Exploring England 2012 - around Cambridge.

Saturday, Jul 07, 2012 at 20:11


During the start of our trip out to Cambridge we really thought the wheels were falling off.

First we had to get to Cambridge. Rob saw us onto the right platform at Kings Cross Station, then went on his way – he would join us in Cambridge the following day. After waiting a while an announcement told us that we needed to go to a different platform, so off we hiked. We got onto the new platform, boarded the train along with everyone else then along with everyone else had to come off again, and finally reboarded the same train! But not for long … that train to Cambridge was cancelled (points problems). If we went to Liverpool Station we could catch another train to Cambridge. So down into the Tube, caught a train that nearly got us to Liverpool Station – but it too was cancelled one station short.

By this time a few other travellers were anxiously checking their watches. A local, who had presumably seen this scenario before, commented that it was possible to walk to Liverpool Station – whereupon he gained a tag-along of anxious travellers, us included, and set out on a “short walk” Without luggage it might have been, but we trundled our luggage through what seemed like interminable streets. But he got us there - I do hope we thanked him properly. The train to Cambridge was about to depart, so, hot and dishevelled we scrambled into the closest carriage. It was a first class carriage and there we stayed in comfort for the rest of the journey, chatting with a lady who had enjoyed a visit to Australia a couple of years ago.

We were a couple of hours late into Cambridge so our hire car pick-up from the railway station had to be rescheduled. As this was our first encounter with the car hire company we were slightly apprehensive, so it was with a real sense of relief when the paperwork was completed and we finally slid into a near new Vauxhaull Corsa and set out to find our cottage.

We headed off in roughly the right direction looking to find a place to pull off so we could get the GPS out and running. We then learnt our second lesson about driving in England – the first was that roads are very narrow and having cars heading straight towards you is quite normal. The second lesson was that on country roads it can be hard to find a place to pull off – there is usually a hedgerow, ditch, drystone wall or a kerb in the way.

Eventually we found our cottage, one of several on a farm, set up in converted stables, very nicely presented and comfortable. Outside there was a children’s playground and a farmyard with ducks, chooks, sheep goats and pigs for the entertainment of urban holiday makers.

Nearby was the little village of Landbeach, dating back to Roman times – Roman roads and ditches run through the area. A church occupies the centre of the village and in the churchyard we saw many headstones so old and weathered that they were indecipherable. The oldest inscriptions we could read went back to the late 1700s – about the time Cook was discovering Australia or the First Fleet was arriving. We were starting to comprehend the layers of history all around us.

Many of the cottages in the village had thatched roofs, often with decorative thatch trims - fascinating to see. On single story buildings the thatch might come down to head height, and below the eaves were doors that we would need to stoop to enter. We had to keep an eye out to avoid hitting our heads on bits of buildings jutting over the footpath – hard to do when also admiring the tiny gardens awash with flowers. A local with a strong Glaswegian accent spotted us for tourists and showed us a house where in the summer of 1665 the whole family died in the great plague, and neighbours who tried to help suffered the same fate. More history…a century before Cook arrived at Botany Bay.

Our cottage was self-catering so we set off to the nearest Tescos to stock up. On the way back we took a wrong turn coming off a big roundabout and ended up on a motorway. It was then that the GPS decided to misbehave. It did so again the following day as we went back into Cambridge to collect Rob from the train, and we were rather frantic when we arrived at the station an hour late after some unscheduled sightseeing around the streets. Eventually we worked out that it was the USB GPS that was the problem, and with a replacement installed we were back on track and equinamity was restored.

Then our sightseeing could begin, and where else to start than in the heart of Cambridge itself.

Cambridge is most famous for its historic university, however, the town of Cambridge is far older than the university. The Romans built the first town at a convenient crossing point of the river Cam, on the edge of the marshy fen land. The Normans built a castle on there in 1068 as a fortification against some local unrest. In 1209 some students from Oxford moved to Cambridge and the first college was founded in 1284. In 1349 and again in 1361Cambridge was affected by the Black Death. Many scholars (who were generally training to enter the church) and clergy died - there were not enough clergy to bury the dead. So four new colleges were established to train new clergymen.

