Tuesday 26 July 2016

Folk By The Oak

"Folk By The Oak" is a one-day festival of all that's best in folk music, held in the beautiful grounds of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. And as you've probably guessed, your fearless correspondent went along to enjoy the day.

There are all kinds of craft stalls and food outlets to sidetrack you, but lets head straight for the main stage and listen to the music.

Emily Portman And The Coracle Band - They take their name from Emily's latest album, not from any suggestion that they'd all fit into a tiny, wickerwork boat - there are six of them on various instruments including a harp. Delicate, thoughtful songs, an ideal start for a sunny afternoon in a leafy park.

Sweet Liberties - To celebrate 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta the English Folk Dance And Song Society and Folk By The Oak brought together Maz O'Connor, Sam Carter, Martyn Joseph and Nancy Kerr to compose new songs celebrating eight centuries of Acts Of Parliament - rock'n'roll! They had a bit of musical help from the melodeon of Nick Cooke and fiddler Patsy Reid. The songs are brilliant and reflect the different artistic approaches of the four songwriters.

Dom Flemons And Martin Simpson - one of Britain's finest acoustic guitarists, Martin Simpson, brought together with Dom Flemons, the extrovert and highly entertaining old time American songster, to explore the common ground between the two traditions. Well, that was idea of this project commissioned by the EFDSS, though in reality the two of them seem to be having such a good time in each other's musical company that such academic concerns were soon forgotten.

False Lights - Hang on! He looks familiar. Yes, Sam Carter the serious singer-songwriter of Sweet Liberties, who played the main stage a little while ago, is back heading his straight-ahead folk-rock band False Lights. And just to prove that some music will never die, there were a crowd of very young folkies bopping around right up near the stage. 

The Rheingans Sisters - As well as the main stage there's also music on the Acorn Stage, which is supposed to be for up-and-coming musicians - though in my eyes many of them have arrived already. The more intimate setting suits a quieter, more acoustic sound and I was drawn there by the fine songs and melodies of the Rheingans Sisters.

Cardboard Fox - Apologies to those who know better, but when I hear the words "young English bluegrass band" my expectations are not set too high. Big mistake! Their style, inventiveness and sheer breadth of influences tell me that they must have been listening to this music in their prams. Anyone who kicks off with Joni Mitchell's Raised On Robbery can do little wrong as far as I'm concerned!

Lynched - And finally, for those of us who had to wrestle with the vagaries and weekend cancellations of the British railway network in order to get home, were a bunch of Dublin folk miscreants trading under the name of Lynched. "More spit than polish", as one reviewer summed them up, but a fine raucous, spirited set nonetheless.

If you want to hear some of the music you could do worse than follow these links:
   Emily Portman & The Coracle Band
   Sweet Liberties
   Dom Flemons & Martin Simpson
   False Lights
   Rheingans Sisters
   Cardboard Fox

Take care.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Footnotes And Updates

Neat And Trim

I recently showed you some cottages being re-thatched. At the time they looked rather untidy and dishevelled, but now the thatch has been tidied up and these historic buildings, opposite Trumpington church, are very smartly turned-out.

Fitting The Bill

When I published some photographs of Cambridge's narrow and impractical streets recently, I mentioned that busses regularly used this street. Bill, from "Somewhere In Ireland", commented that he'd like to see it. Your wish, Bill, is my command.

The observant reader will have noticed that the vehicle belongs to Whippet, who presumably were inspired by the more famous Greyhound busses. They started out in 1919 with Mr Henry Lee driving a converted ambulance while Mrs Lee collected the fares. They remained a family firm right up till 2014.

Physical Remains

We often visit Cambridge University's Botanic Garden (though my plan to visit every month soon came to grief, as I suspected it might). So what's this little patch of untidy greenery in Free School Lane got to do with the majestic gardens near Bateman Street? Believe it or not this is what remains of the original Physic Garden which preceded it, now partly built over but never very large. 

An Unlikely Friend Of The Bog

Although the underlying geology of Dersingham Bog prevents a lot of plants from flourishing, some parts of the area are nevertheless prone to revert to poor scrubland if just left alone. Originally the land was grazed by cattle during the summer months which was enough to maintain the fragile balance of its ecosystem. Changes in the economy of the area caused this practice to die out but an unlikely ally appeared.

The railway to Hunstanton passed along one side of the bog and sparks and hot ashes from the old steam trains meant that from time to time in the heat of summer fires started which cleared the area of brambles and low bushes. 

When the railway closed the scrub started to creep back and a lot of work had to be undertaken when it became a nature reserve. The desired landscape is now maintained by a herd of Black Galloway cattle.

