street and you come to the school complex proper, which you know at once is more than a school because its ‘chapel’ alone looks like something a cyborg Pope would be happy to sleep in or launch ICBMs out of the ceiling.
|To call that a chapel is like calling the Great Wall of China a fence. Can you believe that they originally wanted to make it twice as big?|
Paradoxically, Eton College is unique because it is one of a set: an elite club of independent schools, originally seven in total, known to the English as public schools. The name is confusing because they are not public but as private as a school can possibly be, perched at the pinnacle of the English school system and traditionally only opening their gates for male children from the richest, most landed and/or politically-connected families in the country (indeed, till 1990 Eton graduates could register their sons at birth). The reason for the misleading name is a very English historical irony which should become clear in a minute.
Eton and the other public schools have shared histories. Typically these are imagined as fierce rivalries, especially on the sports fields, but in fact have more of a basis in cooperative action to secure their shared interest in a permanent hold on the apex of the English social pyramid. At the same time, each school has grown into a world of its own with a culture, set of linguistic dialects and legend whose nuances are distinct from the others. Eton is therefore not Winchester, Harrow or Westminster, to name a few of its accomplices-disguised-as-rivals, yet the path its story has carved through England’s parallels and regularly intersects theirs.
To really sense their impact on the English story, and indeed the world’s, we must draw back further still till we can to take in the whole new mythic archetype their tradition produced, first in English literature, and now in a worldwide cultural consciousness. The genre of the special school, to call it no more than that, broke into popularity with Thomas Hughes’s semi-autobiographical Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, set at another of the original seven, Rugby. A century and a half’s development expanded it into English literary settings like Greyfriars, Brookfield, St. Trinian’s, and the Assassins’ Guild of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, each fictional but drawing heavily on the public schools’ idiosyncrasies, particularly the violent ones – authoritarian teachers who beat pupils with canes, entitled children smashing and rioting out of control, the cult of sports, the normalised physical and sexual abuse – and by drinking from the legends of the real public schools, so fed those legends in turn.
From there it was only a short stretch till the imaginary schools got literal worlds of their own, set apart from the ordinary population no longer by mere social barriers but magical or metaphysical ones too. The example to end all examples is of course the Hogwarts wizarding school of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, but as is often the case, what the Japanese have done with the tradition is particularly instructive. Tom Brown’s School Days was astonishingly popular during the reforms of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when it was translated and edited as an English textbook. A century later Japanese video games have produced one of the special school’s most masterful expressions of all: the significance of the Garreg Mach Officers’ Academy in Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019) will be viscerally known to anyone familiar with this masterpiece in which you play as a professor instructing the children of the nobilities of that world’s three great powers in the magical and military arts, only to later get caught up in their brutal world war against one another in which that learning ends up tragically applied. By participating in this same tradition – an exclusive school that only takes rich and connected people (perhaps with a few token commoners), but disgorges its calamitous political consequences onto everybody – Garreg Mach is linked by a long and crooked but unbroken line across space and time to Eton and the English political breakdown.
|Seriously. Who lines up spire after spire like that just for the look of it? The onus is on the school to prove these are not antennae lined up for purposes of communications, warfare, or spacetime manipulation.|
Where did it come from? To answer that requires a trip back a few hundred years to when England could barely be called a nation. An overwhelmingly agricultural country in which most people were feudally-impoverished serfs, it had little in the way of shared identity, mass literacy or media, and so no formal public (note the word) education system for the Muggles. Centres of learning were typically private, controlled by elite bodies which trained selected children in knowledge and skills specific to their interests. That meant the Church above all, but also nobles and powerful merchant guilds like the City of London livery companies.
It was to counteract this that the public schools emerged. They were typically founded by charities to offer education to poor and underprivileged local children, regardless of socio-economic status or religious background. They were often the personal projects of philanthropists who were either deeply devout or minded to leave the world a constructive legacy – Lawrence Sheriff at Rugby, John Lyon at Harrow – and so were motivated not by profit but the moral and civic betterment of society. Hence public schools, open to anyone, in contrast to the gated private establishments of the church and guilds.
And there is their existential irony. Between then and now, they flipped one hundred and eighty degrees. Now the public schools are this nation’s most fortified engines of the very inheritance of privilege, writ so much vaster by industrial capitalism, that they were birthed to challenge in the first place.
|These appear to get the joke. Do you? Me neither.|
Their successful take-off owed much to the support of England’s kings and queens, especially after this country’s excruciating Reformation experience when the Protestant monarchs saw in these schools a means to rebuild a stable religious framework. They funded them, took active roles in setting them up, and in some cases founded them themselves. That was the case at Eton, but with a certain difference: it was the pet project not of a king trying to put his country back together, but one watching helplessly as it fell apart.
