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Cookham, Berkshire, UK

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As the River Thames meanders its way through Berkshire1 it passes through the quiet village of Cookham2, just north of Maidenhead. With a population of 5,497 (2001 census) this village actually consists of three parts: Cookham Village, Cookham Rise and Cookham Dean. It may be observed that residents of the more prestigious areas can become quite irate if all three are lumped together under a single name so take care when chatting to locals. Situated in prime commuter territory - close to both the M4 and M40 motorways, with rail links to London - and surrounded by pleasant English countryside, it is not surprising that the area regularly comes high in polls of the most expensive housing in the country as well as those that measure living standards.

Cookham Village

Cookham Village is the area nearest to the river and contains many quaint 16th and 17th Century cottages, both along the riverbank and around a narrow high street. This part of the village grew around an 8th Century Saxon monastery and the Saxon kings also had a royal palace here. Many of the cottages with fronts on to the High Street have been converted to posh French clothes shops, estate agents or restaurants over the years but some retain names that hint at the past, for example the Old Forge3. This was built some time in the 16th Century, although it is probable that there was a forge on the site for some time prior to the erection of the current building. There is also a Brewhouse and cottages called the Maltings as evidence of a former brewery in the village. There are two long-established inns on the High Street, one 15th Century, originally called 'The Olde Bell' and the other 17th Century, originally called 'The King's Head'. A sign on the nearby Vine Cottage suggests that Cookham has long been a quiet place, advising patrons that all fighting must be finished by 10pm.

At the easternmost end of the High Street stands the Stanley Spencer Gallery, formerly a chapel, that now houses a permanent display of art by a famous village artist4 as well as occasional exhibitions by current village artists5. Nearby, on the way to the river, is Holy Trinity church, parts of which date back to Norman times. There are several brasses in the church marking local family vaults although the surrounding graveyard contains some less celebrated occupants; the parish register contains the following entry: March 9th 1741, Richard Smith, a highwayman shot on the road.

Cookham Bridge leads out of the village, and was a toll bridge up until the 1940s. The toll house stands on the north bank of the Thames and marks the edge of both the village and the county of Berkshire. Cookham was a Royal Manor until the 19th Century and was formerly a favourite fishing spot for royalty; the boundary of the county was set a little way past the north bank so that access to the river could be controlled to prevent poaching. As well as fishing, other activities take place on the river. In the third week of July the annual Swan Upping ceremony takes place under the direction of the Queen's Swan Keeper and waterman where the ownership of the year's cygnets is established. There is also an annual regatta with various boat races on the river, supported by many of the local population and businesses.

Cookham Rise

Cookham Rise is to the west of Cookham Village along a short road called The Pound which runs along Pound's Field and passes Marsh Meadow where the annual village fete is held. The Rise is the least prestigious of the three villages6 and contains the newest housing developments, although it is likely that this area was the first to be settled in ancient times. There is evidence of a Roman settlement at the southern end of the village, the approximate area where two Roman roads (Camlet Way and Alderman Silver's Road) crossed. A villa may have been located there, but the main building has not been found. There is evidence that there may have been a substantial wooden bridge over the river, possibly with an adjoining river port named 'Cwch-ium' - Celtic for Boat-Place, which could be the source of the current village name. A cemetery has been discovered that indicates that early Saxon settlers also stayed in this area.

Cookham Rise contains much of the necessary infrastructure for a village, including food shops and a Post Office, along with more restaurants and takeaways. It is possible to buy locally-produced food here, particularly in the summer months when local farms invite the public to 'Pick Your Own' fruit and vegetables. This is also the location of the railway station, the second stop on a three-stop branch line between Maidenhead and Bourne End. In the morning rush hour they are more frequent, but for most of the day two trains an hour pass through Cookham. One heads towards Maidenhead from where it is possible to continue your journey east to London Paddington or west to Reading, and the other heads to Bourne End. A separate line continues on for the short stretch between Bourne End and Marlow, which is known as the Marlow Donkey. Nobody really knows where this nickname came from, even though there are several conflicting theories.

Cookham Dean

Cookham Dean for the most part enjoys an elevated position atop a hill, starting at river level at the westernmost point of Cookham Rise and rising to 250 feet. This affords the residents ample opportunity to look down on the surrounding areas. Until late Victorian times, Cookham Dean was seen as being a rather rough area in which to live and was considered generally unsafe, possibly due to the Kaffirs, a wild group of cherry-pickers who settled there in the 19th Century. The modern-day incarnation of the group is a charitable organisation with the same name.

The area has undergone a rather remarkable change in its fortunes in recent times and now has the largest and most expensive houses; it is the location of a number of celebrity homes, no doubt due to the picturesque surroundings. A past resident, Kenneth Grahame, is thought to have been inspired to write The Wind In the Willows by the river area between Cookham and Marlow while at a Preparatory School in the village, and it is known for the prettiness of its cherry orchards.

Like the other Cookhams, the Dean has a number of pubs and restaurants. One, the Jolly Farmer, is notable because it was bought by villagers in the late 1980s in order to preserve its local and unique character. It is now a Free House and is used as meeting place for a number of local societies, it also hosts the Kaffir's annual charity pig roast each July.

Things To Do

Although the Cookhams are small villages, they are popular places for tourists to visit, particularly in the summer months. There are a number of pleasant walks through and around the area; the Cliveden Reach section of the Thames Path passes through the village on the way to Bourne End and Marlow and there are several National Trust wildlife and nature reserves in the area with grassland and wetland habitats.

There are many opportunities for sporting activies in the area, a golf course, sailing club, cricket team, football club, and riding school are just some of the possibilities. There is an active WI7 and several charitable organisations in the area who are always looking for helpful volunteers, and for the performers there are singing, music and drama groups.

Other nearby attractions include Cliveden, a National Trust Grade I listed garden with a large Italianate mansion. The grand house can be glimpsed amongst the woods from much of the village and is known for hosting large and spectacular firework displays. It is well worth visiting the gardens in the springtime when the many rhododendrons are in bloom. Windsor Castle is also a short train or car journey away if fancy residences are your thing.

Of course, if all that sounds a little too active for you then it is perfectly fine to while away an afternoon watching the world pass by in one of the many eating or drinking establishments, or take a picnic and set yourself up by the river where you can dream of Ratty, Mole and Toad having their adventures on the nearby banks.

1Berk- is pronounced 'bark', to rhyme with 'park'.2The 'h' is silent.3Now a good (but expensive) Indian restaurant.4Sir Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham in 1891 and much of his artwork featured the village and its surroundings.5Timmy Mallett - yes, the 1980s children's television presenter with the rubber hammer - recently displayed some of his artwork there.6At least it is considered so by residents of the Village and the Dean.7This is the Women's Institute, run by formidable matrons who make great cakes and jam. Most villages in England will be home to a branch of this venerable club.

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