Hills Are a Powerful Waste of Sky
…or so say the folk of Norfolk, coming as they do from the Fens, and my walk into Cambridge skirting the edge, accompanied by Marion Leeper, transition storyteller, and my host for the next few days, is all about the wide expanse of open landscape, made bright by fields of rape.
The distances that can be seen as we reach the top of a slight gradient before dropping down into Haslingfield are enough to take your breath away and it is easy to see how once it must have all been seabed.
The walk from Royston to Cambridge is one that improves with its proximity to Cambridge. I leave Royston bright and early determined to walk a good way before Marion meets me as we are to have a day broken up by a visit to the Oxfam sponsored walk http://www.oxfam.org.uk/get_involved/fundraise/walk that has taken place every year for the last 40, and then a return to the walk into Cambridge.
To head northwards out of the Hertfordshire town of Royston involves first walking east for some 4 miles along the Ickneild Way. This is quite frustrating, as the road is straight and direct, and the way to cut back north off the Ickneild Way is not clearly marked and leaves me first walking along tractor tracks between the barley and then climbing over a fence and through the undergrowth to get on to the very fast A505 which I have to walk along some 200m to find New Road, the small road that heads due north to Melbourn.
It is before 10 on a Sunday morning, the road is marked on map as the official cut through for the Ickneild Way to lead to pathways heading north, and yet still has plenty of fast moving traffic on it. It is two miles of focussed walking, and wondering how planners can think to build a way for vehicles and not include in their plans how humans under their own steam are going to traverse it.
The villages of Melbourn, Meldreth and Shepreth are joined onto one another rather as beads on a string. This does make walking slightly safer as there are pavements for the most part, so there are advantages to the brand new soulless houses, looking like a giant lego building child has been at work on the landscape, existing. It is most bizarre though, the heart of each settlement is quintessentially English, church, village green, village shop, thatched cottages, primary school in one, but the new housing that sprawls out between them gives the place an air of a guarded ghost town, most have gardens that are fenced and fierce dogs bark with their sharp teeth and fiercesome eyes visible through gates, and not a person in sight.
Marion later tells me this is still commuter land with a direct train straight through to central London. There is such an alien feel to all of this; as if a different species has landed and is superimposing its culture on the existing culture with no thought for synergy and natural blending.
I am met at Meldreth by Anna Mc Ivor, co-founder of Transition Cambridge, and Marion Leeper, and their Dutch friend who has been commandeered to take us to Milton Park to the north of Cambridge to appear in the Storytelling tent. It is quite a disorientating experience to move so quickly across the landscape. I am really beginning to learn how slow my natural rhythm is compared to how things are often conducted in our busy world. I take a walk around the park and read about how it was gravel pits until the 90’s when it started to get reclaimed and turned into a beautiful park, with playgrounds for children, a forest school, walks and ponds, and trees, and a visitor centre and cafe. And all of this right next to the roar of the M11.
Many people are there with their children, there are the sponsored walkers arriving from their various paths; there are a variety of walks to suit all abilities. It is both lovely to see people enjoying the tranquillity of the surroundings, and painful to hear the constant noise from the motorway.
Anna has set up a transition stall and I talk to Paul and his partner about their local village group. Paul could not persuade his group to be a transition group, but they are nonetheless doing the same work. Their group is a climate action group and they have something called Carbon Conversations which involves groups on the same street getting together to work through action points in a workbook which they are really enjoying; I tell them about Transition Together. Anna and I agree that the name is not important; it is the work that counts.
We have lunch and are then returned to Meldreth where Marion and I set out to walk to her home in old Cambridge. I am pleased to realise that the challenging part of the walk is over. We are now heading north and there are footpaths at least some of the time. We talk and talk and as we are leaving Barrington village we are both struck by a giant metal pig. It is in a field beside a shed, where some chickens are bathing in a dust bath, and a scarecrow who waves to passers by and a lady named Una who comes to the fence to tell us the tales of her field.