Henry VI of Lancaster (1421-71), one of the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, was big on education. Thoroughly educated himself and possessing a love of reading, this shy and gentle king was keen to pass on its rewards by building schools and universities. Sadly history – or rather the English – had a different legacy in mind for him. What he didn’t like was the macho physical stuff of knighthood and warmongering, and this left him vulnerable in an age of one of England’s worst constitutional breakdowns: its final defeat in the Hundred Years’ War with the French, and the consequent bloodthirsty power struggle of the Wars of the Roses that finished the Plantagenets for good. This storm of cutthroat nobles and barbarous political designs happened to crash down on perhaps the one English king who was cognitively least suited to deal with it. Wishing only to be left alone with his books, it eventually drove him into a mental breakdown from which he never really recovered, whereupon his enemies imprisoned him in the Tower of London then almost certainly murdered him. Predictably, because of his mental health problems and inability to be a model of toxic masculinity, English culture has not endeared itself in its portrayals of him.
If the English ruling class’s own mental breakdown devoured most of Henry VI’s accomplishments then Eton was the one great exception, a lasting gift they probably ought to have done better with. He founded the college next door to Windsor in the 1440s, with the idea that it would train seventy poor children, for free, before funnelling them on to another new college he created at Cambridge University. To this end he endowed it with lavish funding, extensive land, and even some precious holy relics, a sure sign of his personal investment in this project. Much of this bequest was then taken off it by Henry’s nemesis and deposer, Edward IV of York, and it barely survived with admittedly scaled-down ambitions (which is why it only has half the “chapel”).
|Behind that fortification is the main courtyard of Eton College. The answer is no.|
|Henry VI gets a pub named after him on Eton’s high street for his founding role. He doesn’t seem to get many elsewhere.|
In time however the intake was expanded. Alongside those seventy king’s scholars, extra pupils were admitted so long as they paid fees, thus mainly drawing in children of the nobility. They resided in the boarding-houses that began to agglomerate around the school complex in Eton village, hence their name of Oppidans, from the Latin oppidum for ‘town’. Here was the seed whose eventual shoots would twist the nature of the school upside down. The more fees the Oppidans brought in, the greater grew the temptation for profit. By the eighteenth century there were more than a hundred of them. Headmaster after headmaster fertilised this plant with excuses and sophisms to persuade critics – or perhaps themselves – that this did not compromise the original mission. By the time its vines strangled that mission, few remembered it enough to notice.
Additionally, this being an intensely gendered country, all these children – scholars and Oppidans – were boys. This would be true of the intake of the other public schools as they appeared over the following century, and at many of them, including this one, it still is today. It is a good example indeed of the tenacity of inherited structural oppression, because even half a millennium down the line the effect is to still shut girls out of the elite tier of English education while isolating the pubescent boys within from female contact, thus stewing them in a silo of artificial masculinity.
|Students’ housing packs the lanes surrounding the main school complex. In the early days the Oppidans were lodged with landladies within the town, but dedicated collective houses emerged as the numbers grew to necessitate them.|
As the Oppidans were questionable to Eton’s mission, much ritual initially distinguished them from the king’s scholars. Though this distinction would fade, the growth of such odd rituals, ceremonies, institutions and linguistic habits went hand in hand with the college’s development as a school, coalescing into the archaic subcultural identity which now endures as the spine of the Etonian mythos. The headmaster of Eton was called the Provost, teachers were beaks, and senior pupils appointed to supervise the others were Preposterous Ones – sorry, praeposters. Life under this regime was harsh. The regimented 5am-to-8pm schedule was strictly enforced, and all teaching and conversation held in Latin lest one be thrashed by the preposterouses. There was only one hour of play per day and two three-week holidays a year. Violent punishment was administered not only by the staff but by selected pupils, and so a hierarchical culture emerged, a kind of class system within a class system for this state-within-a-state under supreme and mystical headmasterly autocracy. From this emerged customs such as the notorious fagging, by which a junior pupil was attached to as senior one as his personal servant and occasional punching bag and/or sex toy – a perfect instruction in English power relationships whether in a feudal, Victorian or Boris flavour. While fagging took place in almost all the public schools till it fell out of fashion in the 1970s, a more uniquely Etonian creation was the Pop society, which was formed in 1811 as a debating club but became a glamorous and extremely selective elite-of-the-elite with sweeping privileges and disciplinary powers (one reading of the Boris and Dave Show is that Boris got in but David did not). The black-and-white-penguin uniform with top hat, on the other hand, only appeared in the late nineteenth century.
|Perhaps the College’s linguistic archaisms have leaked into the surrounding environment. Not everywhere in this country would you get away with names like this.|
Accompanying this grew the cult of sports, whose importance in the public school landscape cannot be overstated. Over the centuries Eton developed vast acres of land here and elsewhere as playing fields, whereupon sports were played for not so much fitness as the nigh-spiritual inculcation of a muscular ruling-class ethos. Whether in cricket, rowing and boxing or more esoteric exercises – Eton fives, the Eton wall game, and its own code of football – it seems the idea was that learning to play the game on the sports field was analogous to then going off to play the game in the ministries, boardrooms, courtrooms, battlefields and colonial administrations. The will to win at all costs on the sports field, no matter how many rules you broke or children you trampled, thus prepared you to champion a triumphant imperial vision of Englishness itself, a rearrangement of the world forged in the sweat and blood of exactly the entitled, ruthless masculinist physicality which drove the school’s founder mad then murdered him (which might explain why Boris did this).
