In one of the richest boroughs in England, Maidenhead is a market town on the Thames, not far upriver from Windsor.
The Prime Minister Theresa May’s constituency, Maidenhead has a tidy town centre that was redeveloped after the Second World War.
A lot of the town’s charm comes from its riverside, where there’s an epoch-making railway bridge designed by Brunel, an elegant 18th-century road bridge and the picturesque Boulter’s Lock.
There you can get onto Ray Mill’s Island, where there’s a sweet little park with a cafe and playground.
The Thames will be at the heart of your plans in Maidenhead, whether you take boat trips, try water activities, walk the Thames Path or go for days out to Windsor, Cliveden House or nearby Cookham.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Maidenhead:
1. Boulter’s Lock
One of the prettiest places on the Middle Thames, Boulter’s Lock is moments from Maidenhead town centre.
The lock is the third to be built at this point in the river, dating to 1912 and replacing one from 1772 and an even earlier lock built in the 16th century.
The Boulter is an upmarket pub/restaurant next door, with a balcony overlooking the river.
If you’re wondering how boats navigate the Thames you could pass a few minutes watching the narrowboats and yachts being lifted by the lock.
The weir, moderating the level of the river, is a little way upstream at the north end of Ray Mill Island.
This is a popular white-water kayaking spot in summer, when it has a flume installed for a few months.
2. Ray Mill Island
Cross the bridge at the lock and you’ll be on Ray Mill Island, a charming public park in the middle of the river.
“Ray Mill” comes from a flour mill, constructed on the island in 1726 and demolished in the 1920s.
Since the 50s the island has been owned by the borough and has plenty of facilities in an idyllic setting.
A cafe, Island Piazza, opens during the summer months and you can sip your tea or coffee at a picnic table by the water.
There’s an adventure playground for children aged three to eight, and they’ll also be thrilled with the aviaries and guinea pig pen enclosure.
3. The Sounding Arch
Crossing the Thames in the southeast of the town is a structure of vast historical value.
Designed in the 1830s by the fabled engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Railway, this was the flattest and widest brick arch bridge in the world at the time.
Each arch has a span of 39 metres, but rises only seven metres above the water.
As a testament to Brunel’s ingenuity the bridge is still used by the railway, even though today’s trains are ten times heavier than in Brunel’s day.
The name, Sounding Arch comes from the extraordinary echo created by Brunel’s innovative design.
J. M.W. Turner painted the bridge in the Rain, Steam and Speed – Great Western Railway (1844), one of his best known works.
4. Maidenhead Heritage Centre
Small but overflowing with interesting things, the Maidenhead Heritage Centre is the town’s museum.
The permanent exhibition has a Roman skeleton buried near Bray in the 5th century, details about the Profumo affair and its connection to Cliveden, and a history of the Vanwall Formula One team that was based in Maidenhead in the 1950s.
There’s an in depth “Story of Maidenhead” to bring you up to speed, covering the town’s boom years in Victorian times and its role as a shooting location for the Hammer Horror films of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Something out of the ordinary is a Spitfire simulator, letting you to take the controls for flight over the Isle of Wight, Windsor or 21st-century London.
5. Cliveden House
One of the National Trust’s most prized houses is just a few minutes up the Thames.
The mansion rests atop an Italianate terrace, 40 metres over the east bank of the river.
It was rebuilt in 1851 by Charles Barry (famous for the Houses of Parliament), and has a mix of Palladian and Cinquecento architecture.
Cliveden was home to Nancy Astor, the UK’s first woman MP, in the 20s and 30s, while John Profumo met Christine Keeler for the first time at a party in 1961. The house is now an exclusive hotel, but the National Trust offers brief tours from March to October, during which you’ll hear anecdotes about guests like Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and the Queen Mother.
In the grounds you can take in the Water Garden, hire a boat to row on the Thames and try to solve the yew maze, composed of more than 1,000 trees.
6. Norden Farm Centre for the Arts
This vibrant live entertainment venue has an unusual location on an old dairy farm.
The ensemble has two listed buildings, an 18th-century long barn and a Georgian farmhouse.
Maidenhead had been planning an arts venue since the 1970s, and finally settled on this site in the 1990s.
Open since 2000, the award-winning Norden Farm Centre for the Arts has a dense programme of comedy, drama, dance and live music, as well as a wide choice of classes and workshops.
These can be as varied as jewellery making, pilates, yoga, and life drawing.
You can also catch film screenings, as well as live broadcasts or recordings from the Royal Opera House or National Theatre.
One stop on the train or ten minutes by road, Cookham is a very affluent and picturesque village on the Thames.
For such a small place, Cookham has had some distinguished residents, like Guillermo Marconi, Kenneth Grahame (author of Wind in the Willows) and the 20th-century artist Stanley Spencer.
The latter was born in Cookham, was educated in Maidenhead and died in Cliveden.
Cookham had a special place in his heart, and after his death the former Wesleyan Chapel became a gallery for his works.
The gallery’s collection runs to more than 100 paintings and is rotated in exhibitions.
Spencer himself worshipped at this building as a child, and painted Ecstasy in a Wesleyan Chapel, on the strength of childhood recollections 30 years later.