After my explanation of the differences between bog, fen and marsh I half-expected someone to ask where swamps fitted into this scheme of things. We don't have any swamps, but they are basically any kind of marsh which is able to support trees.

A Solution For Hilary

A short time ago I showed you some pictures of the little "tin tabernacle" at the Museum Of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket. 

Hilary, of "Positive Letters....Inspirational Stories", commented that she had once lived in a building with a corrugated metal roof and the sound of rain falling on it was deafening to those inside. Well, I lived the first 12 years of my life in such a building too and I couldn't agree more!

But of course one can't have the sound of thunderstorms and hail drowning out the prayers and hymns of the worshippers. Therefore the parishioners of the hamlet of Babingley in Norfolk have come up with a traditional and very attractive solution to the problem....


A Rude Address

This is one of a handful of houses on the road between Kings Lynn and Hunstanton that share an unenviable address. There is no sign to proclaim this highly individual place-name but the Ordnance Survey map and the local bus timetable agree that it's known as Cat's Bottom. 

Take care.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Beauty From The Bog

If you read my last offering - about the royal railway station at Wolferton - it might have occurred to you that it was a long journey for me to make to see a railway station. After all I have a railway station just 10 minutes walk from my back door. Not a royal one it's true, but the former station master was once a contestant on Mastermind so that's at least some small claim to fame.

One of the beauties of England (and the only thing that keeps this blog ticking over) is that there is always plenty to see in a small area. What I'd come to see was the admittedly rather unattractively named Dersingham Bog.

We don't have many bogs in East Anglia. We have fens - mile after mile of them. We have marshes too, but very few bogs.

OK, so what's the difference, surely they're all just mucky, badly drained bits of ground. Well yes they are, and though it won't make any difference as far as your soggy feet are concerned, it makes all the difference to the plants and flowers that grow there.

Marshes are frequently inundated with water, either fresh or saltwater, and are nutrient rich so support a wide variety of plants. Fens have water flowing through them, while in bogs the water is just trapped there and gradually becomes more and more acidic from decaying plant matter.

The water in this bog has run off from off the iron-rich sandstone and the iron has created an "iron pan" (sounds like something you'd have in the kitchen I know) which prevents the water draining away and impedes the roots of most plants. Mosses love it but only certain highly specialised plants can grow in a true bog, plants like Sundew.....

....as the bog is so poor in nutrients it supplements its diet by catching flies and other insects on its highly specialised sticky leaves. If you look closely you can see some half-digested flies. Very tasty.

Bog Asphodel, as its name suggests is another plant that thrives in this harsh habitat.

There are a few areas of open water like the magical little pond above, which is largely hidden from view.

Towards the margins of the bog more grasses are able to survive because the nature reserve, despite its name, does not only include the bog, but also the sandstone edges which support heathland and some woodland.

All three types of heather, common heather, bell heather and cross-leaved heath grow on the heathland and on a sunny day these attract a wide variety of insects.

This is the only insect I managed to photograph - a male Gatekeeper butterfly. He'd just been chasing a female and was maybe pausing for breath, or planning his next move - either way he let me get close enough to grab the above photo.

And the insects attract lots of birds, most notably the rare Nightjar. These are nocturnal birds so unsurprisingly they weren't around on a bright sunny day, but I did see Stonechat, Buzzard and Kestrel as well as many more common birds.

Walking through this area always sends my mind reeling back to more northern areas that I used to frequent regularly in the past. There's cotton grass, there's heather and there's the scent of the pines.

Unusually, the best views of the reserve are obtainable without much effort to anyone leaving their car in the parking spaces near to the village of Wolferton and undertaking a short easy walk along a sandy track around the top of the sandstone escarpment.

Take care.

Friday 15 July 2016

Fit For Royalty

I remember the day well. Sitting on the train, next to the window, clutching my bucket and spade, with the harsh material of the seats prickling the backs of my legs. All went well as we sped along towards the seaside. Then, as we pulled out of Kings Lynn station, disaster struck - the train stated going backwards! Tears were averted as Mum explained that this always happened and we were definitely not heading for home.

A little further along we were told to look out for the Queen's station where the Royal Train stopped when she travelled up to Sandringham. I remember a smartly painted station with lots of flowers on the platform. 

The section of line from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton closed down long ago and the station's now a private house. But the public are still able to visit and wander the length of the platform, seeing everything much as it was in its royal heyday. There's no admission charge but there's a jar for donations to charity.

