Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Above Sea Level: Cambridge Beechwoods, Cambridge Cranes

Traveller's Joy. Photo credit: St Stev, Flickr
One of the local 'old ways' I've travelled since childhood is the chalky Roman road known variously as Wool Street, Worsted Street and Via Devana. Trodden by legions, drovers, turkeys and sheep, it is now a lycra highway transporting scientists and software developers direct to Cambridge's research hubs. The route is part of the chalk ridge that runs from the Chilterns and links up with the Icknield Way. Seventy-four feet above sea level, out of reach of the marshy Granta valley (now a series of science park settlements), the Roman Road deposits its cyclist commuters on Shelford Road, just east of the Beechwoods nature reserve. From here the woodland looks towards Addenbrooke's hospital which is guarded by a troop of cranes that dot our landscape with bright red beacons. Medical progress advances across the landscape like lava. Looking at a map I notice that the Park & Ride echoes the ring of the Iron Age hill-fort at Wandlebury nearby.

The beechwood is the  place adopted by Cambridge author Robert Macfarlane as his personal 'wild' place, 'filled with a wildness I had not previously perceived or understood.' ( The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta) In his book Macfarlane describes visiting as a gale advances one autumn. The kalaedoscope of light and colour as he enters the wood makes such an impression he backs out again just for the pleasure and fascination of re-entering. Today as I write on an overcast day at the tail end of January, Storm Jonas has reached Britain and is blowing mildly in the aftermath of record-breaking snowstorms on the eastern coast of the USA. As a metal gate on my walk sings its tunes in the wind, the beechwood is not the place I feel drawn to. For I have my own repertoire of special places whose topography, history, biology, modern being and personal memory I can call upon.

Anyone who chooses to acquaint themselves with the footpaths and green corridors where they live will soon find the waymarkers most important to them. Here are Macfarlane's:

'The waymarkers of my walks were not only dolmens, tumuli and long barrows, but also last year's ash-leaf frails (brittle in the hand), last night's fox scat (rank in the nose), this minute's bird call (sharp in the ear), the pylon's lyric crackle and the crop-sprayer's hiss.'

(The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane, published by Hamish Hamilton).

Here's a BBC Radio 4 episode of Clare Balding's Ramblings, stepping from Macfarlane's home into the green lanes nearby on the edge of Cambridge and heading out to his favourite trees. I love the spring birdsong in this broadcast: greenfinch, robin, woodpigeon in the beechwood and later great tit, chiffchaff and blackcap on the Roman road. But no notes from the garden warbler I photographed in the beech canopy there last year.

Wayfaring Tree - photo by Udo Schroter on Flickr

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Grantchester and Trumpington Meadows: Beauty Yet To Find?

 photo Jo Sinclair
Has this heron I photographed on the Cam at Byron's Pool a couple of years ago taken flight, or been submerged by recent high waters? Perhaps it's waiting to stand guard over a new generation as occupants of the newly developed Trumpington Meadows find their way into their local landscape. The heron stencil motif has its own fan page on Facebook: look for Heron Heron.

I'm reading Common Ground by Rob Cowen (published by  Random House). It is non-fiction in form: a memoir that segues into novelistic imagination - the kind of writing often labelled psychogeography. The writer uses his extensive nature notebooks as a starting point from which to tell his story about animals and place. By watching and tracking a fox he is able to 'become' it, virtually inhabiting its body and its habitat. Common Ground is Cowen's forensic and emotional focus on his local patch. The liminal space where city and country merge is, in his own words 'true common ground - reclaimed, re-purposed, nourishing, loved again... margins should be part of people's daily experience...the wild collision and coexistence of human and nature, the complex interlocking of infrastructure and land, the bizarre and beguiling interchange of the layers of history and modern life...'.

The author's first child is in utero as he writes the book; he is all too aware of the need for new housing. 'I'm bringing new life into this overcrowded world. Where can I reasonably expect our children and our children's children to live?' he asks. He comes to accept that landscapes are in a constant state of metamorophosis.

I have watched hares at Trumpington Meadows. They are, to use a birdwatchers' word, unusually confiding. Accustomed to the steady trickle of visitors to neighbouring Bryon's Pool LNR and beauty spot, the hares lope around their territory as the new houses creep closer and cast their shadows. In 1912 the Romantic poet Rupert Brooke, pining for home, wrote 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester':

...Do hares come out about the corn?

Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget...

And he questions whether 'the elm-clumps greatly stand / Still guardians of that holy land. I don't think so, no - we lost the magnificent, mature trees to Dutch Elm Disease. But there are younger elms reaching for the skies in the wooded belt of Byron's Pool, said to host a rare butterfly.

I wonder if the new generation of children born in the new houses on the meadows will carry memories of landscape with them throughout their lives? Will they put down their digital devices and explore the legendary landscape on their doorstep? I wonder if they'll make bike tracks down to the river, put ropes in the trees Brooke writes about ('a tunnel of green gloom') and swim where Brooke and Byron once did? I hope they might. In 1912, while Brooke was penning his famous poem, the Plant Breeding Institute was formed in Cambridge. It was relocated to what is now Trumpington Meadows in the 1950s, soon after the prisoner of war camp closed. The metamorphosis of this place has been influenced by human occupation and intervention, from Iron Age and Roman settlements and Anglo Saxon burial site to coprolite excavation for fertiliser and, of course, arable land. It will continue to change, though we have a tendency to be reassured by continuity. What I'll be looking for as I cycle that way is the flock of golden plover that stop by at this spot every winter: hundreds of them that may be glimpsed from the M11, cycle path or Park & Ride.

Golden plover and lapwing by Ferran Pestana (Flickr) - check Cambridgeshire Bird Club for reports