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At the end of February, my Nana, which is to say, my Dad’s Mum, pops into my head because she was one of those leap year babies, born on 29th February; and I think she might be the only person I’ve known to have been born on that date. I can recall us saying that Nana was only in her late teens or early twenties, and probably thinking we must have been awfully witty to have thought of such a conceit.

She was born in 1912 (“just before the Titanic sank,” she told me more than once). I think she would have liked to have been remembered as one of those indomitable Northern working class matriarchs who ruled home and hearth with a rod of iron; and she was certainly that, but whenever I’m transported back to the end terrace at the top of the hill, it’s her cooking that takes me over. She was extraordinary, and it’s her food that I recall as a nipper, the best yorkies, the best roasties, mountains of molasses dark parkin. Proust had his madeleines, for me, it’s custard tarts. I’m tucked in at the kitchen table, looking out into the back yard, Grandad out past the back gate quiet with his pigeons, and Nana is waddling about like a beach ball on legs, busy with Sunday lunch, again talking about people and matters of which I know nothing, but treating me to ‘a custard’ as long as I didn’t let on to my brothers. If I see an egg custard now – and it has to have nutmeg across the top to stand any chance of being even remotely authentic – I’ll be back there, legs dangling from the chair, about to be treated.

Although it’s been a while, I find the house easily enough. We seemed to go there almost every weekend when I was young, but it was probably a lot less than that. The long streets of red brick terraces that used to point to and from the pitheads are mapped out and locked in. Across the river, clean and sparkly now but a frothy brown sludge then, down the hill and back up again. And still windy, still the same cold blast from years ago. I turn off the main drag without thinking, without checking the street names. They were almost at the top of the hill. Beyond it, when I knew it thirty and forty years ago, all had been coarse gale-ripped grass and collapsed, derelict buildings. Barbed wire fences that led nowhere and fenced off nothing. A great bleak expanse on the edge of the town. The pigeon loft was out here, lots were. I was only allowed to hold a bird once or twice, the soft warm feathers immediate and alive in the palm of my hand. An eye-blinking flutter of heart. The stink of the place, the bird scared and uneasy. It shat down my wrist, a sharp green flux shocking me. They raced the birds, Dad told me, from Caen in Northern France, rattling a tin of dried peas in the garden as they appeared, to try and entice them back on to the perch. Dad told a tale of how he lost his favourite bird on one such run, when he was a lad. It made me unaccountably sad to think of it. We had breeders association catalogues in the house and I would look at the pictures wondering if his champion had looked like this or that bird.

Number 40 doesn’t exist now. Oh, it’s still there, but 38 has expanded into it, knocked the numbers off the wall and filled in the front door. It’s a different-coloured brick and to my slightly shiny eyes it looks incongruous and ham-fisted. Not that Nana and Grandad ever used the front door, well, perhaps on Sundays they may have. We would go around the back, up the step and in. At the rear of the house now is all new build, or newish build, lots of starter homes and retirement bungalows, streets all named after distant racecourses. Doncaster is only a spit and a drag along the valley, but somehow it seems a bit silly and patronising.

Grandad worked the coal trains, in and out of Sheffield. He was a tall man, and strong in his day, but he was already on the way to being pretty ill by the time I really knew him. Dad followed him onto the trains after he came out of the army, but not pit work, I don’t think Nana would have allowed it. Instead he opted for British Railways at Doncaster Station and Works.

It was there he met my Mum, who used to be the station announcer. I’ve always enjoyed that fact, and wondered if he was taken by the ‘telephone voice’ tones she still refuses to acknowledge she uses to mask her accent. Did he look up at the funnel shaped speakers and wonder to whom that voice belonged?

One of the earliest memories of my childhood is Mum reciting the slow train stops from Doncaster to Kings Cross. It has a poetry, a curious, happy, bucolic litany that runs like a train itself with internal rhythm. “Rossington, Bawtry, Ranskill, Retford.” Names of places I now know well, and then others I couldn’t hope to find, that I’m aware of just from that; spots on the line I must’ve passed a hundred and more times, “Tempsford, Sandy, Biggleswade, Arlesey.” She struggles with it now, there are gaps in the list bigger than those made by Beeching, but she always remembers one section, “Corby Glen, Little Bytham, Essendine and Tallington.”

She says it with the same tone and cadence she uses when remembering John Masefield’s Cargoes, one of her favourite poems, “Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.”

I was always taken by the name Essendine. It has a swift and tricky appeal. It’s there, on that stretch of the mainline, that Mallard broke the land speed record for a steam locomotive (126mph). Still holds it, if you must know, seventy six years later, and I guess she always will.

When I heard that Mallard – could there be a more ironic name for such a beautiful, brutish, fearsomely fast engine? – would be gathering with her remaining sisters, the A4 Pacifics, for possibly the last time, I asked Mum if she would like to come with me to see them. For a few days it seemed she would, but eventually she declined. It was to be up in the North East, two hundred miles away, and very much a stretch for her. But she wanted me to go, and to take pictures and to report back. And so I find myself North, and standing in a railyard, staring at these extraordinary monuments to not just the past, but my Mum’s past, and my Dad’s and Grandad’s, and I guess mine, too. I am rarely taken by iron and steel and chrome, but the A4s are different. Dad worked around them, Mum announced them as they roared and belched and clamoured through the station. In front of these gigantic, ridiculous, brilliant things I call her and we cry with each other down the ‘phone.

