Maidenhead is a town in the south of England, 17 miles west of Heathrow Airport. It is roughly in the middle of Berkshire.
Alaunodunum, Ma-y-Din-Heth and Midden-hythe
The historical origins of the town have been a source of healthy debate for centuries. There certainly was Roman habitation, with the usual smattering of excavated villas remaining 20 centuries later. Alaunodunum, as it was known, was, however, not a major town and it effectively disappeared after the departure of the Romans until a Danish tribe, the Readingas, landed there in the 8th Century. They fought their way inland and finally settled to the west of the town, in a place now known as Reading. However, while in Maidenhead - which was then known as South Ellington - it is said that they massacred a party of local nuns. These being 'maidens' in the archaic sense, it is claimed that the town was named in their honour. Latterly, this legend has come to be regarded as contemporary Christian propaganda. Rival claimants cite Celtic, Ancient British and Saxon influences in the word 'Maidenhead', and these groups were certainly all active in the area from pre-Roman times until the Norman Conquest.
For a relatively small town, Maidenhead has seen a fair amount of drama over the centuries. What is now Skindles bridge1 was the scene of a three-day pitched battle in 1400, following a botched assassination attempt on Henry IV. The perpetrator, the Earl of Salisbury, had fled to Reading as his supporters fought a delaying action in Maidenhead to cover his escape. It was unsuccessful: they were eventually overwhelmed and the earl was captured and executed.
The well-loved, but doomed, King Charles I, having lost the English Civil War, was held captive for a short while near Maidenhead. He was granted leave to visit his two young sons at the Greyhound Inn, and the townspeople strew the road with flowers as he was marched to meet them. Thomas Fairfax, the local Parliamentarian commander, was so touched by the dignity of the occasion that he allowed the two boys to return with their father to spend the remainder of his incarceration with him in a state of gentlemanly house arrest.
The town last saw military action in 1688, with Skindles bridge again in the thick of things, as Irish troops under James II were routed from the town during their general retreat from Reading.
Maidenhead's prosperity is due in no small part to the A4 Bath Road. Like the rest of the old Roman road network, it became a busy commercial thoroughfare, in this case linking the important cities of Londinium and Aquae Sulis. By the 18th Century, it was recognised as the busiest coaching-stop in the country. The White Hart - now a Woolworths store - could stable 50 horses, and the Sun Inn on Castle Hill had an enterprising landlord who would assure worried coachmen that the notorious Maidenhead Thicket was quite safe and, as they passed it, he would rob them there later in the evening. He was not the only one - Dick Turpin was occasionally active on the approaches to Maidenhead, retreating to his Aunt's in nearby Sonning after terrorising the Bath Road where the Thicket Roundabout now stands.
The Modern Town
Maidenhead has many pubs. Perhaps they're not as exciting as when the town was full of highwaymen, but still, there's a few good ones. The most well known and well established are The Bear Hotel, The Bell, and for different reasons, The Honeypot. It's difficult to imagine that The Honeypot could be viewed as a little dodgy with a classy name like that, but it's true. It opened in 2001, suffering a baptism by fire as pillars of the local community decided they didn't really want a topless bar in their town centre. But it manages to be prominent and discreet at the same time, co-existing with townspeople happily, and nobody really minds. The Bear Hotel is actually no longer a hotel at all. The whole of the upstairs, which once contained the guest rooms, was demolished when the current owners spent lots of money on refurbishment. Along with The Bell, opposite the railway station, it had a fearsome reputation for brawling until recently, but has been very successful in reinventing itself as a busy, noisy but ultimately peaceful place to be. The Bell still remains somewhat edgy and boisterous, especially in the back bar, which is a pool hall.
For the Younger, Wackier, or More Communist
The Hobgoblin was a rock/metal bar very popular with students and others eager to escape the rather samey Maidenhead fare. The 'Hob' has an excellent indie/rock/metal/goth/punk jukebox, which is reassuringly deafening at all times, and an attractive beer garden at the back. It's a very friendly place. Bar 38 is another popular and fairly 'alternative' bar which sells watered down supermarket absinthe to people who subsequently pretend to be drunker than they actually are and has rather strange open-plan semi-unisex toilets. It generally attracts the trendy yuppie/rich kid hybrids. Bar Soviet is unsurprisingly the choice for the vodka lover. They sell around 20 different varieties of the stuff, ranging from cola-cube to toffee, in cool shot glasses. They also stock watered down supermarket absinthe and have been known to provide Playstation consoles for their patrons2. If you're looking for exquisite cocktails, your only real choice is Heroes, opposite Bar 38. This is a trendy person's bar and will happily charge you vast amounts of money for an ordinary drink in an extraordinary glass.
If general bars and pubs aren't really what you're looking for, but you insist on staying out past midnight, you have a limited choice. Chicago's often stays open until 2am at weekends, and they have famously friendly staff, including genuinely pleasant bouncers. If you go there before 10pm, you won't have to pay the standard £5 entrance fee, but the place will be almost empty until about 11. The only other late venue is Smokey Joe's, which is actually licensed as a restaurant, but also has a good range of entertainment.
Many of the pubs empty onto Queen Street, and this is a good place to avoid at closing time as it can get decidedly volatile. If you need to get to the railway station, leave the town centre opposite the Bear and follow the signs on foot.