|A sports field over the shoulder of the main school complex, just a tiny fraction of its outdoor laboratories of empire. The river itself has long been taken advantage of for the aquatic division of those games.|
Eton reached its zenith in the late eighteenth century under the reign of King George III, who spent a lot of his time at Windsor Castle, regularly crossed the river to talk with its teachers and pupils, and built himself a lasting place of admiration within the annals of the school. But in the following decades it lapsed into a crisis, shared in part with the other public schools, as a new level of scrutiny fell on its indiscipline, crumbling living conditions, narrow classical curriculum, inadequate food, and the general sense that as a phenomenon it was out of control. Eventually the complaints gathered enough momentum for the government to set up the Clarendon Commission of 1861, a seminal moment in the story of the public schools. The short of it is that a panel composed entirely of those schools’ former pupils was sent to pretend to investigate them, which after a show of smug headmasters lying and dissembling their way through its interrogations, produced a 2,000-page report praising these schools to the heavens for their service to the English class system. The upshot was the 1868 Public Schools Act, a formal and legal guarantee of these schools’ permanent independence outside royal, church or government control. Born as a bunch of charity organisations set up to offer knowledge and skills to the children of poor families, some long course of cultural and institutional apoptosis had corroded those functions away. What remained performed better as their very opposite: exquisitively-shaped incubators of white male ruling-class English meat, now invincibly installed at the top of the education system to funnel those sausages, generation after generation, into dominant positions in every national power structure.
|And simultaenously, a Tartarus of suffering for boys like Henry VI who do not share that psychology, thus wringing them out of the English ruling classes.|
With this formal celebration of its privileged position, the shackles were off – Eton and the other schools could practically do whatever they wanted. It improved its teaching standards and student accommodation and drastically widened its curriculum. By the 1890s it was taking over one thousand pupils, not much less than the number today. In the century that followed it was forced to adapt to profounder challenges as the English imperial dream, and with it the prestige of pompous authoritarian class structures, collapsed in the bloodbaths of two world wars, colonial struggles for independence and the feats of English socialism, altogether threatening the archaic Eton chimera with a new vision, a world of sense and equality, in which it looked nervously out of place. And yet, the deeper authoritarian hierarchicalism and violent prejudices of English society never truly went away and today have re-asserted themselves with a vengeance, and somewhere in the midst of the storm of flying fluids that generates them is Eton College, which may or may not be as responsible as the mythology suggests but certainly has questions to answer for the proverbial food poisoning its chunkiest and most dubiously-composed meat products have inflicted on its nation.
|That’s Henry VI standing in there in ‘what the hell have they done to my school?’ posture.|
Is that fair? In honesty I cannot state with confidence how much of this is a proper reflection of Eton’s history and how much is myth, whether woven by the school itself or those attempting to peer over its battlements. Every person whose journey has passed through this school, be they its triumphs or its casualties, will have their own version to tell. But in the special school, to fully disentangle fact from fiction is impossible – not only because the physical and cultural walls it puts up by nature are impenetrable to strangers, but because that inscrutable mystique is so essential to what it is. A vision of the English nation is crystallised in this one, and it is an open question whether Eton has re-moulded the real England to serve that vision, or whether Eton itself, founded by a most un-Etonian king to offer free education to poor people, was eaten by the real England.
Let’s move on on a final critical note: that not everyone in such a world of privilege benefits from it. Just as many people might feel it’d be great to be king, there are many others who don't. But the “privilege” of hereditary monarchy doesn’t care who it lands on. It has made horrible casualties out of people like Henry VI for whom its gift was a curse, and likewise Homo etonis is not a model of the human being that tastes good to everybody. For every strutting Boris and Dave, how many gentler, humaner little boys have been traumatised for life by the crueller customs and noxious competitive masculinities of Eton and the other public schools? It is true that the scholarly standards and opportunities of these schools can fantastically equip your mind, but they also leave a permanent mark on you which changes your interactions with others, not least in an austerity-shattered age of corporate serfdom in which people are punished for thinking. This can be refreshing for a Boris who considers ordinary people beneath him anyway, but like Harry Potter's scar or Fire Emblem's Crests, it can just as easily be a burden, an alienation from the rest of the world too vast and intangible to be bridged by mutual understanding. Perhaps the number of old Etonians who find themselves hesitant, almost embarrassed, to reveal what school they went to when asked is no surprise.
Yes – I went to one of these schools too. Obviously not this one. The feelings are complex, the pain deep and sharp. The gifts have been great (perhaps to some extent set me up for writings like these) but emotionally and relationally the curse has cut unbearably deep. Had I a clue about all this back then, would I have gone there? In honesty, I don’t know. Too soon to say.
