First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
'It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things.'
Crunching through the snowy fields to Cookham Dean, I caught myself looking out for the short, intent figure of Mole scurrying along in his newly bought goloshes. Kenneth Grahame was living in the Berkshire village at the turn of the 20th century when he wrote The Wind In The Willows for his son Mouse. That story immortalised the landscape of the River Thames, its fine houses and meadows – and especially its woods. How thrilling to my childish imagination were the adventures of Mole and Ratty in the depths of the Wild Wood! Now, leaving Cookham Dean’s whitened village green and entering snow-bound Quarry Wood, I found myself in the thick of that sinister forest.
A sunken cart track led down to the bottom of the wood. I turned back along a path between bushes of spindle whose brilliant orange seeds pushed through splits in bright pink fruit cases, the brightest colours in the sombre wood. With the muted winter sun already setting and shadows lying long on the snow under the trees, I was visited by a frisson from childhood, the thing that Rat had tried to shield poor Mole from – ‘the Terror of the Wild Wood!’
A stunning panorama from Winter Hill over the graceful curves of the Thames; then a peaceful stretch under frozen willows along the river bank in the half light of dusk. I got into Cookham just in time to catch the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a treasure-house of the fabulous art of another celebrated Cookham resident. What an odd, complicated and ecstatic vision this kind-of-naïf painter brought to his work, most of it rooted in his beloved native village. And how strange to walk from the black hollows and snow-crusted trees of Grahame’s Wild Wood into Spencer’s summery Cookham of picnickers in short sleeves, girls in bathing dresses, and the figure of Christ in a black straw boater preaching with fiery fury from a punt at Cookham Regatta.
Start & finish: Cookham station, Berks SL6 9BP (OS ref SU 886850)
Getting there: Train (www.thetrainline.com; www.railcard.co.uk) to Cookham. Bus: Arriva (www.arrivabus.co.uk) Service 37 (Maidenhead-High Wycombe). Road: M40 Jct 4; A404 Marlow; A4155, A4095 to Cookham; B4447 to Cookham Rise. Park near station.
Walk (7½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer 172): From station, left; 1st left along High Road; pass school, then Stanley Spencer’s house Clievden View (corner of Worster Road); follow High Road to T-jct (879851). Ignore path opposite; right for 75m; cross road; path through fields (yellow arrows/YA) for ⅓ mile to road in Cookham Dean (874853). Left round S-bend; right across green to pub sign; left here (‘Chiltern Way/CW; Berkshire Loop’). Down right side of Sanctum on the Green Inn (871853). Through trees for 100m; right over stile (YA, CW). Down slope; cross path at bottom; forward (fingerpost) up to road (864853). Left for 50m; right (‘bridleway’, blue arrow) on path inside wood edge. In ⅓ mile, fields on your left give way to trees; just beyond, at 4-way path crossing (859851), ignore paths crossing through barriers and YA, and take right-hand of 2 paths ahead, following sunken trackway downhill.
In 300m keep ahead across a path crossing (856850); in 250m, hairpin right (854849; ‘Restricted Byway’) along bottom edge of wood for ⅔ mile to cross Quarry Wood Road (861857). Immediately right up path between fences, steeply up for 300m to road (864857). Don’t cross; left along path beside road, then through wood for ⅓ mile to road at Dial Close (870860). Left along grass verge by road for ⅓ mile; left down Stonehouse Lane (874863); in 20m, right along path (YA) follow CW. After going through metal gate (marked ‘donated by East Berks Ramblers’), in 200m CW forks right; but keep ahead on downward track. At foot of slope, left (882867, fingerpost) through kissing gate; track across fields, bearing right along River Thames. Follow river for 1½ miles to Cookham Bridge (898856). Right along Ferry Lane past church; right up Cookham High Street, past Stanley Spencer Gallery (896853) and Bel & Dragon Inn; follow footpath by road for ¾ mile to station.
NB – Online maps, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Stanley Spencer Gallery: Winter opening Thurs-Sun, 11-4.30; 01628-471885; www.stanleyspencer.org.uk