It has been established that part of the area known as “The Cookhams” was inhabited by the Ancient Britons. There is also evidence of Roman occupation, but it was not until the seventh or eighth centuries, following the Saxon occupation, that the village began to be developed. It became increasingly necessary for the Saxons to move towards the river in order to protect themselves from the marauding Danes invading the area, having come up the Thames by boat, or forded it near Cookham Weir.
The High Street in Cookham contains a wealth of historic properties – The Old Forge being one of the oldest – 16th century – although it is probable that there had been a forge on this site for a considerable time prior to that date. It is now a restaurant but stands cheek by jowl with a garage – tending to the needs of present day Cookham residents in terms of horse power, not hoof power! Nearby stand two Victorian semis, the first of which was the birth place of Sir Stanley Spencer R.A. Almost opposite is Ovey’s Farm, proof if that were needed that at one time farming was carried on in the very heart of the village. The Kings Arms, a 17th century hostelry, was originally called the Kings Head and an interesting story concerns one Martha Spott who minted her own half-tokens for use solely in Cookham – doubtless used by customers for gambling.
Further along the High Street we come across a group of Georgian cottages, the first evidence of the considerable development of the village in the 18th century. Nearby stands a Chapel, to which the young Stanley Spencer was brought for services by his mother. It later became a reading room and village hall, known as the Kings Hall until 1960, and now the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Opposite stands Wisteria Cottage which was forced to undergo a face lift in recent years as the front wall was bowing dangerously outwards and had to be entirely rebuilt – each brick being numbered and replaced exactly in its original position. It is said that one day’s worth of building work had to be carefully removed and rebuilt due to the builder omitting, or overlooking, a solitary brick earlier in the day!
“The Olde Bell” is a 15th century inn, its name now changed to the “Bell & the Dragon”. Nearby used to be sited the Tarrystone – the meeting point for the local “Olympics”! From Tarrystone House one can see Lullebrook Manor, once the seat of the local squire and now owned by the John Lewis Partnership and used as a country club for their staff. To the right of “The Old Bell” is “The Old Apothecary” – which remained a chemist’s shop until the last decade of the 20th century. The Vicarage is of the Queen Anne period and the Church of the Holy Trinity is noteworthy, its nave dating from the 12th century. In the churchyard, almost hidden from view by overhanging branches, is the monument of an angel, the subject of one of Spencer’s paintings. From the wicket gate it is but a few steps to the river and Cookham Bridge. The first bridge was a wooden structure, built in 1839. This was replaced thirty years later by one of iron, which survives to this day. To defray the cost, a toll was levied until the 1940s, the Toll House being on the northern bank.
Interestingly the north bank of the Thames is in Berkshire. Until the beginning of the 19th century Cookham was a Royal Manor and had been a favourite fishing ground of the Kings. To prevent poaching upon the King’s preserves from the north of the river, the Berkshire boundary is some yards to the north of the river bank. It is here that in July each year one may witness the ceremony of Swan Upping – under the direction of John Turk, the Queen’s Swan Keeper and Waterman – two City Companies, the Vintners and Dyers decide on the ownership of the cygnets.
“The Old Ship” stands at the corner of Mill Lane, to which any number of alterations and improvements have been carried out, none having destroyed its charm. At one time it was a convent and a piscine still exists in the front downstair room. It ceased to be an inn some years ago, and contains no less than four staircases. Just three quarters of a mile from “The Old Ship” one comes to one of the prettiest reaches of the Thames, only accessible by foot, the Cliveden Reach and the My Lady Ferry. It was here, in pre-Norman times, that the river used to be crossed by means of a ford, although more latterly a ferry has operated. In School Lane we find a typical Victorian school, with many additions post the 1938/45 War. Opposite, a row of cottages, at one time “The Maltings”, which supplied the adjacent brewery. It was not until George III sold the Manor and it became possible for people to own property, that the village became attractive to rich merchants who made their homes there. The walls of Tannery House contain some interesting wrought iron grills, though the house must have been a part of the brewery at one time, judging by the nearby gantry. Shoes were also manufactured here in times past.
We should like to thank The Cookham Society for allowing us to use their leaflet – “Cookham Village Explored” as the basis for this introduction to their town. It was written by Desmond Atkinson – and illustrated by Sidney
Jewell – and we are grateful to them both.