Marlow feels like a town that has just let out a contented sigh. Timber buildings slump pleasingly on the back streets, swans glide serenely on the river and both people and properties exude the scent of eau de well maintained.
This Thames-side settlement has done very well for itself, thank you very much, but there’s nothing flashy or trashy about it. It’s the sort that paints its doors in tasteful Farrow and Ball colours, trims its hedges, walks its well-proportioned dogs, and commutes home to the satisfying crunch of gravel.
Calming and eye-pleasing, Marlow is a place of Michelin-starred pubs, spa weekends and rejuvenated glows, where detached homes go for around the £1million mark, and – as the residents happily acknowledge – one of the community’s biggest concerns is the recent replacement of its Waitrose with a Sainsbury’s.
“When a bridge was built here during the Middle Ages – like a border crossing between nation states – a town quickly sprung up around it”
But Marlow wasn’t always so well-to-do. Where its proximity to London (a just-near-enough-and-far-enough-away 53 kilometres) now has it down as a wealthy commuter town, it’s a self-made settlement with a working-class background.
‘Places change and geography is at the heart of that change,’ says Mike Jackson, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Fellow, Marlow dweller and the designer of the walk we’re taking, which starts in Marlow and follows the river about seven kilometres downstream to nearby Bourne End. ‘I’ve lived here 25 years and it’s clear that the story of the area is very much the story of the river.’
Now an Arcadian backdrop to the town, the river would once have acted as an impediment to the free movement of people across the land. So when a bridge was built here during the Middle Ages – like a border crossing between nation states – a town quickly sprung up around it.
But there’s a wet and a dry side to Marlow’s biography, and river trade is the other half of its developmental tale. Located halfway between Oxford and London, from the Middle Ages onwards, Marlow attracted merchants who traded with those in the capital and acted as middle men for rural resources needed by the swelling numbers of urban dwellers.
“During the 1720s, Daniel Defoe noted that Marlow was a ‘town of very great embarkation on the Thames, not so much for goods wrought here but for goods from the neighbouring towns’”
When Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe passed through the surrounding county during the 1720s, he noted that Marlow was a ‘town of very great embarkation on the Thames, not so much for goods wrought here but for goods from the neighbouring towns, and particularly, a very great quality of malt, and meal, is brought hither from High-Wickham [sic], which is one of the greatest corn markets on this side of England’.
‘Here is also brought down a vast quantity of beech wood, which grows in the woods of Buckinghamshire more plentifully than in any other part of England,’ he continued. ‘This is the most useful wood, from some uses, that grows, and without which, the city of London, would be put to more difficulty, than of any thing of its kind in the nation.’
As the wood and other goods flowed through Marlow, its streets would have been extremely busy, says Jackson. Today, in contrast, the riverside streets are churchyard-quiet and the only people we pass are two retired tourists from the USA looking for somewhere good to eat. But, back then, ‘there were wharves along the river and there would have been warehouses and cottages here for bargemen, coal porters, brewers and labourers,’ writes Jackson in the walk’s accompanying booklet.
And those weren’t the only trades that relied on the river. At that time, many people’s livelihoods depended on fishing. The Domesday book documents 1,000 eels in Marlow manor’s fishery, and for a number of pre-industrial centuries, the local salmon population was significant.
Fishermen particularly favoured the river’s weirs, where they could prop their wicker baskets to catch their prey. The weirs were largely constructed by mill owners to create substantial heads of water to power processes that ranged from thimble-making to paper-milling. This penchant for a diversity of water levels brought the mill owners into conflict with the boatmen, who favoured a good, consistent flow.
Until the late 18th century, locks that smoothly transited craft between river sections didn’t exist in the area. Instead, weirs were made passable using flash locks, a rudimentary system that required a wooden paddle at the top of a weir to be removed. This created a ‘flash’ of water that rushed over the top of the weir and took the boat with it.
‘Even though the weirs weren’t as high as they are today, this was nevertheless a dangerous exercise and there are records of many boats and their cargoes being lost navigating flash locks,’ writes Jackson. And river traffic was heavy. ‘Reports say that 56,365 tonnes of merchandise passed up through Marlow flash lock in 1767. That’s more than 150 tonnes a day.
