Saturday 30 April 2016

Escape To The Country

I'd planned my escape in detail. Jump off the train at Stevenage; cross the car park; avoid the temptations of Chicago's, Chiquito's, Nando's and Prezzo; slip past Cineworld; navigate the underpass; hurry on by Plumb Center, Parts Center and Drain Centre then under the A1 road and.....if you're not exactly in Paradise at least you'll be in Dyes Lane within 15 minutes of stepping off the train!

We have not, alas, completely left the urban blight behind us just yet and there was plenty of litter as well as the sound of the main road for the first half-mile or so.

But hey, we can still admire the blossom (probably Blackthorn) and enjoy the birds and flowers. Blue Tits and Linnets were hopping about in the branches and the first bluebells of the day were jewelling the grassy banks.

We're now in the kind of wide open country that results from modern farming, but there are odd little woods and copses to add variety, the paths are well-signposted as you can see, the skylarks are belting out their endless song from a clear blue sky and then there are the views....

Back in the days when I took most of my photographs as slides I'd have despaired in this kind of country where everything of interest is condensed into a narrow strip near the horizon: nowadays I can simply crop the image into a wide panoramic shot which gives the true feel of this landscape.

After a pleasant descent across a newly harrowed field - yes, that's where the path goes and the farmer had made the path clear to follow - I was deposited onto a minor road with a pub. I hopefully looked at my watch but couldn't make it any different from 9:15 in the morning, a little too early for a pint. I wrote recently about the old pubs that had small agricultural business attached to them; this hostelry has rare-breed pigs and sells local produce too, though I don't think they'd have boxes of carrots on the bar as the pubs I remember did.

I was following a sunken path which suggested it was once a well-used track and, there through the trees, I could glimpse the ruins of an old chapel. But more of that another time.

We're now in the vicinity of Hitch Wood which featured in my earlier post Two Of A Kind, concerning the misdeeds of the twins Albert Ebeneezer and Ebeneezer Albert, which regular readers may remember - if you did read it you'll certainly remember it! 

One of the best bits of going for a walk is taking the time to sit down, eat a banana and take in the scene in a leisurely way. The scene above is where I enjoyed my break.

The path led me to the hamlet of St Paul's Walden, not more than a handful of houses but with a rather nice old church. We'll be peeping inside in the next day or two if you keep following this blog.

The church is so grand because two of the houses are a good bit bigger than my humble abode. This one's called "The Bury" and was once the home of someone quite famous; you'll definitely have heard of her, but I'll tell you another time.

When planning this walk I deliberately chose a route that would take me through several small woods in the hope that I'd find a good show of bluebells. In Reynolds Wood and Graffridge Wood I succeeded to a degree that I could never have hoped.

Both these woods are actually private land but with public footpaths leading through them, so as long as you stick to the track you're quite within the law of the land. 

The public path can also be taken through part of the grounds of Knebworth House where there is a fine herd of fallow deer.

Blossom and new leaves.

I don't know how it happens but every so often you come across a little patch of landscape that is simply magical. This is just a little stream that feeds the ornamental lake in the park, but its mossy banks and fresh green leaves are, to my eye anyway, far more beautiful than any man-made water feature.

You never know who you'll meet on a walk and here, making very slow progress along the track, is a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly. Not very rare but still nice to meet.

In Newton Wood there were more bluebells but I was suffering from an overdose of the pretty little flowers by this stage of the day and found myself photographing this elderly tractor instead. 

We'll soon be back to the outskirts of Stevenage so I'll leave you with these horses grazing their rather waterlogged meadow. Hope you enjoyed our little stroll.

Walker's Log:
    Start: Stevenage, Hertfordshire 08.15
    End: Stevenage, Hertfordshire 14.15
    Distance walked:  11.5 miles (18.5 Km)
    Notable birds: Buzzard, Skylark, Corn Bunting, Grey Heron, Lapwing, Red Kite.
    Mammals: rabbits, deer.
    Wild flowers: Bluebells, Primroses, Wood Anemones, Coltsfoot, Cowslips.
    Churches: St Paul's Walden and ruins of Minsden Chapel.
    People with dogs: 0
    People enjoying a walk: 30 (!), one group of 25 and 5 other walkers.
    Cyclists: 0
    Horse riders: 0

Take care.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Friday 22 April 2016

The Ghostly Gardeners Of Empty Common

Forget the exotics of the Botanics, turn your back on the Spring flowers along the Backs, consider not the colour of the college gardens and pass by the city's parks and public gardens; today we'll enter the enigmatic Empty Common.....

