Maidenhead to Chertsey Bridge

Day 8 of Walking Out of the World, in which the pilgrim admires the variety of boating activity on the river Thames and almost gets his credencial stamped

(Previous post: Days 6 & 7 Abingdon to Maidenhead)

Setting off after sleeping underneath the M4 motorway bridge, I distanced myself quickly from the roar of the traffic and rediscovered the quiet wind-in-the-willows world of the Thames Way again, with water voles and cygnets, and rowers skimming past silently, their sleek boats hardly rippling the water.

As mentioned earlier in this pilgrimage, on a very long walk you begin to develop themes of linked ideas, small obsessions, recurring thoughts – some quite mad – and often several miles can pass by in a flash. Some of these musings can be very useful: you might for example work through some early childhood experience that has dogged you throughout your life. The therapeutic qualities of a long walking pilgrimage have been explored by many, in books about their Camino journeys. Reflections prompted by a particular landscape come easily.

There are always alternatives to a walking pilgrimage.

How little these stretches of the Thames must have changed, I thought, since Jerome K. Jerome’s classic comedy river adventure, originally titled Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The story title was later shortened, cutting out the parenthetical dog, who was called Montmorency and probably barked at any walkers he saw on the bankside path.

As I walked along, I had the thought that I had followed the exact the same route to London as the three men in a boat in 1889. It only took me a short while to realise that this apparent remarkable insight was actually very trite, as rivers do not move very much.

One thing that has changed is the intrusion on the peace of the river by countless jets screaming down low over the Thames to land at Heathrow. There was a plane every thirty seconds. Passengers looking down from an aircraft on a clear day over England’s home counties would see it all as a patchwork of greens, yellows and browns, with the river Thames as a dark grey anaconda snaking through it all with occasional silver gleams of reflected sunlight. But passengers cannot observe the heron in the trees that I startle as I walk past. It lifts off effortlessly, swooping across the water at a height of half a metre and lands on the opposite bank, just before Boveney Lock. (map)

The lock-keeper here was having none of it. “Stamp a mooring licence in your passport? Why? What’s the point of that when you don’t have a boat, sonny Jim?”

He would not be persuaded by my plea that a thousand years of Camino de Santiago tradition was something to respect. The pilgrim relies on charity and a stamp was simply a small gesture which costs little in ink. I left Boveney Lock without a pilgrim stamp in my credencial. But the encounter started me thinking as I walked. What sort of boat would I have if I lived by the river Thames and could have any type of boat? I thought about it for a few minutes. Does the kind of boat you choose reflect your personality?

Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows

All the way from Oxford on the Thames path I had been watching people going by in their boats as I walked past meadows and along the wide winding meanders of the river. I enjoyed the aquatic people-watching. Rich people drinking gin and tonics in white hulled vintage river cruisers with timber superstructures and decks lovingly wrapped for the winter storage in the marina and painted with a new double coat of yacht varnish every spring.

There were holidaymakers in their carelessly steered identical four-berth fibreglass cruisers – hired from Hoseasons Holidays – with nervous barking dogs unused to being on water. Dad, wearing a yachting cap or white sailor’s hat with a black peak and woven anchor insignia, one hand unskilfully steering the boat and the other gripping the handle of a pint of lager, as he narrowly avoided collisions with river banks, bridges, swans and other boats; with Mum sunbathing on the foredeck reading a Dan Brown novel, and the children sitting on the top of the boat looking glum. It had been OK for the first day but now they were bored. They wished they’d gone to Tenerife for a proper holiday with an inflatable green crocodile on the beach and paper umbrellas in the CocaCola. “Are we nearly there yet? To that interesting bit of the river you promised we’d see soon?”

“Stop moaning… Quick, look! A duck.”

Very occasionally real water-people went by, serenely steering black narrowboats, with chimneys smoking from a galley where lunch was being prepared in old blackened pots and skillets. There were bicycles and potted plants on the roof and laundry drying on a line.

No, I wouldn’t want any of those sorts of boats. The stamp from Pinkhill Lock in my credencial said it was a mooring licence for “the above launch.” Yes! A launch. If I was to choose a boat, it would be a steam-powered launch with a shiny copper boiler, open deck with a canvas canopy and fringes like a pergola, a wooden steering wheel with spokes, and a polished brass name plate: the Sonny Jim. A loud steam whistle attached to the stovepipe-black stack would shriek shrilly when I pulled a braided white lanyard, as I arrived at Boveney Lock to demand a mooring licence for my launch and a copy in my pilgrim credencial.

“What is your launch called, sonny Jim?”

