Dovedale: an iconic Derbyshire attraction

Although Dovedale’s only a fairly short drive from Platypus Towers we don’t go there often. It’s just too popular, the jewel in Derbyshire’s crown, always heaving with tourists and therefore devoid of the very peace and tranquillity that would be our reason for visiting this spot in the first place. But maybe this year, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc in the travel sector, we’ll get the place to ourselves?

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Ilam Hall, illustration from Morris’s ”Country Seats,” 1880. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We park up at Ilam Hall, which is just over the border in Staffordshire, before heading off into Derbyshire to view the iconic Dovedale stepping stones.

“Ilam Hall” sounds grand, doesn’t it, but it’s a mere shadow of its former self. Although there’s been a hall on the site since Elizabethan times, the current building and adjacent Italianate garden date from the early 19th century. The mansion was built in the Gothic Revival style, and was a statement of wealth and power by the man who commissioned it, social-climber Jesse Watts-Russell.

The Italianate garden and the remains of Ilam Hall date from the 1820s

Ilam Hall was so highly thought of in its day that in 1880 it was featured in Volume 1 of the Rev. F.A.O Morris’ series County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, an ambitious multi-volume tome describing what were reckoned to be the finest country houses of the time. 

However, by the 1930s the mansion had become derelict and was sold for demolition. But at the last moment a philanthropist – the flour magnate Sir Robert McDougal – stepped in.

Holy Cross church to the right, and the remains of Ilam Hall in the distance

McDougal purchased what was left of the house (the Great Hall, service wing, hall, and entrance porch) and gave it to the National Trust, on the understanding that it would be used as a Youth Hostel.

Close by the Hall is Holy Cross church, a Victorian rebuilding of a medieval church. The very first church on the site was built in Saxon times, and grew up around the shrine of St Bertram, a 6th-century hermit who took up a solitary life after his wife and child were killed by wolves, packs of which once roamed the local forests.

St Bertram’s Bridge

Just 100 metres from the church is the stone built, single span St Bertram’s Bridge, an impressive scheduled monument dating from no later than the eighteenth century.

But none of this is the reason for our visit today, and so we set off towards nearby Dovedale. On our way, we pass through the tiny estate village of Ilam, built in its present form by Jesse Watts-Russell.

Part of the Ilam estate village, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Watts-Russell had originally been attracted to the area because it reminded him of the Swiss Alps. Really? – the man was clearly deluded! Whatever. Having bought the estate and commissioned a new Hall, he decided to indulge his Swiss fantasy by commissioning famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to design a new Ilam village in an Alpine-style. The scheme was designed around 1839, and still looks splendid today.

Leaving the village behind us we take a well-worn path across the hillside, and stroll for around 45 minutes before we reach the lower section of Dovedale. We know we’re in the right place because it’s chaos, cars piling into the car park and platoons of pedestrians marching gallantly towards the famous stepping stones. So much for having the place to ourselves!

Dovedale by Moonlight, c 1785. Joseph Wright of Derby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Long appreciated by poets and artists, Dovedale first became a significant tourist destination in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution gave rise to a middle class with both the time and resources to take leisure breaks away from home.

The opening of a railway station at nearby Thorpe Cloud in 1899 made it more readily accessible, and visitor numbers increased. The station and the railway have long since been withdrawn from service, but the visitors keep on coming!

Thorpe Cloud, an instantly recognisable landmark

Dovedale lies in the White Peak, a limestone plateau that forms the central and southern part of the Derbyshire Peak District, and is the name given to the section of the Dove river valley between Milldale and Thorpe Cloud. It contains some of the most spectacular limestone gorge scenery to be found in the UK.

Today we’re not planning to explore the Milldale section, possibly the most scenic part of Dovedale. Instead we’ll walk upstream, in the shadow of Thorpe Cloud – the highest hill in these parts, and an instantly recognisable landmark – until we reach the the iconic stepping stones. Every man and his dog will want to cross the Dove here, and we’ll join them, before returning to our starting point on the opposite side of the river. That should be more than enough excitement for one day.

The stepping stones date from around 1890. It was then that some enterprising locals – who had presumably worked out that increasing the number of visitors to Dovedale would also improve their own chances of making a fast buck – decided to make it easier for casual walkers to cross the river.

A bridge was ruled out, perhaps because of the cost, but just as likely because stepping stones seemed a lot more romantic. If that was their thinking then they were absolutely right. Today everyone who visits Dovedale wants to cross the river via the 16 large flat rocks put there for just that purpose.

For over a century, many thousands of visitors made use of the stepping stones each year. Everyone had a good time, and very few of them fell in.

And even those who did take the plunge suffered little more more than wet shoes and a momentary loss of dignity, given that the river’s wide and very shallow at this point.

However in 2010 the local council decided that the stones were a potential hazard, and placed limestone caps on all but one of them. Health and Safety was – and is – alive and well in the fair county of Derbyshire.

