Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Maidenhead

Bridge at Ray's Island
Bridge at Ray's Island

Retracing my steps back to the Pathway, I pause to take a photograph of the covered wooden footbridge across the sidestream before crossing the main footbridge. I notice a blue plate on the bridge, informing me that the broadcaster David Dimbleby once lived here.

Today is rather quiet along the pathway, but this was far from the norm in Victorian and Edwardian times. The area around Boulters Lock down to the Maidenhead Bridge was the “Thames Riviera”, particularly on the weekend after Ascot Week. This was where the well-to-do would hold their boating parties and promenade their ladies up and down the riverside, while the lower classes flocked their to watch the toffs. A sort of real-life “Hello!” magazine of the time. The scene can be viewed today in the painting by Edward John Gregory (1850-1909) “Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon” that is on display in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside.

Maidenhead revelled in its popularity, and the town became prosperous on the back of this tourist trade. All came to a sudden stop with the events of 1914, and the revelry has not taken place since.

It is a pleasant walk along the old promenade to Maidenhead Bridge. The pathway is only separated from the river by an iron railing, and an avenue of trees forms a barrier between me and the road. About halfway between the block and the bridge is an engraved slab in the pavement bearing the ode,

Old Father Thames goes gliding by
As ripples run he winks his eye
At Cotswold cows & Oxford dons
Nodding to Windsor’s royal swans
He bears our nation’s liquid crown
By lock & weir to London town
May all that know and love his banks
Pause here awhile to offer thanks.
2002 Ian Miles

So I offer thanks and move on.

Pavement Ode, Maidenhead
Pavement Ode, Maidenhead

Maidenhead is a relatively new development compared to many of the places I have already visited on this walk. Neighbouring Bray and Cookham are far older and it seems as though Maidenhead was just conveniently dropped into the middle to fill a gap. This settlement was originally named South Ellington, and it was here that a wooden bridge was constructed around the mid 13th century following an order from Henry III for the road to be widened. This made the areas fortune, because now the town was on the main highway between London and Bath, and luckily for South Ellington exactly one days coach journey from London, making it the ideal stop-over point. With the stop-over there came the rush of tradesmen to service the travellers, not only the obvious coaching inns, but also stables, blacksmiths, coach repairers and all the support services required to maintain the transport system. The town grew rapidly.

Soon a new wharf was built near to the bridge to cope with deliveries of goods. In the language of the time “New Wharf” was “Maiden Hythe” which soon became corrupted to Maidenhead and the name has stuck ever since.

With such a transport centre already in existence it was inevitable that this was a natural place for the new railway and the Great Western Railway came to town in 1838. People soon realised that Maidenhead was close enough for the better paid populace to travel by train to London each day and return again in the evening. The commuter was born. The area also developed a scandalous reputation for the growing number of fun-seekers and playboys who came out of London seeking their pleasures.

I too am seeking out the station to return home for the evening. The station itself is a drab affair not at all in keeping with its previous high status, but on the way there is a bonus and the possibility of earning a quick pint in a pub bet. My chosen route takes me along York Road, past the home of Maidenhead United Football Club. Allegedly this is the oldest continually used football ground in the world. I tuck this snippet of information away in the hope of running into one of my pub quiz friends (who is the probably the leading authority on English football grounds having visited them all from the heights of the Premiership down to the bare grass-roots of the lower Unibond), to see if he knows this obscure fact. I bumped into him a couple of weeks later and asked him. Sadly he did.

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