Sunday 24 August 2014

One Man's Meadows

Just upriver, a little way out of town, the grass grows thick on the sloping ground. Cows graze and the thistledown blows. Boys come with fishing hooks and nets to catch minnows in the shallows.

A year or two later perhaps, those boys find an old boat riddled with holes, paint the old punt and patch it with pitch, then learn to handle both paddle and pole. River boys in the summer.

In the slanting evenings they pass the cider down the length of the boat. Singing bawdy shanties and reeling home on rusty bicycles.

Then there are girls, guitars and poetry. Rupert Brooke rubs shoulders with Roger Waters out here on Grantchester Meadows. The ghosts of Lord Byron and Virginia Woolf still swim naked beneath the willows, while downstream the townspeople remember the doings of Augustus John and party.

Sharing the wine and staring at the moon. Thinking of astrology and astronauts. Lingering long in the kissing gates.

Wandering in winter, carrying a camera. The river rises and the river falls.

Friends leave and friends return. Farmers and zoologists, musicians and mothers, and just like the words of a Bob Dylan song, "Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters' wives". Ginger-haired toddlers are led by the hand and lifted over the stiles. Picnics on Long Meadow.

The hay is cut, the cows come in for milking. In the late afternoon laughing youngsters in wheelchairs come bumping down to the riverside, watching the boats to see if anyone falls in. 

An old man stands at the brow of the slope looking down at it all. Like everybody else he's only there for a while then he passes on. Memories are safely stored in the trees along by the river.

Take care.


Friday 22 August 2014

Speed The Plough

It's harvest time of course but, like the agricultural year, I'm always a bit mixed up these days. So here's a post that would have probably been better to arrive in January. It starts off with this remarkable object spied in the Farmland Museum at Denny Abbey..... case you don't recognise it, it's a plough. Not just any old plough but a very old plough indeed. Its design means that we can date it to before 1730. Before it took up residence in the museum it made its home in Bassingbourn church.
A plough in a church? Yes, that's what I said - in this church.....

I've always liked Bassingbourn church, mainly for its bright red clock, you don't see many of them. But that's not answering the question of how come there was a plough in church. Nobody really knows but I suppose in past times there would always have been a connection between agriculture and religion - it makes sense to pray for good weather in this country! On a Sunday at the beginning of January each year, the start of the agricultural year, the plough would be blessed in a special church service. The day was known as Plough Sunday - and the day after was, naturally enough, Plough Monday. 

Now those of you with long memories will remember my visit to Whittlesea to the Straw Bear Festival back in January (This post and the four following it). The festival keeps alive the antics of our ploughboy forebears who on the Monday following Plough Sunday took to the streets and either danced or acted out rough little plays to entertain and beg for money. They took the plough with them and, if money was not forthcoming from the wealthy of the town, they'd plough up the path leading to the house.

The tradition varied from one village to another. In Norfolk Plough Sunday is remembered in a rhyme found in Cawston church

God spede the plow
And send us all corne enow
Our purpose for to mak
At crow of cok
Of the plwlete of Sygate
Be mery and glade
Wat Goodale this work made

You've got that, haven't you? 

Now in 1799 a violinist called John Moorehead composed a tune which he called "The Naval Pillar" which was then used in a play entitiled "Speed The Plough". Under that title his tune spread across the western world like wildfire. For those who like to argue about the country of origin of tunes it is interesting to note that Moorehead was born in Scotland, emigrated to Ireland and then worked in England. Make your own mind up!

Meanwhile here is a nice video I found on You Tube of the tune being played in The Ship Inn at Blaxhall in Suffolk (which I hope the original videoist won't mind me including here).

Shame there's not more pubs like that!

