through scudding drifts

Upware is a tiny village, perhaps it is a hamlet (I do not know the rules), six or seven miles south of Ely on the East shore of the River Cam. There is, at first glance, and probably on every subsequent glance, very little here. A few houses, maybe no more than a dozen, a marina, an old pumping station that seems to be undergoing some kind of development, a post box. The local pub, The Five Miles from Anywhere No Hurry Inn, manages to both embrace and celebrate the isolation.


Upware Lode, a distributary of the Cam, branches, as the tiny community gives up and dissolves back into the fields, and limns the Southern edge of Wicken Fen. Walking the towpath, barges and leisure craft sit quietly, a smaller community certainly, although it seems quieter if that were possible, even unoccupied.

It is a Tuesday morning, and I can see no-one brewing up or fishing or taking the sun. I suppose it must be a little busier at the weekends. Over a wooden bridge and the border of the Fen starts in earnest. A chunky wrought iron sign indicates that this is National Trust land; Wicken was the NT’s first reserve (two acres back in 1899, well over two thousand now) and it is a vital landscape.

It is trumpeted as a natural wilderness, but of course it is no longer that. The management practices here, a delicate balance of drainage, flooding, growing and harvesting the sedge, all add up to a carefully juggled act. The rich reclaimed arable land, the hundreds of square miles rescued from the marsh over generations would, now, if the maintenance stopped, destroy Wicken Fen.

The old winter floods no longer course through this landscape, dealt with as they are by the efficiency of drainage systems that have been in place for generations; instead, the pumps that the Environment Agency and others have put in place now take water away from the rivers and lodes and force it back onto Wicken Fen to replicate that vanished seasonal change. Without it, this peculiar little corner would simply dry out.

The impressive Highland cattle who regard me from across the Lode are there to champ on all manner of scrub plants from establishing and thus further drain the land.

And a good thing, too, for the Fen contains flora and fauna of rarity and diversity. Lepidoptera alone number over 1000 species, and yet this is a spot whose borders you can walk in two hours. I’m looking over into the centre of the Fen, an open area made up from the sedge, but also meadow grasses, hawthorn, buckthorn, teasels, meadowsweet, celendine and willowherbs. Watching, taking in the wind tides that tug and pull through the lop-headed reeds, compelling the stalks back and forth, I can hear a keening, a crying. I fancy it is a Marsh Harrier, but can see nothing beyond Wood Pigeons and the occasional spooked Heron.

I walk past the public entrance. With the school holidays continuing it is a busy spot. Past this, and suddenly left, I continue the border walk. There are chainsaws and engines whirring, whining, rumbling close by. Management at work. Running year ’round to keep this place standing still.

The village of Wicken and the road to Ely and Soham, run parallel for a few hundred yards. On my right there is a field of wheat that must surely be ready for harvest in the next day or so. Tractors and combines have been busy all around during this last fortnight, and a turn in the weather is clear for the sky begins to tumble and darken above me. Already, I have noticed on the way here, harvested fields are being ploughed over. These are the urgencies of the farming calendar. The program never rests.

The border runs out. Already, the Fen is behind me. It has taken no time at all.

And then, ahead, the land rises, almost imperceptibly. Had I not read about it, I might not even have acknowledged it. I cross the road that leads to Upware, that I have already driven down myself, and head into a golden field, this one harvested, but only just. Threshed straw stalks lie in convex lines to the horizon. I can see the slight upward curve of the land now, using the filed lines as a guide. This is the Upware Ridge, prosaically known elsewhere as the Isle of Upware, a modest topographical high of raised limestone. Two hundred years ago quarries were sunk here to exploit it.

Commissioner’s Pit, or the Upware South Pit was the smallest of the open mines. It quickly became of great interest to geologists. Predominately, limestone is composed of the skeletal remains of marine organisms; coral, plankton, simple multicellular creatures, molluscs, and so on. Most of these species create a test, or shell, and when they die the shell remains, eventually being crushed and reformed into the limestone. Billions of creatures coalesce to create the soft white deposit, but often, within, there are fossils. At around the time the National Trust was buying its first scrap of land across the road, geologists were blowing the fine white dust off a fossil record whose list of organisms grew longer and longer with each visit.