“Yes exactly!” I would say. And he would mutter that Yes Exactly was more a name for a racehorse than a boat. I would proudly tell him that mine was the very steam launch in which the famous Victorian portrait model, Cardinal J.H. Newman knelt at his prayer desk on the varnished deck while filmed by the Lumiere brothers, as the launch went through the locks up river from Maidenhead. Into The Heart of Darkness in Reading, where Newman would exorcize the demons of Kurtz who was skulking in the old abbey grounds, worshipped as a god by teenage savages in warpaint. “The horror… the horror…”

This Lumiere silent film was the first ever adaptation of Conrad’s novella and the sheer genius of transposing Berkshire for the darkest Congo was matched by Newman’s command of biblical language: he suggested they call it Apocalypse Now. In in the end the brothers settled for Two Men and a Priest in a Boat. Remarkably this early film was only discovered ten years ago when Berkshire County Council was doing its weekly retrieval of supermarket trolleys from the river bed, and they found the rusting cinématographe the Lumiere brothers used. It was dredged up in deep water just above Boveney Lock. Sadly the film stock did not survive being underwater for a century so we can never compare it with Francis Ford Coppola’s remake.

“Yes, good brother lock-keeper, I restored her carefully,” I would say. “A new copper boiler and four coats of yacht varnish all round, following the detailed instructions in Kenneth Grahame’s little-known Edwardian marine-engineering manual, Zen and the Art of Steam Launch Maintenance, 1902. It was his second failed literary project: the first being his 1887 Guide to High and Low Church Punting Techniques, which explored the vexed issue of which end of the punt a true Christian gentleman should stand. Both of these volumes were soon forgotten after his success with The Wind in the Willows.”

The lock-keeper would be amazed and never again turn away a pilgrim without stamping a mooring permit in his credencial. And then, like Toad of Toad Hall, I would pull the lanyard again for a long and deafening shriek from the whistle, sending the keeper of Boveney Lock scurrying into his lodge. These pleasant reveries passed the rest of the journey to Eton playing fields and on into Royal Windsor.

Windsor was another unhelpful town in the matter of stamps in my credencial. A policeman – one of a number of officers patrolling near the gate outside Windsor Castle – said, “‘Ello, ‘ello, what are we going to do with that very big stick then?” I did not get far with my explanation about bourdons but he had heard enough to establish that I was only a harmless lost person. Imprinted on his forensic memory were the salient facts of the matter: the subject was carrying an object of a stick-like nature, 2.2 metres in length, apparently of timber construction with a bit of half-finished green knitting attached to the upper section, and a metallic two-pronged tip at the base, of unknown metal but possibly steel.

His observation lodged in the left hand side of his brain ready for instant recall in court, should it one day be necessary, he relaxed and agreed to take my photograph in front of the gate. I made an enquiry about a stamp in my credencial.

“No sir, the desk sergeant at Windsor nick will not put an official police stamp in your private documentation. For legal reasons. It would be irregular as no crime has been committed.”

At least I had managed to get away from the Queen’s castle without having my ankles bitten by corgis. The worry about the blank spaces in my pilgrim credencial was not such a life-threatening concern as the way the bourdon seemed to attract canine aggression. A sense of proportion is always helpful on a long walking pilgrimage. Worries can mushroom and take over the day, with the risk of the dark dog of depression seeping into the mind and easily growing into irrational resentment towards lock-keepers.

At Staines bridge (map) I left the Thames path to check out Saint Peter’s church on the Laleham Road. I had a gut intuition this was a place where a pilgrim might be welcome. I knocked at the vicarage door and Father Cosh appeared.

“Lord!” he exclaimed, seeing my bourdon and the scallop shell on my rucsack. “A pilgrim of Saint James! Come in! What are you doing here?”

I introduced myself and it quickly emerged that Father Rod Cosh was planning a sabbatical year in which he intended to make a pilgrimage to Compostela. He put the kettle on, brought out biscuits, and we talked about the routes and options for his pilgrimage. He laid guidebooks and maps on the kitchen table. Preparations were clearly advanced and his enthusiasm for making his first pilgrimage was immense and palpable.

I didn’t want to broach the subject too early in the conversation, in case it might appear I’d only stopped to get a stamp in my credencial, which might seem perhaps to be taking the parish for granted; but eventually I began with “Oh! While I’m here…”

“No, don’t tell me!” he interrupted. “Let me guess! You want me to stamp your pilgrim’s record, don’t you?” He was beaming, clearly thrilled to play his small part in the great pilgrim tradition.

Nearly an hour later, apologising once more during the increasingly fraught search for the lost parish stamp, he made a second brew of tea. Father Cush had found the inking pad tin (between the cans of baked beans and the cat food) but of the parish stamp there was no sign. He became quiet and there was a mutual descent into gloom after the earlier spiritual nourishment from joyful pilgrim plans. We sat there among the contents of an upturned drawer on the kitchen table.

St Peter’s, Staines

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s only a stamp. Are there any locks on the river between here and Chertsey? Sometimes the lock-keepers…”

Father Cosh reached across the table and took my credencial. He drew crossed keys in biro. “Such a shame I can’t find it. It’s a nice stamp with the keys of St Peter…” He signed and dated his art work, recording that today was the feast day of Mother Julian of Norwich.

I thanked him for his time and trouble, wished him well for his planned sabbatical and we parted company. As I walked away I imagined it would be easy enough to find a pilgrim stamp at the shrine of Mother Julian in Norwich. What on earth had I come to Staines for?

Maybe tomorrow in our virtual pilgrimage conversation, I should say something more about Mother Julian of Norwich, but today I must press on down the Laleham Road towards Chertsey. I am conscious that the day is getting late. In this fairly urban part of Surrey, it is not going to be easy to pitch the tent.