‘It was even trickier for the boats coming upstream,’ Jackson continues. ‘They had to be hauled through the flash lock using ropes.’
Regardless of which way a boat was heading, the mill and weir owner often wasn’t keen to release his head of water as it meant a loss of hydrological power. ‘They didn’t like opening the flash locks for barges because it wasted water and it took a long time for the water level to recover sufficiently to drive their mill wheels again. At times when water levels were low they [could] make barges wait hours or even days before letting them through.’
“Horses improved efficiency but left the barge men – a ‘coarse, rough lot’, says Jackson – unemployed. Riots ensued”
During the late 18th century, Marlow’s flash locks were replaced by pound locks – boats still had to be hauled over, but the new locks were safer and didn’t waste as much water. As they were replacing the locks, the powerful Thames Commissioners who oversaw river development also started to improve the towpaths to allow for the introduction of horses. ‘A 70-tonne barge travelling upstream would typically have been towed by eight horses,’ Jackson says. ‘Previously, gangs of men up to 60 strong would manually haul the boats.’
Horses improved efficiency but left the barge men – a ‘coarse, rough lot’, says Jackson – unemployed. Riots ensued, and one eccentric landowner was manhandled and nearly thrown from a bridge, leading to him carrying pistols the next time he was in town. The protestors were only mollified after being offered financial compensation.
Drifting into the relative calm of the Victorian era, leisure pursuits began to replace labouring on the river. Fishing and boating were already popular, but when Jerome K Jerome published his famous Three Men in a Boat – reputedly written at Marlow’s Two Brewers pub – in 1889, the number of boats registered on the river increased by 50 per cent to 12,000 in just one year.
On the town’s periphery, the river’s level floodplain was already in use as a racecourse. Generally unsuitable for residential housing, floodplains found on the edge of settlements are often used for recreational activities such as cricket or football. ‘It’s just another example of riverside human populations putting the geography they’ve been given to good use,’ says Jackson.
Farther downstream, towards Bourne End, where the walk ends, sailors adapted to the area’s particular geography by creating A-rater boats. ‘These were designed more than 100 years ago as a gentlemen’s yacht specifically for river racing,’ writes Jackson. ‘They are large boats that are sailed by a crew of three and have extremely tall masts. With a massive area of sail, they are able to catch even the lightest of river breezes.’ The boats have been raced locally since the late Victorian era, and the national championships are still held here today.
During the Victorian age, leisure became the dominant use of the river. As the Industrial Revolution steamed ahead nearby, and a railway between London and Bristol opened in 1838, river trade could no longer compete with rail and the town went into decline.
Instead, Marlow’s economy came to rely on the mills, small-scale factories and, in particular, the brewery, which became the town’s main employer. ‘At one time, people said that Marlow had just two industries – making beer and drinking it,’ says Jackson.
But then Marlow’s mills stopped turning in the 1930s, and the brewery closed during the late 1980s. And, although a small industrial park was built, it was the new geography of British motorways that would have the next pronounced effect on the town.
The nearby section of the M4 was built in 1964 and the M40 in 1975, giving Marlow back its transport link with London and beyond. ‘It takes less than an hour to drive to London today,’ says Jackson. ‘Marlow is a very pleasant place to live. And, I, like many others, live here and commute elsewhere.’ This new car-friendly arrangement lured in fresh residents, and, as a result, the population doubled, from just under 9,000 during the early 1960s to around 18,000 today.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was artists, not labourers, who found their way to this increasingly genteel patch of riverside. In 1929, Enid Blyton moved to a house near Bourne End called Old Thatch Cottage, and the local landscapes pervade a number of her books. And Kenneth Grahame later turned Quarry Wood, located on the walk’s mid-section, into The Wind in the Willows’ Wild Wood.
Through their works, the river is rediscovered again, and visitors can share in the experience of those such as Mole, who, upon seeing the Thames for the first time, describes the ‘full-fed river’ as a ‘sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.’
And, like me and so many others who’ve found their way down to this section of the river’s banks, ‘the mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated’.
This was published in the February 2014 edition of Geographical magazine.