In an excerpt from her book Walks For Each Season: 26 great days out in the Countryside near London, Julia Smith leads us on a wintry wander around Cookham, the village that brought us The Wind in the Willows, and Stanley Spencer.
BEST TIME: Throughout winter — December to first week of March
LENGTH & DIFFICULTY: 5.5 miles (9km); easy apart from one steep climb (which can be avoided, as outlined in the directions). No stiles.
APPROXIMATE TIME: 2 hours 45 mins
TRAINS: Paddington to Cookham, change at Maidenhead (hourly; from 44 minutes). Buy a day return to Cookham.
FOOD & DRINK: Lots of places to eat and drink along Cookham High Street.
PICNIC: Bench above the escarpment path and then a few along the Thames.
TOILETS: Cookham station and junction of High Street and Sutton Road.
There are views across the wide floodplain to the Chiltern Hills and almost a third of the walk is along the Thames, the stretch that inspired Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, or so it’s claimed.
At the end of the walk there’s enough day left to nose round Cookham, whose life and residents were immortalised in Stanley Spencer’s biblical paintings. Spencer, who was born and lived here, described Cookham as ‘a village in Heaven’. This walk is very popular at weekends, so if you prefer not to catch snatches of other people’s cheerful chatter or engage with their excitable dogs, venture out on a weekday. After significant rain the Thames-side path may be muddy, if the ground isn’t frozen. No particular aspect of winter is showcased on this walk, although there are a decent number of grand old trees, whose winter skeletons are rather wonderful.
It is one of those walks without any nasty bits. You are quickly out of Cookham and into fields. There is a satisfying section along the top of a chalk escarpment, where red kites course the currents at your height. Beyond is the thin line of the Thames, the river appears calm, but swollen with water, almost level with the marsh and sunlight glances off a row of white houses on the far bank.
You descend to join a strung out line of people walking along the river, wrapped up against the cold. As you walk along the Thames Path, it’s hard not to gawp at the houses of Bourne End or peer into the houseboats, cabin cruisers and the more up-market yachts further along the riverbank. There’s a rather quirky pub with Thames-side seating, before a final stretch of riverside walking across marsh belonging to the National Trust. The walk finishes with an amble through Cookham via the churchyard, home to Stanley Spencer’s gravestone, past the Stanley Spencer Gallery, up the attractive high street with its many pubs and across Cookham Moor, back to the station.
1. Exit the station and turn left to walk out of the car park onto the road. Turn right along the road. Just before you reach the mini roundabout cross the road.
2. Turn right along the pavement to continue in the same direction and turn left along the drive, in front of the houses.
3. When the track bends to the right continue ahead.
4. At the road turn left and almost immediately right along a car-wide path. Aim for a field gate, go through a gap in the fence to the left of the gate, to join a footpath straight ahead.
5. In 500m ignore a left turn over a railway bridge. Continue ahead through a small section of scrub and then alongside a second section of golf course.
6. Descend wooden stairs and turn left through a large kissing gate and under a railway arch. The path soon forks. Take the right fork and pass through a kissing gate. Continue on this path for just under 500m, until you reach a bench and a board walk over marshy ground on the right.
7. For the shorter walk, continue on the footpath at the base of the escarpment until you reach a four-armed footpath signpost with a pool behind. Here pick up the directions from 11 below (but turn right).
8. For the longer walk, take the thin footpath on the left, diagonally up the escarpment. The path is steep and can be slippery if wet or frosty.
9. Close to the top of the escarpment follow the path as it bends right and contours round.
10. In 600m you enter woodland, the path soon ends at a car-wide track. Turn right, doubling back on yourself and gradually descend the escarpment.
11. At the bottom you reach a four-armed footpath signpost. Turn left and head towards a field gate. Pass through the kissing gate to the right of the field gate and cross the field.
12. Then follow the footpath sign right to reach the Thames, which you follow for 3km.
13. After about 800m when you reach a line of houses, go through a gate right next to the river to follow the path in front of houses and to reach the Bounty pub.
14. After the pub continue to follow the Thames. The path emerges onto marsh again. Later don’t be tempted to follow the line of people veering off across the marsh to a distant car park. Instead, continue along the
Thames Path, towards a white metal gate.
15. Pass in front of the CRSC clubhouse and then alongside Bell Rope Meadow. At the end of the ‘meadow’ turn right to follow the Thames Path sign; you soon walk through the church graveyard and past Stanley Spencer’s grave.
16. Continue ahead towards the black and white houses and turn left along the driveway and then right onto the road. Take the first right, Cookham High Street. The station is 1.2km up this road.
17. At the top of the High Street pass the war memorial and walk along the raised tarmac path to the left of the road (across Cookham Moor, owned by the National Trust). When this ends continue on the pavement. Pass a mini roundabout and then cross the road at the zebra crossing (as the pavement ahead soon runs out) and continue in the same direction. You pass the mini roundabout where you turned off originally; the station is straight ahead on the left.
Walks for Each Season: 26 great days out in the Countryside near London by Julia Smith is available to buy now, RRP £14.99.
All images by the author, except where stated otherwise.