I've just done a bit more research, prompted by a question from Nilly Hall via a comment. Plw is just an old spelling for plough, while lete might be a lane. Plwlete is indeed said to be the name of a lane in Sygate. However a plowLIGHT was also a lamp which was kept burning in front of images in early churches, this lamp being paid for by the ploughmen of the parish. The origin of Plow Monday celebrations was to raise money for the maintenance of the lamp. Although the plowlights disappeared after the Reformation money was still raised for various good causes and was called Plowlight Money. The poem I quoted is to be found on a beam of the gallery in Cawston church and suggests that the construction was paid for with money raised in this way. So plwlete might have a double meaning - a kind of joke which was popular at that time. Wat Goodale is written as though it's the name of the builder but could also be read as 'what good ale', another pun of the same sort

Take care.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Also In Cambridge

As I hope I've already shown you through these pages there's a lot to see in Cambridge besides King's College Chapel. And it's beside King's College Chapel that we'll start off today.

The University's Senate House is not easily missed despite its grand neighbour. But it is easy to look briefly, register that it's a nicely proportioned white building and move on. However for those who linger, a closer inspection reveals a wealth of intricate and beautiful carving, even right up under the eaves.

And I would bet that even the most observant visitor will not be aware of the memorial to Cambridge men who gave their lives during the First World War. Unlike the sea of ceramic poppies which has "sprung up" at the Tower Of London, this is a plain and modest memorial, much more in keeping with the mood of the time. There is a list of the names of the fallen which is flanked by these two simply carved soldiers. To me it says all you need to know about the character of these men. For those who want to see the memorial it's on the east wall of Great St Mary's church, overlooking the Market Square, right in the centre of the city. (As Mike pointed out in the comment below this memorial is actually to the soldiers who gave their lives in the Boer War. My silly mistake!)

Many people coming to Cambridge will comment on the narrow, congested streets. And those travelling by taxi will undoubtedly have heard the views of the taxi drivers on the subject! However many of the streets have been made wider since medieval times. The older street pattern is retained in a few small areas such as the narrow streets around Portugal Place. The street gets its name from the fact that many businesses in the area relied on the import of port wine from Portugal. The said beverage was drunk in copious quantities in times past by the senior figures in the University, and maybe still is for all I know. The houses in this little neighbourhood are now highly valued residences, though in my younger days were mostly flats rented by students and other young people. Some wild parties took place there most weekends.

Someone who probably didn't go to wild parties, or drink too much port, is remembered by a plaque high on the wall of one of the houses "ALLAMA MUHAMMAD IQBAL" it says "Born 1877, Died 1938, Poet Philosopher of Pakistan, Lived here 1905-6 while at Trinity College". Although not a household name in the west, throughout Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan he is regarded as The Poet Of The East. His writings gave rise to the birth of Pakistan where his birthday is now a national holiday.

And in almost every city in the world it's always worth looking up above the modern shop- and restaurant-frontages where often there is a wonderful display of varied architecture.

Take care. 

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Beaches...But No Seaside

Cambridgeshire is a land-locked county which can boast two beaches - the twin villages of Waterbeach and Landbeach. Before the drainage of the Fens these two settlements were at the water's edge. Now they are far inland. But they do have a kindergarten school called "Beach Babies" which always makes me smile.


While pedalling towards Denny Abbey I couldn't resist peeping into the churches of the two villages. Waterbeach has a tower while Landbeach favours a spire but both are fairly typical village churches. My grandmother spent the last few years of her long life in a care home in Waterbeach and the last time I went into the church must have been with her. I remember that she was very taken with it.

Although the building is much older, it underwent a major facelift in the late Victorian age. So most of what you see dates from the same sort of time as my dear Granny, who was born in 1894. 

Usually Victorian restorations resulted in the quaint and crumbling being ripped out and replaced with the huge and horrible, but here the additions are rather attractive if perhaps a bit over-elaborate for modern taste.

I find myself siding with Granny's enthusiasm for the place. And the ladies of the village can certainly do a mean floral decoration....


A perfect little church nestling in its churchyard. Inside it's seen no major renovation, just the usual patching-up-enough-to-make-it-serviceable. But it does have this remarkable lectern...

    I've never seen anything like it and it's certainly not the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a little parish church. Apparently it's thought to be Dutch and to have arrived here via an antique dealer in York.

