The river rages. It has had enough.
An unsettled winter has broken on England in a sequence of devastating storms. The Severn watershed in the west of the country has borne the worst of it, but the Thames next door is also on the warpath. Even now the rear end of February’s onslaughts rampage down this valley of privilege with no concern for where the humans think its banks should be. The ferryman dares not cross, the trembling resident watches the water lap over his windowsill, the farmer beholds her flooded fields and clutches her face in despair, and the professional dog walker cannot find the way to go.
|North from Maidenhead Bridge. Maidenhead is protected by the Jubilee Channel but even here the riverbanks are at their limit.|
England is a flood-prone country, and for thousands of years the Thames has made this abundantly clear to anyone who dares settle on its floodplain. Yet this latest round, in the midst of both acute political degeneration and a global climate emergency, has washed down to a graver sense that something is seriously wrong.
Then just in case people weren’t getting the message, along has come COVID-19. This virus has held up a mirror. In it, instead of rigorous, calm and informed international cooperation and care for one’s citizens, we see instead the posturing hollowness of the authoritarian ego-trips which now pass for governance among prejudiced and panicking populations. It has laid bare a world where human beings are not the authors of the social contract, but disposable meat for the macho cannibals, free-market cultists and eugenicists who have overrun their politics.
Modernity, the human future, was never supposed to look like this. After the horrors of the twentieth century there was no excuse. A reckoning is sure to follow.
That said, a reckoning will do no good unless it offers a way to come out on the other side: on a path of healing, of rebuilding the togetherness they should have got right the first time. Humankind, including the English, must build systems that empower their compassionate natures rather than their nasty ones, and become a presence worthier of this world and this universe. If they wish to stick around in it there’s no other choice.
This involves obvious practical measures. For the English, an immediate end to austerity and deportations, and the prosecution of those policies’ architects, would be a good start. But the damage of these depredations goes beyond the physical. It has cut deep into individuals' and societies' souls, so the journey is also a necessarily shamanic one.
The English are not known for their shamans. A shaman bridges the ordinary world with all those other worlds that transcend it – cultural worlds, emotional worlds, spiritual worlds, or worlds further still. Across the shamanic bridge, relationships are built that heal and enrich their participants, and valuable things are exchanged, things unmeasurable and far more meaningful than the narrow range admitted by that fantastical chimera, the economy. On the shamanic journey, prejudice and panic are left far behind as the human consciousness pushes past its perspectives, travelling to the very furthest places it can reach.
In some societies, in particular many indigenous ones, the shaman who opens the way to these places fulfils a formal role. In England, as in many nations which believe their modernity makes these journeys no longer necessary, the office of shaman does not exist.
But that does not mean there is no-one who tries.
There are few great overarching constitutional dramas on this section of the Thames. A parade of towering castles and extravagant palaces, elite public schools and hallowed legal texts has lined this valley all the way from London, but here they shall fall away as the water itself resurges to centre stage.
It is the river, after all, that must be supreme in any shamanic considerations in reach of it. It shapes and dominates its peoples’ physical reality, yet is constantly on the move between that reality and others. Just as it has carried these people from town to town and spun the wheels of their mills, has it not ferried their consciousnesses to far further destinations? Has it not powered their mills of imagination to create what could not have come from this reality alone? What magic in this water has the English Christians still pouring it on foreheads for their baptismal rituals, or shapes the bridges of their engineer-heroes from mere functional crossing points into artistic masterpieces that bring their pride to tears?
These floods have created many temporary ponds and lakes along this subtler stretch of the Thames. Perhaps they can be windows on some of that magic.
Start: Maidenhead Bridge (nearest station: Maidenhead)
End: Marlow Bridge (nearest station: Marlow)
Length: 11.2km/7 miles
Location: Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; Buckinghamshire – South Bucks
Topics: Boulter’s Lock, the Cliveden Set and Profumo Affair, Cookham and Stanley Spencer, Cock Marsh and Winter Hill, Marlow (via Budapest)
Boulter’s Lock and Cliveden
The goal of today’s walk is the settlement of Marlow, an old market town at the base of the Chiltern Hills whose drainage into the Thames makes its contribution to the locals’ flood woes. Having penetrated down through those hills, the Thames embarks on a northward detour and it is between Marlow and Maidenhead that it returns, on today’s meandering ninety-degree bend, to continue its march to the sea.
|Maidenhead Bridge, with the first of many water birds we will find enjoying the floods along here.|
|This little tributary, all but swallowed by the housing, appears to be called Clapper’s Stream.|
Beyond Maidenhead the river is wrathful and unyielding. On the far bank it menaces the village of Taplow. The name is Anglo-Saxon and refers to Tæppa’s barrow, a burial site whose excavation in the 1880s uncovered the most extravagant set of Anglo-Saxon grave goods yet found in England at the time.