Enough. We press on.
Beyond, the Thames begins to sustain a sense of rurality. But this is still Etonian territory, so face does not necessarily reflect character. The north bank is studded with the college’s satellite hamlets, commons and farms, interposed by the odd old manor house here and there. By far the boldest stamp of the school’s supremacy is obvious on the map: the two-kilometre-long artificial lake which it has carved out of the land for its watersports.
This hinterland of the school’s state-within-a-state starts right outside the Eton settlement with the Brocas meadow. The name is Norman, from the aristocratic family who held this land in the shadow of Windsor Castle in thirteenth-century pre-college days. Nowadays the castle serves as a piece of romantic backdrop for the picnics and funfairs the locals perpetrate here.
|The Brocas meadow, devoid of picnics and funfairs because a) morning and b) winter.|
|A pair of Egyptian immigrants contributing to this country by mowing and fertilising the Brocas for free.|
|The Brocas cliffs. On the other side is the Windsor riverside tourist honeypot.|
|Meadows like this are considered better with a great big fairytale castle looming in the background.|
Slough is an invisible presence in this area, the major centre of human activity at the London-facing end of Berkshire. The unappetising name seems to have something to do with soil. Its great urbanisation was driven by the massive trading estate to its west, which grew out of an army repair depot in the years after World War I and now hosts England’s heftiest collection of big corporate headquarters outside London. Their demand for labour drew in many different groups of immigrants, especially from the Indian subcontinent after World War II, making Slough a place of great ethnic diversity. Lately it has suffered extensive redevelopment at the expense of cherished architectural heritage, similar to what affects Maidenhead at the end of today’s section.
|Spring shows signs of appearing. It is February. This is not right.|
|Another link to Slough, this time the road bridge for the A332 Royal Windsor Way.|
From here there is a more generic spread of green, less remarkable in its own right than for what is glimpsed around its edges. Immediately across the river is Clewer, whose name derives evocatively from ‘cliff-dwellers’ – that is, the cliffs of the hill where Windsor Castle is now. Indeed, Clewer seems to have been the core of the pre-castle settlement that later became the new Windsor.
|Windsor Racecourse is discernible in the centre distance here, with Clewer mostly out of sight at left.|
|A foamy mass of dubious origin floats down the river, perhaps originating from the mouth of some Conservative Party MP from the steadfastly Tory constituencies upstream.|
|The feel here is of a transitional zone nibbled into by roads, small settlements and installations but with an attempt to return to bleak wilds whenever the humans look away.|
A backwater called the Clewer Mill Stream forms an island here entirely occupied by an appendage of the Windsor-Eton glamour: the Windsor Racecourse. This is part of the old Windsor Great Park hunting enclosure, but grew into a rare figure-of-eight track for thoroughbred horse racing. Its formal tradition there was established in the Victorian 1860s.
|From the north the racecourse is in plain sight.|
|Apparently Homo etonis is not the only species that favours bathing here.|
To the north the great flat fields unfurl, ending only at a line of houses in the distance. They belong to the village of Eton Wick, built by the school soon after its founding to house the workers and craftspeople who actually maintained it. Naturally, because class is everything in England, it was kept physically separate from Eton by a margin of open land. The school nonetheless paid attention to its welfare and it grew into a more all-rounded village in the last century.
|Eton Wick between the land and the sky.|
|Eton Wick’s St. John the Baptist Church is a Victorian creation from 1866, shortly before the hamlet’s big burst of expansion.|
Though no longer a tiny hamlet, Eton Wick is close enough to its memory as one to signal that we have come far enough to start expecting them. Just beyond it, pinched between the Windsor Racecourse and Eton’s monster of a rowing lake, is another. Boveney actually is still a tiny hamlet, so tiny that its most interesting feature benefits from the fact that the rest of it is nowhere in sight and so is charged with an atmosphere of spiritual seclusion. Be that as it may, its position on the river has also got it its own lock.
|Boveney Lock’s current form dates back to 1898 but it has a longer history of incarnations. The lock-keeper’s cottage is attempting something creative with oars.|
|Local maps mark this avenue of chestnut trees as Conker Alley. This area is still in the immediate orbit of Windsor, so its managers must have found it important to impress the ruling class by lining their trees up all in a row.|
|Then suddenly, in a riverside clearing, this appears.|
There is something unusual about Boveney’s St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, dedicated to one of the most controversially-represented female characters in Christian mythology because they are scared of women. It neither looks nor feels like other churches, which could be because officially it no longer is: it was made redundant in 1975 after over 700 years of service, most notably to barge-workers on the river, and was only saved from demolition by a local campaign which has placed it in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches. This charity has, with evident love, maintained it and carried out restoration work on its jigsaw puzzle of elements from different ages, with the weatherboarded timber tower particularly striking.
