Short Breaks: Stanley and the women

Cookham, once home to the artist Stanley Spencer, is a quiet, sleepy sort of place. Unlike the artist himself ...
Oddly enough, the England of childhood picture books - lush meadows, blowsy roses, polite village life steeped in nostalgia - really does still exist. I know because I've been there. Odder still, it lies in commuter land, just a stone's throw from the M40 in Berkshire.

There's a happy little swagger about the Thames-side village of Cookham - a prevailing, almost Edwardian, mood of jolly boating and thorough decency. You get the sense that Cookham proudly knows it's a topping place thank you very much, which is presumably how, for the most part, it has managed to shrug off the more unpalatable exigencies of the end of the 20th century.

Cookham is hardly a secret, but it comes as a surprise that somewhere so intrinsically and sublimely English should be quietly getting on with life without much of a fanfare. Ambling down the high street you pass flower-decked, well- preserved 16th-century buildings,where a rare intrusion of the more modern world pops up in the form of a half-timbered Tandoori restaurant. Incongruous, yes, but it blends in with this neat, smart street - even the second-hand clothes shop sells the likes of Jaeger coordinates. Other shopfronts display flouncy hats as if the residents are in perpetual wedding mode, or at least clinking tea cups on the lawn during formal afternoon functions.

Old-fashioned attitude is one way of maintaining your intrinsic flavour, but it helps if you also have a treasure of your own. The feather in Cookham's boater, so to speak, is a wonderful little gallery exhibiting works of the quixotic and highly original artist Stanley Spencer, who was born here in 1891.

The son of the local organ master, Spencer, in an emotional sense, never really left Cookham. In 1908, he went to to study art at the Slade in London, and subsequently became an official war artist during the First World War (a position he also held in the Second World War). Cookham was always very much his home, though, and he returned to live in the neighbourhood with his wife, and fellow artist, Hilda Carline. Here he painted contemporary village life into many of the gloriously quirky biblical scenes that are regarded as his major works - the most notable being The Resurrection: Cookham (widely acclaimed as a painting of genius when it was completed in 1924) which is now in the Tate Gallery in London (although not always on display).

Yet for all his visionary art, Spencer wasn't quite the decent sort you might expect of Cookham. He took up with another artist, Patricia Preece, and in 1937 divorced Hilda so that he could marry her. However, just as he was spiritually tied to Cookham, so he felt innately bonded to Hilda - according to one story, he invited her on his second honeymoon and was hurt when she declined the offer. Subsequently, she continued to appear in his paintings and he carried on writing to her, even after her death in 1950.

Spencer himself died nine years later, just after being awarded a knighthood, and shortly after that, friends and admirers raised the funds to establish the Stanley Spencer Gallery, housed in a former Methodist chapel just off the high street. And what's remarkable is not just that the collection remains here in an untrumpeted sort of way, but that several of the paintings are works of quite some significance: The Last Supper; the unfinished Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta that Spencer was painting for the village church; as well as a couple of notable self-portraits.

Just opposite the chapel is a handy pub. The Bell and Dragon is exactly the sort of hostelry you expect to find in Cookham, a place of creaky beams and antique settles that claims to be one of the oldest licensed inns in the country. I popped in for a quick bite of lunch, served by young bartenders who, appropriately enough, seemed to have acquired manners straight out of the 1950s. On a sunny day, you might feel inclined to sink into a soporific haze in the pub's garden, lazily watching the goldfish in the little pond. But to capture more of the essence of old-time England you need to take a stroll along the banks of the Thames: there's a good five-mile round trip you can make from Cookham.

A shortish walk down a country lane fringed with cow parsley leads to woodland and then to the river. Butterflies abounded on the day I was there, and for a while it seemed too peaceful to do anything other than settle comfortably down by the bank, occasionally paddling in the water, watching the ducks, and waving at the slow-moving river traffic out for a weekend potter. It's Wind in the Willows country here - as well as the setting for Three Men in a Boat. The path meanders for a while beside the Thames, running below the Hanging Woods of Cliveden (and the mass of leafery really does look as if it's hanging), and then takes you through flat, open meadow and marsh land and back to Cookham via Boutler's Lock.

Meanwhile, Cliveden house itself is within fairly easy reach of Cookham. This grand edifice, now a National Trust property as well as being a luxury hotel (with some parts open to non guests), was built by Barry in 1857 and became the home of the Astor family in the 1920s and 1930s. More infamously, it was also where the Profumo scandal broke in 1963. But on second thoughts why go to Cliveden when you can absorb the picture-book prettiness of Cookham? Politics and prostitutes seem a world away from its quiet geniality: another England - and another, adult, story.

The Stanley Spencer Gallery at Cookham (01628 520890) is open daily, 10.30am-5.30pm, until the end of October