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History of Maidenhead and Cookham Commons

Winter Hill at Cookham Commons
Winter Hill at Cookham Commons | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Maidenhead and Cookham Commons have always been at the centre of local life. For centuries, villagers have fought for their survival and played a crucial role in ensuring the Commons’ protection for ever. Discover the people who shaped the history of these green spaces, find historic points of interest, and learn about local artist Stanley Spencer, whose work encapsulates the idyllic rural life of the Cookham Commons.

Common land

The land we now know as Maidenhead and Cookham Commons once belonged to the Royal Manor, with areas of poor land left as ‘common’ land. This gave local people rights to graze animals and take wood for fuel until the late 18th century, when enclosure was happening across the country and common land was being wiped out.

However, the local residents of Cookham were determined to protect their ancient rights and successfully formed a resistance movement, which saved the commons.

History of Cookham Commons

The common land of Cookham Moor

Cookham Moor was one of these areas of common land, and responsibility for the rights of ‘commoners’ was held by the Manorial Court, who met at the Kings Arms in Cookham in the late 19th century.

The final court took place at Kings Hall in 1920 (now the Stanley Spencer Gallery) and, during this meeting, a ban on grazing swine on the moor was approved. Swine were often used to reduce bracken cover for the conservation of woodland, but it’s likely that this rooting behaviour damaged trees and created muddy patches (wallows), leading to local disdain for the animals.

Soon after the ban, all fencing was removed, along with the four gates that had allowed public access to the moor since the 1700s.

Bronze Age burials at Cock Marsh

The riverside grasslands of Cock Marsh are home to four circular Bronze Age burial mounds (tumuli). When they were first created, the largest barrow was 90ft in diameter and around 8ft high. Today, although much diminished, the largest mound is still very obvious.

Excavations of the tumuli in 1874 found the remains of a woman accompanied by what was left of a funeral feast in the largest mound. One of the smaller barrows contained the remains of a child. The elaborate nature of these burials suggests that these were people of high importance and may possibly have been the family of a local chieftain.

Habitation at Winter Hill

One of the highest Thames terraces, Winter Hill is believed to have been used as winter pasture for livestock when more fertile areas on the flood plains became unstable.

The terraces of the Thames, including Winter Hill, were the first areas colonised by the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age (350,000–10,000 BC).

Habitation at the site has continued ever since, as is evident from the Bronze Age tumuli at nearby Cock Marsh. Huge amounts of Roman pottery were removed from the foot of Winter Hill in 1906, which is thought to have been the site of a ferry across the River Thames.

The commons of Cookham Dean

The commons of Cookham Dean were originally part of the Royal Manor of Cookham, but these were sold off by the Crown in 1818 and passed into private ownership. In the 1920s, the Maidenhead and Cookham Commons Conservation Committee was established and raised £2,800 to buy the land, which was donated to the National Trust in 1934.

Many of the nearby buildings, particularly around Hardings Green Common, are architecturally and historically important, including eight listed buildings with 16th-century origins. Nearby Cromwell Cottage is thought to have hosted Roundhead soldiers billeted during the Civil War, whereas the Forge is thought to have existed since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Widbrook Common

In 1597, White Brook (or Widbrook) common was trusted to the villagers of Cookham by Elizabeth I, who were less than pleased when James I attempted to lease the land during his reign (1603–1625). Despite being King of England and Scotland, James was unable to wrestle Widbrook away from the commoners.

However, King James did tighten control on grazing of the commons, exacting tolls from villagers who put livestock on Widbrook, from a toll cottage to the north of the common.

Footbridge and water at Maidenhead and Cookham Commons, Berkshire
Footbridge and water at Maidenhead and Cookham Commons | © National Trust/Chris Lacey

History of Maidenhead Commons

Maidenhead Thicket

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Maidenhead Thicket – a large, wooded area of Maidenhead Commons – became notorious as a dangerous haunt of highwaymen, who took cover in the dense vegetation.

Tucked away in the middle of the woods, you’ll find the earth banks and ditches of Robin Hood’s Arbour, a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM). Originally an Iron Age enclosure for cattle, this glade gets its name from the outlaws that later used the woods as a hideaway.

The brick and tile works

Coopers Brick and Tile Works was established by John Cooper in the early 1800s, at a time when the residential area of Maidenhead was expanding, increasing the demand for building materials.

The works produced clay bricks and tiles, as well as more ornate terracotta wall tiles, gargoyles, and pinnacles. You can still see many of the hand-sculpted pinnacles on old houses in Maidenhead and the surrounding areas today.

In its heyday over 100 people worked at the brick and tile works, with many skilled craftsmen and their families living in specially built cottages on nearby Golden Ball Lane. With business thriving, a tramway was built in 1899 to carry clay from the new clay pits at the southern end of the site to the main works. Remnants of this tramway can be seen on the island in the big pond to this day.

Pinkneys Drive

The land now making up both Pinkneys Drive and Pinkneys Green were all once part of a much larger medieval 'frith', meaning 'wooded country'. Originally part of the Forest of Windsor, the Thicket was reduced over time, largely due to enclosure. Small parcels of common land were combined and sold, thus ending commoners’ rights.

The cleared area of common land within Maidenhead Thicket expanded and was eventually turned over to the grazing livestock. This expanse of grazing land was entirely fenced and gated, with many gatekeepers employed to ensure tolls were exacted and livestock was contained.

Memorial stone to artist Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) in his birthplace at Cookham, Berkshire
Memorial stone to artist Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) | © National Trust Images/Stephen Shepherd

The artworks of Stanley Spencer

Born and raised in the village of Cookham on 30 June 1891, the works of artist Stanley Spencer encapsulate the rural idyll of his local surroundings.

Early life of an artist

Spencer spent his childhood exploring the woods and meadows of Cookham, before moving to London in 1908 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. He first exhibited his work in 1912, but the events of the First World War were soon to shape his life.

Enlisting in 1915 as a medic, Spencer later became an official war artist, painting notable works such as Travoys with Wounded Soldiers, now exhibited in the Imperial War Museum.

Perhaps his greatest war work is the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, commissioned to honour the 'forgotten dead' of the First World War, who were not remembered on any official memorials. The 19 large-scale murals were inspired by Spencer’s own experiences of the war and are peppered with personal and unexpected details.

Paintings of Cookham

After the war, Spencer married and returned to Cookham, which he referred to as ‘a village in Heaven’. Everyday life was captured in his pictures; cows ambling across the Moor, boatyards on the Thames banks and the hazy meadows that surround the villages. Standing on the causeway over the Moor today gives a view towards the village that hasn’t changed since being captured by Spencer in his painting Cookham Moor.

During his lifetime, Spencer was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (1932), awarded a CBE (1950) and knighted shortly before his death in 1959. Financial pressures meant that Spencer had to keep painting and so he remained familiar sight wandering the lanes of Cookham, seeking inspiration while pushing his canvas and easel in an old pram.

‘I like to take my thoughts for a walk and marry them to someplace in Cookham’

– Stanley Spencer

Dotted around Maidenhead and Cookham these attractive areas of common land are popular spots for walking and picnicking.

Discover more at Maidenhead and Cookham Commons

Find out how to get to Maidenhead and Cookham Commons, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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