The Old Straight Track

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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Littoral Fringes of the New Forest

Littoral Fringes of the New Forest

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Many of us would like to have a corner of the earth with which we have a special connection. But I suspect I am not alone in finding myself pulled in two directions: there is the place where I was brought up, on the fringes of the New Forest and the edge of the large estuary of Southampton Water – a shoreline but not a seashore, with industrial relics, and intrusive modern gravel banks, a boundary zone for which the word liminal is far too airy fairy….  Continue reading

A walk in the Malverns

A walk in the Malverns

It was a sultry summer day, not very hot, but humid. There was a decadent end of summer feel even though it was only towards the end of July. I decided that August would be a herald of autumn rather than a glorious finish to the season, and so it was necessary to make the best of it, dress light and step out with determination along the languid maze of lanes that thread the countryside to the west of the great spine of the Malverns. Beyond that tawny ridge to the east I knew there are motorways, cities and the hundred million distractions of modern life. But here, west of that sheltering spine, just silence apart from what Heaney so memorably called ‘the distant gargling of tractors’. On the verges the thresh of bleached grasses is soaked in dew, there is a sense of rot about to happen, but for now the air is damp but cool and the lanes are empty and inviting. The sky is a mix of clouds and clarity. Sometimes for half an hour it appears to be going to cloud up completely and looks ominous, but the next moment the vapours dissolve and the sky goddess is back in her glory…

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Castle Hill at dusk

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The Castle Hill area of Cambridge is almost certainly the oldest continuously inhabited part of the city – it is here that the Roman fort was established in the first century CE. Perhaps this is why the whole area, which is still a tangle of streets and alleyways, once you leave the wide ring road that snakes through it, has a sense of strangeness and dislocation. You are very close to the hyper-busy tourist areas of the colleges and shops, but there is a sense of being threaded into the density of the past, the whole area has a slightly eerie quietly brooding atmosphere that clogs the arteries of one’s immediate concerns…. Continue reading

Mist and relics on Southampton Water

Woke to find a blank impassive wall of fog, plaster board grey, utterly featureless, where there would normally be a view of the estuary from my father’s back garden. Every few minutes the fog horn would let out its erie drone, to be absorbed immediately by the blanketing silence.

Two hours later and the first faint shapes of the oil refinery terminal at the seaward end of the estuary were beginning to appear. The grain of pragmatic reality condensing out of the ether…


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In Search of Nine Wells

In Search of Nine Wells


A day of sharp westerlies and burnished hedgerows…

There is a local beauty spot just next to Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambs, called Nine Wells. Here in a small wood several springs rise from a chalk aquifer and wind their way through hidden water-courses amongst beech trees and scrub. A magical place, but these days very close indeed to ‘civilisation’ – an entire city of gleaming bio-tech complexes is being built on its doorstep.

However, there are two other woods called Nine Wells in South Cambridgeshire. One assumes it must be a very ancient name for a wood with several springs, perhaps sacred to a local goddess. So on a cold bright Friday morning in November I set off by bike for the Nine Wells wood near Whittlesford. Continue reading