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.