And as the studies continued it seemed that what was on record here was pretty much unique. The deposits come from the Oxfordian stage, the earliest age of the Late Jurassic, broadly speaking, between 160 and 155 million years ago. The species found, tiny bivalves, heads of coral, burrowing mussels, suggest that what was here was one of the most varied reef fauna for this part of the world. Creatures swarmed in these waters that previously had only been found hundreds if not thousands of miles further south. It is a pivotal spot in understanding the shifts and patterns of palaeobiology. It indicates how plates drifted, how the land masses moved. It is extraordinary.

Decades after the geologists made their studies the Pit became a nature reserve. School children from Wicken would troop along the border path, as I did, and down a set of wooden steps. There is an old hut, derelict now, with bird species names written across it. A notice to the memory of a local teacher looks out across the quiet gloom. It is a dull light that filters down from the path above. There are laminated notices  attached to the trees, time-faded, dusted with mildew.

I wonder if anyone comes here regularly. I hope so, but much of it is overgrown. Briars and brambles make the path around the basin impossible to follow. I stop, defeated by it.

At my feet there are hundreds of limestone clods. I crouch down and pick them over. Each one is treasure, containing a tiny fossil. An impression of a shell; the grooves of a coral; the fine, smooth ridges of impossibly old creatures. Before me, before the teacher, before the geologists, before the sedge cutters and the fen drainers. There, across the flat base of the stone, are the tiny dark tracks of some remote and primal beast, whose filaments sieved the sparkling water of a lost sea, while vast monsters glided overhead, and the currents rushed and roared above the sandy floor to Tethys.


his trouble are ashes

Directly outside my office window is an Ailanthus, which to many is known as the Tree of Heaven. It’s so close that on windy days, it can dash itself against the pane. On my work site, an area as enclosed and as central as you can get in Cambridge, it is a well known fixture.

It is loathed by some because of a perceived malodorous tendency, although many people never get it. I guess it’s one of those supposed genetic smells (a lazy and inaccurate term I expect), but, like fuchsias or chrysanthemums or sweet pea, it appears to be an aroma that only some people pick up on. It is a generously leafed thing right now, really very full and heavy with the rain; it is dipping a little under its own weight.

There is a blackbird pair whose territory this is, and both birds come here in the morning, the male especially to pose and sing. Pigeons and magpies roost here, too. There is a wood pigeon sat in it right now, struggling on a branch too thin for its weight. It is the only tree on site and despite calls to have it removed, the local authorities have quite rightly so far refused to allow it to be touched.

I’m glad of that. We’re central, but we’re not pretty. The rest of Cambridge looks in on us, and we out at it, and the old city is bearing up better than we are, aesthetically. I can see, from where I type, the top of Great St Mary’s, the University Church; the top of the tower of St Ben’et’s, the oldest building in Cambridge; and the towers of King’s College Chapel.

If I stand up and lean out of the window a little, I can pick out many turrets and spires that belong to other colleges. Just under a mile away (I’d need to move out of the way, but just over there, look) is the top of the University Library tower, Giles Gilbert Scott’s gloomy early 30s structure that was described at the opening ceremony, so legend has it, in Boris-esque terms by Neville Chamberlain as a “magnificent erection”.

The New Museums Site we’re called now. Originally, it was the Mansion House and gardens of the city’s Augustinian friary. After 1760 it became the University’s Botanic Garden. In 1825, it dawned on J. S. Henslow, the new professor of Botany, who had been Charles Darwin’s teacher at Cambridge, that a larger site was required and so the Garden moved farther out of town.

The site was handed over to the Cavendish Laboratory, for the teaching of Physics. From the Nineteenth century on, the site became an active heart, a research and development hub, and although the Physics crowd have now, in their own turn, moved out of town, much of their history and legacy has been left behind.

