You wouldn’t have thought the countryside around North Maidenhead could be bandit country—but it was when Margaret Bowdery first came to live here; the state of the paths was awful. So she became involved in trying to get them reopened and as a result she led the East Berkshire Ramblers’ public-path work for more than 40 years.
Margaret was born in Ealing in 1933 and grew up in leafy surroundings. Her father was a World War One fighter pilot who became headmaster of the local boy’s school and had a fearsome reputation for discipline. Her mother was a keen gardener and accomplished tennis player. She had an elder brother John who joined the RAF and then became a regional manager for Midland Bank.
Known by her schoolfriends as Tops, Margaret went to Gumley, a strict convent school; they ate in complete silence and the girls developed their own sign language. Her first job was at Heston aerodrome, in a Nissan hut. Fiercely independent she bought a Lambretta scooter as soon as she could afford it. Then she got a job as a sales director in Knightsbridge. Her father forbade her from riding her scooter to work, but she defied him, much to his fury.
Although we associate Margaret with paths and walking, her passion was climbing and the mountains, and she would escape to the hills every weekend with a small group of friends. In 1963 she met a sales manager, Bernard Bowdery. He was working in the same office where fraternisation was taboo and so their romance was kept secret.
They were engaged on 26 May 1963 at 15.37 hours, OS sheet 158, grid reference 621 793 (Margaret had immense attention to detail). The spot is just above Goring in Oxfordshire. They married in 1964 and moved to their new house in Maidenhead later that year; they knew the area having spent many weekends walking in Cookham and Marlow.
And that is when Margaret discovered that the paths were in a terrible state: overgrown, ploughed, cropped and blocked with no signposts or waymarks. She was told by Mr Colbourne of Berkshire County Council that he thought all public rights of way should be extinguished as they were not needed for public use. This was a red rag to a bull!
Ramblers are strongest where there is a strong local presence able to work with national body. And so in 1970 Margaret called a public meeting to ‘save our paths’. Over 100 people came.
As a result the East Berkshire Ramblers’ Group was formed with Peter Nevell as chairman, and Margaret as footpath secretary. They were a formidable partnership for 18 years, until Peter’s untimely death.
In the early days, the group did not lead walks, only working parties—clearing paths, waymarking and erecting signposts and stiles.
Soon they produced the Rambling for Pleasure series, the bookshops were reluctant to stock them at first, sceptical that walks books would be popular, but they caught on.
Margaret was soon known, feared and respected by everyone who was involved in paths, as someone who meant business and never gave up. I understand that the reason Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council has a path team today is because of Margaret’s persistence over the years.
I got to know her when I became footpath secretary for the Ramblers’ Buckinghamshire Area in 1986; she was used to doing footpath work in some of the adjoining parishes in south Bucks and I found she was responding on behalf of the Ramblers to my path cases. I had to tell her to back off! But we worked well together and she was a tremendous help because she knew the territory so well. She appeared as my witness at public inquiries.
The River Thames has always been an important feature of this area, and particularly for walkers. The Thames Path was developed by David Sharp, the Rambler who devoted much of his life to this cause.
A footbridge was badly needed at Temple, to replace the ferry which ceased in the 1950s. Margaret ran the ‘Golden Boot’ appeal to raise over £2,000 and central office gave £7,000. The bridge was completed in May 1989, opening up 16 miles of Thames Path.
The Ramblers used to have an annual Forbidden Britain Day to highlight local access issues. In 1989 the East Berks Ramblers focused on Thames Water’s refusal of access on the bridge to Sashes Island near Cookham. This ferry had ceased running to Cliveden in 1956. On Forbidden Britain Day Margaret organised 30 members to be rowed across the river.
‘The purpose of our day’, Margaret told South Eastern Rambler, ‘was to make it clear to others that we would not allow Cookham footpath 65 on the island to be lost. Our requests to the county council for signposting were ignored so we decided to incorporate a mini work-party event into our plans for the day. Originally we intended to row out two signposts but decided that walking through the lock cut area with spades, metal rammers, etc would look too militant!’
They achieved access here in 1991 when the National Rivers Authority caved in.
Also in 1991 Margaret achieved a long-term ambition of access to Maidenhead town centre by a path underneath the A4 dual carriageway, and she helped to establish the Green Way.
In 2005, after an eight-year campaign including a public inquiry, Margaret won a footpath under the A404 Marlow bypass—after someone had been injured trying to cross. There was an obvious underpass but the landowner was hostile, and so were the Environment Agency and Woodland Trust to other options, so she had to persuade the Secretary of State to make a creation order. The safe path was opened by Theresa May in 2005; the Bowdery Archway under the A404 is the only public monument to Margaret.
In 2007, 45 years after the path under Cookham Bridge was closed by the Thames Conservancy, Margaret succeeded in getting an order to add the path to the map although, due to council bungling, 3.7 metres of the route was missed off. This was disputed by the Ferryboat Inn and it took her another seven years to get this short stretch added. She gathered paintings from the Stanley Spencer gallery, including ‘Christ preaching to the crowds at Cookham Regatta’, to prove that there was never a ‘No right of way’ sign at the Ferryboat Inn. The path takes people off the dangerous A4094 road. Margaret’s efforts must have saved walkers from death and injury.
There is one outstanding battle, to get the Thames Path to run beside the river north of Maidenhead bridge and Bridge Gardens instead of along the rat-run Ray Mead Road. Even Margaret could not overcome the determination of property owners and the council to keep us off this logical and attractive path. We shall win that battle one day, and we shall win it because of all Margaret’s groundwork.
Margaret leaves us with a lot of paper—I am told it must be measured in bedroomsful, not filing cabinets. Bernard was an essential part of Margaret’s ability to fight, he managed the computer work and gave her vital support. She retired as East Berks Group footpath secretary in 2013 after 43 years but did not stop campaigning.
No longer shall we have those midnight emails; nor will councillors and council staff be pestered by her. But we are much the poorer for her passing and can only be grateful for the vast amount of tireless, prodigious and brave work she did for walkers. She leaves East Berkshire a far better and safer place for walkers and for that we thank her—and will do so whenever we walk there.
Margaret’s elder son Nigel commented at her funeral that he had read in the The Times in November that the Ramblers had set a vision to unblock all paths by 2020. ‘Well’, he said, ‘Mum set herself that goal in 1960. In her office there is a poster which says “if you climb with care and confidence, no goal is too high”. Mum could have achieved anything if she set her mind to it.’
Margaret wanted her ashes to be scattered on Winter Hill near Cookham. The family had thought this attachment was because of an innocent ramble or the pleasant view until they came across a scrap of paper, dated a week before Bernard proposed to her and written by him:
This evening up on Winter Hill
Did my heart or just the world stand still?
Can happiness such as this be found?
With the whole busy world milling around
Can two people so newly met
Join hands and life in the ‘anglers’ net
Love is not the wall that keeps out friends
Love is the basis upon which life depends
Margaret Bowdery 14 June 1933 – 4 November 2016
With thanks to Margaret’s son Nigel and daughter-in-law Sue for family information, and to Dave Ramm for information about campaigns and many of the photos.