When I took part in Swim the Thames, Cookham featured twice – the kilometer or so from Bourne End to Cookham, then a kilometer or so downstream of Cookham. The swims took place in winter, and winter swims were short. Not short in relation to the cold conditions, but short in relation to the length of the total non-tidal Thames - 250 kilometers. I had the chance to look around Cookham on both occasions, and liked it a lot. There is a quiet confidence to the place, many quirky buildings, a superb lock, common land which runs through the centre of the village, and nothing out of place. There is the very small but beautifully appointed Stanley Spencer Gallery. Spencer was a modernist artist who was Cookham man and boy, born there and lived there for most of his life. A quiet and quirky man, he painted Biblical scenes, setting them in Cookham. He also painted landscapes and portraits and nudes, especially of his wife and mistress. Some of these nude paintings influenced the style of Lucian Freud. For Spencer, Cookham was a village in heaven; and in his biblical scenes he used fellow-villagers as models to populate his very complex compositions. Cookham is a small enough village, with no real alternative influences, to make it “Spencer Town” to me. In the United States they might well have renamed the village to honour the artist, but here, Cookham is forever Cookham. When I walk around Cookham I see Spencer’s models walking the street, when I look across the fields I see his landscapes, when I look to the River Thames, which runs to the edge of Cookham, I see his views of the water. It is a good job I like Stanley Spencer’s art. I had an intention of going to the Gallery today, which has new and insightful exhibitions about Spencer, his life and work. He was hugely productive, an inspiration for someone who tries to be as productive as possible. This was to be after the swim.
I parked on the common – it was, and had been.raining, so it was easy to find a space – somehow rain deters casual visitors. With a gentle drizzle, I crossed into the first field, with Spencer-hills to the left, river in the distance, walked upstream to the opposite side of the river to Bourne End. This would be a kilometer or so without wetsuit. There was almost no river traffic, and I felt privileged to have the river mostly to myself. Once I got in I immediately wanted to make more of it – I had driven here, and it would be a shame not to make the most of it. So upstream with a mental kilometer, counting the strokes to just over a thousand with crawl, then a steady slow heads-up swim downstream, towards Cookham Lock, zig-zagging from one side of the river to the other (why not?) being mindful of possible river boats. Only a couple of boats passed me - my bright orange tow-float made it easy to be seen – I waved, they waved back. Beautiful broad river.
The metal road bridge was a marker towards the end of the swim. This appeared in the far distance and came closer ever closer, bigger every time I looked to see it. Not one of the most beautiful bridges on the Thames, but certainly worthy of a place on the list of Thames bridges. Closer and closer, then under, and after relaxed zig then zag then zig again, the decision to zig or zag became more complicated. Time to pay attention - the very real decision of which channel to take as the river curved to the left needed to be taken. To the right was signalled danger. To the left the same. I checked it all, and remembered from a previous swim, stay firm to the middle channel and don’t get drawn to either of the two weirs right and left. I think. That’s right. I think. I went with a principle I often follow in times of indecision – when I can’t decide after going back and forth, I go with the first decision, which on this occasion happened to be correct.
Under the metal road bridge and the river widened with possibilities, and the counter-intuitive choice to swim straight down the middle proved right, ignoring danger signs to the right and to the left and relying on memory of body and mind. Down a cut and then to the lock soon after the blue bridge – I have definitely been here before, even more so when I got out. The lock was very much Stanley Spencer’s lock, and I wasn’t sure how much my memory of the place was my memory of Spencers marvellous painting of it, seen many times in life and in reproduction. I walked to Cookham Church and imagined his ‘Cookham Resurrection’, a terrifying depiction of the dead rising from their graves, right here in Cookham Churchyard. Fine gravestones and monuments, their heavy lids shifted, lifted, citizens of Cookham rising from the dead. Completed in 1927, it was shocking for the time. Next the Gallery, which was now closed – the cost of doing zig-zags and mind-wandering. But it didn’t matter. I walked the village, the Common in the middle of the village, looked right and left, up and down. Enjoyed the freedom to ramble, just for one day.