The old town is now surrounded by newer suburbs, but the old part of town was what we wanted to see. The old buildings are clustered around narrow streets where bicycles outnumber cars by a large margin. Viewed from the outside the numerous colleges vary in their level of opulence and decoration. Unfortunately we were not able to enter any of the colleges, as it was exam time when, understandably, they are off-limits to casual visitors. All have extensive gardens and lawns, mostly with “Keep off the grass” signs – that apparently don’t apply to senior members of college.

We walked along the River Cam and saw where the famous punting takes place along the “backs”. There were many punts drawn up waiting to be hired, and a few out on the water, with some of the “punters” wearing the traditional straw boater. On this walk we experienced the surprising juxtaposition of urban areas and natural (or as natural as woodland or pasture that has been managed for hundreds of years can be) environments in English towns, something we were to see repeated numerous times. Certainly by Australian standards the River Cam is far from natural, bordered as it is by stone walls and gardens, its levels controlled by weirs. We walked under ancient trees, through bluebells, beside channels of clear water where water birds were nesting – and there across green meadows arose the town with its astonishing medieval architecture of the colleges, Kings College and its glorious chapel being the standout.

King's College Chapel, is one of the best-known buildings in Cambridge. It was begun in 1446 by King Henry VI and finally completed in 1515 during the reign of King Henry VIII. We spent some time in the Chapel – we who for years have been “weddings and funerals” churchgoers – admiring the magnificence of this building with its wondrous fan vaulted ceiling and huge stained glass windows… so much opulence, it was hard to take it all in. The choir of Kings College has a long an illustrious tradition of musical performance and recording as well as undertaking its primary role of singing for the daily chapel services. We would have liked to stay to hear evensong but time was against us.

Later that day we saw out first canal or narrow boats moored near a lock. They do look romantic. We also stopped at Oakington where Rob participated in an archaeological dig last year, and will do so again just after we go home. There is an early Saxon (about 500AD) burial ground there, under a sportsfield and children’s playground, with many skeletons to examine. It was strange to think about the history only a foot or so under our feet as we walked over the site. To round out the day we found a nearby pub and sampled some English beer – not bad, could be colder.

Archaeology was high on the agenda when we visited Flag Fen just north of Cambridge. The site includes reconstructed Bronze (2,500 – 800 BC) and Iron Age (800 BC – 100AD) round-houses giving a good idea how folk lived thousands of years ago. The fens provided the building materials – poles for the frames, willow branches for wicker-work, earth for walls and turf and thatch for the roof. But the main feature of the site is the building covering the excavated remains of a huge 3,500 years old wooden causeway about a mile long running across the fens. The wood must be kept wet with mist to stop it drying out and crumbling to dust. A small museum displays many objects found during the excavations – pots, jewellery, swords etc. Grazing the site were sheep similar to those that were found there during much earlier times, as well as explanations of how a hedgerow is formed by “laying” branches in a horizontal position so they form a dense lattice. And there were ponds (where swans were nesting among the reeds) showing how the fens would have looked before draining, which started in earnest during the 1630s and continues today.

The countryside is very flat, as the fens used to be areas of swamp or marsh, but the soil is fertile and now supports extensive cropping that stretched away in all directions – the green of young wheat contrasting with the brilliant yellow of canola. Here and there the skyline was broken by a cluster of trees coming into full leaf, by the roofs of houses in the numerous villages and frequently by a church spire.

Not a spire but the magnificent tower of Ely Cathedral presides over the fens from its dominant position on a slight rocky rise. What an imposing statement it must have made, even when construction started in 1080. Like other cathedrals it has suffered damage and desecration during its long life, particularly during the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of the young Henry VIII (about 1539) when much of its statuary and stained glass was destroyed. The original tower collapsed under its own weight, and had to be rebuilt - even now the foundations sag under the weight of the huge replacement octagonal lantern. For all that, Ely Cathedral is still an impressive and fully functioning church and we enjoyed the time we spent exploring its treasures. It is surrounded by attractive gardens and parks, where locals relaxed on the grass or watched a drowsy game of cricket.

Nearer to Cambridge we visited Denny Abbey, another site that dates back to Roman times (43-410AD). Later, about 1160 an abbey was built by Benedictine monks, then used by the Knights Templar and used as a nunnery until the dissolution of the monasteries around 1536. Henry VIII, after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon needed to reinforce his break with the Catholic Church in Rome. So he ordered about 800 abbeys and monasteries to be shut down and made uninhabitable. Henry profited by the melted down gold and silver, and even the lead from the roofs. The land was sold off or given to his supporters and local folk encouraged to use the bricks and stones to make new buildings.