|Taplow residences appear on the east bank. The islands in the river, partially submerged, hint at the area’s wilder growths that push through wherever the humans have not built.|
|Alas, it appears austerity has taken its toll on the English navy. Is this all that is left?|
|From here the dwellings on both sides reek of affluence. And they are going to need every last crumb of it, for the river is set to punish them for the folly of building right there on its banks.|
In short order we reach Boulter’s Lock. At first this looks like it could be any of the other forty-five or so locks on this river, but in its day this one had a claim to be most famous of them all. It began innocuously enough: boulter is another word for miller, with the lock accompanying a weir for a long lineage of local flour mills. But in the industrial period this area’s combination of river islands, residences and holiday homes full of rich people, including celebrities on the way to the Royal Ascot horse races, the Cliveden estate and assorted carnivals and regattas, made Boulter’s Lock a magnet for the pleasure-boating craze which crammed its narrow channels to breaking point.
|Boulter’s Lock. In its corner (out of view) stands an ice cream stall, tragically closed this morning.|
|And this is how the painter Edward John Gregory portrayed it in Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon in the 1890s (this version hangs in the Maidenhead Heritage Centre). Look closer, for this cluster of leisure-class revelry belies a disaster in the making. The bridge and most boats are dangerously overloaded, their passengers sit in reckless positions, long pointy oars and masts and umbrellas are sticking out everywhere, those responsible for steering are not paying attention, and such is the momentum to all these moving parts that calamity can no longer be averted.|
|The old flour mill is now The Boathouse pub and restaurant. Behind it are Boulter’s Island and Ray Mill Island, the latter named after the local Ray family of millers and lock-keepers.|
The lock continued to receive upgrades and expansions in the face of such hazardous overcrowding; most of its current form dates from 1912.
|Boulter’s Island also shelters a few private houses. Most notable among them is this, former home of BBC broadcasting legend Richard Dimbleby (1913-65), whose sons David and Jonathan carry on his service to present-day TV and radio.|
The length above the lock is reputed as one of the most pleasantly attractive segments of the Thames. Known as Cliveden Reach, what is today a tranquil stretch between woods and fields used to heave with monied persons faffing about in boats, helping account for the pressure that built up at Boulter’s Lock. No surprise therefore that ludicrously fancy houses for people with too much money have colonised its riverbanks.
|The sorts of houses where one might hear: “Austerity? What’s that?”|
|The east bank looks like bush but is administered as part of the massive estate which once sat at the peak of Cliveden Reach's residential pyramid.|
|Natural structures can be more refreshing. Here the weight of a tree has sent it keeling over the water, and together with its creepers has formed a leafy arch.|
The wooded east bank then rises into a plateau, atop which sits the unmitigated fancy of fancies. The hilariously excessive Cliveden mansion is now a tourist attraction run by the National Trust, but at the peak of its activity had as star-studded a claim to the status of a Privilege Fort as any of the official palaces along here.
Built in the 1850s to replace a Restoration-era noble mansion that had burnt down twice, Cliveden was resurrected as an Italianate villa by the architect Charles Barry while working on his more famous project, the Houses of Parliament. Cliveden’s importance was not in its formal status but in its reality as a social reaction chamber where all the big names of English politics and culture would mingle and happen to each other's nine orifices. This ball was set rolling by William Waldorf Astor, an American millionaire who bought the mansion in 1893 and set about annoying the locals into nicknaming him Walled-off Astor for fobbing them off his huge property with high walls and rules against public access. He then passed Cliveden on to his son, setting up the first of its two ignominious political dramas.
|Cliveden is up out of sight behind all that towering tree growth. Visible at left is its 1735 ‘Octagon Temple’, whose opulent interior now serves as the Astor family mausoleum.|
|And this is what the main house looks like (photo from TripAdvisor). One look at that and you know it is the sort of place in which Wrong Things happen.|
The first was the story of the Cliveden Set. This was a clutch of influential individuals in the 1930s who coalesced around the figure of Nancy Astor, William’s daughter-in-law and the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons (though not the first to be elected – that was Constance Markievicz in 1918 who, as a member of Sinn Féin in colonial Ireland, rejected British authority by refusing to take her seat).
Nancy and her husband were in the habit of hosting lavish parties at Cliveden for the giants of the English imperial class structure, attracting everyone from Churchill to Charlie Chaplin – politicians, writers, film stars, sports personalities, the lot. The Cliveden Set emerged from this milieu as a tight-knit intellectual network of high-flying ministers and business leaders. In present-day parlance one might characterise it as a think tank with extraordinary channels of political influence – which was unfortunate, because the main current for which it came to be known was its friendliness to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler.
With hindsight the English have found it easy to demonise the Cliveden Set for this affability towards the epitome of evil in human history. The risk of this is to forget that many English were a lot more ambivalent towards Nazism during its rise in the 1930s than they were during and after World War II. The figurehead of the British fascist movement, Oswald Mosley, was an old supporter of Astor and a familiar face at Cliveden, whose circles were far from alone in sharing in the anti-Semitic and anti-communist bigotries emanating from Germany at this time. Nor were they unique in their sympathy for Hitler’s military aggression in Europe, which they expressed by using their exorbitant political influence to support the efforts of Neville Chamberlain’s government to appease him (including what would come to be seen as the most embarrassing symbol of appeasement’s futility, the 1938 Munich Agreement).
