Histon to St Ives

I don’t remember why I was there, where I was going or what I was doing, but it was high summer because there were swallows and martins on the overhead wires. Beyond the level crossing, behind a high and wild robust hedge, peaked the eaves of a long since deserted grand house – there was a view of a gable and smashed windows from one point along the pavement, a story in a glance – and all about this there were swifts nesting, speeding and screaming overhead. The weight of the air and the sun. And here I was stopped at a line I thought long since closed down.

I didn’t like stopping my car, a wreck of a thing it was, a cheap tin box filled with eccentricities and required knacks, which could not idle reliably. I had to keep the accelerator revving constantly. And these gates shouldn’t be shut. The line was disused and abandoned I thought. Pink valerian raging either side of the road. Laburnum and buddleia up and over the rotting yellow-white fence posts and ruined sheds, a jungle covered in bumblers and honey bees, peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies. No-one behind me or waiting on the other side. But the gates were shut.

I let the engine die.

We used to do this. Go further back. We used to do this, in Dad’s car, the Lincoln line, up near the power station. Lights flashing side to side. Guessing from where the train would come, left or right. Straining to hear. Asking Dad to switch the engine off. And then that rush and push and the wheezing bellow of the loco (Type 47s or 31s, double-headed sometimes, filthy, burping muck and fumes) as it rattled rhythmically past. “Count the hoppers,” Mum shouted over the din.

Twenty seven, twenty eight, twenty nine…and the guard’s van. I still say that, even now, even without guard’s vans. The noise receding swiftly, like the sound of a wave dying, pulling the silence in to replace it. And the rails sang after.

I can hear this loco, trundling slowly, from the right, wheels clunking over the gaps. It passes, a 37, the old English Electric Type 3. At that point I remember thinking we used to have to go spotting in Sheffield to see those. Truck after truck followed. All empty.

And then it’s gone. And the wave goes like before, swallowed by the air. The rails sing gently again. And there are swallows and martins. And the swifts.

And the gates, do they lift or open, swing to the side? I don’t remember. I just remember the hole in the quiet, and the quiet, and then the birds.

It’s the only train I’d ever seen on that line. Thirty years ago, but the memory of it surfaces every time I pass the same spot. Even after the track was lifted and the idea of reopening was abandoned. Even after they laid concrete and allowed buses to use it. After all that, I still see the sand-streaked 37 and the empty trucks.

My friend Ray and I  spoke about the line a couple of times. I wanted to walk it, from Cambridge to St Ives, see familiar places from a different perspective. That secret path that rail tracks make, holloways made by toil and memory and the knowledge of the lost. There used to be a line here. Like the way through the woods, but filled with steam and endeavour and all those daily grinds and now nothing. Well, not nothing. The gap encroached by nature. But those tunnels in the air, in the fields, in the hedgerows, down there people slipped.

That was the idea, at least that was the idea I had. New views, old acquaintances. I think he humoured me for about two pints with that one. I hung on to it though, but never made a move to try it. Once the rails came up and the busway was laid I lost the need to try. After Ray died I pushed it away even further.

But I cross it every day, see it, know it’s there. A line tied, and pulling.

The railway buildings along its path, half a dozen village stops, have mostly been repurposed into private dwellings, although Histon station, for years the focus of a community project to resurrect it, sits abandoned and shuttered now, graffitied and knackered. It’s still resolutely a station, still has those daggered fascia boards, that grey-brown brick, the unmistakable and undimmed architecture of the Victorian railway.

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The bus pulls up and takes us to St Ives. I know the places passing by, but not these views. Stupidly, I am overwhelmed. I’m making connections and then dropping them with disconnects. A wave of realisation, and reappraisals of how things fit in. How the jigsaw works. Through a long cutting, a call back to other journeys, shifting the map around in my head. Farmhouses and windmills, roads barely travelled. I am moving my head around like a child on a funfair ride, trying to understand how all of this works. How it fits together.

At Fen Drayton Lakes, a great nature reserve pulled and rescued and moulded from unused and reclaimed quarries, the penny drops about the train from thirty years ago. Sand-streaked and dragging the empty trucks. Now there are egrets here, bitterns if you’re quiet. In the far distance a buzzard drops behind the tree line.

The bus pulls in past the old St Ives railway station (now an accountants) and into the town, breaking the bounds of the old railways. Back into reality.

