From Bray, all paths lead to Maidenhead, Reading’s mini-me (alright, one of Reading’s many mini-me’s), not so much a town as a giant circulatory system, a scaled-up Scalectrix track where game-boys career around bends like Monaco on race day. Middle aged men re-live the halcyon days of Acid House from the confines of their hatchbacks, banging out beats last heard in Ibiza in 1987. Walkers only surface in the pedestrian zone, as if they have somehow misunderstood the concept, as if instant and painful death greets any pedestrian who strays outside The Zone.
Disappointingly, but predictably, the Thames path out of Maidenhead is a pavement teetering on the fast track of the A4. As soon as the path leaves the road, the money begins to flow. Victorian mansions puff their chests out with balconies the size of London flats; country piles that the National Trust must have half an eye on. National treasures in waiting – all that’s missing is the tea room.
At Cookham, just after the Stanley Spencer gallery, the route turns right onto the Chiltern Way. And this is where the walk becomes unchartered territory for me. I have walked the length of the Thames path, from source to Barrier, and I know Surbiton better than anyone should readily admit. London once belonged to me.
This is the first time in the five walks that the countryside is not a punctuation, a literal breathing space between towns and city. As a gang of red kites circle and swoop on unseen prey in a Ravilious field, it’s easy to understand why so many studios were based so far west of the capital, away from the pea-soupers and the smog of industry. The film business has always been a light industry, so to speak, especially when so much was filmed outdoors or through glass roofs, and it soon becomes obvious why they would migrate to the clear skies of Buckinghamshire. The sense of space also extends to the wide country roads, both populated and desolate, where Steed and Mrs Peel ghost-ride in his jalopy, laughing all the way to the conclusion of an Avengers episode.
In the woods, that Avengers episode seems to begin – ominous signs threaten the stray walker with some unspecified punishment and constant surveillance. Sinister experiments with cyborgs, mind control and rogue military are surely conducted on the other side. There can be no other rational explanation for the secrecy.
It’s a relief to hear the waves of traffic pollution emanating from the shores of the M40; in the countryside, the sound of one car engine is unnerving, the sound of dozens is curiously reassuring.
Beaconsfield is the destination, the National Film School, to be precise. To get to it I have to navigate the grid system of its suburban citadel, where no road signs are provided to help a stranger out, because if you don’t know where you are, you shouldn’t be here. My internal compass spins, I no longer know which way is up. I defiantly keep to one endless road, in the hope that it doesn’t lead to Gerrards Cross.
I am eventually rewarded for my faith. Without knowing it at the time, I’m following in the footsteps of Laura and Alec in Brief Encounter, enjoying successive Thursdays in the suburban affluence of Milford, which is one part Beaconsfield, one part Denham studio, and one part Carnforth Station. Beaconsfield still connotes congenial wealth, with those exemplars of relaxed capitalism – Fat Face, White Stuff, Whistles – lined up on the parade, clothes for people so comfortable with their own prosperity that they don’t need public displays of affectation or ostentation. Unlike Laura’s husband Fred, who still wears his tie and tweed jacket in his own living room to solve the crossword puzzle, today’s middle managers dress for work as if they haven’t left their living rooms – chinos, floral print shirt, with a pair of brogues as a careful nod to tradition.
There’s no sign of the National Film School, however. There’s a school, a preparatory for preparing young men for power, their empirical birth-right. The civic signs point to the magistrates court and the model village, but not the film school, its absence seems significant, freighted with meanings about our ignorance of film culture, but I am disoriented, inexplicably tired and soon everything seems freighted with meaning, not least the model village, which apparently knocked down its own modernist buildings in a Prince Charles-inspired reaction to carbuncles. When I eventually do track down the school, skimming the edge of the town, the experience is desperately underwhelming.
It’s the first studio on this tour that has retained its original purpose and is therefore simply functional; there is no absence to freight or fill with meaning. As Matthew Sweet says in Shepperton Babylon about the dead studios that make up the subject of this blog, visiting them is like “touring a shabby biscuit factory on an idle Sunday.” What is the point of seeing these shabby biscuit factories, or their replacements, of trudging through suburbs and across paranoid woods, when the story can be told just as well without all this effort. As Sweet concludes, the “story of the British studio system is not legible in its architectural remains”, the buildings don’t yield any secrets by themselves. Half way through the pilgrimage, this is a good time for a mid-walk crisis.