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Poetry & prose in Marlow

PUBLISHED: 10:50 21 April 2008 | UPDATED: 14:32 20 February 2013

The town's prominent riverside church, All Saints, was rebuilt in the 1830s

The town's prominent riverside church, All Saints, was rebuilt in the 1830s

Nick Channer treads the Town Walk and enjoys the landscape that has inspired so many writers over the centuries. Photography by David Watson...

Few towns along the meandering course of the River Thames enjoy as many fascinating literary associations as Marlow. T S Eliot lived here, so did Shelley and his novelist wife Mary. Jerome K Jerome wrote part of a classic literary whimsy at a pub here and even Daniel Defoe found time to pen a few lines about this most attractive of Buckinghamshire towns.

In fact, touring its handsome streets on foot, it's easy to see why some of our most celebrated writers and poets loved Marlow. This was the home of the literati of the day, the Thames equivalent of Hampstead, or perhaps Charleston Farmhouse, the Bloomsbury Group's much-loved home in Sussex.

Marlow has long been a fashionable haunt in the world of the arts. However, it's not only literary luvvies that have been drawn here. In the early years of the 20th century, the town and its glorious setting attracted innumerable society hostesses, playwrights and film stars - 'The Master' Noel Coward, operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba and controversial Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead among them.

I am following Marlow's popular Town Walk, as described in a comprehensive and attractively designed leaflet which cleverly draws the visitor's attention to the town's wealth of period and historic buildings. Not least among these are the homes of its famous former residents.

Starting at the car park in Pound Lane, I stroll beside leafy Higginson Park, noted for its theatre named after Shelley, to reach the town's prominent riverside church, All Saints, rebuilt in the 1830s. From the churchyard there is a stunning view of Marlow's handsome suspension bridge, built by William Tierney Clark who also designed the chain bridge spanning the Danube in Budapest.

Near the church a quaint passage leads to St Peter Street, one of the town's delightful secret backwaters. This quiet street runs down to the water's edge and just a few yards from the riverbank stands the Two Brewers pub, frequented by Jerome K Jerome, who reputedly wrote part of Three Men in a Boat here.

Published in 1889 and translated into numerous languages, this perennially popular piece of literature is a mixture of light-hearted satire, clever dialogue and slapstick. More than 80 years after the author's death and almost 120 years since its publication, this delightful story of a riverboat trip on the Thames between Oxford and Kingston is a literary gem.

Beyond Pugin's Roman Catholic Church of St Peter, built in 1846, the trail makes for the High Street with its elegant town houses associated with Marlow's Brewery. At the top of the High Street stands The Crown, a popular hostelry dating back to 1807 and originally the town's Market House.

Marlow offers something new and fascinating at just about every turn, especially among the shops and houses of West Street.

In this busy corner of the town lived three of Britain's literary giants. American-born British poet, critic and dramatist T S Eliot resided at 31 West Street, now the Vanilla Pod Restaurant, between 1917 and 1920, and fellow poet and writer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, lived with his novelist wife Mary at 104 in the early years of the 19th century. Mary Shelley wrote her best-known novel Frankenstein, published in 1818, while at Marlow. Her husband completed The Revolt of Islam around the same time.

The Shelleys were near neighbours of Thomas Love Peacock, one of Britain's lesser-known novelists and poets, who lived at number 47 West Street. Peacock's time at Marlow was the most productive period of his literary career. Headlong Hall, the first of his satirical romances, was published in 1816. A close friend, Peacock was Shelley's business agent and from time to time read proofs for the poet. Correspondence between the two men lasted until Shelley's death after which Peacock received two legacies amounting to £2,500.

The homes of these writers all bear distinctive plaques, setting them apart as landmarks of some stature in the town. On the south side of West Street stands Remmantz, a splendid 18th-century house. The junior section of the Royal Military College was originally based here before moving to Sandhurst.

Its fine façade is another classic example of Marlow's impressive and very varied architectural styles. Another house of note is Court Garden, accessed via Portlands Alley which leads back to the car park. The house was built by Dr William Battie, a mental illness specialist whose name led to the coining of the term 'batty.'

The Marlow Town Walk is over but I feel I want to linger a while - perhaps by the river with its glorious views and verdant banks. From the water's edge it is easy to see why this setting inspired some of our best-known writers.

Above Marlow, to the south of the Thames, lies Quarry Wood in which Kenneth Grahame of The Wind in the Willows fame used to tramp as a child.

Supposedly, while out walking in this beech woodland, he dreamt up the 'wild wood' setting in the story. Even the famous 'Compleat Angler' Hotel on the opposite bank takes its name from Izaak Walton's celebrated work on fishing, published in 1653.

There is much to see and do in this area but it is Marlow's famed links with our greatest writers that gives it a special status. To paraphrase a well-known saying: Marlow - an embarrassment of literary riches.

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