There’s a market on, little stalls of veg and plants and cheese and bread. I’ve not been here in years. I’d decided that I didn’t really like it, but it seems ready to rethink that. It’s small and bustly and has two tremendous churches. There is a quayside, swans, an ancient arched bridge with a chapel halfway. Across the river the flood meadow is covered in gulls. A heron stares across the river towards the town.

Over the marketplace, past the church spires and between the beech trees, a pair of red kites glide, playfully, spring-filled and unhurried, bellies reddened in the sunshine.

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Lord’s Bridge to Old North Road

There’s a merlin in the hawthorn.

I’ll find this out soon; I’m afraid my all too average awareness isn’t up to picking her out of the mess of thorns and spikes. But she is fully on point: she knows we’re approaching, and has done for a couple of hundred yards or more. How does this knowledge filter through? Does the air quiver for her, a wave of disruption we generate just by being there? Does the normal separate and reach out? Are the alerts heightened versions of the sights and sounds we know? However it happens, she can pick us out with her hunter’s acumen.

She gives us only so far, only up to this point and then no more. Lifts and goes. Out into the field, which is where we pick her up, too late I will say later, which is the wrong way to think because look, a fantastic sleek dart, tumbling low over the newly-tilled earth.

In a few magical seconds she’s over on the far side, half a kilometre away, and vanished, gone head height into the woods opposite. Gone, straight into the shadows between the trees, too quick and too distant and subtle for us to see the twists and recalibrations she must surely be making to dive between the branches.

I’ve only ever seen merlins twice before, both females, both visitors from the continent. They’re the smallest hawk here, smaller than a kestrel. and they come from chill northern heaths and moorlands to spend winter in less turbulent spaces.

She was sat peacefully under the giant radio observatory dishes, watching the rabbits and hares, eying up yellowhammers and skylarks.

The Mullard spreads over several acres, encroaching fields and hedgerows giving it an abandoned Cold War frontier feel. A spy station or listening post, a forgotten and edited out Bond villain’s lair in the English countryside.

But it’s not entirely unused. The giant dish, the one you can see from the road, moves slowly and deliberately in the cold sunshine, gleaming white against the blue. It takes forever to shift a few degrees, the movement betrayed by gliding shadows. The surrounding dishes, smaller, darker, some rusted into place, look blindly up at the same heavenly traverse year in year out.

On the far side, beyond where the merlin has flown, there is an array of eight white dishes called the Ryle telescope. Four of the dishes were mounted on almost a mile of track so that they could be moved during various experiment configurations. The track they used was the old Cambridge to Oxford Varsity Line, which had closed in 1967.

The nearest station, Lord’s Bridge, the penultimate stop before Cambridge, was repurposed as part of the University’s radio astronomy observatory buildings. The old buildings sit on the far side, still giving off that railway buildings air, as such places always do.

The bed of the line carries on west and then curves south forming hedgerows and ditches and field boundaries before it crosses under Ermine Street where the next station, Old North Road, sits tucked away.

You’d be forgiven for missing it now. All the noise and clamour is strictly cars and lorries. The road slips away from the A1198 and swiftly turns around to the now privately-owned buildings. From the road bridge, the cars speeding past at our backs, the old signal box – restored – looks like it may control a solitary long unobeyed semaphore signal. The OS map from 1892 shows a goods shed here, a cattle pen, industry. There is even a small length of track, just a few yards, that runs past before it goes back to turf.

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An old picture of Lord’s Bridge, taken in December of the year before the line’s closure, shows a garden, neat and tidy, a veg patch with winter greens and a tilled square waiting for spring. A clothes line. Rain water butt. In a video of a journey through here, taken a couple of years earlier still, it is high summer, the station master walks out to greet the train, and there are hanging baskets and flowers by the wall, a brief glimpse of shirtsleeves and waistcoat lost in the lens glare and degrading 8mm.

The footpath cuts through the middle of the site. Dishes on either side, aerials, fences, huts and paths. There are rabbits everywhere. White down and grey flight feathers suggest a wood pigeon has perished recently, but there’s no carcass to be seen.

Between the travelling clouds, high and rare, are patches of pale blue, promises of the turn of the year, of more and greater machinery shifting. Against it three buzzards wheel and turn like long exposure stars around Polaris.

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