Buoyed by an illustrious past with the River Thames at its heart, Bourne End, Cookham and Marlow are among the most picturesque and popular towns and villages on its banks. Rosalind Sack discovers their draw
The allure of the river has long been difficult to resist for the inhabitants and visitors to the pretty Thameside towns and village of Marlow, Bourne End and Cookham. Spanning the Berkshire/Buckinghamshire boundary along this beautiful stretch of water, all three have much to thank the river for through the ages. And it continues to serve as the backbone of this much-loved area.
With thriving culture, sports and culinary scenes, active and close-knit communities and regular appearances on national newspaper ‘best places to live’ lists, it’s little wonder the popularity of this area is sky-high – with property prices to match.
For centuries, the Thames proved an important trading artery which brought with it prosperity and importance to Marlow, Cookham and Bourne End. A large-scale archaeological dig next to Cookham’s Holy Trinity Church close to the river in 2021 unearthed compelling evidence of this. The dig – which made national headlines – revealed that it had been the site of an important 8th Century monastery, ruled by the influential Queen Cynethryth, the only Anglo-Saxon Queen depicted on a coin. Indeed, the entire area is rich in archaeology from Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements.
Beyond being purely strategic for trade and power, the river’s charm has long proved irresistible for more creative endeavours, drawing a host of prominent writers, artists and musicians to the area over the years.
This summer, television crews have been spotted in Marlow filming the small screen adaptation of the novel The Marlow Murder Club, starring actress Samantha Bond and written by Marlow resident Robert Thorogood – who also wrote the popular TV drama Death In Paradise.
Marlow’s strong pedigree in literary history can be traced back to 1817 when Mary and Percy Shelley lived briefly in the town. While Percy wrote poetry on a boat on the river, it is here that Mary completed her masterpiece Frankenstein. A decade later, T.S.Eliot moved to the town and, here, wrote his modernist poems The Waste Land and Gerontion.
Jerome K Jerome described Marlow as ‘one of the pleasantest river centres’ in his book Three Men In A Boat, published in 1889, which he is rumoured to have written partly in the Two Brewers pub in the town while living a few miles away in Marlow Common.
He would have found an affinity with author Kenneth Grahame’s character Ratty in The Wind In The Willows, who famously talked of the joys of “simply messing about in boats”. The book captured Kenneth’s childhood memories of growing up in the rural idyll of Cookham and the character of Mr Toad is said to have been inspired by the eccentric Colonel Francis Ricardo, who lived at Lullebrook House in the village, now the Odney Club owned by John Lewis & Partners. He was reportedly the first person in Cookham to own a car; a yellow Rolls Royce Silver Ghost – just like Toad’s.
Children’s author Enid Blyton lived in Bourne End from 1929 to 1938, during which time she created one of her best-loved characters, Brer Rabbit. Up the road lived writer and director Edgar Wallace, best known for providing the inspiration for King Kong. He is buried at Little Marlow Cemetery.
These days book-lovers can visit the renowned Henley Literary Festival, which takes place every October along the river in Henley-on-Thames, and history fans can visit the former home of the Astor family and its National Trust-owned gardens at Cliveden, in nearby Taplow. While Cookham’s Stanley Spencer Gallery, housed in the former Wesleyan chapel on the High Street where he worshipped as a child, draws visitors from far and wide.
The great British artist – who described Cookham as “a village in heaven” – grew up living on the high street and returned to live there in 1932 until his death in 1959. His work features many local landmarks and he would often be seen wheeling his canvas and easel around the village in an old pram. The gallery has a permanent collection of his works, as well as an active calendar of exhibitions. Visitors can refuel in the popular Bel & the Dragon pub opposite; one of the oldest coaching inns in England, built in 1417.
Now sadly not in operation, Cookham also once housed one of the world’s finest recording studios, The Mill, built in the 1970s. Among the artists who recorded and mixed there were Elton John, Jeff Beck and Mick Fleetwood, and it was later owned by Jimmy Page of rock band Led Zeppelin and then by Chris Rea. The village now draws legions of fluoro-clad music fans of a different genre to the annual Let’s Rock the Moor ‘80s music festival on Cookham Moor.