She and her husband have had the field along time, it is surrounded by beautiful horse chestnuts, carefully transplanted when still young saplings by them from where a little boy had planted them outside their door many years before. The scarecrows, both the man and the pig, have formed part of the annual scarecrow festival. The pig was created one year and then he was adapted into a rhino for the following year’s festival .Passing cyclists have been known to have waved at the man, so realistic does he look from a distance.
Later, as we near Grantchester, home of the infamous Jeffery Archer, I am told, a bright apparition comes towards us; her colours, the red and the yellow, against the back drop of rape as we cross the motorway by footbridge, strike me long before we meet her. It turns out to be Rhea, an old art teacher of Marion’s daughter. Looking after an elderly father at present, she plans to do a long walk herself as soon as she is able. She is inspired to hear how far one can get in a relatively short space of time. We exchange contact details, and I look forward to catching up with her artwork later. Marion tells me of the inspiring classes she used to run; room covered from floor to ceiling in white paper, all the colours of paint imaginable, 3 sizes of paintbrush for each, all spread out for the small group of 8 or so children to experiment; the only rules – always replace the paintbrush where you found it, and never say anyone else’s work is bad…or good. For to say either is to pass judgement.
It sounds wonderful and I think back to the kinds of art classes I had at school, and wish there had been more people like this around for all of us to have had such a positive young experience with our creativity.
On reaching Grantchester Marion and I stop for a drink in the Green Man. It is a lovely low beamed pub, exactly what you would expect to find after a long Sunday walk. We don’t tally for long, we still have 3 miles to go. The remaining stretch is just beautiful; we follow the river Cam all the way into the town, past reeds and rushes, past 4 young cows who seem to have been separated from their herd but are urged onwards by our appearance and we watch with amusement as they jostle to get over the 1 person wide footbridge and eventually work out it is only possible if they go one by one.
On arrival in Cambridge, there are punts moored for the evening, a herd of cows who are chasing a loose dog, who is most disconcerted, and a gaggle of young Japanese tourists who are delighted; snapping away at the spectacle.
Marion takes me on her walk through Cambridge. It is quite magical approaching as one would have done in years gone by; along the Cam, and on through the old buildings. We traverse Clare College, see Kings, with its reputation for leftist policies; the fellows sup with the students, and once there was a move to turn the gardens into allotments though I’m sad to say that hasn’t come about yet! We pass by Trinity, and then on through St John’s which is of import to both of us; Marion because it is here her now husband studied, and she, at New College, lamenting living in a modern college once swopped bedrooms, along with a friend, with Finian and a friend, two girls in an all male college! My story is not so much fun to tell but nonetheless I have a powerful experience walking through to the school of Pythagoras, where I once studied, in the company of a good few Brazilian colleagues, on a summer residential as part of our training to be teacher trainers (the first ever DELTA diploma course to be run) some 14 years ago.
It is like a meeting of my two worlds; then resident in Brazil, coming to Cambridge felt like a visit to a foreign country, now, it is like finding a familiar part of my country full of fond memories. Whether or not I realised at the time I was developing new interactive language games in the classroom with EFL author Martin Parrot (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=IjpSpBEnkjEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=martin+parrott&source=bl&ots=52Co6ecwcg&sig=Dz4zpX140bmSFuhLEknWHGZPaEM&hl=en&ei=k8_xS6DWMqT20wTI4dDmBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CEMQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q&f=false ) this school, a small white building at the back of St John’s, is the oldest in the university ,having been in continuous use since its beginning in the 1600s.
Marion takes me through where the old Victorian slums once stood; the older popular housing in the centre was ruthlessly destroyed to make way for the university buildings. We pass the old prison which is now the town hall, and the site of the original Iron Age fort. Ramparts of the castle which once stood in this area are also still in evidence.
By the time we arrive at the Old Vicarage of St Luke’s church, Marion and Finian’s home, I am totally in love with my temporary abode, and have completely forgotten the morning’s struggles to get on the road headed north. I have had dinner, interesting conversation, where I have learnt that the folk of Norfolk have the same reputation with their neighbours as the Irish have with the rest of the country, and heard that aeroplanes are to be grounded again, and enjoyed a hot tub in the garden to soothe my tired feet. I am content, and tucked up in my room full of books and a large portrait of a 17th century lady with trim waist in a silver gown.