Main walk: 14.2km (8.8 miles)
3 out of 10: flat, with one short but steep hill climb: 1 out of 10 on the Thames Path options
Landranger 175, Explorer 172
This is a simple outing along a very pretty stretch of the Thames. It is suitable for all times of the year, though the whole walk, and in particular the morning section along the river, is especially lovely when the leaves are turning in autumn. In winter the route is not excessively muddy, exceptions being the riverside route from Marlow to Cookham (not on the main walk but used by the extensions, the Marlow Circular and the Thames Path options), which can be very slithery and (much more rarely) even floods.
To begin with the walk takes a somewhat prosaic route for a mile or so through Maidenhead to get to the river by Brunel’s famous Maidenhead Rail Bridge, the widest brick arch ever built. It then follows the Thames Path to Cookham, with the wooded escarpment of the Cliveden estate on the far side of the river. After lunch you climb up onto an escarpment with fine views of the Thames Valley. Finally, you descend into Marlow, a pretty eighteenth century town with lots of tea choices.
Extending the walk
The Maidenhead rail bridge is one of the great achievements of the brilliant 19th century engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The arches of this are the widest brick spans ever built, being 128ft (39 metres) wide but only 24 ft (7 metres) high. Like many of Brunel’s bridges, this was a one-off engineering solution built for a specific reason: he wanted the Great Western Railway line from London to Bristol to be completely flat, with no gradients, and so wouldn’t allow a higher bridge, with a slope up to it. This is the bridge that features in Turner’s famous painting Rail, Steam and Speed, now in the National Gallery. Its easternmost arch is also known as the Sounding Arch, for its formidable echo. However, you can try it only out by crossing the river from the route given here via Maidenhead road bridge, and then taking the first road to the right on the far side, which takes you right under the bridge onto the Thames Path.
Boulters Lock was "known throughout the Empire" in late Victorian and Edwardian times as a place where high society gathered to "mess about in boats", a popular pastime that also obsessed city clerks, as notably described in Jerome K Jerome's 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat. There were regattas, carnivals and processions on this stretch of the river, particularly in Ascot Week in June, with bystanders dressing in their best clothes to watch. All of this was brought to an end by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
Part of the attraction of Boulters Lock was the proximity of Cliveden, a grand show-palace (it was built as an impressive place to entertain guests in summer, rather than to live in year round) which sits atop the escarpment on the opposite side of the river from this walk (a point where you can see it is indicated in the walk directions). Cliveden was famous as the home of the Astor family in late 19th and early 20th century, but it is perhaps even more notorious for the Profumo affair in 1961, which rocked the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. John Profumo, minister for war in that government, was found to have been meeting showgirl Christine Keeler, at a time when she was also having an affair with an attache at the Soviet Embassy. He lied to parliament about this and was forced to resign. Seven Gable Cottage, the house after the Boat House on the far side of the river – both visible on this walk – was the place where the two met. Cliveden house is now a hotel, but the gardens are owned by the National Trust and open to the public – though not easily accessible from this walk.
Trains go from Paddington to Maidenhead with a high frequency. Catch a train that gets you to Maidenhead between 10.30am and 11am (or arriving at Marlow or Cookham at the same time if doing the circular options).
Trains back from Marlow are hourly, changing at Maidenhead, so get a day return to Marlow. Bourne End and Cookham are intermediate stops on the Marlow branch. Don’t be alarmed when the train reverses direction at Bourne End.
There is an open air kiosk cafe and a terrace bar on Ray Mill Island by Boulters Lock, 3.2km (1.2 miles into the walk).
In Cookham, 7.1km (4.4 miles) into the main walk and 7.6km (4.7 miles) into the Marlow Circular walk, there are several pub options, all of them serving excellent food at the time of writing:
The oddly named Bel and the Dragon (01628 521263 www.belandthedragon.co.uk), which describes itself as a “country pub and eating house”, is more like a restaurant in that it has table service and prices to match. It serves food 12-3pm on Saturdays and 12-9pm on Sundays.
The Kings Arms (01628 530667 www.thekingsarmscookham.co.uk) just down the street is a traditional inn that has been imaginatively revamped. It offers creative food at cheaper prices than Bel and the Dragon, though the portions are not that large. Food is served all afternoon daily.
The same might also be said about the Crown (01628 520163 www.thecrowncountryinn.com) at the bottom of the high street, just where it opens out onto Cookham Moor. This has had a also had a revamp and now has a menu with interesting twists on classic dishes. It has some outside tables overlooking the Moor.
The Teapot Tea Shop (01628 529 514 www.teapot-teashop.co.uk) in Cookham High Street also serves light lunches - baked potatoes, paninis, welsh rarebit and the like, with large portions of salad. It has a garden area and is open till 5pm daily.
If you are on the Cookham Circular walk, Marlow, 7.4km (4.6 miles) into the walk, has plentiful lunch options: see below under Tea.
The best choice in Marlow, if you can get there in time (it is open until 5.30pm Monday to Saturday and 5pm Sunday, but last orders are 5.15pm Monday to Friday, 5pm Saturday and 4.30pm Sunday) is Burgers (01628 483389 www.burgersartisanbakery.com). Despite its name (which is Swiss and properly pronounced "bur-jers"), this is a very pleasant patisserie - a Marlow insititution in fact - with a wide choice of homemade cakes.
Otherwise Marlow has lots of other cafes, though they seem to change their names at regular intervals. Currently the Cafe Copia (open till 5pm) is about 60 metres further up the high street from Burgers on the right, and 80 metres beyond it is the Fego Caffe, which closes at 5.30pm Monday to Saturday and 4pm on Sunday.
Two reliable back stops are Starbucks, 50 metres beyond Fego Caffe on the left of the high street, which opens to 7pm daily, and the George and Dragon Inn, just before Burgers, which offers Costa coffee and tea and a good selection of deserts well into the evening. Also a good choice is the very comfortable Marlow Donkey pub just at the start of the station approach in Marlow, which also serves hot drinks and cakes.
On walk options passing through Bourne End, the Bounty Inn is a quirky pub with a lovely riverside setting and lots of outside tables. There is nothing near Bourne End station.
If ending the walk at Cookham, as well as the places mentioned under Lunch there are two pubs on the way to the Cookham station - the White Oak and the Swan Uppers, and just across the road from the station the Pizza Dreams Cafe open to 9pm daily. Just beyond the level crossing to the right of the station is a Costa Coffee open to 6.30pm daily.
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Out (not a train station)
Back (not a train station)
National Rail: 03457 48 49 50 • Travelline SE (bus times): 0871 200 2233 (12p/min) • TFL (London) : 0343 222 1234
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Full directions for this walk are in a PDF file (link above) which you can print, or download on to a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
This is just the introduction. This walk's detailed directions are in a PDF available from wwww.walkingclub.org.uk