There is some open ground by Chertsey bridge where the river curves around. On the map, the blue duck symbol indicates a nature reserve. The “late arrival / early departure” rule must followed, as discussed earlier.

Dusk is falling. I wonder if Father Cosh is still looking for the parish stamp.


8 thoughts on “Maidenhead to Chertsey Bridge

  1. Hi Barbara. Great that you’re following the virtual pilgrimage. I knew you’d like this. I was going to write and tell you this project had begun, but I have been too busy simply writing it. (I’ll have a couple of “virtual rest days in London” from tomorrow before the walk south to Newhaven begins.) And – of course – you will come into the story during a thunderstorm in Ingrandes, to rescue me from a bar-tabac, in about three weeks time!

    My feet at this point were fine. I mentioned the Scarpa boots earlier – in the first days of the walk – and I shall have very little more to say about my feet for 2000 kilometres, as the boots were perfect and I also had the best socks (Smartwool and the equivalent replacement in Spain) so I was completely free of foot problems. Today, 12 years later, I suffer some foot pain in colder weather, and x-rays showed tiny stress fractures in some of my foot bones due to the pounding taken by my feet over 2000 kilometres. This is why rucsack weight reduction is important and when I write the equipment page in my Pilgrim’s Guide later, I’ll say more about that. I carried 8 kilos. Without a donkey to carry your things, I think that is really the optimum weight, wouldn’t you say?

    The Confraternity of St James carries the introduction to this virtual pilgrimage on their website and after eight days (the ninth is ready for uploading when I check it this evening) the blog stats are soaring. It is particularly popular in UK, USA, Australia (as you’d expect, being in English) but a surprising number of people seem to be reading it in Spain as well. More than the number of my blog readers for normal donkey posts. So that’s a bit of a mystery. I thought it may be English-speaking pilgrims (reading the blog from a Spanish computer IP address while using wi-fi on the Camino Francés or something?) but according to contacts on the Camino there’s virtually nobody out there walking just now.

    I’m really enjoying writing it. In fact it is writing itself. My main challenge is to settle into a narrative style that works, complicated by the fact that I’m writing in at least three dimensions: the present (as if walking with the “virtual pilgrim reader”), and also in the past (re-living an actual physical pilgrimage), plus giving a running themed talk about pilgrimage, questions of culture and religion, and putting on my teacher hat to try and explain a few things! There is a possible fourth level of narrative where the unconscious things that go through your head while on a long walk sometimes break through to the surface (e.g. the Lumiere brothers in a steam launch taking Cardinal Newman up river in a sort of Victorian Apocalypse Now…) If I was advising someone else after reading a first draft, I’d undoubtedly say “Cut this nonsense out for a start!” But I’m not advising someone else and I like it. 🙂

    Keep commenting, Barbara. Your thoughts will be valuable, particularly when we get to parts of France you can help fill in for the reader. And the Camino Francés later.

    Ultreïa

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  2. I doesn’t seem that long ago that I was living in the little house aka pigsty, having started to move from the village. I remember asking our congregation to let you stay when there was someone on the route, then of course you had a rest day. Fateful encounter with donkeys…
    Eight kilos sounds about right. I wouldn’t have more than that on my bike if it wasn’t for the bike tools and solar charging system. That’s including the tent but it’s a better one than the tent I lent to you for the journey, and I have discovered high tech gear, so less weight of sleeping bag and mat, as well. I’m actually around 14 kg including the solar panels, batteries, and controller that ride on top of the trailer to enable me to be free of the need to have mains electricity, hopefully for at least three days. I need five hours of good sunlight every day to fully charge the bike battery, which I won’t always have. One solar panel on top, and a second one in addition to be unfolded at lunch time. Lithium batteries and an inverter in the trailer which will charge the bike battery overnight. It’s probably easier finding grass for a donkey.

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  3. It was a good little tent that you lent me. I posted it back from Saint-Jean Pied de Port as it wasn’t needed in Spain. You remind me that the weight of the tent wasn’t included in my 8 kilos mentioned above: that was the weight I remember quoting on the Camino Francés when we pilgrims were comparing rucsacks in the Cistercian sisters’ refugio in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I had a little brass fisherman’s weighing scale with me and pilgs were borrowing it as we packed our mochillas to compare weight. Some carried 15-20 kilos!

    Day 9 is uploaded! Chertsey Bridge to London. My work is done for the next two days. Rest days in London and then away into Sussex and the old Chasse Marée walking route to Rouen.

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  4. What a coincidence! Happy 92nd birthday Mickey Mouse!
    (That explains why I had problems copying a picture into the comments box. Will bear it in mind…)

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  5. A good rule of thumb for pack weight is — can you comfortably lift it onto your shoulders using one arm ? Or also, can you comfortably hold it at arm’s length with one hand ?

    My current packs are clearly too heavy — though on my 1993 I was using one about 4 kilos, weight including a superlight (and much-missed) French Army sleeping bag but not water. How much easier things were when we were in our twenties !!

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