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Focus on Europe

Where the wind meets the willows

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[British Tourist Authority photo.]
Cute enough to have its cheeks pinched, the village of Cookham is nestled amid trees and fields along the River Thames.

By PATRICIA MCCRACKEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


Cookham, a quaint, picturesque village along the Thames has a storybook feel to it, perhaps with good reason: Among its somewhat quirky claims to fame, it is the setting for a beloved children's classic.

COOKHAM, England -- At the start of his show, the deejay urged listeners to call in and share romantic fiascos. The calls slowly trickled in, but toward the end of the hourlong show, Rhonda called to rat out her husband, Sam, who had given her a can of beans for their 10th wedding anniversary.

The story was not the humdinger that another caller recounted about a date showing up in drag, but this was, after all, about Sam. And nearly everyone in this English village knows Sam. He's Cookham's grocer and mailman.

Through the window of his store, he watches mothers hurry their children to the schoolyard, then sees them shuffle back again to pick them up. "We'll stop at Sam's for a treat," is a common refrain to sooth tired or hurt little ones. He sees BMWs careering around the blind curve in front of his shop, and people on horseback trotting up behind, waving to him through the plate glass.

So when Rhonda went on the radio and revealed the sins of her husband, he was sure to get an earful from the ladies the following day and a sympathetic nod from the gents.

The radio station to which Rhonda "spilled the beans" about Sam is a makeshift, temporary operation set up in the waiting room of Cookham's tiny, whistle-stop train station.

With a four-week license from the British Broadcasting Authority, scores of volunteers scrambled to get the "Station at the Station" up and running. Only two volunteers have any professional radio experience; the rest is a hodge-podge of nearly 500 helpers, all baffled by the buttons and dials, voice-overs, presentation techniques, timing and sound checks.

They've never been on the radio, much less hosted a program. But here they are, cranking out show after show, urgently arranging for friends to call in during a talk program, finding last-minute substitute guests, even performing a three-act play, complete with sound effects.

And so it goes for a month, with the vicar deejaying the breakfast show, a local writer hosting a jazz program, children dropping by after school to tell jokes on the air. And, of course, there is Rhonda calling in to let Cookham know how romantically challenged their mailman is.

The village of Cookham, which includes two off-shoots, Cookham Rise and Cookham Dean, is an affluent, tight-knit community tucked into the shadows of Windsor along the banks of the Thames River. No one knows for sure the source of Cookham's magnetic charm. Some say that this village, long a haven for artists and writers, is a wellspring of creative energy, thus its appeal. Others speculate that the beauty and history of the region are what makes it so attractive.

Still others would argue that the creativity, beauty and history pale in comparison to the all-around goodness of the place, an untouched, well-preserved innocence that in this world of bombings and mass shootings is indeed a rare find.

They would all be right. They might argue about it, but they would all be right.

The artistic undercurrent of this community is strong and is tied to two of England's famous native sons: Sir Stanley Spencer, a quirky contemporary artist best known as the subject of the Broadway play Spencer, and Kenneth Grahame, author of the beloved children's classic, Wind in the Willows.

Grahame, who grew up in Cookham and set his book here, provides a glimpse of what life was like in this village at the turn of the century. When Grahame wrote his tender story of Wind in the Willows, about the struggle to maintain a genteel lifestyle while surrounded by immoral and rowdy neighbors, he was describing the conflict of Cookham and its splinter village Cookham Dean. A hundred years ago, Cookham was divided between the haves and have-nots, the more civilized residents in the main village mortified by the bawdy behavior of the valley dwellers in Cookham Dean.

"There yet remained in Cookham Dean a number of cottages, with inhabitants as rude and lawless almost as their gypsy neighbors," wrote historian Stephen Darby in the early 1900s.

Cookham Dean was a rough gig back then. Home to thieves and drunkards, there was peril lurking around every corner. But what a difference a century makes. The Dean is now the most posh of this wealthy region, brimming with large estates and Range Rovers.

Much of the lush land in the Dean, and indeed all of Cookham, is owned and maintained by the National Trust, a department similar to the National Park Service. Numerous footpaths wind through the lightly wooded areas and along the river. Within walking distance is Cliveden, a stately mansion on a massive 375 acres and once the home of American millionaires Nancy and Waldorf Astor.

There is still a hint of a division between the main village and the splintered Dean, this time between the haves and the have-mores. But the troublemakers left so long ago that no one alive remembers any such type residing in Cookham.

Crime is talked about here, about how awful it is getting and what is the world coming to. Of course they are talking about the crime in London. Crime happens so rarely here that when a resident had a briefcase stolen, her 6-year-old son was traumatized by nightmares of the event. He didn't see the crime -- just the thought of someone actually doing something like that had never crossed his young mind before.

The villagers are proud to live here, proud of Cookham's offbeat history. Few of them know, for instance, that Cookham was once a favorite getaway for kings; nor do they know exactly what the Americans did when they were stationed here in World War II. But ask them about Toad Hall, the Thames mansion featured in Wind and the Willows, and they gleefully bring you to the front doorstep. Some even know about the palatial cowshed built by the Astors to obstruct their view of the village rooftops.

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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
But residents are especially proud of artist Stanley Spencer. They'll tell you in a flash the story of his bizarre life (he left his wife for a lesbian), or how he used to walk along High Street carrying his easel and paints in a beat-up baby carriage. They are proud of the art he created. So proud, in fact, that his version of The Last Supper, once considered blasphemous because the disciples' heads were adorned with real-life Cookham faces, is now hanging prominently in the parishchurch. A copy of it, at least. The real one is in the popular Stanley Spencer Gallery on High Street.

"Depending on who you talk to about Stanley, you'll get a different impression of the type of man he was," says Diana Benson, a gallery patron who gives village tours. "One person who knew him says he was nothing but a dirty talker and a groper. Another woman speaks fondly of him, remembering how lovely he was with children."

There may be differing opinions, but everyone here tells stories about Stanley as if they were in the room with him when it happened.

The people of Cookham seem to know they are on to a good thing. The breakneck speed of life in 2000 blends with old world charm and grace here. Fax machines, cell phones, beepers and laptops are a common sight in the village, but the pace they suggest is tempered by this gentle environment.

There is still a place in the world where children pick blackberries on the way to school, or dress up as chimney sweeps for the town Fair instead of as Luke Skywalker or Ginger Spice.

There is still a place where walking along a footpath to a neighboring village, among the foxes, badgers, deer and pheasant, can be more practical than driving.

There is still a place that can round up 500 volunteers to run a radio station for a month just for the fun of it. And quite a pretty place at that.

As the wise Rat said about this land in Wind in the Willows: "It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing."

-- Patricia McCracken is an American freelance writer living in England.

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