There's also a tantalising glimpse of medieval wallpainting and, looking upwards, some rustic- looking angels....

There are eight in total - here are the others...

The shields, which might have been painted later, are, left to right - the arms of the Bishops of Ely, the arms of Corpus Christi College, the arms of Cambridge University....but then I'm struggling!

Outside I was aware of someone else looking down at me. Could it be W C Fields? Winston Churchill? Or perhaps Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker?

Take care.

Sunday 3 August 2014

Sculpture Vulture

As I mentioned in an earlier post Cambridge has more than its fair share of public sculpture. And the more you look the more you see.

The Black Horse

The Black Horse, as most British readers will be aware, is the symbol of Lloyds Bank. And, while most branches of the bank are content with a plastic illuminated sign outside their premises, the otherwise rather ugly modern building that houses Lloyds Cambridge has this rather fine statue high on its reinforced concrete wall. It is the work of Tessa Pullan, one of the country's leading sculptors of animals. It is officially known as "Untitled".


The gardens of Emmanuel College in Cambridge are such a pleasant place to wander that the addition of a large piece of sculpture hardly seems necessary. However the college authorities are so hospitable to works of art that they have found room even here. Ones initial response is to wonder how such a huge piece of bronze is balanced so precariously upon the grass - solid foundations must be the answer. But then there is something so carefree and humorous about it that the name "Jester" seems to make perfect sense. It also, from this angle at least, looks like a laughing set of lips.
The artist is Wendy Taylor who, in addition to large abstract pieces also creates minutely detailed wildlife sculptures.

Mysterious Piece

This astonishing piece (the workman in the photo looks astonished anyway!), is at the entrance to The Varsity Hotel And Spa. And that's about all I can tell you about it.


"The oval is the concept of evolution, the triangle the young Darwin and the open square the world at large. These forms find a balance between openness and enclosure. All forms are closed shapes that have been cut and pulled sideways to form the beginnings of a coil. The square may also be described as an open window and the rocks behind are the landscape or nature."

That's what the sculptor, Phillip King, has to say about his work which stands in the New Court of Christ's College, where Darwin was a student.

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose

Sitting quietly and thoughtfully amongst the shrubbery at Christ's College is the physicist, biologist, archaeologist and science fiction writer Jagadish Chandra Bose, who studied at the college in the 1880s. As a scientist he might have been more famous had he patented his many inventions and shouted more loudly about his discoveries. The artist is Biman Das. 

Construction In Aluminium

Standing as it does at the entrance to the University's Engineering Department this work has always intrigued me - it must be something to do with engineering but what is it exactly. According Kenneth Martin, the artist who conceived it, it represents the formula for a helical screw propeller. Well, I never would have guessed. The actual construction of the piece was carried out with the assistance of the Department's workshops.

Bas Relief In Stone

I remember seeing this when I was very little. It stands near to the house of Mrs Wayman whom we always visited on our way to feed the ducks at the Botanic Gardens. It has an added dimension to me as I've seen it change over the years as the stone from which it's made has weathered. At the moment it seems to have richer tones than ever. On the right is a rather rough rendition of the University's coat of arms while the other odd marks are symbols from the weird world of alchemy. Of course I didn't know any of that when I was five.

Reflective Editor

A fairly recent addition to the scene standing outside the Microsoft Research offices. From a photographic point of view it looks ideal for framing something but, at least till the rest of the development is finished, it frames nothing but some very uninspiring views. If things improve you can be sure I'll let you know. 

A Sheep!

Two of these appealing creatures have made an unexpected and unexplained appearance outside some offices in Hills Road. The seem to be tethered with steel cables and hefty padlocks which might seem excessive for such mild beasts. However towards the end of the summer term the learned scholars of this university town are sometimes transformed into desperate and reckless criminals; without the hardened steel security these gentle beasts might fall into the hands of mutton rustlers and find themselves grazing atop one of the college buildings. 

Take care.