Marion and I set out to explore west Cambridge together. We pass her old haunts as we walk to Coton primary school where I am to tell a story at assembly, and where she used to teach.
We follow the cycle path, past New Hall, where Marion was an undergraduate, now renamed Murray Edwards after a benefactress saved it; the old astronomy college that had to move to Hawaii when pollution levels reduced visibility, and past the brand new state –of-the-art orange, green, and glass IT college which has appeared within the last five years and looks remarkably as if aliens have come along and placed it on the landscape overnight and then come back as an afterthought and planted some lilac flowers around its edges to make it look like it might be English after all. It doesn’t fool us – definitely the work of aliens!
We get to the school just in time to walk straight into the hall as the song is finishing and my slot is due to start. The seated children gasp as an apparition carrying a small rucksack walks into their midst!
“Once, in a time that was, and was not, a time of transition” starts the story, and the children settle in to listen to the tale of the transition folk who are having so much fun doing projects that help their local communities…
“…and after a while the storyteller of the silver locks and the golden tongue led WynnAlice into the place where bridges cross the river Cam”
“Cambridge” chorus the children
“and what do you think they found…?”
“People having fun”
“and pretty soon after the two storytellers came to a footbridge over a big, big road…”
“the M11” calls out a boy in the front row
“quite so” says WynnAlice “and then they came to a village, now where could that be?”
“Coton!” shout the children
“And what do people in Coton do to have fun?” asks WynnAlice
“Go to the pub” calls out a bigger girl in the back!
The teachers look slightly aghast. The girl clarifies “not to drink, all our parents meet at the pub at weekends and we all get to play together in field next door”
“play in the wild garden”
“put on a school play”
“bingo in the school hall”
“sponsored walk around the village”
And so it is that Cotton tales are collected. It is now playtime and Marion gets the key to show me the school wild garden. The children call their weekly visit Welly Wednesday; they go every week come rain or shine, summer or winter. It is a beautiful corner replete with pond and newts and frogs, wild flowers, nettles, and, on our visit, the school cat!
Headmistress Jen, on her very last term, after 24 years teaching at the school, tells me my visit is well timed; they have been studying the environment and ecological issues, they have just read “Isn’t it a Beautiful Meadow” by Wolf Harranthed and Winfried Opgennoorth (Oxford, 1985).if you have never read this lovely book you should, all of you, right now. If we had listened in 1985 we might not be in the mess we are in right now!
Marion and I part company at the school gate; it seems strange, she has accompanied me into Cambridge, pointing out the far off spires, and back out again, turning to show me my last glimpse of the spires. I ask her to keep me informed about her projects, one of which is to talk to old folk and collect their tales.
An easy stroll of 10 miles and I’m in Caxton by 4 o’clock. I almost feel guilty for having had such a short walk, but I will be making up for it in the next few days.
I stop several times, unheard of so far! I have lunch in one sunny churchyard, and ice cream in another.
It is a straightforward walk. What am I struck by? Leaving the idyllic village primary school in the village where Dr Stuart of the herbal teas fame used to live, to enter killing fields; huge MoD signs “danger do not enter, unexploded military objects could kill you” besides the public bridleway. Large yellow warning signs “spraying ahead”, 2 farmers wearing large rubber gloves up to their elbows gingerly filling their tractor with the contents of a large tanker which has enormous yellow toxic warning signs plastered all over it. Toxic chemicals for our food; they are about to spray a field of cereal. Next a footpath with private, beware of the dog, signs on the gate, and next to it another gate, perhaps I have made a mistake, but no, this field has a bull in it.
I have reached Bourne Wind Mill, site of historic interest and open to the public, at very infrequent intervals, parking space for 2 cars and a strict notice, only enter between 2-4pm with a guide. I muse on the possibilities of people living with a building of public interest on their land being encouraged to sell up to people who clearly enjoy meeting people, so that they could go and live somewhere where they wouldn’t be disturbed!
I arrive at the home of Andrew Smith, Cambridge storyteller and folk singer. He has a sad tale to relate. His son’s two 9 year old tortoises were outside in their run quietly minding their own business as tortoises are wont to do when a sleek, reddish brown young female rat, desperate for food to feed her young came by and knawed off the foot of one tortoise and had started to chew on the other before Andrew came out to find the scene of carnage and whisk them off to the vet. They seem to be recovering, the now three legged one managed quite a journey across the grass nibbling as she went before a return journey to the vet to remove the intravenous medicine drip and her large red bandage. After this second ordeal she retired to a corner of her house and climbed firmly into her shell. Quite an experience for one so young; tortoises, I learn, live to be 100!
Andrew and I find plenty to talk about; his business as a self employed maker of ceramic hobs to fit onto agas so that they need not be so energy heavy – they can be turned off when not needed for heating and just the hob used for cooking. Owning a (wood stoked) aga has been a long standing ambition of mine so I am both shocked and disappointed to learn that aga (who own rayburns and all other sorts of similar stove might soon not be allowed to continue to make their stoves as they are so bad for the environment, being so fuel heavy, and that they are so fuel heavy; I had always believed they were a good thing, providing heating as well as cooking. If anyone knows about an aga type stove that is good for the environment I’d love to hear about it!
We talk about stories too, and our preference for local ones. I hear about the song he wrote recounting the tale of how his Chelsea mum, in her role as a land girl met his Shropshire farmer dad in the war and how they shared their bait boxes lunchtimes with Italian and German prisoners of war and gypsies and travellers too.
We talk about the good and bad times of the war years; and speculate on the need to go back and examine the stories some more; it seems as if the cut off, disconnected from our ancestors society we find ourselves living in may well be as a result of an obvious preference for putting all the difficult wartime experiences behind us, and yet in doing so we cut ourselves off from our roots and all the good things that worked in a pre war England. We wouldn’t expect any of the vegetables we plant to grow cut off from their roots, so I wonder why we expect to grow a healthy society cut off from its roots?
I am interested to hear of Andrew’s dad’s farm in Shropshire; in Bridgenorth, a town where I will be staying on my return south through the country in July. It was a traditional farm, with 6 pigs, 6 beef cattle, and so on, you know, the type of farm we all recognise as being the quintessential farm. Andrew didn’t want to inherit the farm, it was really hard work, and eventually the farm was lost as it was not able to make enough money to pay off the interest. This is a sad story; notice that the farm had to be sold because it didn’t make enough money to pay back the interest; since when has it been the function of a farm to produce money…. forgive my ignorance but I thought the function of a farm was to produce food; when did money acquire more value than food?!
Bill Smith, born 1909, loved his work; he’d learnt it as a lad from older farmers; when he later went into gardening his younger bosses would follow him around to learn what they could; he knew all there was to know about growing things.
Things on Bill Smith’s farm were done in the traditional way, seeds planted at the right time of year to never fail to grow, animals slaughtered in situ at the time when a butcher’s job was to travel from farm to farm to kill, hang and butcher the animals and then perhaps take home a cut (is that where the saying “to take a cut” comes from I wonder?) as part of their payment.
Old with the new, not old or new, that is for me the most valuable learning we have in our times of transition. New grows out of old, learns from it, takes the best of it, adds to it, blends in to it new recipes, not superimposing itself on top of the old, burying it from sight like a festering wound, or jostling awkwardly with it for prime position, or letting old stagnate for want of fresh blood. To do this now we must dig down a little into those swollen roots, let them breathe, and grow a new society from them, mixed nicely with a little ingenuity from the present, and a little spice from the future.