Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.”
Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty didn’t want to leave his leafy haven – and I don’t blame him. Grahame grew up in the bucolic village of Cookham in Berkshire. He returned as an adult and, inspired by nearby Quarry Woods and the lazy Thames, penned his classic, The Wind in the Willows in 1908.
The Wide World intrudes more now – the A404 thunders alongside the trees. But there’s still something magical about this hillside of beech and bluebells. Ancient sunken lanes make atmospheric trails and unseen things skitter in the leaf-litter – a sports car with Toad at the wheel, perhaps?
Hike from heaven
Start at Cookham train station. Turn left, then left down High Road. Past the school, on the corner of Worster Road, sits the former home of artist Stanley Spencer; he was born in Cookham, and called it “a village in heaven”, setting many of his Biblically themed paintings here.
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At the T-junction turn right; after 75m, cross the road and take the yellow-arrowed footpath through the fields. Keep your eyes peeled: as I walked here, a family of red kites mewed above the treetops.
Walk straight on through the fields, turning left to join the road just after the handsome timber house. The Tarmac curls to the green; head right, towards a pub sign. Here, turn left, picking up the Chiltern Way (CW), which passes right of the swanky Sanctum on the Green Inn. After the trees veer right through a squeeze stile. Head straight down the slope, following the signpost forwards at the bottom, passing through
a kissing gate to join the road.
The Wild Woods
Walk left, then almost immediately turn right, following blue arrows into the woods: the realm of Mole and Ratty’s foes the ferrets, weasels and stoats. This is Quarry Wood, part of the Woodland Trust’s ancient Bisham Woods; it’s a broadleaf and conifer mix, rich in orchids come springtime.
Around 500m into the woods, at a four-way junction, take the gateless right-hand path of the two ahead – a sunken tunnel-trail that slopes down. At a signed junction of several paths, go straight ahead; carry on for 250m, before taking a sharp right hairpin (Restricted Byway) along the bottom of the woods. Ratty’s Wide World is very evident: the A404 rumbles to your left.
After 1km, cross Quarry Wood Road, immediately turning right up a steep path. At the next road, don’t cross but go left through the trees, emerging on Winter Hill at a house called Rivendell. You could detour here, down Job’s Lane and Dean Lane, to peer at what is now Herries School – Grahame lived here, 1906-1910.
Tales of the riverbank
Follow the butterfly-flittered verge of Winter Hill, enjoying sweeping views of Marlow, the Thames and the hills beyond. Turn left down Stonehouse Lane, then quickly right (signed CW). About 200m after a metal gate, the CW heads right, but continue down the track. At the bottom, turn left to head through a kissing gate, striking across fields, then turning right to the Thames.
While he was messing about in boats with Ratty, Mole was “bewitched, entranced, fascinated” by the river, which “chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world”. Now, the sounds are picnickers, swans and pleasure boats. Hug the Thames, stooping under weeping willows and Bourne End viaduct, and crossing Cock Marsh Meadows.
Just before Cookham Bridge, veer right to join the road, the 12th-century church on your right. Turn right at the Stanley Spencer gallery to wander at
a leisurely pace down the high street, a handsome thoroughfare lined with pubs, shops and Indian restaurants (Cookham Tandoori resides in the oldest building). Amble onwards, crossing the grassy Pound, to return to the station.
HOW TO GET THERE
Cookham is seven minutes from Maidenhead on the Marlow line. Maidenhead to London takes
45 minutes. Arriva Bus 37 links Cookham and Maidenhead.
By road, use M40 (J4), M4 (J8/9), A404 (Marlow); the A4094 and B4447 lead to Cookham. There are parking spaces near the station.
FIND OUT MORE
Maidenhead Tourist Information Centre
St Ives Road, SL6 1QU
Visit South East England
The Thames Path
Sanctum On The Green
The Old Cricket Common, Cookham Dean SL6 9NZ
Luxurious classic meets rock-n-roll boutique, with pool, hot tub and great restaurant.
The White Oak
The Pound, Cookham SL6 9QE
This chic pub has just gained a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
River and Rowing Museum
Mill Meadows, Henley-on-Thames RG9 1BF
This museum hosts a permanent The Wind in the Willows exhibition.
OS Explorer OL172
Grid Reference: SU 886 850