An unlikely place for birdwatching

Washington, on the outskirts of Sunderland in the north-east of England, seems an unlikely place for a day’s birdwatching. Although Washington Old Hall, the greatly remodelled home of George Washington’s distant ancestor William de Wessyngton, is nearby, the area is best known for its heavy industry. The coal and chemical industries were both big business hereabouts, and although these are long-gone a variety of other industries have taken their place.

Goldfinch

Who on earth would choose to put a bird reserve here, in such an unnatural and unpromising landscape?

The answer is, of course, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), and good for them. It must have been a brave move at the time (the 1970s), but it was a stroke of genius.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Like other WWT sites, Washington Wetland Centre combines managed habitats for wild birds and displays of captive birds, most of which are part of conservation-driven breeding programmes. There is a strong emphasis on learning and education, with the Centre giving many local children their first close contact with the natural world.

There’s also a Field of Dreams element to this bird reserve: build it and they will come. However improbable it may seem that wildlife could thrive here amongst the industry and urban sprawl, the WWT took the risk and have been richly rewarded. Birds galore and other wildlife – including otters – now call this place home, or drop in for a while during their annual migrations.

Jay

The WWT is a massively important part of our conservation infrastructure. It was instrumental in saving the nene (Hawaiian Goose) from the brink of extinction, and remains at the heart of wetland-focussed conservation projects both in the UK and overseas. Its stated vision is:

We conserve, restore and create wetlands, save wetland wildlife, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands achieve for people and nature.

Source: WWT website, retrieved 7 October 2019

Mrs P and I are passionate supporters, and life members, of the WWT, so it was a pleasure to drop in at the Washington Wetland Centre on our way back from Scotland earlier this year.

For once the wetland birds were unremarkable as the autumn migration had not yet begun. However there were plenty of other treats to savour, including common terns bringing back beaks full of fish for their youngsters.

Common Tern

We were also thrilled to see a family of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, and a very confiding jay which jumped manicly between branch and feeder, then back again. Not at all what we’d expected would be the highlights of a visit to a wetland reserve, but great just the same.

Washington Wetland Centre may be an unlikely place for birdwatching, but it definitely delivers the goods. It’s a place we’ll happily continue to visit whenever we’re in the area.

Birdfair: the curse of Glastonbury

My last post was an account our August trip to the Birdfair, an annual three-day celebration of the natural world held on the shores of Rutland Water.  It’s a huge affair, a joyous jamboree with at least a dozen massive marquees and thousands of visitors who park up in the surrounding fields and pastureland before making their way to the site.  At Birdfair a carnival atmosphere reigns … unless, that is, it rains.

Although the rain had stopped, by Saturday morning the ground was saturated and was soon churned to mud

This year we’d noticed for the first time that Birdfair is being styled as the “birders’ Glastonbury.”  Now you can call me an old worry-guts, but I was inclined to think that this is tempting fate given Glastonbury music festival’s uneasy relationship with the rain gods.  And so it proved to be: in the making of this reckless comparison the curse of Glastonbury was duly invoked.

Quagmires soon developed where footfall was greatest

We’ve been to more than 20 Birdfairs, and on the whole have been blessed with good weather.  But all good things come to an end, so it came as no surprise that the forecast for Friday afternoon and evening was dire. 

In these circumstances you hope the weathermen have got it wrong – no surprises to be had there, of course – but this time, regrettably, they were spot on.  The rain set in shortly after midday and got steadily heavier. Soon we were enduring a downpour of biblical proportions. 

When the mud dried on our shoes it turned as hard as concrete

We made a run for it at about 4pm on Friday, back to the comfort of our hotel where, it transpired, television reception was non-existent due to the intensity of the storm. 

I was pleased to get out of the field in which we’d parked without much trouble, but we learned later that folk leaving after us were less fortunate. Many of them had to be pulled out by a tractor, until the tractor got stuck and had to be rescued by another, stronger tractor.  You couldn’t make it up.

The bog-lands of Birdfair

The next day the site was in a wretched state.  Despite the organisers’ best efforts the main pathways were rivers of disgusting mud and slime, interrupted by occasional pools of standing water.  Visitors slipped, slid and paddled between marquees, and the stall selling wellington boots did record business.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Older visitors could be heard belting out the Flanders and Swann classic ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud,’ while one of the less ancient birders treated us to a rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip sliding away.’