As this futility shattered and dumped the country into war, the full force of odium from Hitler’s enemies in England landed on the Cliveden Set and has tarred their names ever since. Certainly the reputation of Nancy Astor – ‘The Member for Berlin’, as Labour heavyweight Stafford Cripps called her in Parliament – has never recovered, and after the war her status faded to that of some kind of lonely racist anachronism. But the episode refracts into numerous lasting significances. One is its comment on English gender politics: there is no doubt that Astor drew special hostility on account of being a political woman with a forceful personality, making it much harder to sincerely assess her record. On the other hand, the toxicity of her politics looks impossible to refute, fuelling the question of why, when the English do put women in power, they so often tend to be women of the most obnoxious politics possible (Astor after all served the same party as Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May). A second, broader problem arises from how the Cliveden Set has become a lightning rod of caricaturing hatred for treasonous pro-fascist villainy, obscuring how unexceptional its views were in an England which shared in the manufacture of the colonial racism that produced the Nazis and which at times drew so close to accommodating them (even during the war itself, such as in the 1940 War Cabinet debates on whether to approach Hitler for a peace settlement). But of course, since when has historical fact been allowed to discomfort the myth of the English as the free and democratic good guys by racial nature?
And then there is the class tradition embodied by the Cliveden Set: the cliquey bunch of ruling-caste mates, named for the provinces they privately own and who all know each other from schools like Eton, secretly running the show through behind-the-scenes control of politics, business and the media. This dip in Nazi saliva made that practice uglier than ever, but astonishingly, when a second great scandal buried those cliques for a generation it was also from Cliveden’s windows that its bodily fluids came oozing.
This was the Profumo Affair of 1961-3, which sank the Conservative Party government of Harold Macmillan in a public sensation of sex, drugs, guns, espionage and splattering acrimony whose stench has never really faded from the national walls.
Here was another drama that grew out of Cliveden’s magnetism for rich and irresponsible party people, a role to which the next generation of Astors returned it. At issue were the relationships between a group of individuals, in particular War Minister John Profumo and 19-year-old aspiring showgirl Christine Keeler, who fell into a secret love affair having been brought together at that cottage by Stephen Ward, an osteopath and the sort of all-around high-flyer who knew everybody and had his hand in innumerable dodgy activities. The Profumo-Keeler involvement did not last long, but a chain of events involving Keeler’s and Ward’s misadventures with violent Jamaican jazz singer Aloysius Gordon, which led to a gun being fired outside Ward’s flat, set off rumours in the media which duly landed Profumo in front of Conservative Party interrogators to whom he of course denied everything. But by then the rumours had crackled into every corner of that era’s superconductive celebrity grapevine, in which all these people were naturally bound up. To make matters worse, it then emerged that Ward had also got Keeler socially and carnally involved with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché and spy who had also become acquainted with War Minister Profumo at this cottage’s swimming pool, thereby layering upon the scandal a thick new icing of potential Cold War security breaches and leaks of nuclear secrets.
By 1963 these people were hurling angry accusations and denials on each other in broad daylight, to the outraged delight of the media in general and Private Eye in particular. The matter came to a head that summer when Ward was put on trial on vice charges. Faced with (questionable) conviction, he killed himself with an overdose. Profumo’s career imploded overnight, and his name has been synonymous with this shambles ever since; the damage to his government almost certainly tipped the balance that pushed it from power in the following year’s general election. Naturally however most of the sensationalism then and since has focused on Christine Keeler due to the English press’s lurid obsession, when faced with powerful and abusive men, to tear down women instead. As usual this has been at the expense of her own side of the story, whose recent BBC dramatisation in The Trial of Christine Keeler (2019) exhibits how this controversy’s afterlife shambles on more than fifty years later.
The conventional view is that the Profumo Affair was a death blow to the culture which had also produced the Cliveden Set: the closed in-groups of unsavoury rich and powerful people who ran the country as their playground, all knowing each other far too well and sharing the impunity of getting away with whatever they wanted. That the English had had enough of this is often refracted through the statement of Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies at Ward’s trial, who when it was put to her that Lord Astor (Nancy Astor’s son) was denying sexual involvement with her, replied: ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’ – the implication being all these powerful men, fundamentally and obviously, were liars and cheats. For a time this culture would submerge under the new strain of no-nonsense public managerialism associated with the Labour government of Harold Wilson and his successors, in whose wreckage in turn Thatcher would build her free market revolution in the 1980s.
But have the sparks in the Cliveden circuit ever truly gone out? From Boris Johnson spaffing (to use his term) out unknowable numbers of forgotten children, to Michael Gove happily admitting to taking cocaine in his youth (and getting away with it by being political-caste and white); from the abiding political dominance of chums from the same elite schools, to the recent sequence of female Home Ministers tapping the wells of fascism for their hostile environment ethnic cleansing programme, it might be some time yet before the echoes of Cliveden’s dirty secrets are truly stifled.