In 1862 the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, purchased the Sandringham estate, just 2¼ miles from the projected station at Wolferton. The following year the "wedding special" train for the marriage of the Prince to Alexandra of Denmark used the station. In the following years hundreds of royal trains served the frequent shooting parties and social events hosted by the Prince.

By 1898 it was decided that the little rural station needed to be rebuilt and the Tudor-style buildings we see today were constructed. The royal family continued to use the station till the line was closed in the 1960s.

The station was then sold to Eric Walker, who opened the royal waiting room as a museum to display his collection of royal railway memorabilia. On his death in 1985 it passed to his son who tried to sell the station. Most of the contents were sold off and the buildings were eventually sold to Richard Brown in 2001.

Since then he has carried out extensive renovation and the station now looks as good as ever. So if you're ever speeding along the A149 road, look out for the signs to Wolferton and make the one mile diversion along a narrow road back into history.

Take care.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Out And About

Up On The Roof With Mr Pepper

Some rather battered cottages opposite Trumpington Church are having a bit of a face-lift at the moment, most obviously they're getting a new thatched roof courtesy of Peppers The Thatchers. When I took the photo the roof was looking a bit "Boris Johnson", though when I zipped past in a car yesterday I glimpsed that it's now very smartly trimmed and styled.

Wheel Change

A few months back I discovered these odd artefacts stacked behind my local church. Meldreth has a famous peal of bells and bell-ringers travel from other parts of the country just to ring them, but every so often they need to be refurbished. Those wheels are what the bell ropes are attached to to enable the bells to be swung. The work has now been completed and according to my bell-ringing correspondent they are now much easier to ring. One day I'll get around to recording their wonderful sound for you.

The Karnser

Having recently been reading Robert MacFarlane's book Landmarks, which is about old words used to describe landscape features and their loss in the modern age, perhaps it's appropriate to record that this street in Stowmarket preserves the name for "causeway" which in various parts of East Anglia is usually "caunsey" or "cansey". "Karnser" may well have been a local variation, the raised section of path seems to reinforce this idea. 

The Gate Of Honour

Gonville And Caius College is one of those rare establishments that was founded twice; originally by Edmund Gonville in 1348 and then again in 1557, when it had run out of money,  by John Caius. Dr Caius was physician to Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth but was dismissed from his post for being, confusingly, a Roman Catholic and an atheist. He had very strict rules about who could study at the college, banning those with any kind of sickness or disability and also Welshmen. All the above is the kind of interesting but rather pointless information you learn if you become addicted to certain search engines!

More to the point Dr Caius (pronounced Keys, incidentally) built  three gates in the college. One enters as a new student through the Gate Of Humility. In the centre of the college stands the Gate Of Virtue, which students have to pass through regularly. The Gate Of Honour however leads to the University's Senate House and is only used when students go to collect their degrees at the end of their studies. You will see that the Gate is grand in design but extremely small in scale, indicating how difficult Honour is to attain

There is a fourth Gate in the college which leads to some toilets and is known by students as the Gate Of Necessity.

 A Note To All Romantics

For all those drooling over the traditional Romany caravans that I showed you at Stowmarket's Museum Of East Anglian Life or those who dream of living a carefree gypsy life on the roads, I should point out that many Romany people used to live in tents like the one above. They called these tents "benders", not apparently because of the bent wood supports but because you had to bend to get in!

The Superhero Is Honoured

Nah! Not really. Just some wag has been defacing the sign for Bateman Street. Again.

Take care.


Wednesday 6 July 2016

Four Mermen In Twenty-First Century Cambridge

St Peter's looks like the perfect little country church, the kind of place you'd approach by a long leafy lane and need a good map to find. Which is all rather strange because it's in the middle of Cambridge, near to the castle mound which would have formed the focus of the old town. It looks very quaint and old, but it was largely rebuilt in the Georgian period. However it does hold an older mystery as we shall  see.

We enter through a Norman arched doorway which presumably survives from an older building and find ourselves in a small, rather austere space. The church is now too small to be viable as a place of worshp in a large city, though I know that there are many neighbours who use it as a place for prayer and reflection. It's in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust and, though they preserve the building, the interior is rather bare and spartan, though there is a rather interesting font.

It's thought to date from the early 11th century and is one of very few Saxon fonts still in existence. It's also the only one I've ever seen which is decorated with mermen, one on each corner. In their hands these extraordinary fellows can be seen to be grasping their tails, and surprisingly they each are equipped with two: whoever knew that Saxon mermen had two tails?

The font has undergone some repair work at some time; all the original faces of the mermen are missing, perhaps just by accidental damage to the corners, or maybe due to the attentions of the Puritan iconoclasts of the 17th century. In the photo you can just about make out that the stone at the top of the figure is a slightly different colour to the lower portion. The other three corners still have the original heads though are lacking faces. 

