black flag

By the river. The water rippling before an admonishing breeze, the willows threshing above the greens. Tourists are scattered into the antiques barn and the tea rooms, and over on the other bank, a University crew is taking to the water. They’ve been coming to Ely for years; during the Second World War they even held an Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race here, along the Ouse. Oxford won. The crew, an eight, are listening to the cox who is yet to get into his seat. They look perishing cold. Marine blue blades on hold above the water, but the surface is so busy it is splashing up and tickling them. Rather them than me.

I am on my own, but I’m not alone.

They’re so ubiquitous and nuisance-associated, that you might consider them unworthy of mentioning; Corvids, or crows if you prefer, are spectacularly successful creatures that have thrived, in part, due to their omnivorous proclivities (they really do not care what they eat). We throw away, they collect. But, as with all success stories, it is of course a little bit more complicated than that. To suggest that all they do amounts to scavenging is to miss the point. In fact, worse than that, it denies culture. Ours, and theirs.

When the course of the river was diverted around 1200 to bring water traffic up to the shore of the Isle of Ely (its previous course had run much nearer to Stuntney, the little village visible a couple of miles away), the cathedral city began to properly thrive. Ten years ago the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, allowed in before the current Jubilee Gardens were created, uncovered a busy little port, and I was able to take a tour. They found three large channels, pointing up from the river in the direction of the city centre; in the dark earth you could make out the shadowed silhouette where a cambered jetty separated them. The jetties would probably have hosted rudimentary cranes to help unload the flat-bottomed barges that had traveled the same routes today’s leisure craft follow. And where the channels ended, evidence of a very busy complex of workshops and studios, utilising the goods, the sedge, the clay, the cloth, all working with the resources that were coming up the river. This period essentially represents Ely at the peak of its wealth and status: a bustling Medieval hub, a hilltop focus tumbling down to a thriving, industrious, chaotic cauldron of noise and endeavour. In the midst of the workshops at the top of the barge channels lay an oval kiln, the only kiln of any date ever found in Ely. The local product was a red pottery with a deep brown glaze, long associated with the Ely area, but until the dig no-one had been able to pinpoint from where it might actually originate. Similar pieces have been found across many counties and the discovery only increased Ely’s reputation as a centre for fierce creative and mercantile activity.

Rooks and Magpies, Jays and Jackdaws. Apart from the beautiful Jay, rarely seen, hidden in the thickest of thickets, they are mostly black, of course, which in itself engenders a sense of gloom and distrust, and among some communities deeper levels of concern even than that. Solitary magpies are often saluted and wished well, for fear of the taint of bad luck. Different regions acknowledge the bird with their own dispelling charms. I don’t believe it works, but it’s the only superstition I’ll observe, pretty much, because I like the sound and rhythm of it. A friendly, “hello Mr Magpie, how are you and all your family?” Only if there’s the one, though, more than one and it’s wasted. My brother says he has heard the old fellows in Nottingham call after a bird, “Good morning, My Lord!” There are variations everywhere. Brewer’s, typically, sheds some light on this; one magpie is a symbol of doom, although an old Scottish rhyme (you may even have your own version) points the way to associations with other numbers:

“One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth,
Five’s a christening, six a dearth,
Seven’s heaven, eight is hell,
And nine’s the devil his ane sel’.”

This mixture of good and bad fortune is interesting, because it follows the Corvids worldwide. Symbols of death, symbols of new arrivals, of harvest, of pestilence, good and bad. This is pretty powerful folk physics, endlessly evolving and expanding memes coursing through a community. Or culture, to give it another name.

All of that toil and enterprise, every scrap of activity is covered now, returned beneath the Jubilee Gardens which create a peaceful prettified transition from the quayside to the bottom of the cathedral hill. The ghost that remains is the descriptor for the pottery, Babylon Ware.

Babylon. There it is again, in the name of the art gallery that sits at the foot of the bridge across to the marina.

When the river shifted, it cut off of a community that had until then been part of the city’s lively riverscape. Many houses and traders were now across the water. Years later the railway sliced a crescent scar along the Southern edge of town, it ran a little beyond that far bank, and effectively turned the area into an island which developed separately to the main city. On this tiny outcrop, a bare couple of acres, houses and business grew that were completely reliant on the water. Boathouses, osiers, eel fishermen and weavers set themselves up here, but without the facilities that the rest of the town began to rely on, defections occurred more and more frequently.

Corvids are significantly more intelligent than other birds. Relative to body size, they have the same size brain as chimpanzees, and their cognitive and social functioning rattles along at a spectacular rate. They are well-known puzzle-solvers, but their abilities are more subtle and useful than that. There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that patterns and routines are not just learned by individuals, but passed on, remembered and developed. Through a process of casual reasoning, flexibility and communication, individual birds and then communities can be steered toward success. Culture, again, if you like. Corvid culture. Scientifically, it’s extraordinary, because although the brain size is comparable, the actual brains of apes and crows aren’t, they’re made very differently, and so it has important implications for understanding the evolution of intelligence.

In a map of 1850, the area is officially designated ‘Babylon’. It seems strange, to be given such authoritative provenance. Why it has that name is not clear, although the rumours often lean toward the nefarious and degenerate. Ely in the middle of the Nineteenth Century was a small place with a lot of passing trade and many places to spend quick money. Along the quayside the Cutter worked hard in competition with the Ship, the Queen’s Head, the Three Crowns, the Black Bull, the Coopers and the White Swan; all but the Cutter have now vanished. But perhaps dark and sinister tales are covers for something less palatable. In a report to the General Board of Health in 1850 it was noted that mortality in Ely had risen sharply in the city’s poorer districts; 61% of these deaths were of children under five.

Even into the 1950s there was no electricity in Babylon. As people left, their houses were demolished and when the last residents gave up, the marina took over.

Frowned upon now, but it was not so long ago that farmers and gamekeepers would string dead birds around corn fields to deter their kind; Mimbres pottery recovered from studies of the Mogollan culture a thousand years ago in what is now northern and central Mexico, shows crows strung up in nooses to deter other birds. We are in the game with them. They may be learning where and how to do things because we are here, but we are also learning how to cope with them. And it spreads beyond the practical. We employ corvid iconography in matters agricultural and among our earthier, more pagan pursuits. Scarecrows – the clue’s in the question, as they say – have leaped from the merely functional into cultural symbols manipulating the metaphorical and the figurative. Culture, again. And so, yes, it is too lazy to think that they just hang around and pick up the pieces.

There is nothing, nothing to indicate all of those previous lives. I’m sat in the footprint of the Ship, demolished in 1956, previously the biggest public house along the riverfront. It is now just grass and a cobbled walkway. The marina is low and flat before me across the uninviting grey water. It is a clean and well-tended spot, every inch the prosperous rest area. Families moor up and walk across the bridge to the quayside, hurrying through Jubilee Gardens, and on to the cathedral. Jackdaws move expertly around their feet.

Halfway to Babylon. The Ship in the early years of the C19th, taken from Reg Holmes’s Ely Inns (1984). My photo on the right shows the gap today, just about where the little blue car is parked. I am slightly higher in perspective, stood as I am on the 1964 bridge across to the marina. The first photograph must have been taken from a passing craft.