But there is more to it than that. Perhaps it is its situation: its silent little oasis by the river, ringed in trees as though sequestered from the outside world, its tranquility punctured only by the occasional annoyance of planes taking off from Heathrow.
|The next big surprise is to find its doors open. In present-day England one tends to find churches shut, especially in remoter areas. Few can afford these days to keep them staffed outside regular scheduled ceremonies.|
|The church’s interior. Most of these walls, windows and pews are fifteenth or sixteenth century like the wooden tower.|
There is a gentle simplicity to this place. It rejects the showy extravagance of, say, Eton’s religious-army-WMD-facility disguised as half a chapel, but nor is this the stark and menacing smash-the-idols severity of the fundamentalist Puritans either. The forms and symbols might be Christian, but through the atmosphere can be sensed more than a tinge of profounder spirituality. It is no surprise to find whispers in its records that this was a site of worship since long before Roman times. Is it a coincidence that in the ceremonies that still take place here, the most prominent is held on the riverbank each year at the Easter sunrise – 5:30am – and advises that since the church lacks electricity, warm clothes and a torch are recommended? It even has a small piano, and welcomes visitors to play a tune on it. Though my aptitude on this instrument is next to zero, I felt compelled to make an attempt at the first Gavotte from Bach’s English Suite No.3 – no particular reason.
Music. Sunrise. Water. Time. This is animistic depth.
The turmoil of spending my teenage years in this country gave me problems with authoritarian Christianity and masculinist monotheisms in general, one symptom of which was that for a long time I could not enter a church without experiencing a draining headache, as though their very air was unbreathable. Though less of a problem now, I still sense such an atmosphere when it is present, and at St. Mary Magdelene’s of Boveney it is not. Rather, its ambience is that of a church that is just one possible expression taken by a deeper cosmic presence here – not its first, perhaps not its last, but all the same quite comfortable for being so.
Unusual – and precious. They must look after things like this.
|The church’s western end. The lancet window up on that wall is twelfth-century and possibly the oldest part of the building, but is scarcely in sight in this picture on account of abominable photography.|
The spell is broken by the return of the Eton sportsmongers who immediately devour the landscape. Dorney Lake, the brash blue rectangle they stamped into reality as though whatever was there was not important, overwhelms the north bank for the next several kilometres, but because it is Eton the lake is fenced off from the Muggles on the towpath and mostly concealed from view.
|A river-facing boathouse that appears related to the Dorney Lake facilities. Those begin immediately behind those trees.|
|On the far bank, a string of grand houses and clutches of settlement are the beginnings of a long and staggered tentacle of affluence that stretches from the village of Bray.|
|Those English who are not party to that wealth might gravitate to a different tradition and opt to all live in a yellow submarine.|
Dorney itself is another tiny village north of the lake, although the name was spread wide over its surroundings as the old manorial grounds of Dorney Court, which stands further inland. Then in the 1960s the Eton rowing establishment decided that rather than put up with the living currents and shared traffic of the river like most rowers have to, they should have their own perfect divinely-fashioned still-water course so their rowers could be better than everyone else’s. So they stood in a line and bellowed through their megaphones as rowing instructors do, unleashing shockwaves which gouged out the earth in a straight line from here almost as far as Bray. £17 million later the cavity was in order, and Dorney Lake opened in 2006 in time to be hired out as a venue for the 2012 Olympics.
|One of the only views of Dorney Lake obtainable from the towpath. You’d need airborne capabilities to fit it all in a single shot.|
|For riverside passers-by most of its length looks like this.|
|More boating facilities for the monied classes punctuate the other bank. Here is Windsor Marina, with its own yacht club and spacious capacity for leisured explorers of the Windsorlands.|
Vampires, Pirates and Cannibals
With the Eton rowing machine monopolising the north bank, it is healthier to search for interesting things on the south. One such thing is Oakley Court, a Victorian country mansion with a difference.
|Oakley Court is the one on the right that does actually look like it has vampires in it.|
Oakley Court began life in 1859 and could have been any other stately home, passed and sold around between people with too many letters in their names and numbers in their bank accounts. Its more remarkable turn came in the 1950s when it was sold to the classic horror film company Hammer Films, who thus found a suitably gothic playground for their undead stars to make their legends in. Though the company soon shifted to a country house next door which became its famous Bray Studios, it continued to film at Oakley into the 1960s. In recent times the scenery might be familiar to English television audiences from Mark Gatiss’s and Steven Moffat’s take on Dracula over the New Year, specifically the documentary which followed that explored the history of performances of Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty (yet congruently class-conscious) Count; it was at Bray Studios that Hammer filmed the totemic 1958 version that fixed his image to that of a fanged Christopher Lee.
|Though it is important to remember that vampires are as diverse as everyone else, and it is no fairer to judge them all by Dracula’s example than to judge all graduates of Eton by Boris Johnson’s. Some vampires run pubs you know.|
Hammer Films moved away in the late 1960s, but other directors continued to come to shoot work here, such as for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and the miniature filming for Alien (1979). Now its days of stardom are largely over and it is run as a luxury hotel.
