The last train to London Paddington left Cookham at 8.31am a couple of Fridays ago. And in this case, last train means last train. The Bourne End Flyer, the direct service from the pretty little branch that veers away from the Great Western main line at Maidenhead, is no more. Henceforth, passengers will have to trudge off one train at Maidenhead station twice a day and on to another: not a catastrophe, but a hindrance, a small loss of douceur de vivre.
There were no fanfares for the final Flyer, no mourners, no anger. Great Western sent a couple of staff members to offer counselling and new timetables to the commuters of Bourne End, Cookham and Furze Platt, who looked weary, resigned and dead-eyed as commuters do on a Friday morning. The arguments had come late last year when the earlier direct train had bitten the dust, coinciding with a decision to charge for parking at Cookham. “I think it’s going to be OK now,” said Barry, the cheery ticket clerk. “But I’ve got a Plan B. If there’s any trouble, I’ll hide in the broom cupboard.”
Protesters were partly mollified by the offer of a dedicated train waiting at Maidenhead for them. “It will be reasonably civilised, but not as civilised,” said Paul Willmott, an old-school Cookham-to-the-City type. “And I suspect it will work fine for about six months.”
Cookham, one of the most beautiful and insanely expensive villages, even by the standards of Thames-side East Berkshire, has had in this case to pay the price of progress: with mainline electrification and the coming of Crossrail two and a half years hence, scabby little branch-line diesels are not welcome on the shiny new railway.
Cookham’s station – with its whispered announcements so as not to annoy the neighbours – is on the outer edge of the Maidenhead constituency, which is already being transformed by the impending new line. Some local people, and not just Cookhamites, suspect the benefits of Crossrail are being overhyped. It will certainly be easier to get from Maidenhead to the City. But the trains will be like those on the Overground: stopping everywhere; seats facing inwards, and not many of them; no tables, and so work will be near impossible; no loos. For many travellers there will be no gain at all.
But it is important to remember the essential and underappreciated genius of railway privatisation. In the days of British Rail, every leaf on the line, every wrong kind of snowflake, had to be explained away by the government. Now ministers just shrug. So no one in Cookham seemed to be blaming the Prime Minister, or the MP for Maidenhead, who, for the past 11 months, just happens to have been the same person.
What happy chance that Theresa May was selected as the candidate for Maidenhead! You could almost make a slogan out of it, except for the somewhat dated anatomical connotations of the town’s name. (The name actually comes from “Maiden Hythe”, meaning “new wharf”.) There is something almost virginal about Maidenhead’s image, too: I’d imagined the town as rather tea shoppe‑y, Tunbridge Wellsy maybe. No, Windsor – its partner in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead – may still be a nice-pot-of-tea kind of place; but Maidenhead is very much wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee.
It is clearly proud of its PM-MP. Her elevation last year might not have given the town quite the thrill Leicester got from winning the Premier League, but it could almost be on a par with Maidenhead United being champions of the National League South – which they are. It gives the place a little reflected glory and its voters a warm glow. New prime ministers normally get a local electoral bounce; even Gordon Brown had a swing in his favour in 2010.
And the local people do seem to like, or at least admire, her. On the High Street, practically everyone seemed to have an anecdote to offer and often a selfie to back it up. “She’s a lovely person. And she’s the right person for the country,” Michael Reynolds on the fruit stall insisted. “And we’re open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And she buys her strawberries here. Taste them. They’re beautiful. English.” And if May noticed that Reynolds was selling his cherries by the pound rather than the kilo, she didn’t make a fuss about it. Brexit already seems to mean Brexit in Maidenhead.
You would expect her to be an assiduous constituency member, and she is. She remembers names; she has been spotted queuing at the chemist’s to pick up her own prescription. But there is a school of thought that this was not always so: that she took Maidenhead for granted after winning the newly created seat in 1997 by nearly 12,000 votes, which the Liberal Democrats slashed to 3,000 four years later. After that, according to one source, “she never missed a school fete, and she didn’t wait to be invited – she just turned up”. By 2015 the majority was up to 29,000.
