The Old Straight Track

Stourbridge Common –

tracks to nowhere, the iron bridge, memories of the fair…

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Stourbridge Common is the nearest piece of semi-rural land to where I live in Cambridge. It is only a five minute cycle ride away but on dark winter afternoons it can take on an epic doom-laden appearance… The straight track across its centre becomes a walk into the infinite instead of a few hundred yards towards the railway bridge.

As one walks collective memories of the distant past crowd around. For Stourbridge Common was the site of one of the largest medieval fairs in Europe, only eclipsed by the great fairs of Champagne in central France. Here thousands of people thronged, and you could buy anything from alchemical materials to humble vegetables. Supposedly Isaac Newton found here prisms useful for his researches. There are still streets running down to the Common with names like ‘Garlic Row’ which embalm the memory of the goods once battered here.

My aim today however is a much more recent relic. The iron footbridge over the railway which, since the nineteenth century, has rudely bisected the ancient common. As you walk the track it looms closer, the gloom lightens, and a strange dusky light spreads in the sky, until finally the graffiti in all its glory becomes legible.

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Underneath a wee space sometimes used by homeless people for a last ditch place to sleep if all the hostels are full…

The bridge of course is nowhere near as old as the railway, and it is far from pretty. However, for some reason I rather like it in all of its boxy gaucheness. With its walls of welded steel in graphite gun metal grey. The best thing is the echoing clang as you ascend the stairs – you can imagine you are clambering up some sea-swept gantry on a large warship. The walls of the staircase are high to prevent accidents, you feel boxed in – safe but on edge at the same time. If such a bridge does not feature in the grungy Noir of the chase thriller Get Carter then they really ought to have put one in, worth it for the sound effects alone.


One feels a little reluctant to trust one’s weight to the decayed metal but I trepidaciously ascend the steep steps feeling like a seven year old on an adventure…




More graffiti on the caged walkway at the top. More reminiscent of Tower Hamlets than a village common…

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One the further side one crosses a small brook, which as local psychogeographers know rises in the village pond of Cherry Hinton , snakes its way past the chalk quarries at the bottom of Mill Road, crosses the lesser known Coldhams Common, before going under the Newmarket Road and more or less following the railway line across Stourbridge Common on its short journey towards the Cam itself. A place for lads from the nearby estates to hang out and swing on the tree over the treacherously swollen brook…



As I return the light fades again, and the poignant, fractal silhouettes  of alders are outlined against the sky. Vernacular gloom, rusty nostalgia, the trudge through endless puddles…

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