Those of you who are familiar with our English cities have probably realised already that we're in the allotments of fair Albion's isle.

When the Industrial Revolution swept through England in the the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the houses constructed for the miners, factory workers and those who were employed by the railways were crammed in as tightly as possible with little space for gardens. Even in towns like Cambridge, hardly the most industrialised part of the land, there was a need for gardens where families could grow a few vegetables for the table.

Of course, times move along so you won't find it's all men in cloth caps and rubber boots nowadays. But I don't know who you'll find among the rhubarb and old sheds these days. I heard the sound of hammering, there were cars parked at the gates, I even got a whiff of pipe smoke but the allotments were as deserted as the Mary Celeste

You can't help but wonder though, can you? Perhaps an old man is growing tulips to take home to the bedside of his sick wife...or maybe he sells them to a local florist....

Maybe an artist goes beachcombing up in North Norfolk and brings home driftwood to construct his garden shed....

Maybe teddy bears come down here for a, probably not.

These makeshift sheds are so cheaply constructed for a good reason. All I take is photographs and all I allow to run wild is my imagination, but others are not so harmless. Theft by rabbits (six foot tall ones with two legs) is always a possibility when gardens are so far from the houses.

Down at the end of the allotments is a Community Garden which seeks to involve an even wider range of individuals and groups in growing their own produce - schools, the disabled and others. Someone has painted this wonderful shed.

Now I've delayed myself so much that I'm not going to get to the Botanic Gardens this week, though I've still got a few more days to make my April visit. I told you I'd get diverted from my intention to photograph there each month.

There was still no one around as I left the allotments or at least I don't think there was. But as I pushed open the little gate I'm sure I could hear the unmistakable sound of someone playing the bagpipes. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser!

Take care.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

A Sup And A Yarn

On Friday nights there came a regular knock at the door. Dad's friend Fred calling for him to go for their weekly drink. In those days you dressed up to go to the pub and, sure enough, there stood Fred sporting a white shirt and fancy tie beneath his tweed jacket, hair Brylcreemed in place, and grey flannels with cycle clips. His Friday night bottle of Harvest Brown Ale was the highlight of Fred's social life; he took only one week off from work each year and that was in the Spring so that he could get his garden in order. Even then he walked up to the farm twice a day to do the milking.

It wasn't actually a pub they were going to though, but a Social Club, set up by the men of the village in response to their local pub closing down - it was happening even back then in the 1950s. Though the economics of running a village pub was very different in those days as most publicans had day-jobs to supplement their income.

Many village pubs had some kind of small-scale farm attached to the business. My local pub still has an old barn (disused now) and a few acres of land, though much of the space is now taken up by the car park. My grandfather, when he kept The Fox Inn, had pigs and chickens too. The last vestiges of this practice still remained in one or two pubs when I began to use them; The Jolly Brewers always had boxes of vegetables on the bar and you could, if you so desired, buy a sack o' taters with your pint!

The first pub I drank in was The Blue Ball at Grantchester, which is still a small, beer-drinkers' pub even in these days of gastro-pubs and wine bars. Back then though the Lounge Bar was just like sitting in someone's front-room with its armchairs, standard lamp and radiogram, complete with 78 rpm records and a few, very "square" LPs. The landlord, Ernie, worked during the day in a toyshop in Cambridge and, if you got in early enough, you could catch him still eating his dinner, with his napkin tucked into his collar and gravy down his chin.

Just down the road, at the Red Lion, things were much more sophisticated. The Lion prided itself on being a hotel. There were a few guest rooms and a restaurant but the bar still had a dartboard and a bar-billiards table. The hotel side of the operation seemed to be run most of the time by the permanently flustered and overworked Turkish waiter, Harry. I remember hearing him answering the phone one evening as he was dashing from the restaurant to the kitchen, "Hello, ees Harry here. Head waiter? Head waiter? You wanna spik to the head waiter? No, ees Harry, the only waiter!"

On Saturday evenings a lady from the Salvation Army always arrived attempting to sell copies of Warcry magazine. She was a powerful personality and usually persuaded several of us to part with some of our hard-earned cash for a magazine we did not want and to support some cause in which we had no interest. It became customary for most of us to decamp to the safety of the gents' toilet. This worked well until one night she was accompanied by a male colleague who, as our bad luck would have it, came into the Gents', only to find some twenty men crowded into the small space, each of us clutching our pints.