As for the house itself, the Astor family moved out in 1968, and within two decades it had consummated its passion for luring the rich and unscrupulously famous by turning into a hotel. If you don’t fancy paying upward of £400 per night, the National Trust now holds its vast gardens and woodlands and will let you explore those for a “mere” £16 instead.
This is one set of heights the river won’t reach. If it’s shamanic healing we’re after we had better look elsewhere.
Though perhaps, not that far after all.
Round the corner from Cliveden the wall between worlds is weak. The farm fields give way to the low-lying chalky grasslands of Cock Marsh (look, I don’t make the names around here), whose frequent flooding nurtures fertile flora and provides a perpetual feast for grazing animals. Towering above them, Winter Hill is one of the highest Thames terraces yet, and is thought to get its name from those animals’ retreat up its slopes when the floods of the cold season chase them off the floodplain.
Humans too have been drawn to this oasis for at least ten thousand years back to the hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age. Local archaeology has turned up a wealth of artifacts from every period since, from Neolithic axes to Roman pottery. Pride of place however goes to a set of Bronze Age burial mounds still just visible in the marsh, whose excavation revealed human remains given elaborate burials by a sophisticated prehistoric society.
More recently, it is not clear if the Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon presences here formed one continuous settlement, but this location clearly mattered to all of them. In the journeys of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, for whom this was crucially contested middle ground (particularly between the heavyweights of Mercia and Wessex), it came to feature a monastery, then one of Alfred’s burhs (forts) against the Vikings, then even a palace where in 997 CE the Anglo-Saxon witan (parliament) met under King Æthelred II “Unræd” – the one whose reputation the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tore so savagely to pieces, rightly or wrongly, that one thousand years later his name still has not recovered. (“Unræd”, often incorrectly given as Unready, was a disparaging pun on his name with a meaning closer to ill-advised.)
By the Domesday survey of 1086, this settlement, now a royal manor, had the name of Cocheham. Its origin is unclear, but there are suggestions of an association with cooks, in the culinary sense – which even if purely imaginary, might explain why it comes down to the present as Cookham. Indeed, they pronounce it ‘cook ‘em’, though to what or whom that should be done is not so clear.
|The approach to Cookham.|
|Cookham’s high street. Today the village has a reputation for riverside affluence and popularity with walkers and tourists.|
As Cookham endured a millennium of English nation-building and nation-breaking up and down the river, those who lived their lives here never lost consciousness of the enchanted natural setting in which they had made their nests. In 1611, for example, the poet Aemilia Lanyer unfurled The Description of Cooke-ham as a thank-you poem for her local patron, the Countess of Cumberland. This is said to be the first work in an extremely English genre of poetry – that of praising people by describing their country mansions in adoring terms – but is notable here for the trance-like awe with which its author rolls around, at conspicuous length, in the trees, grasses, hills, brooks, birds, wind and sunlight of what she sets up as a Cookham Eden of Edens. In later centuries its inhabitants fiercely and successfully resisted attempts to Enclose their commons, including Cock Marsh, for private profit. And yet, if they found something not merely wonderful but transcendental about their surroundings, its best expression falls to the one among them who stands at the forefront of their memories.
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) grew up in privilege as the eighth surviving child in an extremely musical and literate family. He travelled to London to attend the Slade School of Fine Art, then considered the best art school in the country, but carried so deep a love of his Cookham home that he returned here every day. With the rustic charm of its local shops, riverside tranquility, and relaxation of social barriers in the bustle of regattas and funfairs, Cookham’s mystique spoke to something deep in Spencer’s heart and became the fountain for his early artistic flourish.
|Swan Upping at Cookham (1915-19), considered one of Spencer’s early masterpieces. Though a devout Christian, Spencer found an intrinsic spiritual charge in the river’s beauty and life-sustaining properties which would resonate through most of his work. His infusion of ordinary scenes with an elemental divinity of light and water seems to verge on animistic.|
|The riverside at Cookham Bridge, close to where Spencer painted Swan Upping. The present bridge dates to 1867 and appears in several of Spencer’s paintings.|
But there were shadows too. Notice, in Swan Upping, how the brilliant light fades from the water and darkens to murk. Spencer’s work on this painting was divided in two by the catastrophic civilisational reckoning that was World War I, in which Spencer volunteered and was sent to fight on the Macedonian front line for two and a half years. The war brought him face to face with all the wrong kinds of transcendental experience by killing his brother and many of his friends then spitting him out with malaria. He emerged as many English did, permanently changed by his reckoning with the other side of death (or the loss of that ‘early morning feeling’, in his words), and that burden would ever make its mark on his paintings after his return to Cookham.
