"A full and true relation of the death and slaughter..." in Cookham. Yes really!

Many of us are familiar with tracking the local film sets of Midsommer Murders. The day I had to inch over half a tonne of very reluctant equine past Detective Inspector Barnaby, a funeral parlour and the crew camp (including catering unit) opposite The Jolly, is a day I shall not forget.  However, all that murder and mayhem is very far from the Cookham we know and love right? Well actually, no...we have had our fair share of drama and so here I am to tell you about some of it.

To quote Julie, “Let’s start at the very beginning…” when the peoples of Cookham lived alongside the river, following its course as it changed.  The Thames acted as a boundary between clans from "Bourne End" and "Cookham" and over time, Bronze Age settlers used Cockmarsh as a burial site.  The small hills that you will pass if you are heading to The Bounty are tumuli or burial mounds, and they contain the bodies of a woman, a small child and a tiny horse! 

When the Romans arrived in Cookham, history started to be (literally) written, roads and villas were built and river crossings improved - all visible around the village if you know where to look.  And then it all went pear shaped at the end of the 4th century because the marauding Saxons arrived.  Now the Saxons were clearly not welcome in Cookham because there are bodies everywhere.  For example, one of the tumuli also serves as a second hand grave for a Saxon warrior.  He has a pot of beer by his shoulder and a sheep at his feet – everything one would need for a splendid trip into the afterlife.  Then in 1864 when the railway cutting was created (near Rowborrow foot bridge on the John Lewis golf course), six more skeletons were uncovered with their swords, shields and daggers.  The Saxons settled despite the locals objections but unfortunately for King Babba of Cookham, the Vikings were not that far behind him. Up above Cockmarsh, behind the field known as Two Lea's on Terrys Lane there is a dingly dell full of fairies.  Or at least that's what I assumed it was. That or a bomb hole. Or possibly a clay pit. However, turns out it is much more interesting that. It is a Saxon hide. When the locals knew that the Vikings were paddling up past Bourne End Sailing Club for a bit of rape and pillage, the whole community decamped to this big hole in the ground where they were entirely hidden.  I like to hope that worked because two Leas is one of my happy places, and I prefer not to think of it as a battle ground. 

Sashes Island (stand on Cookham bridge facing The Ferry, it’s the island on Odney side) has always been a key strategic location for the settlement.  It was potentially harbour-fied by the Romans and it was definitely fortified by the Saxons.  Warbarrow was what they called it.  That translates as “fortified place of fighting” – a bit like John Lewis at High Wycombe on the first day of the clearance. It was a physical barrier that stopped the Vikings sailing further in land and was the scene of many deaths. They were still dredging up skeletons there as late as 1958.

Whilst we are on the subject of that area, there was a more modern day disaster in the 1920s when an elderly couple were washed over the weir in a canoe.  It was Easter time and the river was in flood.  The man managed to cling to the weir itself and was rescued, but the lady was lost.  Over at Odney the drama was witnessed by two members of the Hammersmith Swimming Club.  They leapt in to the spate to try to save the lady, swimming down stream half way to Cliveden Reach (and more remarkably, swimming back up stream when they failed to find her).  Unfortunately the body was finally recovered at Boulters Lock a week later.

If  really ancient history is a bit too far away to pique your interest, worry not, the drama keeps on coming. In 1680 Cookham Rise was very different to now.  The railway was still a long way off (172 years to be precise) and Cookham Rise was similar to Cookham Dean - very agricultural.  A ploughman called John Sawyer, and his 13 year old son Richard, were working in Ham Field – which was roughly where Nightingale Terrace on High Road is these days.  A storm rolled in and all the ploughmen decided to call it a day. John, his son and his team of four were the last to leave. Some hours later a labourer called Francis Dell, discovered all of them quite dead. Stuck by lightning.  The incident caused a right two and eight in the village as you can probably imagine, with many onlookers coming to take pictures of the scene on their mobile phones. The local coroner, whose courthouse was near North Town, was involved and prescribed the whole thing a complete tragedy and so unusual, that a pamphlet was written to ensure the facts where shared properly.  No fake news allowed in 1680 at least.

We all know Winter Hill is a lawless place even to this day - need I remind you about the chicken - but it has been worse.  For those travelling from London to Bath, it was considered the second most dangerous spot for meeting a highwayman - the most likely being Hounslow Heath.  There is a spot where Choke Lane joins Winter Hill Road near Cookham Dean Common, where the highwaymen were said to be hung.  They would leave them in chains to rot, eventually burying the unhallowed soul under the gibbet.

Then there was poor old Dick Hatch. On Kings Lane in Cookham Dean there is a house called Old Pond Cottage and unsurprisingly, it used to sit opposite a pond. The water was called Deadmans Pond after Bill Deadman, the postie, grocer and corn dealer who’s shop was nearby. Now Dick Hatch was by all accounts a bit of a lad. He was prone to rabble rousing up Fag End Lane, as Kings Lane was then known, and not always fully dressed. Of course, it was the demon booze (we were, indeed are, in no way short of boozers up in the Dean) and his long suffering wife Mary, was widely pitied. Then one fateful winter morning, Jim Skinner was out delivering milk when he noticed an unusual mound in Deadmans Pond.   Turned out it was indeed a dead man – Dickie was a goner. Presumed fallen in drunk and drownded like the proverbial rat. But that was not the end of the matter! No, no! On December 10th 1894, poor old long suffering Mary was committed to the asylum (presumably gone made with grief) which precipitated the authorities finding 100 gold coins under her dead husbands mattress! So where oh where, did a drunken farm worker get 100 gold sovereigns or 3 years-worth of wages? Did he fall or was he pushed?  Was it guilt that drove poor Mary mad? Dick apparently haunted the lane for many years after the event, raucous singing being heard just as if he was alive. 

In the same year, 1894, a combination of snow and terrible storms hit the village.  As the snow melted the weir grew even more fierce until eventually the flood waters were 6 foot above normal levels and Holy Trinity church was awash.  The ferrymen were invaluable, punting up and down the High Street delivering supplies and saving perishables.  But by the evening of the third day, two of the men were lost (one being another Hatch, Tom).  Last seen heading to Widbrook, neither their punt nor their bodies were ever found.  Consumed by the river it was assumed.

Highwayman's corner?
John Sawyer's untimely death...
So whilst we live in a glorious and thankfully, relatively crime free village today, next time you stand on the bridge spare a thought for all those Saxon bodies in the mud in front of you.  Or if you walk round Cookham Dean Common, wonder how many highwaymen are under your feet.  And if anyone hears any drunken singing, late at night on Kings Lane definitely be sure to let me know!
The floods of 1894.
The Saxon hide at Terry's Lane


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