Most pubs in those days had two draught beers - bitter and mild - and a small selection of bottled beers such as brown ale, stout, Burton and barley wine (which was more like a beer than a wine). There'd be a few bottles of spirits, usually whisky, gin and rum. Also there'd be drinks which were exclusively for the wives who occasionally came in with their husbands - Babycham and later Pony. If you felt peckish there were crisps (Smiths, with a little blue twist of salt), pickled eggs in a jar on the bar, and sandwiches on darts night. Some pubs had pork pies too. I remember asking for one in the John Barleycorn - "What you think this is? A flamin' butcher's!" came the cheery reply from mine host.

Perhaps the most basic alehouse in the area was the Exhibition, in the village of Over. I discovered this little piece of history when friends moved into a cottage nearby. I went into the pub first and took a couple of steps inside. This located me in the middle of the room where I stood looking around in some puzzlement. You see, there was no bar counter, no beer taps, no spirits bottles.....just a room with wooden tables and benches. 

At length I was approached by an elderly lady asking me what we wanted to drink. She scuttled off and came back with a tray bearing the beer. I gave her the money which she stowed in the pocket of her apron before she went and sat down on one of the wooden settles. For entertainment there was a box of dominoes (not allowed on Sundays) or the newspaper. Failing that you had to talk to each other, or to the redoubtable Grace Bullen who ran the place.

Similarly archaic was the Harvest Home at Fen Ditton, though at least that had a bar, and even a dartboard for when you tired of listening to the ticking of the clock. Three of us called in for a drink one evening and someone suggested a game of darts. 

"If you'd like to make up a four", said the woman behind the bar, "I'm sure my husband will join you". 

An old man shuffled into the room wearing his slippers and proceeded to show three young whippersnappers just how the game should be played. "Used to have a good darts team in here back in the day", he confided, "only not so many folks come in these days"

"Moved away have they?" suggested Steve. 

"Oh no, all dead". 

Take care.

Sunday 17 April 2016

The Deer Park

A deer park? In the centre of Cambridge? Well, yes. Sort of.
Next to Peterhouse is a very small deer park (once the smallest in England) and there haven't actually been any deer for nearly a hundred years but the name persists, even though it's officially called The Grove.

Though the deer have perished the daffodils flourish, much better than they would have if the deer were still around anyway. The medieval walls which stopped the deer from straying can also still be seen.

Although pretty titchy for a deer park it's a wonderful space to find in the centre of town, and one which is never suspected by people roaming the city streets. If you know the area then you might be able to get your bearings from the picture above - the building in the background is the back view of The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The reason this small college, which only admits about 75 undergraduates each year, has so much space is probably because it was originally on the edge of the old city. The "Peter.." element of the name derived from the church of St Peter-Without-The-Gate, with which it was once closely associated. "Without-The-Gate" meaning that it was just outside the gates of the city, not that some villain has lifted it off its hinges. Although some of the daffs were past their best, others were just coming into bloom. And there's still wildlife to be seen....

This magnificent cock pheasant has found a wonderful sanctuary, away from the attentions of the shooting fraternity.

I haven't got much to tell you about the above photo so perhaps now is a good time to point out something which I forgot to mention last time: 
   Remember the Hall, the oldest building in Peterhouse, the one which has served as a dining-hall for over 700 years? I should have said that it was once at the cutting-edge of technology; it was only the second building in the country (after the Palace of Westminster) to be lit by electric light. This was a gift from Lord Kelvin, who'd studied at the college, to mark the college's 600th anniversary.

Another unexpected piece of modernity is the William Stone Building, which you can see from the gardens. At eight storeys tall it almost counts as a skyscraper in Cambridge, which has very few tall buildings. Although it's part of Peterhouse it stands at a considerable distance from its historic core.

A gate leads through to the Scholars' Garden which, though perhaps not at its best in April, is home to this strikingly planted border.

There are statues too in the garden, as well as more daffodils. All in all a delightful place to wander.

While poking about, looking for things to photograph, I chanced upon a gap through the bushes which revealed.....

.....well, not deer for sure. Longhorn cattle are grazing on the neighbouring common land, Coe Fen. These are British Longhorns, of course, rather different from their Texan cousins in that their horns curve inwards, framing their faces.

Take care.
(especially if crossing Coe Fen).