Birdfair 2019: a picture paints a thousand words

By Sunday afternoon the mud was turning more glutinous than liquid, and a degree of normality had returned to proceedings.  The foul conditions underfoot didn’t spoil the Birdfair – we Brits are made of sterner stuff – but I fear for next year’s event, lest we once again fall foul of the curse of Glastonbury.

Birdfair: hanging out with friends I’ve never met

Like most couples, I suppose, Mrs P and I have a few anchor dates in our diaries, days of fun, feasts and finery that are also milestones marking the passing of the year.  Chief amongst them are Christmas, our birthdays – both in March, just a couple of days apart – and of course our wedding anniversary in May. But no less important than any of these is the annual British Birdwatching Fair – or Birdfair as it’s known to its thousands of admirers – held every August on the shores of Rutland Water, by surface area the largest reservoir in England.

Offers abound in one of the Birdfair marquees

Birdfair began in 1989, and Mrs P and I have missed only one since we first decided to give it a try in the mid-1990s.  At first, we just went along on a Saturday to see what all the fuss was about. We were so captivated that pretty soon we were making a weekend of it, but eventually we realised even that wasn’t enough.  For about the last 15 years we’ve stayed at local hotels and been on site for all three days of Birdfair.

Specialist travel companies and interest groups are thick on the ground

So, just what is Birdfair?  In short, it’s a three-day celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond.  It was the first-ever event of its kind anywhere, and has been the inspiration for countless similar festivals across the world.

At Birdfair you can go to fascinating talks on conservation issues, hear about wildlife travel destinations and maybe buy the holiday of a lifetime.  You can browse stalls selling a staggering variety of high-quality wildlife art and top-end optical equipment, and watch a range of media personalities and birding experts making complete fools of themselves in spoofs of TV quizzes.

You can even pop along to the British Trust for Ornithology stand to watch a bird-ringing demonstration, or walk out to the Rutland Water nature reserve for a spot of birdwatching. Finally, you can go home feeling good about yourself, as the money raised from entry tickets goes towards vital conservation projects around the world.

TV personality Mike Dilger hosts a birding quiz

This year’s Birdfair was as good as ever.  We were inspired by Isabella Tree’s talk about a farm rewilding project in West Sussex, and excited by Mark Elliott’s account of bringing beavers back to Devon. 

We were given food for thought by Ian Carter’s talk on the red kite’s recovery in the UK, and got wildlife photography tips from the master himself, David Tipling.

A chance for some last minute research before our autumn trip to New Zealand

Mark Warren’s presentation on birding breaks in Scotland gave us a chance to reminisce, while Ruary Mackenzie Dodds’ talk on a bizarre New Zealand dragonfly suggested something else we should look out for during our trip Down Under.

Iolo Williams, possibly the funniest wildlife raconteur I’ve ever heard, made us laugh until we cried, and Simon King tried hard to convince us that Shetland has more to offer than rain.

Conservationist and TV presenter Simon King tries to convince us it doesn’t always rain in Shetland

We even found time to buy a new camera, and at a 26% discount on the price I was quoted a few days earlier in our local store.  Result!

During the Birdfair we were able to catch up with some friends and family who’d also made the trip.  And, just as important, we could spend three days in the company of people who share our interests and values, briefly hanging out with friends we’ve never met.  It may sound trite, but Birdfair feels like a family, everyone connected by the shared DNA of a passion for the natural world. 

Queueing for a talk on rewilding … with 100s of friends I’ve never met

In an article in the Birdfair programme Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert touched on this theme when they wrote: “This is the natural history clan coming together, the British wildlife constituency gathering in thousands on the shores of an inland sea.”

Exactly!  Long may it continue.

Keeping the zombies in

Watching wildlife always plays a big part in our holidays, but I wouldn’t want you to think we’re one trick ponies.  We like to mix it up a bit: history, scenery, architecture and gardens all feature in our itineraries. Moreover, Mrs P is a notorious Captain Quirk, always on the lookout for the unusual, weird or downright bizarre to add a touch of the exotic to our expeditions in the UK and overseas.