The Liberal Democrats also had control of the unitary council but that, too, is long gone: current line-up – Con 53, Old Windsor Residents’ Association 2, independent 1, LD 1. The upshot is that Theresa May is not the most powerful, nor even the most talked-about politician in Maidenhead. That honour belongs to one Simon Dudley, the leader of the royal borough council.
Maidenhead, you must understand, has never been sleepy. The new wharf was an entrepôt and the town around it eventually acquired a surprisingly louche reputation: a sort of mini-Brighton. “Are you married, or are you from Maidenhead?” was one expression, and it had nothing to do with virginity. In the early 20th century, Skindles Hotel, just across the river, was famous/infamous for illicit assignations.
But Skindles has lately been demolished and is being replaced by “superb apartments”, as indeed, it seems, is just about every available site in the town itself. Maidenhead is already an extraordinary mix of architectural styles and eras, though aesthetically the path has been downward since soon after Smyth’s almshouses were built along the Great West Road in 1659.
Now Maidenhead’s population of 73,000 is, according to Dudley, on course to rise by between 30 and 50 per cent by the 2030s, as a result of a Crossrail-led boom. The biggest single component of that is expected to comprise what is now Maidenhead Golf Club, which has 132 acres leased from the council within walking distance of the train station. The council is buying out the lease and offering a windfall for the 700-odd club members, thought to be roughly £20,000 to £30,000, which may or may not be put towards building a replacement course, though a dozen of the members could just get together and buy themselves a studio flat instead.
The gain for the borough will be far greater. “I’m a golfer,” Simon Dudley says. “Sending JCBs in to dig up golf courses is not my idea of fun. But there is a fiduciary duty on councils to maximise their assets and to meet housing needs. There is an oversupply of golf courses in the south-east and a chronic housing shortage.” He thinks it could be the best property deal for the ratepayer that any council has ever done. There are, almost needless to say, rumours that some councillors are also doing well out of Maidenhead’s boom, as has been the case in English local government since the first planning committee meeting in the Witenagemot, circa 600AD.
Dudley is 53, an investment banker and a man who exudes an aura of authority and drive way beyond that of most council leaders in May’s Britain, struggling to decide whether to burn all the library books or reduce dustbin collection to a biannual service. I found him helpful and charming, and he says all the right things about “affordable” homes and the need for infrastructure. But, as one clued-up local put it: “My reading of the development plan is that it will be absolutely fine as long as the population of Maidenhead never go out, never have children, never need a car park and never need any medical attention.”
And Dudley himself is, to say the least, controversial. “Deadly Dudley” is one nickname; I often heard the word “bully”, and not just from opponents. Early this year, the Times reported that Leo Walters, a well-respected Conservative councillor, had been sacked – by Dudley himself, he said – as the chairman of the council’s housing scrutiny panel, after Walters emailed panel members to point out that a Freedom of Information response had shown that 86 per cent of the planned development would be on green-belt land.
“There are suggestions that you are, um, a little over-forceful,” I told Dudley nervously. “Every decision is made by the Conservative group,” he replied. “They have just re-elected me unopposed as leader. Anyone could have stood against me.”
Indeed, Theresa May is not the only person round here to have been chosen unopposed as party leader.
And there is widespread agreement that something needs to be done about the town centre. Maidenhead’s problem, as someone put it, is that it is a riverside town a mile from the river. A beautification scheme has already turned a series of forgotten tributaries into features – and the residents, in a town that has an M&S but not many alternatives, share the council’s enthusiasm for bringing in more big chain stores. The borough is already much admired for its schools. And here is an issue that really does lead straight to the gates of Downing Street.
Not merely is there no John Lewis or Debenhams; there are hardly any worthwhile independent shops. One of the exceptions is Goyals, purveyors of uniforms to local schools – and some further afield – for the past 51 years. Seema Goyal, daughter-in-law of the founder, and now the boss, very proudly showed me not just her selfies with the Prime Minister but also the PM’s speech as the guest of honour at a recent dinner where the shop’s golden jubilee was celebrated. “I think it shows what hard work and dedication and service to your customers can do,” May told the diners marking the occasion, very Mayishly.
