White Hart Crest of the Royal County of Berkshire David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History

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Saxon Burgh & Stanley Spencer

Cookham, Berkshire - © Nash Ford Publishing

Though a relatively recent development, Cookham Rise is actually where the earliest settlers in this area chose to live. The Romans appear to have had some sort of settlement at the southern end of the village. This was approximately at the junction of the Roman roads known as the Camlet Way and Alderman Silver’s Road. The place may have been a villa, though the main building has not yet been discovered. Finds of quern stones and agricultural implements certainly imply a farming community, as do two impressive corn-drying facilities.

The Camlet Way ran from St. Albans to Silchester and appears to have crossed the Thames at Sashes Island in Cookham. Wooden piles and stakes found here in the nineteenth century (and again in 1969) may indicate the remains of a substantial bridge. There was probably an adjoining river port named “Cwch-ium” - Celtic for Boat-Place (the alternative Saxon Cook's Home seems somewhat obscure). Early Saxon settlers in the parish appear to have liked the area around Cookham Rise. They may have lived first in Coxburgh Field. Their cemetery has been discovered at Rowborough, in Noah’s Ark Field: Ark meaning “casket”, that is coffin. Sashes Island, however, became one of King Alfred’s Burghs, built as a fortified place of refuge for use during periods of Danish invasion. Its present name is somewhat strange. Being derived from Sceaftes-Eye or “Sceaf’s Isle”, you would have expected an evolution to something like Shaftesey. The adjoining island of Odney may have been sacred to the chief Saxon god, Woden, being Wodenes-Eye or “Woden’s Isle”.

The present village of Cookham probably grew up around an 8th century Saxon Monastery situated in the parish, probably a twin-house for both monks and nuns. A National Religious Synod once met there. The Saxon Kings also had a Royal Palace here, where the Witan (Saxon parliament) met in 997. The two may have been very close together. The latter probably stood in Little Berry Field, while the former may have centred on the nearby parish church which does show signs of Saxon work in the fabric of the chancel. Was it the original Abbey Church? It certainly became a Saxon Minster in later years.

The present church is mostly 13th century, but there is an interesting Lady Chapel closely dated to 1182. It was built on the site of a hermitage that adjoined the old Norman building. An anchoress lived here through the generosity of King Henry II, who may have been trying to expiate himself for the murder of St. Thomas A’Beckett. She died in 1181. Could she have been buried in the Norman style grave found just outside the walls? There were less virtuous inhabitants interred in the churchyard in later centuries. The parish register contains the following entry:

March 9th 1741, Richard Smith, a highwayman shot on the road.

There are several good brasses in the church. One is to Edward Woodyore (1613) whose home, Churchgate House, adjoins the churchyard. This old timber-framed house was originally built around 1350. It has a priest-hole and is said to have been the residence of the Abbot of Cirencester. Though this man was officially the village rector, he was probably rarely seen here. The extent of Cirencester Abbey’s property was said to be marked by the Tarry or Cookham Stone (opposite the High Street, no longer in its original position). This is a very mundane explanation for the presence of a fascinating object. It is an old sarsen stone, not native to the area, which may indicate some ancient religious significance, perhaps remembered in the village games that were once played around it.

Cromwell Cottages at Cookham Dean are thought to have had Roundhead soldiers billeted there during the Civil War. Kenneth Grahame wrote the Wind in the Willows at Herries School nearby and the character of Mr. Toad was inspired by the eccentric Col. Francis Ricardo of Lullebrook House on Odney Island. He was the Sheriff of Berkshire in 1894 and 1913 and was the first person in Cookham to own a car: a canary yellow Rolls Royce Silver Ghost - just like the one that got Mr. Toad into so much trouble. Grahame mentions the ford near the old fort on Sashes Island as the place where Otter taught his son, Portly, to swim. The famous artist, Stanley Spencer, also came from Cookham and several of his paintings - notably 'The Resurrection, Cookham' - were set in the village. His grave can be seen in the churchyard. The village even has its own art gallery dedicated to his memory. It is housed in the old Methodist Chapel in which he once worshipped.


    © Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.