And when we’re talking about quirky, you’d find it difficult to beat these mortsafes we found in a graveyard at Cluny in Aberdeenshire, on our way back from Shetland earlier this year.

Four mortsafes in Cluny Graveyard, Aberdeenshire, in front of the mausoleum of Miss Elyza Fraser (1814)

Mortsafes were a 19th century invention designed to prevent body snatchers stealing corpses and selling them to be dissected by students at medical schools.  They were impregnable cages made from heavy iron plates, rods and padlocks, and were used to enclose coffins for a period of about six weeks until bodies had decayed sufficiently to render them unsuitable for dissection. 

When the danger had passed the mortsafe was removed and could be reused to protect another coffin.  It is, incidentally, comforting to note that in these far-off times recycling was alive and well, even if the deceased were not.

Close-up view of the mortsafes

This is the official explanation of the mortsafe phenomenon.  However in the 21st century our society seems to have an uneasy relationship with the truth, one in which all propositions are true for a given definition of the word “true.”

If you think I’m being unnecessarily cynical in this assertion you should check out the nonsense that’s circulated on social media regarding the link between autism and the MMR vaccination.  To say nothing of the way certain world leaders deny the evidence for mankind’s role in climate change because they find it politically expedient to do so. 

And as for some of the nonsense spoken in the name of Brexit, don’t even go there.

The era of fake news plainly provides endless opportunities for mischief. With this in mind, I’d like to point out that although no-one is much troubled these days by the prospect of body-snatching, many of our more suggestible fellow citizens seem to live in fear of an imminent zombie apocalypse. 

That being the case I propose that the real purpose of a mortsafe was not to keep the body snatchers out, but rather to keep the zombies in.

All propositions are indeed true, for a given definition of the word “true.”

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The NHS and me: An unhealthy interest

Worryingly, in my 64th year the NHS has started to take an unhealthy interest in my health.  For example, on my birthday in March they sent me a bowel cancer screening pack, though to be frank if they were going to give me a gift I’d have preferred a pair of socks or something else vaguely useful.  And then, a couple of months later, they packed me off to our local clinic for a blood test in preparation for a full health check down at the surgery.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problem in principle with preventive medicine, and of course as you get on in years the need for it is greater than ever as your body slowly falls apart. 

My body is a case in point: I don’t think there’s been a day in the last ten years when part of it hasn’t hurt, and there have been plenty of times when pretty much all of it has been giving me grief.  But hey, pain is just nature’s way of telling you you’re not dead yet, and so is definitely to be welcomed as the lesser of two evils.

I’m in the waiting room at the surgery, playing the game we all play, checking out the other people sitting there and speculating on the nature of their afflictions.  Most of them look younger and healthier than me, which only serves to increase my sense of unease.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Rawpixel.com via Pexels

At last my name is called.  The practice nurse must be less than half my age, and is friendly in a brisk and efficient kind of way.  She ushers me into a consulting room, then starts taking measurements and asking questions. Nursie feeds all the data into her computer, alongside the results of my blood test, hits the enter key and sits back to await the official NHS verdict on my prospects.

I watch Nursie’s face carefully, hoping for some reassurance that I’m not about to drop dead before finding out who’s won this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.  But she is expressionless, inscrutable, and panic sets in. It’s bad news, isn’t it? I think to myself. My blood pressure is rising dangerously, which seems to defeat the object of my being here.  Finally, after a pause long enough to plan my funeral, she speaks.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Rawpixel.com via Pexels

“Well, Mr P” she says calmly, “I’m pleased to tell you that you’re classified as low risk.”

Relief surges through me, but Nursie’s still looking serious, thwarted even.  She returns to her computer screen, studying my results thoughtfully.

“But, of course, your cholesterol is a bit high.  You really should do something about that.”

Nursie smiles at last.  She’s on firmer ground now: the person sitting in front of her needs sorting out, and she’s just the person to do it.  We talk about my diet and agree that I need to make some adjustments. 

Then she asks about exercise and I admit that I don’t do any, partly because I’m worried about aggravating my chronic lower back problem, but mainly because I’m an idle bugger.  In a moment of madness I also confess that there’s an exercise bike, abandoned and unloved, in our spare bedroom. Nursie’s eye’s light up.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Rawpixel.com via Pexels

“That’s your answer,” she says triumphantly, “get on your bike and ride.”  I respond by pointing out that I’ve not been near the exercise bike for years, and will need encouragement to take to the saddle again.  I suggest she gives me a stern telling off, and she happily obliges.

