perturbations

“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.

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wanton freak

A day of pearlescent damp, an overdimmed gloom that stretches out and engulfs the trees and hedgerows. A sticky fog that hugs every surface and lasts on beyond midday.

At the rear of the cemetery, a fabulous sycamore, its leaves flushed rust and turmeric yellow. I sit underneath it, put my camera down and listen. Eventually, I’m able to oust everything and listen to the leaves as they tumble  through the branches. It is a gentle, soft chaos.

At the crown, though, the loveliest thing. A charm of goldfinches, a dozen, twenty , thirty, I have no idea how many, push a sortie through the head of the tree looking for food. They are fabulous, entrancing little creatures and, I confess, my favourite birds. Last Spring a pair nested in my garden. Both parents were killed by next door’s cat within hours of each other; I found their bodies ripped and discarded on the flagstones at the rear of my house.

But, we should feel fortunate. At least they are common enough to even be in the gardens. Goldfinches are at the top of the wave at the moment; regular and familiar visitors, they were, when I was a child, an almost exotic sight. Their population waxes and wanes. Hunting pressure in the Mediterranean, where many of the British population will migrate, is offset by the recent popularity of  foodstuffs upon which they thrive. As the birdfeed market becomes more sophisticated, new foods like Niger seed and Sunflower hearts have encouraged them off the heathland and farmland and into rural areas.

Goldfinches love thistle seeds. They will take dandelion and ragwort, too, and many other things, but it is thistles that give them their name; they are carduelis carduelis, the ‘thistle bird’. They sit on top of the dried oval bulb of a thistle and expertly avoid the spikes to find the seeds resting in the heart of the phyllary. It is said that the Goldfinch’s striking red face was bestowed when a bird landed on the crown of thorns and was splashed with Christ’s blood. The association has lasted for centuries. Goldfinches appear in dozens of representations of the Madonna and Child, the infant Jesus often clutching a struggling bird or watching as one flies above His head. They are a foreknowledge of the crucifixion, a symbol to show that Christ knew His destiny from birth. Raphael, Leonardo, Tiepolo and others all teased the image of this little gem into their devotional works.

They scatter through the trees and on. I follow them as best I can, a few specks imagined against the general fug of drizzle and murk. Later, they’re camped in the mess of briars and hawthorn that rings the recycling bins. The divine lost, well, tarnished. Noisy, rambunctious opportunists, but gaudy, florid and marvellously, wonderfully present. Little wonders.

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.

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.

house mate

I have House Sparrows nesting in a gap between my guttering and the tiles of my roof. The male bird was watching me carefully as I cut the lawn yesterday, chirruping a warning to his mate and his brood, noisily insinuating that I might like to give up and go back inside. There are a few in my garden, dashing themselves into hedges and shrubs as I walk up the path, springing about on my mossy, poor quality lawn. I find them good value, irascible little headcases, far too strident for their size.

We all know them, of course. There is a pretty poor poem, written about 1920, by the naturalist and birdwatcher W.H. Hudson, called The London Sparrow. It is a Romantic, often naïve and sentimental piece, describing a man thinking back to his days in the country and the wildlife he knew there, and considering the grime of the city, where he finds comfort in the fact that at least he has the call of sparrows to ease his troubled soul. He sees it as a noble little creature, Nature’s “one witness” in the industrial turmoil:

And thou, O Sparrow, from the windy ledge
Where thou dost nestle creaking chimney-pots
For softly-sighing branches; sooty slates
For leafy canopy; rank steam of slums.

And he considers it for quite some time. Verse upon verse, stanza upon stanza. It is, I’ll be honest, a little wearing, but it’s interesting nevertheless to use this as a pointer to the ubiquity of passer domesticus for so many generations of Londoners and indeed for almost all other parts of urban and suburban Britain. Indeed, it’s only really in the central Highlands of Scotland that you might expect to struggle to find this most familiar of species.

In his less florid observations, when Hudson is in fact a very attentive and knowledgeable guide, he describes (Birds in London, 1924) how lunch in a London park could never be a lonely experience because the sparrows would very soon come and find you. As a kid, I can remember putting seed out and barely making it back to my spotting post before a swooping cohort of the little buggers had whisked in to hoover up every speck of the bounty. My Dad used to delight in the horror we would show when recounting his war-time rationing tales, most notably of catching sparrows for the dog’s supper, an upended cardboard box propped by a stick as the trap, shaking them around until dead and then throwing them, bones and all, into a massive frying pan before serving them up as a gloopy, greasy mess.

Ask anyone what the most common bird is and here, at least, they will invariably, lazily, offer the House Sparrow. And they will be completely wrong. Today, the outlook for the species is more than surprisingly bleak, it is alarming. Recently, it tumbled toward the red alert status on the RSPB’s list, a flag raised primarily because of its sharp decline in numbers over the last 25 years. A decline in some places above 60%, in others even greater than that. It is possible now to visit some hidden, leafy city squares and be completely untroubled by them. Feral pigeons, collared doves, starlings, yes; sparrows, hardly.

Why? There is no easy answer. An exhaustive study by De Montfort University, dovetailed with other independent surveys, seems to suggest a variety of factors, combining to make life for the House Sparrow very perilous indeed. Predation by cats, loss of food to other newly-dominant species, disease, a loss of nesting sites, all of these things were considered, and are very important, but it seems that the inability of chicks to survive to the moment of fledging is key. Diet here is a major pointer, and being fed vital nutrients essential to the birds’ growth. With that focus, the role of insecticides (sparrow chicks thrive on aphids) and car emissions would appear to be serious contributory factors to the young simply dying in the nest. But these are by no means definitive answers; more work needs to be done.