The Delicious Cuisine of Maidenhead
Post-pub food is never more than a short, but meandering, walk away. In the town centre, you can expect to find most of the usual international brands of fast food, including Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's. As if this were not bounty enough, there's also a new Pizza Hut in the recently redeveloped north end of town, and a Domino's, or something, just outside town. You'll also find two of the finest kebab shops in the history of cookery and a KFC-clone unconvincingly called Tennessee Fried Chicken, which offers home delivery and marvellously addictive onion rings.
Maidenhead railway station is located at the edge of the town centre and is on the main line from London to Cardiff - a line which follows for the most part the A4. From Maidenhead it is a 20 minute journey to Reading and 40 minutes to London Paddington. Excursions further west than Reading will involve changing at the former home of those Danish ruffians for a faster train.
The town is well placed to take advantage of the M4 and, of course, the A4. However, traffic in Maidenhead itself is, in common with every place within 80 miles of London, getting progressively worse. It is not uncommon to see large queues of cars headed east towards Slough on the A4, especially on a sunny weekend when the river at Bray is a very pleasant place to be. Ray Mill Road runs alongside the river from the A4 towards Cookham and was the scene of some peculiar traffic-calming measures which saw humps being laid in the road, and then dug up again as they were deemed too dangerous. The incident was reminiscent of the time the council decided to place traffic lights on the Thicket Roundabout. They caused much congestion and were duly removed.
Parking is surprisingly reasonable, although the local council are always eager to change this. Free parking is, to put it mildly, rare. One can no longer park in the multi-storey car parks for free in the evenings and any free parking space you find during the day will be yours for a maximum of 30 minutes, after which time your car will be seized, crushed and posted to you.
If you like buying houses and mobile phones, Maidenhead has much to offer - at one point, it had two Vodafone shops within a three minute walk of each other. And the place is full of estate agents. The Nicholson Centre is the main indoor retail experience and houses a rather unimaginative selection of national chain stores. In common with any covered area in western Europe, there is a coffee shop there. A few of them, actually. The town centre is usually sufficient for retail-minded Maidonians, although if you want a better choice of shops, or just bigger shops, or shinier floors, or more balloons and candyfloss, you'd be well advised to head into Reading, which opened a much larger shopping centre in 1999. It's called the Oracle and is visible from Saturn.
Around and About
Maidenhead is split into several distinct areas. These were originally ancient villages that were assimilated into the larger conurbation over the centuries.
Furze Platt is found to the north of Maidenhead and comprises quite a mixture of demographic groups. It even has a dedicated railway station on the small Maidenhead to Marlow line with trains running at least once an hour in each direction.
The Bomber Estate
The Bomber Estate is known as such because most of the road names are taken from World War II bomber aircraft3. Like many of the much-maligned estates in Britain, it has a fairly poor reputation, but in this instance at least it seems a little undeserved. There are the usual posses of bored adolescents around, but it's certainly no urban hell hole. It borders Oaken Grove park where you can find a boules green, a large open field and a playground.
While Larchfield hosts a small mobile home site, it is also known for Shoppenhangers Manor, a beautiful 16th Century manor house popular with tourists and locals. It offers easy access to Maidenhead train station, via the Gullet, a footway which used to have a bad reputation for muggings and rape but which has recently been tidied up4 and has seen a marked reduction in criminal incidents occurring there. Some still say it's best to avoid the Gullet and take the longer route to the station, while others are happy to use it.
On the edge of Larchfield Estate is Desborough School where the famous author Nick Hornby was educated.
Cox Green makes up a large part of Maidenhead and is very pleasant. It is notorious locally for having some of the poorest road surfaces in the area, which often give the impression of having been the subject of strafing by fighter aircraft. That that is the worst part of the place says a great deal.
Holyport is technically in the Windsor area, although is actually right on the edge of Maidenhead, by the M4 junction. Holyport is a quiet area consisting of a mixture of different-sized and priced housing.
Bray has been around since long before Maidenhead was first officially recognised as a town by Queen Elizabeth I. It is famous as the home of the 'Bray Mile' which is a short road containing the highest concentration of pubs in England. It isn't for the faint-livered. An evening on the Mile is certain to be imbued with a happy, relaxed booziness, in contrast to the more frenetic town centre. Don't hang around too long though - Bray is an astonishingly expensive place to live. It's also a film set, being the location through which the fire engines raced in The Quatermass Experiment. The field in which the space rocket crashed was actually in Fifield, opposite Bray Studios, where cult TV shows such as Thunderbirds and Terrahawks were made.
River Thames/Boulter's Lock
Many people want to live on the Thames, despite the increasing risk of flooding, and Boulter's Lock is another extraordinarily expensive part of Maidenhead. Along the riverside is Ray Mill Island, home to several species of birds and the location of Boulter's Lock itself. There's also the Boulter's Lock Inn, which is situated facing Maidenhead Bridge on Ray Mill Island. This is rather snobby, but otherwise pleasant and reasonably priced.
Castle Hill itself is the very steep bit on the A4 at the western edge of the town centre. Here, the battles over parking permits rage incessantly. If you fancy yourself at pool, pop into the Pondhouse, which is full of very, very good players.
Among the Maidonians...
Maidenhead often sees itself as a smaller, nicer, Reading. That's because it is. It has several picturesque - in fact, beautiful - locations, a wealthy, highly educated and rather tipsy resident population, and excellent connections to other towns, including London. With full employment, there are few of the tensions associated with urban poverty and class attrition. Visitors unfamiliar with the middle class often detect a certain prissiness, and there are those residents who will tell you it really isn't worth the expense to live there. But they'll never move. And neither would you.