By the end of the session I’ve agreed to cut down on cheese and butter, to get on the exercise bike five times a week and to read “How I’ve reduced my blood cholesterol,” an 80 page booklet produced by the British Heart Foundation and handed out free of charge to sinners like me. 

As I leave the consulting room I thank Nursie for her time, and promise to be a good boy in future.  Then I scuttle off to drown my sorrows at the local coffee shop by drinking something unhealthy, with a monstrous slab of cake on the side.

PHOTO CREDIT: Abhinav Goswami via Pexels

A couple of months later, progress is slow.  I’ve read the British Heart Foundation booklet, but if you tested me on it I’d get a D-minus at best.  I’ve given up butter in favour of margarine. And I’ve logged 3.7 miles on my exercise bike. OK, I admit that’s not great, but even Chris Hoy, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish had to start somewhere, didn’t they? 

However, cutting down on cheese is a real struggle.

Silver Knife on Brown Surface

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

You can keep your nectar and your ambrosia, in my book cheese is the real food of the gods.  In the end, maybe, Stilton will be the death of me. But if it is at least I’ll die with a smile on my lips, and cracker crumbs on my chin.

Mr President, tear down this wall

Every few months I meet up with Ray and Sylvia for a coffee.  The three of us have a shared history, the agony and the ecstasy of local government in a city just a few miles from here.  To be fair, there was precious little ecstasy, but the surfeit of agony made sure our lives were never dull.  Ours is a relationship forged in adversity, on the basis that the only alternative to standing together is falling apart.

Coffee

PHOTO CREDIT: “Coffee” by AussieRalph is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I worked with Ray, on and off, over a period of around 35 years.  He was the best boss I ever had, and it’s still a pleasure to chew the fat with him and with his former PA, Sylvia. 

We’ve all retired now, but back in the day we used to laugh a lot, just to keep ourselves sane. The habit continues, and when he’s ordering his cappuccino Ray makes a point of apologising to the guy behind the counter for the disruption we’re likely to bring to his little coffee shop over the next couple of hours.  Can you get an ASBO for excessively raucous laughter?

Inevitably, whenever we meet, the first topics of conversation are the developments and disasters at our former place of work, which often features in the media for all the wrong reasons.  We observe with pleasure that some of our former colleagues have managed to get out, and shake our heads sadly at the fate of those who have no choice but to remain. 

Police Dog Van

PHOTO CREDIT: “Police Dog Van” by macneillievehicles is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The conversation segues seamlessly into a rant about politics and religion, but it’s very amicable as all three of us agree that we’re opposed to both of them.  And then it’s on to crime. Sylvia’s recently witnessed some bad stuff going down round her way, and like old fogeys the world over we reminisce fancifully about the good old days when everyone behaved themselves.

On the other hand, some things have definitely improved, and we note with satisfaction that our little town held its first Gay Pride celebration a few weeks ago.  I was away that weekend, but Sylvia explains that everyone seemed to embrace the spirit of Pride, and the town was awash with colour and jollity.

Gay Pride

PHOTO CREDIT: “Gay Pride” by Dave Pitt is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And finally, inevitably, the talk turns to holidays.  Places we’ve visited, places we’re planning to visit, places we’d love to visit if only our Lottery numbers come up.  And this is when Ray drops his bombshell: he’s been elected President!

Ray and his missus have a holiday home on Minorca.  It’s part of a housing complex that’s run as a co-operative, where decisions are made democratically at an AGM by the owners of the individual properties that make up the development. 

However, World War 3 has been threatening to erupt for several months over the thorny issue of boundaries.  The rules of the development forbid the erection of walls and fences in shared areas, but this hasn’t prevented two individuals enclosing “their” gardens, in one case with a fence and the other with a brick wall of which Hadrian himself would have been proud. 

The sides have taken entrenched positions, and acrimony rules.  Two elected Presidents of the co-operative have quit over the last few months, everyone’s talking but no-one’s listening.  Passions are running high, and the presence of lawyers does little to help. 