In 1958, the Chinese took against the sparrow to an extraordinary extent. They considered it one of the Four Pests (along with rats, flies and mosquitoes) and decided, simply, to eradicate it. The population was mobilised and a bizarre campaign of killing and disruption of habitat and activity undertaken. Birds were killed, nests destroyed, a programme of disturbance entered into whereby sparrows were kept flying out of fear for so long that they fell from the air, unable to roost, dead from exhaustion. I can remember seeing footage of Chinese kids banging pots and pans together beneath the massive roosts on buildings so that the damn things could not rest. Two years later, the process was halted. The penny dropped that the sparrows aided crop production by killing insect infections and in subsequent poor harvests an estimated 30 million people perished.

If all of our sparrows vanish from our gardens and parks, I doubt even the most militant of campaigners would warn of a similarly catastrophic result. Of course not. But how remarkable would Hudson find it, less than a century later, if he could see the predicament for his clamorous subject. Even more peculiar, and so very wide of the mark, in the final verse of the poem he extolls the longevity of the bird, forecasting that “Nature’s one witness” (I am growing to like that phrase) would last, long after the sound:

…of human feet unnumbered, like the rain
Of summer pattering on the forest leaves,
Fainter and fainter falling ‘midst the ruin,
In everlasting silence dies away.

down, town

I take my cue from Ella Fitzgerald; the weather’s no good (again), but isn’t this a lovely day? Learning my lesson from before, I’m togged up and ready this time, but lugging a great bag of optimism around with me along with the rain gear and the camera. It pays off.

Barnard Castle, County Durham. A cold January day.

The River Tees drops from its source on Cross Fell 2000 feet and more much more, above, descending through the North Pennines at speed, via cataracts and torrents, past High Force, where it crashes over itself to reach the lower hills. It has much to escape; on the Fell, the only named British wind, the Helm, a fierce north-easterly, shrieks across the escarpment, filled with fiends according to the ancients, and in the water itself lives Peg Powler, a green haired hag who pulls naughty children beneath the surface should they stray too near the edge.

By the time it has fallen to 600 feet it is all much calmer and the Tees is a broad and easy-on-the-eye tumble over rocks and – the land being rich in ironstone at this point – rust coloured pebbles. It meanders around the promontory where the town sits. The significant feature looking down onto the river is, of course, the castle, a pile, like almost every other near-border stronghold, squabbled over for years by various interested parties. Here, the Scots and the Balliols and the Bishops of Durham. Seven centuries ago, Edward I gave it to the Earl of Warwick and a couple of generations after that the castle passed by marriage to the Nevilles. During the Wars of the Roses, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) took possession of the fortress. His stamp, his personal device, the white boar, is to be found everywhere on keystones and bosses. On St Mary’s, the large parish church whose tower looms across the main street, a window arch on the north transept shows the hog clearly. Richard was here.

I start in the graveyard. There are skeletal horse chestnuts towering here, creaking above me like masts and rigging, jackdaws and rooks complaining at nothing, joining in. A tomb, a sizable table monument, declares a wonderfully gruesome Reaper. This is for George Hopper, I find, of Black Hedley, Northumberland. He is a very grand chap, Death, standing there silently, God’s acre before him, looking out, as Woolf said, on the shells, bones and silence beneath us, but it’s cold enough already and time to be getting along.

At the southern edge of the church yard, a gate takes you down the hill a little and out onto the Demesnes; a feudal hangover, like the Lendings mirrored across the river, this is a long sloping sled-friendly bank that dramatically skeeters off down into the valley and eventually would land you in the Tees if you found yourself unable to stop running.

Behind and betwixt and between its many streets, Barnard Castle, Barney, is riddled with snickets, alleyways, cut-throughs and ginnels. It is a smallish place, but it covers a lot of ground. There are routes and paths everywhere. From the edge of the Demesnes, turning back towards the town, there are numerous points of entry via the tunnels. You just have to take your pick. These dark slips feed out into the main orthodox streets, but they turn into one another too. Evergreens and ivies that cling to the stone hint at it, but in the summer the conduits must be wonderfully shadowy and cool. As a navigable method they are, taken all at once, a little baffling, so I determine to do just that and endeavour to uncover each one.

As singular channels it is easy to see their merit, though, and it makes sense to pop from one corner of town to another down a stony rabbit hole, rather than traipse effortfully along three sides of a planned square. Elsewhere, you can see that such eminently sensible innovations will have been eradicated in successive waves of town planning, and I am sure that where the new-ish supermarket and its associated car park now sit, the footprint once included many crisscrossing corridors. What is left, though, makes for a delightfully eccentric, if obtuse, tour of the town.

Back at the church, if an overview was needed after all those obscure paths, it is found in a wonderful mural thrown large against the Parish Hall wall. Created by the artist Douglas Pittuck in the 1950s, it shows Barney town life in its many higgledy-piggledy forms, playing out beneath the gloomy circular keep of the castle and the towers of its churches, including of course St Mary’s.

Boys catch tadpoles in a jar, lovers lean over the bridge and look into the river, soldiers possibly on leave from Catterick up the road stride past, women gossip, and a motorcyclist tears through the fabric and down the steep hill towards Startforth. It’s complex and kaleidoscopic and, of course, colourful and confusing, but after much staring and taking apart and putting back together it makes sense. Like the streets, and the alleyways and the creaking branches and the shells and the bones and the silence.