This is very much a school uniform town. Before 9am on Maidenhead station, almost the only people wearing ties were the children, and they all seemed to have their top button done up as well. The blazers hanging round the walls of Goyals make a rather fetching colour scheme: the blues predominate, as is only fitting in Maidenhead, and they certainly outnumber the reds. There are several shades of green but no yellows at all. And yet the schools in the royal borough are comprehensives.
Tony Hill is standing for the Lib Dems the third time but is probably still better known locally as the long-standing former head of Furze Platt Senior School. He knows May of old, which makes him all the more surprised that she is insisting on bringing back grammar schools. “What she will do is sit and listen, and she will listen and she will listen, and she will shift slightly and shift slightly, and she will drop on whatever gives her electoral advantage,” Hill says.
And yet. “We have six comprehensives in the borough, most of them ranked outstanding. There are two mixed, one boys’, one girls’, one church and now even a boarding comprehensive. It’s a terrific system. They compete against each other for customers. And she wants to ruin it. If they bring in a grammar school, all those lovely schools will become secondary moderns. Aspiring young teachers will know that if they want to teach brighter children, they’ll have to go to the grammar school. And they’ll go.”
Simon Dudley says that 130 children cross the nearby county boundary to join the Buckinghamshire selective system, which hardly sounds like overwhelming demand to me. Some of them are said to start being tutored to pass the eleven-plus as five-year-olds, which is a bit late; really pushy Bucks mothers would never be that relaxed. May’s views on grammar schools appear to be uncharacteristically rigid, and that could cause her difficulties even in her own backyard. “I certainly want bright children to flourish,” says Jonathan Romain, rabbi to the town’s Jewish community. “But there isn’t a crying need for a grammar school because bright children are already being well served. There is no popular clamour for one.”
Romain is a respected figure in the town and the chairman of Maidenhead’s traditional election hustings, organised by the various churches. Interfaith dialogue is strong here: Romain has said a prayer at the mosque; the imam has done the same at the synagogue, and the deity unleashed no vengeful thunderbolts on either occasion. This may say a couple of things about Maidenhead. In a footloose, money-oriented town of this kind, religion is more of an optional extra than a fundamental creed. But that perhaps gives the clergy an additional role in compensating for a certain shallowness in civil society: the more time people spend on the London train, the less time they have to spend on community life.
That said, Maidenhead has one advantage unmatched almost anywhere else in Britain. The Maidenhead Advertiser is owned by a charitable trust. In these dark days for local journalism, it is still edited in Maidenhead, not in Manchester or Mumbai. It still employs a fair number of journalists, and it is vigilant, inquisitive and informative. It really ought to have a more community-minded town in which to operate.
For what it’s worth, Labour was May’s closest pursuer in 2015. Its candidate this time is an affable and very community-minded bloke called Pat McDonald. He lives on the furthest edge of town in the ex-council-house estate of Woodlands Park, one of Labour’s least worst areas (where a three-bedder has just been advertised for £425,000). He can’t canvass on Thursday evenings because he helps at the youth club.
He was out in his own area that Friday night, though, knocking on doors near his own home: “I’m Pat McDonald, your local local candidate.” Some of his neighbours knew him well enough to laugh at that and take a poster. Other doors opened more narrowly. A few just shook their heads and hissed: “Corbyn.” One woman he had interrupted did hairdressing at home. “I’m just doing a colour,” she said apologetically. “I’m just doing something,” said someone else more enigmatically. “I’m just getting in the shower,” said a man, who looked fully clothed. “Sorry, I’m standing here half naked,” said a woman, who did not offer proof.
It is hard to believe that anyone in Maidenhead has ever opened the door to Theresa May and said that.
Matthew Engel’s latest book, “That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English”, is newly published by Profile
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special