IMGP9194

PHOTO CREDIT: “IMGP9194” by Ale_l7 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A peacemaker is desperately needed, so Ray magnanimously decides to fly out to Minorca to do his bit at the AGM.  After all, he’s come up through the school of hard knocks – English local government – so he knows a thing or two about gently banging heads together and tactfully reconciling the irreconcilable.

The AGM is every bit a gruesome as he’d feared.  Insults fly and there is no meeting of minds. The builder of the brick wall maintains that he had special permission to build it.  And, he argues, it isn’t really a wall anyway! 

That’s it, Ray’s heard enough.  He stands and starts to speak, explaining in faltering Spanish that in England we have a saying: if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s almost certainly a duck.  Against all reason and probability he gets a round of applause from the assembled AGM, most of whom are Spaniards who have never heard anything like this before.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck … it’s almost certainly a duck

The meeting drags on, and Ray intervenes several times more.  The AGM is mesmerised: the Brits may have pinched Gibraltar from under their noses and screwed up over Brexit, but they still know a thing or two about diplomacy.  So, when the time comes, they elect him as the new President of the co-operative, despite his best endeavours to kick the idea into touch.

And there we have it: my former boss is a President.  But the Minorcan re-imagining of Hadrian’s Wall is still standing, and it’s Ray’s job over the next year to have it removed without any of the parties getting killed or maimed. 

I take great pleasure in the fact that my pal President Ray, in stark contrast to a President on the other side of the pond, is to dedicate his life to taking a wall down rather than putting one up.  It’s a rotten job, but someone’s got to do it. 

The Berlin Wall

PHOTO CREDIT: “The Berlin Wall” by Dave Hamster is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Quoting the immortal words of a speech made in Berlin more than 30 years ago, a speech addressed to Mikhail Gorbachev by none other than Ronald Reagan – another American President who talked a lot of walls – I say only this to my good friend Ray: “Mr President, tear down this wall.”

Off to New Zealand

Almost three years after his epic journey to Tasmania the Platypus Man is setting off on his greatest adventure, and quite possibly his last great adventure, a trip of around seven weeks to New Zealand.  The flights, hotels and rental cars are booked, our itinerary is planned and our bags are packed. Watch out you Kiwis, here we come!

PHOTO CREDIT: Body of Water from Pixabay via Pexels

There’s loads to see and do in New Zealand:  We will marvel at its volcanic landscapes and geothermal wonders, and be inspired by its magnificent mountain and coastal scenery.  We will explore the charms of small-town New Zealand, and learn about Maori culture. We will enjoy brilliant views of whales, dolphins and exotic birds.  We will see lots of sheep and drink lots of wine. We will fly business class for the only time in our lives.  We definitely won’t go bungee jumping!

My New Zealand blog is already live on the Internet.  Click here to see what I have to say about the Land of the Long White Cloud.

And while we’re in New Zealand I’ve scheduled weekly posts on this blog covering topics as varied as my love of birdwatching, the magnificence and mud of this year’s British Birdwatching Fair, the dubious pleasure of NHS health checks, the diplomacy of knocking down walls, and the delights of the Beamish Open Air Museum.

Oh, I nearly forgot, there will also be a post on “Keeping the zombies in.” Bet you can’t wait for that one, can you?


Getting older: An unwelcome milestone

Our last day in Cambridge has not gone according to plan.  Although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built around the year 1130 and generally known as The Round Church lives up to expectations, the Fitzwilliam Museum does not.  The museum’s neo-classical exterior is magnificent, but isn’t the real point of a museum to go inside, wander around a bit to take in a few of the exhibits in a cursory sort of way, and then have a large mocha and a slab of cake in the café? 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Round Church

Who in their right mind would close one of the country’s great museums on a Monday at the height of the summer tourist season?  Ah, silly me, that would be the management of the Fitzwilliam Museum, I suppose. Disappointed, we decide to leave Cambridge and return to Platypus Towers on an earlier train.

*

We’re standing on the platform at Cambridge station.  The train is due in about 20 minutes, and we’re both a bit knackered.  The weather’s hot and humid, and we’ve spent a good part of the last three days trudging the streets, doing the tourist thing. 