I am taking a photo of Bittern, which I am rapidly pushing to the top of some sort of nebulous list of things I don’t particularly understand but feel drawn to, and a man leans in from my right and says hello. “I won’t get in your way,” he says, “don’t want to ruin your shot. But, you might be interested, I know every bit of that old girl. I served my apprenticeship on her, engine cleaner.” He is smiling broadly, but his eyes are watery and a little pink. When was this? “’62,” he says. “Left school, but it was all I ever wanted to do. Told myself one day I’d run her, too, and I did. Worked up to be the fire man.” There are old men everywhere, by turns smiling and often a little overwhelmed. Grandads and grandkids walking among these splendid shiny monsters and just shaking their heads at them. You are allowed up to them, in them, to press your hands against the plates and to feel the heat inside. The sun bounces off the burnished metal and people look up and wonder.

I park by the cemetery and pick the flowers up off the passenger seat. Two flowers, just barely budded daffs. Nana would have chided me if I’d spent anything unnecessary. They will do as well as anything else, and pass into the earth all the quicker. Across the road and through the gate. The path takes me around the chapel of rest and the wind breaks in off the hill. We are barely a quarter of a mile from their house, it is the same hill they lived alongside. The same wind again.

There are no pigeons flocking, yawing, scything through the grey. All I can hear is the traffic as it hurries past.


one star shining

Out, out along the path. The gale pulls at my jacket, tugs the scarf from beneath the lapel and throws it over my shoulder.

Clouds like cannon smoke race across the sky, the wind roaring and reckless, a battering fury that threshes the poplars for sport. What am I doing here?

In truth, I don’t know. The road was covered in debris, branches and reeds thrown across petulantly, and then just as it rose to mount the river’s bank and cross over, the view dropped into murk. The water had broken into the flood plain and where there had been fields a sea lapped and curled. A pulsating surge of brown and grey. To the horizon it reached, hedgerows and trees punctuating it, stark against the new and filthy uniformity.

The dyke path, along the top of the mound headed away from the bridge and into the agitation of air. The water threw itself coldly at the turf. A wild beyond the fence.  A fresh wild. But I didn’t turn away.

I climbed the stile and dropped onto the path. It wavered, a thin, worn, golden filament through the short coarse grass, dropping at one side to the dyke and then the road. Past that the freshly ploughed fields, black and shiny under the steel sun. Whooper swans, weirdly accented visitors from half a world away, gather in the furrows. Along the roadside, an owl hunts at the edges. She wheels away into the breeze, her feathers buckling crazily. She passes across me, but is scared of this febrile mess of wind and water, and dives back down to the roadside.

 It took me away. This new possession, the pulling surging blast of wind, the path, they took me away. Into the squall.

A building is there. It sits like a pimple on a lip. A red lump ahead. Closer, and it is clear. A pub, of course it is, The Saplings Double. A squarer darker block now, with the lights jumping into the gloom, pushing away the growing dismay of the darkening day. I realise how long it is since I’ve eaten. I walk to the back door and for a moment push and pull at it in a pathetic dance.

I order at the bar and find a table by the fire. It glows fiercely as the wind races back and forth across the chimney. The glass is empty too soon, and I order another as I enquire after my food. “Sorry, mate. On its way.” The barman leans back and shouts into the kitchen, “this poor old boy is wanting his pie.” He smiles at me.

 “Won’t be long.”

 Back at the fire the table fills with glasses. The smoke and the heat make me thirstier and thirstier. The gale hits the back of the pub with a bang.

When the barman comes along to tidy up the glasses he nods at the collection and smiles. “My food?” I ask. But I have eaten it he tells me. He grins again and gently shakes his head. “Oh, of course.” It is too warm in here, the air is heavy and thick and sickly.

 “What’s it doing out there?” I ask, but he has returned to the bar, and disappeared behind it. I realise there is no-one else in the room. I walk across to a door that I think takes me to the public bar. It is darker in here, and there is smoke. Country pubs running fast and loose with the law. Sweet, thick briar pipe smoke, all rosy and filled with fruit. Twenty laughing heads turn and smile. They cheer and point. I sit near the dart board and watch the scrum indulge in its tidal rituals.

 I can hear a voice among it all, telling a story about client  kings and a town lost beneath the waves. The dimmers fade as the tale drifts on. The room darkens.

 The wind shook the windows in their frames. The houses slipped deeper beneath the encroaching cold sea.

 In the blackness, the moon hid behind thick fat clouds of charcoal black. Bodies lurched and danced toward the dyke path. The dead and deep expanse of water stretched out unknown into the terrible night. I knelt into the turf, the waters just yards from me. I could hear breathing, great gulping breaths swallowed down hungrily, but i could see nothing or no-one. On either side, no-one, behind me nothing.