|The churchyard at Cookham’s Holy Trinity Church, setting for The Resurrection. The church is recognisably Norman and took shape in the twelfth or thirteenth century, but some walls are said to contain masonry from older Anglo-Saxon predecessors.|
Spencer continued painting through the 1920s and 30s, finding meaning in his work as his interactions with the physical world ran into difficulties. His companionship with Hilda Carline, herself an artist, broke down over his attraction to yet another artist, Patricia Preece. She in turn was already involved in a lesbian relationship with a fourth artist, Dorothy Hepworth, and so refused to actually conduct a meaningful relationship with Spencer even after she married him, which did not stop her siphoning off much of his income and getting him evicted from his house. We can hardly begin to assess this bizarre and obviously complicated tangle for the noise of English beliefs in hegemonic monogamy and for want of all sides of the story; suffice to say that efforts to resolve it through polyamorous arrangements came to naught (four artists – can you imagine?), although it seems Stanley and Hilda at least did manage to reconcile and long continued to inspire each other. On top of that, Stanley came to exhibit a worthy and admirable trait for any seeker of true meaning: a complete inability to manage his financial situation. This would likely have got him murdered with a smirk by the Department of Work and Pensions in the England of today, but fortunately Stanley found help in the form of a supportive agent with the curious name of Dudley Tooth.
War caught up with Spencer again in 1940, but this time Tooth’s search for employment for him sent his easel on a more proletarian turn in the shipyards of Port Glasgow. The eventual result was Shipbuilding on the Clyde, a set of eight panels depicting in remarkable vigour and detail the workers of that river engaged in the industry which once made it legendary.
|Bending the Keel Plate (1943), just one part of the Shipbuilding on the Clyde series.|
Returning to Cookham in 1945, the ageing Spencer was by now becoming something of a legend himself. If legend status came with certain terms, they never seemed to bother him: he walked a path independent of any wider artistic movement and found no need even for a studio. Locals instead frequently remembered sighting this ‘small man with twinkling eyes and shaggy grey hair’, as his Gallery recalls him, trundling up and down the village lanes with his pyjamas sticking out from under his suit, pushing the pram in which he kept his equipment to whatever was next in line for some attention from his transcendental paintbrush. Cookham itself was his studio, and it was here that he prepared a colossal five-metre canvas for what looked set to be his greatest work of all.
He never finished it. Spencer died of cancer in 1959. In Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, he bequeathed a Last Day whose joy is not the jubilance of escape from this world but that of home and belonging found (or dreamed of) necessarily within it. Never completed, this is an end of the world that never needs end after all.
|The Ferry Inn now occupies the riverbank where Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta was set.|
We noted at the beginning that the English are not known for their shamanism. Yet have we found, here in this most English of villages, an individual worthy of the title of shaman of the Thames? The danger in this is that it becomes a label on a man who didn’t really do labels, but at the heart of the puzzle of Stanley Spencer is a formidable paradox which, if it does not qualify his vision as shamanic, makes it hard to imagine what could.
It is as follows. In one sense, Spencer appears fundamentally English: a native of Cookham like a Hobbit in his Shire, emerging from an English-speaking, English-educated provincial Christian scene in whose dialects and imagery and patterns of life, so quintessentially familiar to the people of this land, he felt such a sense of belonging that his paintings cannot be understood without reference to it. But he was also the complete opposite: a walker of magical realms infused with the light of a higher significance that made in-groups and out-groups irrelevant; one who lived, with a gnomic nonchalance, by his own rules even at times when, as in romance and money, they were eccentric to the ordinary world around him.
In other words, he stood as a bridge, connecting the comfort of homeworlds below with the enchantment of dreamworlds above, and so unlocking for his people the redemptive power of seeing the two as one. Is there, in all that, a vision of shamanic healing for an England where, both physically and psychologically, the loss of a secure sense of home and of higher meaning to one’s life is what has driven its politics to take leave of its senses?
One final episode near the end of his life may illustrate this best. In 1954, Spencer was invited to join an odd group of “cultural delegates” on a visit to China. Five years had passed since the communist revolution, and the visit was part of an effort between the People’s Republic and capitalist bloc countries to edgily work out how to relate to each other amidst the heady tensions of the new Cold War. It was a nervous and tantalising trip to a world as far from Cookham as you might imagine. For the English, the Chinese revolution was a frightening splash of red over already forbidding territory, known not so much through facts as through nightmares of toothy dragons and towering temples and tombs, rearing up for eternal revenge out of the ruins of those their little empire had so foolishly kicked over a century earlier.
|The Ming Tombs (1954).|
Spencer spent several awestruck days marvelling at the obligatory Chinese monuments and antiquities, irritating his companions, and horrifying his diplomatic minders, with quirky behaviours and mutterings that constantly referred back to Cookham His musings transfigured the Great Wall of China into the garden wall in Cookham he had ran along as a child, and at one point brought the prickling heat of the mushroom cloud down on the room when he daydreamed aloud about the marvels of Formosa – to him one of those idyllic islands in the Cookham bend, but to everyone else the colonial name for that bristling proximity-mine in the Sino-Western relationship, Taiwan. At last, invited to an official reception, Spencer came face to face with Premier Zhou Enlai. Told by this titanic champion of the otherworld that the Chinese were a ‘home-loving people’, Spencer immediately agreed. ‘I feel at home in China,’ he replied, ‘because I feel that Cookham is somewhere near, only just around the corner’.
