Locals fight proposal to turn Toad's meadow into a parking lot

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Anyone who has read "The Wind in the Willows" knows how much Toad loved his car.

Anyone who has read "The Wind in the Willows" knows how much Toad loved his car.

But many Cookham residents believe even that daredevil driver would have tried to put the brakes on plans to build a parking lot on the languid riverside meadow that reportedly inspired author Kenneth Grahame to create his carnival of country creatures, including Toad and pals Ratty and Mole.

Campaigners say moving the current public parking lot from its roadside position to the more secluded Marsh Meadow will create a haven for drug dealers, local toughs and other ne'er-do-wells without providing many extra parking spaces.

They have collected more than 1,200 signatures against the plan, including that of Unity Spencer, daughter of the landscape artist Sir Stanley Spencer, who used the meadow as the backdrop for his 1934 work "The Scarecrow."

Campaigners hope to get signatures from other famous locals of this leafy, well-to-do enclave on the River Thames west of London.

"Toad enjoyed Marsh Meadow and the countryside and he wouldn't want to see them being spoiled," said retired retail executive David Ricardo, 61, a leader of the campaign. "People come from every continent in the world to walk in the meadow."

"The Wind in the Willows," the children's classic first published in 1908, tells the story of the irrepressible Toad and the rabbits, moles, weasels and rats who inhabit River Bank. It inspired a subsequent 1949 Disney movie and a Walt Disney World attraction called Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

The wild ride in Cookham started after the borough submitted a development plan to the National Trust, which oversees the land. It involves closing the present 80-space parking lot on what is known as Cookham Moor and building a 90-space lot on Marsh Meadow, which adjoins it.

The borough council insists the move will free up on-street parking and has promised the new lot will have a "rural appearance, including gravel surface, timber fences and extensive planting."

Bounded on one side by a high hedge and on the others by the river and rows of select homes, the meadow is actually a former wheat field given by a farmer for the enjoyment of the public.

Walking his dog in the meadow's long grass recently, Bob Morgan worried that even a tastefully built parking lot "will just grow and grow."

And as he slapped white paint on his picket fence in nearby School Lane, Richard Bonas feared a parking lot on the 40-hectare (100-acre) meadow "will attract the wrong element to Cookham."

Grahame lived in nearby Cookham Dean - older Cookham residents remember regularly meeting him on the meadow - and described the Cookham area as "heaven on the Thames."

He is believed to have modeled car-fanatic Toad on his neighbor, Col. Francis Ricardo, the first person in Cookham to own a car and a distant cousin of David Ricardo's.

Opposition to the council's plan is heating up as the Sept. 1 deadline for comments approaches, with many village windows and driveways displaying placards against the parking lot.

But not everyone opposes the new lot.

"I think the present car park is an eyesore," said Anita Davey, owner of Anita's Flowers on the main street. "What is planned is clean and tidy and out of sight from the road."

Pat Curtis, the local history librarian at the nearby Maidenhead Library, noted that there are doubts about whether the meadow was even the site that inspired Grahame.

"He did write about this stretch of the river, but some people believe his wild woods are at Winter Hill, some miles from here," she said, adding conspiratorially, "To be honest, some people in Cookham will oppose anything."