|There follows a string of river islands beginning with Queen’s Eyot. True to local form, this is owned by Eton College and let out for expensive private functions.|
|Another marina, named – guess what – Bray Marina, lurks behind this yellow paraphernalia.|
|Dorney Lake is still there and Eton insists that you know it.|
|Summerleaze Bridge, keeping up Etonian standards for the English language since 1996.|
Of the islands that line the Thames here, the next is the most substantial. The rainforested Monkey Island is located deep in the Caribbean, with a volcano on its western peninsula that connects to a ridge running laterally across the centre. It has a canyon to the south, the village with the cannibals to the north, and a gigantic stone monkey head in its east which conceals an entrance to subterranean lava catacombs. It was here in the 1990s that aspiring pirate Guybrush Threepwood came in pursuit of his nemesis, the ghost pirate LeChuck, negotiating hermits, flooding and vegetarian cannibals with the help of a navigator’s voodoo-animated severed head, on a journey that defined the modern romantic image of pirates in popular culture while emphatically thrusting the artistic and literary merit of video games into its narrow-minded faces. The island is known more than anything else for its Secret which nobody knows.
Unless of course this is a different Monkey Island and we got it wrong because the English’s incorrect politics have faffed up the timelines. See what happens?
|Monkey Island, between the fields of Bray at left and the bush of Dorney Reach at right. It no longer looks particularly tropical, and the giant monkey head appears to have been gentrified into some big private waterfront resort.|
In this timeline, it is not clear if this Monkey Island was somehow transferred here from the Caribbean, or was a different island from the start which shares its name. Its occupiers disguise any such suspicious manipulations by claiming an origin as ‘Monks’ Island’ (ēg or eyot), hence monk-ey, but they should know they are not fooling anyone.
Humouring their alternative timeline for the moment, the claim is that the monks in question belonged to Merton Priory, whose headquarters was on the Wandle in Surrey (now south London) but had outposts all over the place including near Bray. When Henry VIII ruined them, the island passed through the hands of a long series of numbered and titled nobles who used it as a fishing retreat, one of whom (Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough they say, as though it’s evidence any of this is real) built a fishing lodge and just happened to scatter monkey statues around the garden while commissioning someone to paint monkeys on its ceiling. By the late nineteenth century the lodge had grown into an extremely fashionable hotel, attracting successive kings and queens to put it on the record that they came there to further strengthen its alibi. To this day it is an exclusive hotel run by ridiculously rich corporate acronyms, as sure an indicator as any that there is nothing they won’t do to keep the Secret of Monkey Island under wraps.
|This line of sight on it through an obvious dimensional doorway proves it is more than it appears.|
|Meanwhile, firmly in the current timeline on the east riverbank, private gardens greedily interrupt the towpath. They invite walkers and cyclists to ‘please be considerate’ by not voting for nationalists while in them.|
|On the other hand, if the landowner in question happens to be this wonderful fellow, we can probably pardon them just this once.|
The evidence of shifty activity by creatures that might or might not be living does not subside merely because we draw close to the village of Bray, a quintessential white-English riverside village known for being conspicuously well-fed. The village is on the opposite bank and has no bridge so can be grateful that it will be spared interrogation.
|Before Bray there is the M4 Thames Bridge, which has no more inventive name and no apparent distinguishing features beyond doing what it says it does. But if the map is correct, this is the Thames’s furthest upstream motorway crossing.|
|The barriers present the ominous threat of having to scramble across the motorway, but the big evil construction companies, with surprising generosity, have provided a pontoon bridge for the convenience of wayfarers.|
Bray has its own lock, but in this case there is evidence of a long heritage of locks on or near its site going back at least the fourteenth century, from when survive its users’ complaints that its tolls were too high. Early locks like those were probably rudimentary ‘flash locks’ with a single wooden gate, perhaps installed to accompany a weir for the nearby mills. The present lock was conceived in the 1840s and gathered enough attention, it is said, to get condemned by Charles Dickens as a ‘rotten and dangerous structure’, which perhaps prompted its rebuilding in the 1880s.
|The present Bray Lock. Some large sea urchins have been gene-spliced with carnivorous plant DNA and laid out to defend the lock-keeper’s cottage.|
|And this is the Weir Warning Cormorant, who stands on a post with wings outstretched to alert river traffic to Bray Lock and Weir.|
Beyond the lock unsettling sights stack up in the neighbourhood of another island, the disconcertingly-named Headpile Eyot. In books and online sources I can find no hint, none at all, as to how it came to get that name, but it might be prudent, just possibly, to hasten through here as quickly as bloody possible.