A GOURMET DESTINATION
A celebration of both music and food, Marlow boasts its own Pub in the Park festival, established by local resident chef Tom Kerridge, who has been instrumental in transforming Marlow into a renowned ‘gourmet town’. Tom owns The Hand & Flowers (the UK’s only pub with two Michelin stars), one Michelin star pub The Coach, private dining room The Shed and butchers-come-pub The Butcher’s Tap and Grill – all on West Street in the centre of town.
“Marlow is one of those incredible communities that is built on social connections around sport, schools, family, friends, small-scale independent operations and has this wonderful hub of the community that people are really proud to be part of,” says Tom. “I’m super proud to live here and call it home.”
Chef Atul Kochhar has also brought his stunning Indian food to Marlow at Sindhu restaurant at the Macdonald Compleat Angler hotel on the banks of the river, overlooking the town’s handsome suspension bridge, while 2020 saw the opening of Vaasu restaurant on Chapel Street; a more laid-back affair with a menu inspired by Atul’s travels across India.
Marlow is also home to the Rebellion Brewery, which supplies many local hostelries and sells directly to beer-lovers from its brewery shop. While the river comes into play again in creating the perfect ‘Thames terroir’ to produce award-winning sparkling wines at the town’s Harrow & Hope vineyard. About 450,000 years ago water flowed through the site of the vineyard, cutting down into the gravel and chalk and leaving a steep sloped terrace with large deposits of flint gravel and clay. The perfect spot, it would seem, for growing grapes.
MESSING AROUND IN BOATS
Of course, the charm of the river in Marlow, Cookham and Bourne End is not just down to what is on its banks, but also what takes place on its waters. Every July, this stretch of river hosts the 800-year-old tradition of Swan Upping; an annual census and assessment of the Thames swan population. Wearing their distinctive scarlet and gold braided uniforms of HM The King, the Royal Swan Uppers travel along the river in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies.
The annual regattas in Marlow and Cookham, the hobbyist stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers and motor boaters, not to mention the thriving sailing and rowing clubs here, make this a popular stretch of river.
Indeed, it’s easy to be inspired to pick up an oar when it’s not uncommon to walk past a highly decorated Olympic rower. Marlow High Street boasts a gold postbox thanks to gold medal-winning paralympian Naomi Riches, who trains at Marlow Rowing Club. Local resident Dame Katherine Grainger, Britain’s most decorated female Olympian and now chairwoman of UK Sport, is a fellow member of the Club. Visitors to the town’s Higginson Park can’t miss the giant bronze statue of highly decorated team GB rower, and Marlow Bottom resident, Sir Steve Redgrave. While Cookham is home to Olympic champion rower Helen Glover and her husband, the naturalist and wildlife presenter Steve Backshall.
There must be something in the water…
What’s On in Bourne End, Cookham and Marlow
Teams will compete in a variety of dragon boat races throughout the day, while on dry land there is a classic vehicle display, dog show, food stalls, bar and more to keep the family entertained.
Gravity Grand Prix, Cookham Dean
This annual soapbox race sees home-crafted novelty karts take on the downhill road course powered by gravity alone. The day also features food stalls, children’s funfair and refreshments.
Marlow Carnival, Higginson Park
Live music, children’s entertainment, food and drink stalls and much more comes to Higginson Park for another year of fun at this annual family-friendly day out.
The Marlow 10
Conceived in 2021 to celebrate a decade of the brilliant Runners’ Retreat in Marlow, this annual 10km multi-terrain race is beautiful yet challenging.
A Brush With History exhibition at Stanley Spencer Gallery
Until 5 November
In partnership with Southampton City Art Gallery, this exhibition sees seven loans from some of the most important names in the Modern British art scene alongside works by Spencer, all of whom were affected by the Great War.