That painting is now in the collection.
Afterwards, go for a stroll on Cookham Moor, a parcel of countryside criss-crossed by streams and cared for by the National Trust.
8. Dorney Court
This early-Tudor manor is open for tours every afternoon in August, as well as during both May Bank Holidays.
The beautiful half-timbered house was built around 1440 and has remained largely the same since 1500. Dorney Court has belonged to the Palmer Family since the 16th century and is still a cheerful family home.
You’ll approach the house via a patch of ancient chestnut and ash woodland, past a pond dug in Medieval times.
The tour will guide you through a series of panelled rooms like the parlour, great chamber and the marvellous vaulted great hall.
You’ll also see priest holes, a cellar, buttery, the pantry, little passageways and the lovely old kitchen.
Some small parts have been updated, like the 17th-century William and Mary dining room and a gaudy bathroom decorated in the 1970s.
There’s a tearoom at the kitchen garden, and a shop selling goodies like golden honey produced at the estate’s aviary.
9. Ockwells Park
Opened to the public in the 1980s, Ockwells Park is on land that used to belong to the Ockwells Manor Estate.
The 15th-century half-timbered manor house can be seen to the west of the park, and was built with oak from Winsor Forest, which at that time extended as far as Maidenhead.
The park has a conservation area labelled with signs about its wildlife.
Depending on your luck and the season, you may see meadow brown butterflies, green woodpeckers, cuckooflowers and common blue damselflies.
Recharge your batteries at Andrea’s Cafe, which has a soft play area for little ones.
10. Thames Path
If you prefer to use your own two feet to get around, many of the attractions on this list, like Cliveden, Cookham and Dorney Court can be reached on the Thames Path.
This is a National Trail, tracking the river for 184 miles, from its source near Cirencester to the Thames Barrier in London.
You could walk to Windsor in half a day, passing Dorney Lake where the 2012 rowing and canoeing events took place.
For people with accommodation in Maidenhead, the walk upriver to Bourne End via Cookham is particularly convenient, as you can return on the train in a couple of minutes.
On the path can look across the water to the Cliveden Estate just before you enter Cookham.
11. Boat Trips
Tuesday to Saturday from May to September the French Brothers cruise company offers a return trip on the Thames from Maidenhead to Windsor.
It’s a super way to visit this royal town, departing Maidenhead Promenade at 11:00 and arriving at Windsor 90 minutes later.
You’ll have more than three hours to potter around the town centre and Great Park, and maybe see the castle.
The return boat sets off at 15:45. The voyage along the Thames is commentated, and will fly by as there’s so much history on the banks.
You’ll see the idyllic village of Boveney, splendid country houses like Oakley Court and the Monkey Island Estate, and of course Windsor Castle and Eton College.
12. Jubilee Clock Tower
Come to Maidenhead by train and one of the first sights you see after leaving the station is this Historicist clock tower with neo-Gothic and Baroque flourishes.
The monument was completed in 1899 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, which took place two years before.
If you’re curious, the tower is 14 metres tall and crowned with ornamental merlons and turrets with tracery.
Just below are four clock faces, each pointing towards one of the compass points.
Go in for a close look at the clock faces and you’ll notice a subtle diamond pattern as a low-key nod to the jubilee.
13. BCA Zoo
The Berkshire College of Agriculture has a large collection of live animals, and over the last few summers has started welcoming the public to come and meet them on special open days.
Tickets have to be bought in advance, for either the morning or afternoon slot, and you can do this on the college’s website.
Needed for the college’s animal husbandry courses, the zoo is fully accredited, and has skunks, porcupines, lemurs, otters, armadillos, meerkats and monkeys.
There’s also a reptile house, while the keepers hold educational talks, handling displays and feeding demonstrations.
For an extra fee you can book a primate or meerkat encounter.
14. Taplow Lake
This stretch of the Middle Thames is a hub for watersports.
There’s a string of lakes next to the river just east of Maidenhead, while a few miles upriver is Henley, home of the storied regatta.
You can take to the water at Taplow Lake, a couple of minutes out of Maidenhead.
On the shore is Engage Watersports, which offers courses and taster sessions in canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and wake kayaking.
If you already have some experience and feel like a paddle, the company also hires out equipment, from vessels to wetsuits.
On the lakeshore is the newly opened Lake House Cafe, with a terrace over the water.
Also, a little further out of town is Bray Lake, touted as the top watersports centre in Berkshire and on hand for dinghy sailing, windsurfing, paddleboarding, kayaking canoeing, open water swimming and fishing.
15. Hitcham Farm Ice Cream
Close by in Burnham, Hitcham Farm Ice Cream is a family business in open countryside.
The farm makes a selection of enticing ice cream flavours like rhubarb and custard, vanilla pod, caramel toffee crunch, honeycomb and Belgian chocolate.
What makes the ice cream so special is that the milk comes from the farm’s own herd of Ayrshire cows.
You can see these grazing in the fields, together with sheep, goats, ducks, geese and chickens.
Made naturally, the ice cream flavours change with the seasons, and you can also buy freshly laid goose, chicken and duck eggs from the farm shop.