Inevitably there are very few seats on the platform, and all but one is taken. I encourage Mrs P to grab it – I’m a proper gentleman, don’t you know – and I’m left standing next to her, looking tired and miserable.

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Time passes.  Eventually the guy seated next to Mrs P tears himself away from his mobile phone and looks around him.  He’s in early twenties and, unlike me, is appropriately dressed for the weather in sandals, shorts and a lightweight shirt.  He spots me and a caring expression crosses his lightly bearded face. He stands, looks me straight in the eye, then smiles encouragingly and politely asks, “Would you like a seat, mate?”

Would I like a seat? I ask myself.  WOULD I?  Of course I would, pal, only I don’t want you to offer me one, thank you very much!  You think I’m old and past it, don’t you? Well I’m not! I’m not old at all, I’ve just got a lived-in kind of face, like Mick Jagger but with regular lips.  I’ve had one hell of a life and if you’d done half of what I’ve done you’d look a damned sight older than me!

I don’t say any of this, of course.  I just smile sweetly at my new-found knight in shining armour, and say “Thank you, I think I would.”

Cambridge railway station

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge railway station” by hugh llewelyn is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My saviour returns to his phone, probably fixing a hot hook-up on Tinder, the fit young bastard that he is, leaving me seated next to Mrs P to ponder what has just happened.  I’m in my 64th year, having worked over 40 years and travelled the world, and this is the first time anyone has ever stood up to offer me a seat. 

What an unwelcome milestone this is, another waymarker on the inevitable journey to decrepitude.  God, I feel old.

At last the train arrives.  Even though half the population of Cambridge appears to be travelling west today it’s only three carriages long, so I don’t get a seat. 

I end up standing in the area where cyclists stow their bikes, next to the disabled persons’ toilet. There are just two seats in this part of the carriage.  On one of them sits another young, bearded, shorts-wearing man, but this one won’t meet my eye. 

Cambridge (Mainline)

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge (Mainline)” by Sparkyscrum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the last 20 minutes I’ve grown accustomed to the good manners of the younger generation towards their elders, and am therefore incensed by the brazen effrontery of this new guy.  He knows I’m standing here and badly need a seat, but he just keeps playing with his phone, swiping right furiously. I hope when you get a date she doesn’t turn up, you ignorant slob, I think to myself.

The other seat is occupied by an older woman, elegant, grey-haired and immaculately dressed, library book on her lap.  She glances up and sees me leaning uncomfortably against the side of the carriage. A look of genuine concern crosses her face. 

“Would you like this seat?” she asks, oh-so-kindly.

I look at her carefully.  In her left hand she’s clutching a Senior Citizen’s Railcard.  For god’s sake, she’s as old as me, possibly older, and here she is offering me a seatJust when you think life can’t get any worse, it bloody well does.

I quickly regain my composure and politely decline her offer.  You see, I still have my pride, and in any case as I mentioned earlier I’m a proper gentleman. 

But we reach an agreement, that kind lady and me.  She’s getting off at Ely, and when she does she’ll make sure I’m able to slide on to her seat before anyone else grabs it, so I can do the rest of the journey sitting down.  It’s a good arrangement, and satisfies both parties. 

After all, when the going gets tough us old fogeys need to stick together.

Invitation to a wedding

Sadly, I’ve reached the time of life when I get to go to many more funerals than weddings.  Until the invitation to Mark and Kate’s nuptials arrived it had been nearly two years since I’d last witnessed a couple tying the matrimonial knot, so I was delighted to be asked.  And as an added bonus, their wedding was to take place at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, so picturesque surroundings, excellent food and plenty of fine wine were all pretty much guaranteed.

A Cambridge college makes a pictureseque wedding venue

Mark is my godson.  Also, he and his mum are pretty much the only blood relatives I have left, or at least the only ones I’m aware of.  However, I’m sad to say that I hardly know him. 

Mark lives in London, while Mrs P and I are holed up in the north Midlands.  Our paths have crossed only rarely over the years, and although he once stayed with us for a couple of days and his mum updates us from time to time on his exploits, he’s something of a mystery.

The invitation to Mark’s wedding was therefore a pleasant surprise, though not one I probably deserved given my inept performance as a godfather.  Even better, it quickly became apparent that Mark is a lovely, caring man. 