Quite what mermen are doing on a font is a bit of a puzzle. True enough there is a watery connection between mermen and fonts, as there also is to St Peter who is the saint of fishermen. But mermen in most popular mythologies are contrary and troublesome creatures who can summon up storms to sink ships: why would you want them on a font? 

There is some evidence of an even more ancient belief that mermen were great teachers who had the power to see through all human lies and deceit, which would perhaps make them a little more appropriate. Or maybe, and this has just occured to me while I was in the kitchen making a cup of tea, the early Christian church was demonstrating that it was so confident in St Peter's power to protect us as we journey through life, that we could trust him to safeguard infants, even in the presence of mermen and other pagan deities. 

But why would they be in a church in Cambridgeshire, which after all is about as far as you can get from the sea on these small islands? Boats of that time would certainly have been small enough to navigate upriver as far as Cambridge but, even so, there were still some fifty or sixty miles of winding rivers, undrained fen and shallow washlands before you reach the open sea.

I suppose we shall never be able to enter the minds of our forefathers and see the world from their point of view. But it's still fun to try.

Take care.


Friday 1 July 2016

Unsuitable For Large Vehicles

A celebration of some of central Cambridge's lanes, alleys and passageways, all of them totally impractical in this modern age - and all the more interesting for that.
 Free School Lane
In the seventeenth century Dr Stephen Perse left money to found a school for the education of 100 boys in the Cambridge area. Nowadays the Perse School has moved onto a much larger site and the University's Science Museum occupies the site. 
St Edward's Passage
Everybody's favourite second-hand and antiquarian bookshop, G David. Most people pronounce it in the English way as few realise that Mr G David was, in fact, Monsieur Gustave David, a Frenchman, so it should be said "Da'VEED".

 Pembroke Street
Takes its name from Pembroke College which runs along south side of it (on the left in the above picture) and which in turn is named after the Countess Of Pembroke who founded the college as long ago as 1347. At the other end of the road stands Downing College, so that end of the street is known as Downing Street. The whole thing is part of Cambridge's ridiculously complex one-way traffic system, though the left-hand side (as you look at it above) is a contra-flow lane for bicycles. Scary!
 Senate House Passage
A narrow lane right in the heart of the University, running between Gonville and Caius College and the Universities central administrative buildings, Senate House Passage passes between buildings of the highest architectural merit. However most of them stand with their least impressive sides towards the lane and there's scarcely room to stand back and admire them anyway - certainly not when cyclists are speeding through on their way to lectures!

 Trinity Lane
This part of Trinity Lane used to lead down to the wharves on the river. It was once known as Find Silver Lane and later King's Childer Lane - and nobody seems to be sure why. Apart from the yellow lines to denote "No Parking" it can't have changed much since medieval times. Incidentally the man in charge of parking restrictions for the local authority is the aptly named Mr Lines!

 Green Street
Green Street doesn't get its name from the prominent green building, neither are there any green spaces nearby. The best guess is that the land might once have been owned by someone called Green. Like much of central Cambridge it's almost pedestrianised, with only essential vehicles, and of course bicycles, allowed in. 

I can remember when all the centre of town was open to traffic, the first fully pedestrianised street being the oddly named Petty Cury, and I recall my history teacher commenting "It's been pedestrianised for years, but they've only just informed the motorists". I've been thinking about my history master a lot recently - he once told us that no sensible government would ever allow a referendum. 'Nuff said.

 Portugal Place
These days it does have rather an Southern European feel to it, but the name derives from a time when it was the place where port wine was stored. The University fellows apparently consumed prodigious quantities of the stuff, and I expect some still do.

 Magdalene Street
Believe it or not double-decker buses still make their way down Magdalene Street! 

 Sussex Street
This must be one of the nicest bits of inter-war years planning anywhere. I believe that the upper parts of the buildings are rooms of Sidney Sussex College while the ground floors are occupied by shops, a plan which has since been adopted in many other parts of the city.

 Trinity Street
Nearly all these pictures include bikes; it's just the quickest and easiest way to get around, never mind any environmental considerations. This used once to be Cambridge's High Street but now is variously called Trumpington Street, King's Parade, Trinity Street and....

St John's Street
.....St John's Street. We're now firmly in "tourist Cambridge", looking towards the mighty St John's Chapel, with the east end of Trinity Chapel on the left of the picture.

While taking these shots and writing this post I've thought of several other things of interest, which will no doubt crop up at a later date. Until then...

...take care.