|Something terrible has happened to this bench, the last signs of which are getting hungrily devoured by the undergrowth.|
|This place has eyes.|
|And here the evidence has been completely destroyed, leaving the cause to your darkest fears.|
From here there is a view of Bray itself. Most awareness of it in current generations of English people will be for its culinary credentials: it gathers together some of the most celebrated (i.e. expensive) restaurants in the country. A handful of these are run by the innovative celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, whose core establishment here, The Fat Duck, will be familiar to those who have witnessed his adventures in ‘molecular gastronomy’ and ‘multi-sensory cooking’ on TV. Just down the road from it is The Waterside Inn, which together with the Duck comprises two of the only five three-Michelin-star eateries in the country and the only two outside London. Of these I can say no more, as an expedition therein would require an income or twenty, but if you are an undead product of the horrors of Headpile Island then see if you can scare someone there into serving you for free before sharing your impressions on Bray cuisine online.
|Most of Bray is not in sight from the river but here you can see just enough of the tower of its parish church of St. Michael to know it is a you-shall-not-pass Norman job from the 1290s.|
Older people might have another association with Bray. There is an English folk song called The Vicar of Bray, sung from the perspective of perhaps a specific vicar once upon a time but now an archetype of either pragmatic survival sense or slithering barefaced fraud, depending on your persuasion. The song runs through history, each verse introducing the reign of a new monarch who made dramatic changes to English political religion before relating how this weathervane of a Vicar throws off his prior beliefs and prostrates himself to the new order of the day to keep his job (‘And this is my law I will maintain/Until my dying day, sir,/That whatsoever King shall reign,/I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.’). Charm over content, fakery over integrity – or perhaps just playing the game, as might say some equally determined sausages with this same indifference to the truth who flopped out of a certain Privilege Fort down the river.
The market town of Maidenhead marks the end of today’s exploration, and lest one shudders at its name for fear it has something to do with the human sacrifices that surely did not take place on Headpile Eyot even though you never know, that possibility can with relief be put to rest. Head seems to come from Anglo-Saxon hythe for ‘wharf’ – pointing at the river again – while maiden is more obscure: it could be from Celtic mawr for ‘fort’, or indicate actual maidens who worked on said wharf – perhaps nuns from one of the nearby monasteries – but the most likely meaning seems to be ‘new’, a usage still present in concepts like maiden voyage.
|Affluent houses make their move on the riverbank on the approach to Maidenhead. Though the centre of the town is being feasted on by an undead modernity, the nests of resident wealth on the river-facing outskirts seem largely spared.|
Perhaps they did build a new wharf when the name came into use in medieval times, but it was not the first wharf, nor was the settlement itself new. Maidenhead’s history goes all the way down. It had been a small Anglo-Saxon town for some centuries already, only going by a completely different name, Ellington, whose most exciting experience was probably when a Danish expeditionary force disembarked here on their way up to Reading – perhaps the same lot who sacked the monastery at Chertsey – during the great Viking invasion of the 860s and 70s. Long before that the Romans were here, with firm evidence of multiple villa-farms nearby of which the most thoroughly excavated is Alaunodunum on the present town’s south edge. Villas were the preserve of the Roman privileged elite, and the presence of this one, said to be one of the most sophisticated of its time, suggests the Roman occupation was to some degree invested in this area’s connections and safety.
The Romans were here a long time ago but left so considerable a mark on this country’s land and imagination – its roads, its politics and culture, its archaeological treasures – that they generate special excitement in English popular consciousness. Needless to say though, history did not start with them. Before them this area was likely a breadbasket for the Atrebates people, who percolated across from what is now Belgium. All of this is but a whisker on a timeline of local human activity that goes back some 500,000 years, well into the time of Stone Age peoples, whose skilled flint crafts the river has taken upon itself to preserve for the edification of posterity.
Their political values have regressed since those days and turned Maidenhead into another of the Thames’s Tory-voting constituencies, and not a trivial one either. This is the seat of none other than former Prime Minister Theresa May, of whom the less said the better.
It was the settlement’s medieval incarnation that grew into present-day Maidenhead, continuing its Roman inheritance as a strategic outpost on the river and the Great West Road to centres like Gloucester and Bath. All that traffic led it to flourish as a market town as well as one of England’s busiest coaching stops, an oasis of inns in bandit-ridden rough surroundings. This gave it a front-row seat in many of this nation’s violent outbursts: a battle in the 1399-1400 Epiphany Rising, one of that period’s innumerable nasty little bits of bloodshed; a near-miss in the revolution of 1688 when an army loyal to deposed Stuart king James II tentatively fortified the bridge but then thought better of it; and more poignantly, in the Civil War a few decades earlier when Charles I, after his capture by Parliament’s army, was allowed a trip here to re-unite with his children at the Greyhound Inn (now occupied by a branch of NatWest bank), a meeting which moved even the supervising Parliamentary generals to tears.
|And this is the Channel Warning Cormorant. This one carries out its work with wings closed, because alerting river-users to the multiple river channels is not as urgent as alerting them to a weir.|
These low-lying riverbanks have long been vulnerable to flooding. Maidenhead has now been spared the worst of this by the Jubilee River: that artificial parallel channel they dug out in the 1990s because Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton could afford £110 million to shunt the flood problem onto the not-quite-so-affluent downriver communities like Chertsey.
