This very pretty Thames-side village has been immortalised in the works of Stanley Spencer, one of the greatest modern British painters. Some of the best of his works can be seen in the small art gallery. The old ceremony of swan-upping takes place near Cookham and swan-upping on the Thames is the theme of one of the best known of Spencer’s paintings.
Linked to Windsor by an old bridge over the Thames, the ancient town of Eton has become synonymous with England’s second oldest public school,round which the life of the town revolves. The college founded by Henry VI in 1440, stands at the end of the long main street. Lower School, dating from 1443, and still in use, and the chapel, similar to that of King’s College, Cambridge, also founded by Henry VI, are the original buildings. The adjacent quadrangle became more famous through the film Chariots of Fire. Other parts of the college, such as Lupton’s Tower, the Cloisters and Upper School, where various scholars, among them Shelley and Gladstone, have carved their names on the desks and the panelling, can also be seen when not being used by the school. Many of England’s writers and politicians were Eton educated. Among the writers were Henry Fielding, Horace Walpole, Thomas Gray and Robert Bridges, and more recently, Aldous Huxley, Cyril Connolly and Eric Blair (George Orwell).
Situated on the Kennet and Avon Canal and also the River Kennet, this pleasant town with a wide High Street and many antique shops, was granted fishing rights by John of Gaunt in the 14th century. This is celebrated at Hocktide (after Easter) by a picturesque ceremony that involves ‘tutti-men’ (tithe men) who carry decorated poles. The revelry lasts all day, and there is much kissing of pretty girls and distributing of oranges.
Le Notre, the man who masterminded the gardens at Versailles, stayed for a spell at the village’s 17th-century rectory, while the 13th-century church has connections with the Knights Templar. The summits of Inkpen Beacon and Walbury Hill, at 954ft and 974ft respectively, are the highest chalk downs in England. On Inkpen Beacon stands Combe Gibbet, a macabre reminder of the fate of pre-Victorian highwaymen.
At one time an important stage-post on the London-Bath road, Maidenhead’s heyday was in Edwardian times, when Boulter’s Lock became a popular boating rendezvous, and Skindles, the waterside restaurant, was patronised by ‘bright young things’. Maidenhead’s image owes much to Evelyn Waugh. The Brunel railway bridge features in Turner’s painting ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’. Just outside the town at Littlewick Green is the Courage Shire Horse Centre.
A church cottage in this quietly elegant town on the River Pang was the home of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows. H Shephard’s famous illustrations were inspired by the river here. Jerome K Jerome’s heroes in Three Men in a Boat stayed here at the Swan Hotel.
Reading, now a large university town and shopping and market centre, has lost much of its impressive past. Henry I was buried in the 12th-century abbey, which was later ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII, and is now no more than a few insubstantial remains.
Roman remains from the nearby town of Silchester are preserved in the Reading Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum of English Rural Life, in the university, has an interesting collection of agricultural, domestic and craft exhibits. Reading’s prison was made famous by Oscar Wilde in The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898); it was while he was imprisoned here that Wilde wrote De Profundis.
Sonning is one of the prettiest of the Thames-side villages. The arched bridge spanning the river is one of the oldest across the Thames. There is a lock, thatched cottages, and a mill.
The castle, on a high chalk ridge overlooking the River Thames, guards the approaches to London and dominates the town whose centre is squeezed into the low ground between the castle walls and the river. The old streets, although attractive in themselves and graced with a number of fine buildings, only serve in summer to funnel the tens of thousands of visitors into the castle precinct. The original Norman round tower now stands at the centre of a multitude of towers, walls, courtyards and apartments added at different times by various kings. In the medieval period, Henry III, and later Edward III, did most to extend and strengthen the fortifications and give the castle its present shape. Edward III is particularly remembered as the instigator of the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious order of knighthood in the country, which he founded at Windsor in 1348. The best known story about the founding is that the king, while dancing with the Countess of Salisbury at Windsor, picked up the garter she had dropped, then quelled his sniggering courtiers with the words that are the motto of the Order: ‘Hom’ soit qui mal y pense’, (evil be to him who evil of it thinks). The Tudor monarchs took over the Plantagenet links with Windsor, and Henry VIII built the impressive gateway now used as the main entrance. Elizabeth I built the North Terrace, which has magnificent views over the Thames valley, as a promenade, and also commanded Shakespeare to write a play for the court at Windsor: the result was The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which not only Sir John Falstaff features, but several local personages of that time, Such as Master Ford and Mistress Page Whose names are recorded in the parish registers. The Garter Inn stands on the site of the Harte and Garter Inn Where, in the play, Falstaff and his compatriots met to drink.
During the whole of the Civil War Cromwell’s forces kept firm control of the castle, which therefore escaped being slighted, the fate of so many British strongholds, and it was to Windsor that his friends secretly brought the body of Charles I for burial in the vaults of St George’s Chapel. Charles II often lived at Windsor, and his contribution to the castle was the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park. George IV and Queen Victoria spent much time at Windsor, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used the castle both as a family house, and for social occasions and State visits. Her grandson, George V, took Windsor as his family name in 1917, and this decision was ratified by Queen Elizabeth II.