It is a little parcel carefully packed, as you might imagine, with many histoires académiques: Watson and Crick, who worked here and celebrated their DNA findings in the Eagle across the road; J.J. Thomson, credited with discovering electrons and isotopes; Chadwick, thirty years later, doing the same for neutrons; and Lord Rutherford. Lord Rutherford: transmutor of elements, splitter of atoms, the man who differentiated and named radiation, the greatest experimentalist since Faraday.

My two favourite stories from the site concern Rutherford. As a young man, I arrived here utterly ignorant of this glum little square’s extraordinary history. I was given a tour a week or so after I started. In the centre of the site at that point, there was a battered and ancient hut that was being used as a bike shed. It is now much renovated and houses a research group. In a central spot with only a handful of parking spaces, I blithely suggested to my guide that they should knock the eyesore down as it would make more room for us to park our cars. I was considered with a brief glance. “We can’t do that,” the man said to me, “it’s a listed building.” I scoffed. “Listed? Why on earth is it listed?” “Oh, well, that’s the building in which Lord Rutherford first split the atom.”

And then there is the crocodile which rears up above you from the outer wall of the Mond Building. The building was constructed in 1933 by the Royal Society for a chap called Kapitza, a talented Russian physicist who worked in Cambridge for thirteen years. During the building work, those passing the lab were surprised to see a figure in a brown monk’s habit busily chipping away at the brickwork behind a tarpaulin screen. This was Eric Gill who had been commissioned by Kapitza to carve both a plaque of Rutherford and this Crocodile – “The Crocodile” being Kapitza’s pet name for Rutherford, either because of his fear of having his head bitten off by him, or because his voice could be relied upon to precede his visits, just like the crocodile’s alarm clock in Peter Pan.

On a trip back to the Soviet Union in 1934, the government there decided that it would be better if Kapitza were not allowed to return. Despite much hardship, he helped protect many physicists from persecution, and was lucky himself not to be killed, although he was under house arrest for many years. He was eventually allowed to visit Cambridge again in 1966. When he came back, he continued his work into intense magnetic fields.

Stepping outside, the Eagle just ahead of you, there is a tiny scrap of land on the right, a few square yards behind a bicycle-strewn railing. I’m told it is a legacy from the last days of the Botanical Garden, hanging on almost two centuries later. I am unsure if this might be merely the fancy of academics joshing each other as they return from Cambridge’s most famous watering hole. They are known for such flights, after all, this band: sixty years ago, it was claimed, by his colleague James Watson, that Francis Crick walked into the bar, and announced:  “We have found the secret of life!” The little corner has palms, and olives and other uncommon specimens, labelled and annotated with tiny black signs. So, maybe.

Along the wall from here, another sign. It is a memorial plaque, dated 1899, and dedicated to the Electrical Engineer, John Hopkinson. Hopkinson’s work is the kind that doesn’t turn grand hyperbolic tricks, like Crick’s soundbite exclamation above, but without it we’d find matters we now take for granted to be baffling. His advances in three-phase power concepts mean you’re able to have the electricity passed along wires to be able to read this, for example. He also insisted that electrical technology was picked up and used by the Army as early as it was. His achievements, as significant as they were could have been considerably greater. The plaque reads:

This wing of the Engineering Laboratory
was erected in memory of John Hopkinson MA D SC FRS
and of his son John Gustave Hopkinson
who hoped to have learnt here to follow
in his father’s footsteps
They died on August 27 1898
The father aged 49 and the son 18

John Gustave had been entered into the Engineering School for the Michaelmas Term that same year. On the day his mother endowed the money for the wing to be built, her son should have been a week into his Cambridge career. Keen mountaineers, they were killed in an accident on the Petite Dent de Veisivi, Val d’Herens, in Switzerland, Hopkinson’s daughters, Alice and Lina Evelyn perishing along with them.

On the gates to the site, carved above head height, it proclaims, from Psalm 111, Magna Opera Domini: Exquisita In Omnes Voluntates Ejus. Great are the works of the Lord: sought out according to all his wills.

The tree of man was never quiet.