Friday, 28 February 2020

I can see why the rich and famous liked this Thames-side rural idyll

I can see why the rich and famous liked this Thames-side rural idyll

THE night sky is startlingly clear as I step outside to feed the still active and perpetually hungry hedgehogs.

As I stand and gaze to the east, the beautiful constellation of Orion is clear and resplendent. There is one glaring difference. Betelgeuse, one of the brightest lights in the heavens that forms the hunter’s right shoulder, is uncharacteristically dim tonight.

A red supergiant, it is so big that if it were our own sun it would engulf the entire inner solar system maybe as far as Jupiter.

Located about 640 light years away, it is a relatively young star but one that is giving every indication that it will turn into a supernova.

Of course, it is so far away that it may have already imploded and we don’t know but then again it may “die” within the next 100,000 years, give or take astrological time.

Back indoors, I try not to think of vast timescales or distances and instead turn to a good nature book, listen to the radio and await tomorrow.

Rosemary collects me the next morning. We’re off to Boulter’s Lock, near Maidenhead. Strangely, I’ve not been here before so don’t know what to expect. We leave her vehicle in a neat little car park and then we’re off along an old towpath towards Cookham.

The way north is neat, narrow but straight. We pass some exquisite properties to our left. On the right an attractive bungalow, once home to the broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, sits rather nicely on an ait.

After a short while the eastern riverbank across Cliveden Reach becomes steeply wooded and handsome.

Now a nature reserve that forms part of the large Cliveden estate and run by the National Trust, it is the former home of the Astor family.

To this day it is notorious for the Profumo scandal and the goings-on at Stephen Ward’s Spring Cottage.

Today the hillside is patrolled by a pair of buzzards and attendant red kites. The Thames rolls by smoothly, greenish rather than brown after the recent inundation. It is possible to peer in and see glistening gravel deep down at the water’s edge.

Soon and to our right is a big sign that reads “Danger Weir”. It is the entrance to the Jubilee River. Huge, stout wooden posts are interlinked with rope to prevent waterborne access.

Sinister cormorants stand triumphally on each pillar as if guarding the gate to Hades. Eerie, we agree.

The sound of the weir diminishes as we leave the last buildings behind and we enter a new world.

A magnificent line of 40 or so swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) frames the riverbank. Why were they planted, by whom and what for is anyone’s guess but they are splendid. One of the trees dips into the river in a near-perfect arch.

To our left lies some patchy woodland presently under water and full of chattering parakeets. They seem to be everywhere these days. A broken oak tree trunk shaped like a running woman is visible to our left.

We emerge into the open and a vast meadow spreads to the left away from the river. White Place Farm stands in the distance. Hundreds of Canada geese graze on fresh green grass.

At the river’s edge gnarled alder trees grip the bank and keep it intact. A recently and really well-planted mixed native hedge stands between the path and the low-lying fields. Blackthorn, hazel, field maple, dog-rose and hawthorn are predominant. Give it two years or so and it’ll be a magnet for nesting birds.

We reach the end of our walk and sit down on a perfectly placed bench. The Thames Path hooks west towards Cookham village alongside Formosa Court and Formosa Place. The buildings must be beautiful as that is what their name means in Portuguese.

As we sit beneath the wide boughs of a remarkable oak tree, we admire its width. It is greater than its height. Certainly a spot for a summer picnic in the green shade.

With languor, we stroll back to Boulter’s Lock assaulted all the way by hungry birds alerted by Rosemary’s generosity. All we need to crown a wonderful day is the flash of a kingfisher. We don’t see one but hopefully we will on our next visit.

Boulter’s Lock has a pub, which is obviously popular, and an ice cream parlour (not open at this time of year) and there is much more to be experienced here. Strangely, I feel that I’m on holiday here. Perhaps I’m just happy.

A pair of mute swans claim a narrow little stretch of water at the lock’s main island for any food offerings before the stream meets the main flow.

We sit down on a bench to catch our breath and take in the vista. The moon rises to the east above the dark outline of stately cedars.

A cheeky, tame and chunky grey squirrel begs for food. What a splendid spot indeed. Days out don’t get much better than this.

Back home it is cloudy tonight and I can’t see the stars. We don’t live as long as they do but I feel part of the whole scheme of things. We are all made of stardust. Isn’t it just wonderful?

Vincent Ruane

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