All that history got splashed with a helping of railway-powered Victorian red-brick architecture in the nineteenth century, and the product, you might think, would be a community conscious of its heritage. Alas, Maidenhead has struggled against the tides of the free-market extremism that has taken over English political and corporate officialdom, who have dispatched regeneration brigades to feast on its links to the past. Their digestive acids are steadily dissolving it into an urban landscape which could be any other in England, that is, an anodyne dystopia of unaffordable apartments, gigantic supermarkets and big-brand retail batteries to service the tech-hubs of the M4 corridor. Even the Maidenhead Heritage Centre, a dedicated local repository of the layers of stories that made this town what it is, is now hemmed in by these predators and finds their drool dripping upon its premises.
|Large chunks of Maidenhead’s body are already undergoing necrosis.|
|In the town centre, characterful old civic buildings and pubs cower beneath the pillars of a featureless modernity, or are consumed from the inside by the big brands that have driven out local enterprises everywhere.|
|Maidenhead’s high street. In the centre, the vestiges of a proper garden market can just be glimpsed holding on in the darkness.|
While the top-tier Privilege Forts of this valley like Windsor and Eton endure, those that have receded even a little are now in trouble. It is an important reminder that even in the garland of wealth that is the Thames Valley, so insulated from the poverty in which England’s mismanagement of its industrial decline has landed the rest of the country, the picture is more complex than it might first appear – and that even here, in the lair of a recent Prime Minister, this failing modernity finds no shortage of victims. As well as the individuals and groups it leaves behind, society and nation as a whole are the victims when they fail to protect the heritage which all their members can look on, even touch with their own hands, and feel embodied there the shared stories which make them part of something greater with each other.
It should not seem strange to argue for this even in this heartland of an English beer-on-the-river conservatism so prone as it is to grievous mistakes, within history or about history, on matters of empire, race, gender, class or a host of other things. Argue with them as one must, it is only with that sense of shared story that the argument can be had at all – and thus mistakes be corrected, mutual learning undertaken, and a future built that everybody can feel is rightly theirs. Everything we do, whether it adds to or repudiates the past, occurs in reference to it whether we know it or not; only by being aware of it, by owning it, can we make the future ours too. If that awareness is scattered to the wind, then the entire conversation is pointless and everybody loses.
|Maidenhead’s ‘Boy and Boat’ statue. Is that actually a boat, or some extraterrestrial plasma rifle with which he is threatening the Methodist church?|
Today’s length of river has been a study in English carnivory. If the likes of vampire hotels and cannibal islands were unnerving, such fanciful teeth have had nothing on the actual chops that history records to have munched on the people of this area. They chomped up a school specifically set up for impoverished children, their saliva corroding it into its opposite: no less than the foremost international byword for the perils of public-school elitism. They have descended on a prosperous town chock-full of millennia of heritage, and even now their cranes and bulldozers gorge splatteringly on its treasures, leaving behind undigestible deposits that offer its people no nutrients for a meaningful continuation of their story.
Lest this appear an unfair blanket observation, let us remember that it does not reflect them all. From the Maidenhead locals who have worked hard to preserve their heritage, to the Eton graduates who have chosen better than to use their education to wreck the country, to look closer is always to spot struggles and contradictions in stories more complex than they seem. In that spirit, let’s give the penultimate word today to a man called David Gale, a naval veteran who grew up in Maidenhead and has latterly reflected on it in his poetry: one taste, out of so many, of what the loss of heritage can do to the individual soul.
The town that I grew up in
Was a town that made me proud.
Nestling gently by the Thames
Beneath a golden cloud.
I laughed and played and lived each day,
It sometimes made me cry.
But through the tears and passing years
The river rolled on by.
We must have progress so they say,
Knock down, build something new.
We have no say, they have their way,
We’re treated as the few.
This concrete grey and brick façade,
With never a reason why.
While the ugly face of progress moves,
The river rolls on by.
Buildings razed to make more space
Ripping out the soul.
Removing every landmark
Just leaving a black hole.
The town is just a ghost town now,
You know I tell no lie.
New people will accept the change,
As the river rolls on by.
My friends, now of a certain age,
Will not forget the days
When their town meant so much to them
In a thousand different ways.
These memories are priceless,
There’s no money that can buy
The magic that was MAIDENHEAD,
With the river rolling by.
(from ‘The Jewel of the Thames’, in David Gale: It’s Not Like That Anymore!, 2013-19.)
And there too is the last word: the river’s, which very much rolls on by as it has for thousands of years. As with the Palaeolithic flints and the Roman urns, perhaps it will swallow this history too if the humans fail to look after it. Then, rather than digest it into currency like they do, it will yield it to the investigations of a more responsible future whose people will puzzle over why their ancestors came up with such destructive education practices, will not change their beliefs just because those in power do, and will certainly wonder, if nothing else, what the heck these people did on Headpile Eyot.
Special thanks to the Maidenhead Heritage Centre for much information and insight that went into this section.