 And the clouds raced, and the moon sat and allowed them past. And all the old dead things hung from the branches of the trees and sagged and faded and were forgotten; and the world became clear and sharp and full of everything that wasn’t this.


“Are you foreign?”

Walking around graveyards is a serious business. Your gaze drops, you slow down, you pick around, moving your feet and placing them with care. So I have to look up and refocus, shifting myself out of my search. Across the headstones, behind a tangle of briars, the man is wrestling with a strimmer. He stops and hails me again.

“Cos he’s over here,” and he points down at the ground on his left.

“Ah, no, sorry, I- , I was searching over in the corner.”

“Wittgenstein,” the man says. “Down here.” He nods at the floor.

“I thought you were foreign,” the man says, by way of clarification. “We get lots of them here. They all come to see him. When they eventually find him, that’s why I said.”

I work my way across to him. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grave is at my feet, dark grey and green in the fine mizzly rain. It is patterned with pennies, tuppences, centimes, nickels. When I came here a few months ago, on a brighter and sunnier day, it was ringed with pine cones and acorns.

The grave is often overlooked on the first couple of passes. It is plain (it simply has his name and his dates) and has no headstone. I was told there’s a reason for this, something to do with dealing only in the verifiable. I do what the man had done and nod down at the slab.

Do people often leave things? (I’m not sure what to call the objects. Gifts, donations, offerings, tokens?)

“All the time. Flowers, notes, candles, lots of things. Stamps. All sorts. Sealed envelopes with letters inside.” He makes a rough rectangle in the air with a finger.

Well, I’m the only visitor today, and I haven’t come to see the famously troubled and troubling Mathematician Philosopher, for there are many graves in the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge that are worthy of note. Three Nobel Prize winners for a start: Sir John Cockcroft, who split the atomic nucleus along with Ernest Walton; Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins who discovered vitamins; and Max Perutz who studied the structure of haemoglobin.

Plenty besides that, a variety of academics and worthies, Masters and luminaries, the founders of the city’s banks, the family of its most famous bookshop.

It’s a tiny plot, newly extended on the Eastern side; the original space, opened in 1869 now falling in on itself in many places. I’m forced to scramble through ivy and low hanging branches to reach the dark tunnel of greenery along the Northern wall. The masonry has fallen apart, possibly wrenched apart by creepers in a few places. Stones have fallen into the undergrowth and the gaps are plugged by wire fencing. By the grave of Francis Darwin, son of Charles, the wall has collapsed and the trees break open to reveal an expanse of windswept green. This is the border of the North West Cambridge site, a huge area about to be developed as the University and the city look to move ever outward from the centre. It is the biggest project the University has ever undertaken. A vast ‘V’ of green that points into the city and stops here, at this wall. The archaeologists have found Roman, Iron Age, medieval signs of settlement. They will find something new in the future.

My boots are soaking. The undergrowth hangs on to your feet, the vines are thick and complex. I dip beneath a branch and knock a shower of droplets down. A Wood Pigeon clatters through the branches, put up by my ill-mannered intrusion. I look back into the middle of the plot, but the groundsman, if that’s what he is, is nowhere to be seen. Almost in the corner, where the North and West walls meet, a Celtic cross, hidden beneath an impressive jumble of branches and brambles.

Perhaps it is more accurately a Cornish cross, John Couch Adams was born near Launceston after all. He’s often cited as the man who discovered Neptune, although that claim is somewhat controversial. In the early 1840s, the last planet to have been found – Uranus – was on its way to completing its first solar orbit since Herschel’s discovery several decades earlier, but predictions were proving awry. It was pretty much agreed that something was affecting the anticipated path. Astronomers had noticed that their calculations for the planet were inconsistent and what that usually meant, because of course Newton said that it was so, was that something was affecting it. And by affecting it, what they surmised was that there must be another huge gravitational force out in the big beyond. And so it was that famously Adams deduced the presence of Neptune by mathematics without needing to observe it.

At the same time, in France, the astronomer Urbain Le Verrier was presenting similar data to his peers. So it was that, without the planet actually being seen by anyone, and the realisation that two men had made identical declarations, an unofficial race spluttered into being to claim the new celestial body. The French team submitted their sighting in an announcement in Paris on 23 September 1846. Using this data and working backwards, the penny dropped for the British that they had indeed seen it for themselves earlier – twice, in fact – on 8 and 12 August, but lacking a comprehensive star chart had not realised it was a planet.

Adams’s own orbit suggests he may have been less enamoured of the chase than his colleagues. He had been an assisted student as a young man, helped along with fees and lodgings for his family was rather poor. It is theorised, as a man of difficult social skills and lacking administrative rigour, that he could have been autistic. Adams spent almost his entire life in Cambridge; it is rumoured he turned down a knighthood, and also the position of Astronomer Royal, preferring instead to stay at the University teaching and researching, studying the paths and trajectories of the unknowably distant.

He died in 1892, at the Observatory.

The cross is lost to sight when you step out into the graveyard proper, hidden again behind trees and the dark unkempt foliage of this peculiar acre, on the distant edge, just back there. You can’t see him from here, you’ll have to go a little further into the margins. And when the Spring kicks in, and everything starts growing, you may need to fight a little harder still to find him.