|Just around the corner. This is worth reflecting on.|
Cock Marsh and Winter Hill
And now it is time to head round the other corner, not to China – at least not for now – but deeper into England.
|The river isn’t getting any lower. Long-term residence in those houses over there cannot be comfortable.|
|The Enclosure of these commons might have been thwarted, but warding off this country’s coercive sign culture is another matter. Only four dogs per person at a time? What preposterousness is that?|
|The more expensive pieces you stick to it, the more you’re going to lose when it ends up underwater.|
Finally we emerge on a sodden and muddy expanse. Here unrolling into the distance is Cock Marsh, the wild and ancient pyjamas beneath the bricked and cobbled Cookham suit (sorry Stanley).
|Despite the mud and water there is enough firm ground to make it popular to ramble around on.|
|A seagull loiters in the marsh. Cock Marsh is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and harbours a rich variety of bird life, including a higher-than-average concentration of red kites.|
|Naturally it also brings out life of the four-legged furry kind.|
|Anyone venturing out on here should expect to be approached.|
|Ever-present on the inland side is Winter Hill. Somewhere in the middle distance are the Bronze Age burial mounds, which are difficult to spot from a distance but can apparently be discerned at close range.|
While the south bank persists for some time in this vein, the outer residences of another settlement, Bourne End, proffer themselves up to the floodwaters on the north side.
|From the safety of the branches, a Brown Tubby disapprovingly surveys the humans’ poor urban planning decisions.|
|The collapse of this tree has made of its roots a convenient potential hideout for practicing Leninism.|
When the dwellings pop back up on this side, there materialises in their midst an unusual pub. The Bounty seems to be a staunch local fixture, accessible only on foot or by boat but well-patronised by local people and enthusiastic to welcome muddy boots and paws.
|The Bounty is far enough from English power centres, and close enough to inter-dimensional boundaries, that it feels it can safely explore alternative constitutional arrangements.|
Alas, the steep face of Winter Hill soon makes this side inaccessible, so there is no choice but to cross at Bourne End Bridge and follow the outer bank the rest of the way to Marlow.
|Bourne End Railway Bridge was an 1854 Brunel creation. Originally built in wood, it was re-done in steel in 1895, had a footbridge added in 1992 and was refurbished in 2013, at which time they also painted it green.|
|Pretty fancy for all the way out here. The railway is a branch line that splits off to Marlow and has its own contentious history; its survival to the present was not automatic.|
|One dreads to think what a ‘rivet challenge’ entails.|
|And still the swollen river lumbers through the floodplain. There is not much latitude on view here. Nope.|
Bourne is an old word for river. The river that ends in Bourne End is the Wye, a tributary which joins the Thames on this reach and gives its name to the larger town of High Wycombe to the north. Like much of that river Bourne End was decked in mills, though these have long since disappeared.
|They’ve all got their own boats. They’ll be needing them when the river takes everything else.|
|You see? It’s coming. Winter Hill is still there if they prefer to flee up it instead.|
|Some marinas and sailing clubs have populated this stretch, with all the usual notices that this is private property whose owners take no responsibility for injury to walkers whom they will kill for stepping off the footpath.|
|A reminder that these comments on flooding are not hyperbolic. The ‘flood mark’ by the gauge shows the level the water reached in the catastrophic deluge of 1947.|
Here Marlow’s sphere of influence begins; that is to say, its name starts showing up on signs. It waits across a series of meadows between the river and railway.
|There is only one small problem.|
This is the only way through. It is impossible to squeeze around it because it fills the whole space from the river to the railway embankment, and there are no available detours. Nor is it feasible to run and jump, for the goopy mud sucks all the momentum from every step.
|The obvious solution is to pass over the bench onto the first “island”, then run on the log with perfect timing to roll it across to the next bit.|
|That plan attracts a withering look and is discreetly abandoned.|
|The Marlow Donkey, as the branch service is called, demonstrates another way around it. But that would be dishonourable.|
In the end, the only way is the obvious one: straight through.
