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

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