“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.