Well, rivers are wet. Crossing worlds comes with a cost, and as far as those go the dignity of one’s socks seems hardly exorbitant. And the reward, on emerging at the other side, is…well, a field of ducks.
|With geese and swans too. All of them stare.|
|There is also considerable evidence of mole activity.|
|Count the inches between water and window. Count them and cry.|
|These white-feathered ones have not been so common on the way up here. Another signifier of transitioning worlds?|
The good news is that the floods have made their point. The wayfarer who concedes it finds the rest of these fields straightforward to traverse.
|There’s about four of these. The tricky parts are the kissing gates that lead from one into the next – each has attracted a muddy lake right beneath it. In one case it’s simpler just to climb over the fence next to it.|
|They came, they built a boathouse, they got wet and didn’t like it, they ran away.|
|Today the water is merely insistent; at other times it is deadly. In the summer of 2014 some local teenagers were enjoying themselves in these fields but got into difficulties with hidden undercurrents when they swam out into the river. There were no warning signs about these currents and no safety equipment to help them. One of them, Kyrece Francis, did not make it out alive. In response, his family and friends established the Kyrece’s Legacy charity to promote river safety. It is they who have installed all the red lifesaving units along the river here, as well as this special blue one – representing Francis’s passionate support for Chelsea Football Club – near the site of the tragedy.|
Closer to Marlow, the open fields are tamed into parkland and sports fields. The bucolic tranquility of birdsong and rushing water comes to an end, ushered offstage by the neverending roar of the A404 dual carriageway and the bellows of weekend rugby.
|Private private private agagaga. Hang on – use what at your own risk? It looks like the water has already expressed exactly what it thinks about the pretentious claims of the propertied classes by washing away the object at issue.|
|The uniformed teams and booming chorus of the players and crowd indicate this is a serious fixture. For some reason all the players appear to be male.|
|This here tree branch still looks more comfortable with diversity than most English sports.|
Meanwhile the steep slope of Winter Hill has verged right up to the river on the south bank. Its precarious perches are colonised by deep-pocketed thrill-seekers who seem to enjoy living on a tightrope between floods and landslides.
|Danger above, danger below. The pink one up top is probably haunted too.|
|It looks like someone’s cunning plan was not thought through.|
|This one qualifies as a fortification. Its battlements might slow down, say, Jeremy Corbyn, but it’s the water itself they probably ought to have worried about.|
|The A404 thunders across the river and marks the effective eastern boundary of the Marlow settlement.|
Marlow is surely the archetypal Thames town. Its birth from the river is implicit in its name – from Old English merelafan, or remnants (lafe) of a pool (mere) after drainage. Rather than one outstanding structure or story Marlow seems to feature a little of everything, participating in most of the region’s and nation’s wider historical beats and exhibiting its share of landmarks, industries and political and cultural big names – all brought and sustained throughout, of course, by its place on the river.
|But here are also heartening signs of countervailing currents against the nationalists’ prejudices towards refugees. These grassroots efforts are so inspiring that even the local foxes are scrambling to take photographic evidence.|
On the surface, this is not the most obvious place to seek shamanic springs. Yet Marlow might hold some surprises yet. If our interest is in bridges to other worlds, where better to start than with an actual bridge?
|The obligatory “welcome to Marlow” panorama: weir, bridge and steeple unfold to greet tired arrivals.|
This is one of the world’s early suspension bridges, designed by the engineer William Tierney Clark and built in 1829-32. It holds a big secret. On the physical plane, it spans the river to connect Marlow with the road to Bisham. But on a higher plane, it connects the Thames to a world much further away: of all worlds, the Danube.
For most of its history the Hungarian capital Budapest was in fact separate towns on opposite sides of the Danube, primarily Buda (the historic capital) and Pest. Buffeted mercilessly for three centuries between the Ottoman and Austrian empires, at around the time Marlow Bridge went up Pest became the hotbed of the reform movement of Count István Széchenyi. The Count was a progressive statesman who envisaged a great Hungarian revival through political dialogue, economic and infrastructural improvements, cultural flourishing, and both inspiration from and connectedness to the outside world – which also, of course, meant resistance to violent nationalism.
The development and better connection of Buda and Pest was central to this vision. The obvious step, both practical and symbolic, was to link them with a modern and permanent bridge. To whom did Count Széchenyi turn to do it? William Tierney Clark, whose work had impressed the Count as he travelled around Europe studying methods to improve his country. And so, overseen by a Scottish engineer and financed by a Greek merchant, Clark designed the Iánchíd (Chain Bridge) as a scaled-up version of his bridge here in Marlow.
Tragically Széchenyi’s dreams came to grief after the Revolutions of 1848, when the Austrian Habsburgs bloodily crushed the Hungarians' uprising and would repress them for some generations yet. A depressed and broken Széchenyi would shoot himself a few years later, and no doubt feels little better today as he watches, from the other side, his vision for a better Hungary getting urinated on by the authoritarian nationalists of Viktor Orbán. But his bridge survived, opening the year after the uprising and heralding the eventual unification of Buda and Pest into one of the great cultural universes of Europe.