Small and quite poor, little Denny Abbey probably didn’t have much of value for Henry. It was subsequently used as a farm and restoration was not begun until after WWII. Although the building is now only a shell it is possible to see the stages of building and the many modifications that have been made over its long life.

Attached to the abbey was a pre-WW2 farm workers cottage presented in is original state, complete with herb and flower gardens of the period. Big old barns several hundred years old, complete with special marks to ward off witches, were also used as a museum to display aspects of agricultural life and equipment, a sometimes sobering story considering the backbreaking labour that was often required to produce basic foods and fibres.

We were able to get a better appreciation of the fens in their natural state at Wicken Fen. This is a National Trust Nature Reserve of 800acres set aside to preserve some of the original fen environment. An extensive boardwalk runs around a corner of the reserve and it allows an insight into most aspects of fen hydrology and ecology. The fens have been managed for about 500 years, meaning that water has been drained away, the reeds and sedges cut regularly and trees and shrubs controlled to maintain the preferred water balance. Now the water and the site are being mnaged to prevent the peaty soil from drying out and shrinking – in places shrinkage has lowered the soil level by several feet below original levels. We saw a couple of old windmills that are still used to pump water. The fens are home to tiny roe deer – we had a fleeting glimpse of a couple of them, and wild ponies that we did not see. But we did see a dead mole – very small with soft glossy fur, and a timid grass snake all of half a metre long. (The Brits have very few snakes and find them very fearsome.)

We had a look at a fenworkers workshop where we could see the tools that were used to cut peat, to dig the ditches (wooden spades), spear eels and fish, and cut the sedges and reeds for thatch. Sedges have fierce sawtooth edges that must have made them very unpleasant to handle. Reeds are much smoother and are used for roof thatch. Slim willow branches are also woven into baskets, fish and eel traps and even fences and gates. Such ingenuity, but hard work.

It was (Australian) Mothers day and also Val’s birthday so we decided to mark the occasion with a visit to Lavenham a well preserved medieval village in Suffolk. As we drove south the flat fen country gradually gave way to the low rolling hills of Suffolk. The narrow winding roads and numerous villages made for a slow trip, although the country around us was very pretty. Once at Lavenham we found a suitably ancient but very pleasant pub where, surrounded by 600 year old oak beams and local memorabilia, we had a delicious traditional roast beef lunch. All washed down with crisp cold cider.

Many of the buildings in Lavenham are still in close to original condition, built from massive oak beams making an exposed frame with the gaps filled in with wooden lath and plaster which may be white or coloured with pink or orange oxides. And who says houses need level floors and vertical walls – odd angles give much more character.

The largest building in Lavenham is the Guildhall which now houses displays of the wool industry, especially the spinning and weaving that in the 15th and 16th centuries made the town one of the most prosperous in England and Europe. While wool was the main fibre utilised, heavier cloth for upholstery was also made using horsehair, including in more recent times horsehair imported from Australia.

Near Lavenham is Melford Hall, a grand stately home open to the public – and the public were visiting in droves. We enjoyed walking through this imposing building that is still used as a home by the owners. The library was an impressive room housing massive leather bound volumes, while one of the bedrooms was regularly used by Beatrix Potter on her many visits. Apparently when she visited she always brought numerous furred and feathered friends along too.

Another grand home we visited was Anglesey Abbey, an early 17th century house that was restored by a new young owner in the 1930s. Tours of the house were booked out but no matter, we spent our time exploring the 100 plus acres of gardens and woods. There were vast sweeps of lawn, huge trees, formal avenues, statues, hidden nooks, and an enclosed garden with massed flower beds. Not to mention a stream and a water driven mill.

And so our week in Cambridgeshire ended on a much brighter note than it had begun – despite the weather turning cold and damp. From our base in our comfortable stables/cottage we had seen some of the countryside, met some of the people and begun to realise that our very sketchy ideas about English history were being rapidly revised. We were quickly learning that this country of our distant ancestors had stories to tell that were real and relevant to us – and very different from the bare bones of history that we dimly remembered from our long-ago school days.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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