The college chapel was an intimate setting for the ceremony

Although this was his – and Kate’s – big day, Mark went out of his way to greet and make welcome all the guests, to spend loads of time chatting with them, and to find ways of ensuring those guests got to know one another.  And he also found plenty of time to be attentive to his 99 years-old wheelchair-bound maternal grandad, whom he clearly adores.

One of Mark’s cunning plans to bring the wedding guests closer together was to lay on an evening barn dance.  Such were his powers of gentle persuasion that even I took to the dance floor, for the first time in a couple of decades.  Mrs P likes barn dancing, so thanks to my godson I won myself a rare brownie point. Yes, result!

Moreover, I’m proud to report that I held my own in the Gay Gordons, before plumbing hitherto unimagined depths of incompetence while Stripping the Willow. 

Mrs P says the latter failure was down to her, but I think she’s just being nice: I really should learn the difference between left and right. But, despite the exhaustion and the humiliation I will confess I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though I don’t imagine I’ll be putting on a repeat performance any time soon.

Cake, cake, glorious cake!

All too soon the evening was over.  Mark and Kate left to begin their new life together.  I left, supported by my long-suffering missus, for a quiet lie down in a darkened room.  Too much wine and barn dancing can do that to a man.

I’m really pleased we made the trip to Cambridge for Mark’s big day.  Partly because families – particularly tiny ones like mine – should stick together, but mainly because he’s a thoroughly decent human being and it was good to spend a few hours in his company. 

With luck we’ll meet up with him and Kate again before too long … though probably not on the dance floor!

Cambridge: my old stamping ground

Last month we were in Cambridge, my old stamping ground, for my godson’s wedding.  In the mid-70s I spent three years studying there at one of the University’s many colleges.  It was such an intense period, life lived at one hundred miles an hour. But they seem like another lifetime, my Cambridge days.  I rarely think about them now. 

Jesus College

Trudging the streets again, over 30 years since my last visit to the city, the memories come flooding back.  Here’s the room in which I lived in my freshman year, anxious, ill at ease, a stranger in a strange land. And there’s the stinking drainage ditch into which I fell one drunken night, establishing a reputation with my peer group that I could never quite shake off. 

This here is the spot where Phil streaked one Rag Week, pedalling his bicycle furiously along King’s Parade, wearing only a big grin and a policeman’s helmet, cheered on by dozens of adoring college cronies.  And over there is the library where I spent most of my days, studying feverishly in a desperate attempt to prove to myself that, despite my humble origins, I was as good as the rest of them.

Gonville and Caius College chapel

You see, I never felt I truly belonged.  Cambridge University was – and is – one of the world’s outstanding places of higher education.  The standards are so high, the demands so rigorous.

At the time it seemed impossible that I, just an ordinary working-class lad from west London, deserved my place.  Meanwhile the privately educated students from rich families who made up the bulk of my peer group seemed to sail through it, their boisterous belief in themselves undermining my own, oh-so-fragile, self-confidence.

Gargoyles, Gonville and Caius College

I know now that I got it all wrong. 

For the most part, the self-confidence of my fellow students was bluff.  Underneath it all most of them were unsure of themselves too, making it up as they went along, hoping they wouldn’t get found out, wouldn’t be revealed as frauds unworthy of their places at this great cathedral of learning. 

St John’s College

And my doubts were, in any case, unfounded.  By the time I graduated it was plain that I was clever enough.  While not quite the sharpest spine on the Cambridge University hedgehog, neither was I a dullard.  Without doubt I deserved to be there. I just wish I’d known it when I first arrived, instead of beating myself up every day.

My three years at Cambridge University were an extraordinary period in an otherwise ordinary life.  Visiting the place again has awakened painful memories, stirred some unwelcome thoughts of what was and what might have been. 

Bridge of Sighs, St John’s College

But time has moved on and so, thankfully, have I.

Once, when dreams floated like butterflies on the breeze and stardust lay thick upon the ground, a sweet, sensitive and naïve lad who shared my name and birthday went to Cambridge University to study.  He stayed three years, got educated a bit, got drunk a lot, got lost for a while, then found himself again. 

That lad’s dead now, and I should let him rest in peace.

I’m pleased I went back to visit Cambridge, my old stamping ground.  I won’t ever go back again.