A universe to which Marlow has a unique link as one in that sibling pair, Marlow Bridge and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which commemorate each other on plaques and together form one greater bridge between the worlds of the Thames and the Danube.
|On the south end of Marlow Bridge is The Compleat Angler, a hotel some four centuries old named after England’s possibly most famous book about fishing.|
Marlow’s other major landmark is its church. While Christianity and shamanism aren’t always best friends, Stanley Spencer showed that the broader flexibility of both make them not necessarily incompatible. It’s got to be worth a look.
|A memorial in the entrance commemorates Miles Hobart, Marlow’s MP during Parliament's struggle with King Charles I in the decades leading up to the civil war. In a particularly acrimonious debate he got up and locked the door in the face of the king’s messenger, a tradition that since Charles’s defeat has echoed to the present day in each year’s ritual opening of parliament. Unusually its lower panel depicts the manner of Hobart’s death in a carriage accident after his release from prison.|
As the industrial revolution steamed ahead, Marlow’s traditional occupations – particularly agriculture and lace-making – fell away as the railways transformed it into a commuter satellite and popular holiday destination. It became particularly popular with some prominent figures in English literature in this period. Among them were Mary Wollstonecraft/Shelley, pioneer of English feminism with her The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and her companion Percy Bysshe Shelley, a great poet and social radical in his own right. Both might be familiar in present English imagination for their appearance in the recent series of Doctor Who, which found them on that juncture in literary history, the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in 1816 where Mary got certain ideas about re-animated corpses. But it was here in Marlow, where the Shelleys came the following year, that she consummated those ideas into that work which stands as an urgent guard post on the bridge between this world and the next: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
|Marlow’s old town hall, an 1807 creation.|
|Marlow’s high street. The old town hall is at one end, the bridge at the other.|
|With the weekend market up there are other flags too. Today it looks like Marlow has a Thailand in it.|
The decidedly un-shamanic direction of twentieth-century capitalism has nibbled away on all this otherworldly depth. Ironically, but not surprisingly for observers of how capitalist creative destruction works, one of its casualties was the very railway that had carried its winds into Marlow in the first place.
The line to Marlow is a branch that leaves the Great Western Main Line (between London Paddington and Bristol) at Maidenhead, whose train for some cute reason picked up the nickname of Marlow Donkey. Originally running all the way up to High Wycombe, bits were chopped off it as the rise of the motor car made it uneconomical. This culminated in the shutting down of the High Wycombe connection altogether during the nationwide smash-up of the British rail network, with all the heritage it embodied, by Railway Board chairman Dr. Richard Beeching in the 1960s. Half the country’s train stations were swept away in a phenomenon which British railway historians, with a nigh-mythic shudder, have recalled ever since as the Beeching Axe. It also cost Marlow its Victorian station building, and its railway continued to deteriorate until campaigns by local people came to the rescue of what remains.
|The present Marlow Donkey. All that remains of Marlow Station is this platform, hemmed in by hungry private developments.|
Mirroring the fate of former MP Dominic Grieve, the sense is that Marlow has not altogether been comfortable with the mistakes of English modernity. In 1974 Marlow’s political voice was angrily stifled when it was administratively joined to High Wycombe for no apparent reason, overshadowing its specific grievances in town planning decisions. With congestion and pollution came threats even to the suspension bridge. It was not designed for the weight of modern traffic loads, a point brought home when it was lengthily closed to check for damage after a massive Lithuanian haulage lorry trundled its way across it in 2016. Then came Thatcher’s free-market revolution, whose smashing of the council house system and unfettering of the housing market made it impossible for Marlow’s lower-paid workers to continue living beneath its galloping rents. Instead they have increasingly had to commute in, further piling the pressure on its congestion.
|Only this culture of post-truth landlordism could come up with an arrangement like ‘RIVERSIDE – NO ACCESS TO RIVER’. At least they’ve also provided a ‘Tuffbox’ in which to lock whoever came up with that idea.|
It is perhaps this erroneous undead modernity, more than anything inherent to Englishness, more even than the floodwaters, that does most to drown attempts to bring into this world the vigour of worlds that transcend it. To the ideology that would reduce us all to automatons with no more purpose than to be ground for our energy in service of capital-owners, those other worlds are dangerous. Where it wants our lives sterile and meaningless, those worlds enthuse us as in the paintings of Stanley Spencer; where it wants us divided, they bring us together as in the bridges of William Clark; where it wants us unthinking units of mindless self-interest, they send across creatures like those of Mary Shelley to give us perspective and make us reflect on what is really important.
The cult of the market, in other words, relies on the annihilation of all shamanic forces. It requires that peoples like the English do not heal. So too does its unholy ally, the authoritarian nationalism which forsakes any true love-based sense of home or belonging, so radiant in its Cookham apotheosis, in favour of a perpetual splenetic seething hate for the imaginary other. So long as these forces wave their spotlights over this society, so too will its shamans remain in otherworldly exile.
Yet they are not extinguished, as we have seen, and one day must surely return. That is because neither the cult of the market nor the authoritarian nationalists can bury the wellsprings of transcendental power which rise from the Earth itself, which manifests here in a power so unmistakably greater than theirs: the river, always and ever the bridge between this land and all the lands beyond.
|Which here laps at the banks of Marlow with the congealed remains of the bridge-breakers it ate today. Such, it proclaims, is the fate of all who dare put the economy ahead of people, their relationships and their stake in the universe.|
|The dark specks were the indigestible parts.|
Special thanks to the Marlow Museum for a great deal of the information and insight that went into this section.