Our visit today passes without wet feet or any other unwelcome incident. We simply have to queue for a while, waiting for countless day-trippers and the occasional dog to make the crossing before, finally, it’s our turn. A grand time is had by one and all.

It’s easy to see why this simple activity, undertaken in such a scenic location, captures the imagination of visitors from near and far. We all need a few simple pleasures in our lives, and crossing the Dovedale stepping stones is one of them.

Sadly, Dovedale’s future doesn’t look rosy. The historic woodlands that flank the lush, green valley are being ravaged by Ash Dieback, a fungal disease that originated in Asia. It probably arrived here thanks to the global trade in plants, and is wrecking ash woodland throughout the UK.

Note how the original stepping stones have been capped with limestone slabs. Health and Safety gone mad!

Conservationists at the National Trust, which manages Dovedale, say 80% of its ash trees are at risk of being wiped out. And four out of five of all the trees in Dovedale are ash.

Ash Dieback Disease is a disaster for such a well-loved Derbyshire landscape. The National Trust’s planned response is

to increase the diversity of tree species in the areas hit hardest by ash dieback, by planting native tree species and allowing areas with other species already present to set seed themselves

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 16 October 2020

Plainly, as Ash Dieback takes hold, Dovedale will never be quite the same again. But all landscapes change over time, and the National Trust should have the expertise at its disposal to ensure that this very special Derbyshire place remains special. Let’s hope so.

Brave New World or Paradise Lost? – Our town’s new library

Our town has a new library. It’s been open since early August, but the UK’s National Libraries Week (5 -10 October) seems like a good time to check it out. For years – no, decades – we’ve wished to see the old library replaced. Hopefully it will prove to be worth the wait.

* * *

The old library was a converted stone-built domestic property – The Hollies – dating from the first half of the 19th century. Located within the Belper Town section of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, it had loads of character. But despite the best efforts of the staff it was a woefully inadequate public library, a hotchpotch of small, knocked-together rooms spread across two floors. “Compact” would be one way to describe it, but I prefer “cramped, uncomfortable and incapable of measuring up to 21st century expectations.”

The old library (photo taken 2005)

Ideally, Belper’s new library would have been purpose-built, but space for new-build projects is at a premium in the World Heritage Site area. And anyway, libraries aren’t seen as a priority these days, in a society which seems to believe that the Internet and mobile phones are the answer to everything. In the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful that the project went ahead at all, albeit in another converted building.

The site of the new development is the former Thorntons factory, where yummy chocolates and other confectionery goodies once rolled off the production lines in vast quantities. Thorntons abandoned Belper many years ago, and a new use was required for their land and buildings.

The new library (ignore the frontage stretching into the far distance on the right!)

Cometh the hour, cometh the council. Parts of the factory were flattened, to be replaced by a relocated care home and a health centre. However the oldest factory building was retained, to be converted into the town’s new library.

* * *

As we approach the new library we take stock of its appearance and potential. Externally the architect has done a good job, broadly sympathetic to the building’s industrial past and in keeping with the spirit of the World Heritage Site. So far, so good. But what about inside?

A masked member of staff greets us as we enter, asking for our names and contact details as part of the government’s Covid-19 Test and Trace strategy. However there seems to be little chance of catching anything here. The place is almost deserted, just a couple more staff and one other member of the public who scuttles out soon after we arrive.

The timing of the new library’s opening is disastrous, and you’ve got to feel sorry for the management and local staff. This project has been in the pipeline for years, and nobody could have predicted it would come to fruition when the country is in the throes of a pandemic.

Computers wrapped in bin bags, and no chairs…not much chance of public internet access here today! Sexy curved shelving – but the “island” units interfere with sightlines.

Elsewhere in Derbyshire the county’s library service is working hard to extend and promote its digital offer – eBooks, online storytimes and the like. But here at Belper the team face a different challenge, to entice users to try out an unfamiliar library building which is currently unable to live up to its potential due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

It’s clearly not “business as usual” today. Covid-19 is still deterring many people from venturing into public spaces like this, the computers are wrapped up in what looks like bin-bags, and seating is limited. More disturbingly, all books returned to the library after being borrowed are set aside and quarantined for three days before they are put back on the open shelves.

Exposed rafters and beams, and bare brickwork, celebrate the building’s industrial past

So, through no fault of the staff our first visit here is not the relaxed, welcoming experience we’d hoped it would be. We have the place to ourselves as we start to explore the Brave New World of Belper Library

Although the positioning of the original windows tells us this was once a two-storey building, the first floor has been stripped out entirely. The roof soars high above us, revealing exposed rafters and beams. Combined with the bare brickwork, the underbelly of the roof pays due homage to the building’s industrial past.

White “island” shelving units, but wooden wall-mounted units. Why?

But, and it’s a big but, the place seems a bit small. In order to cram more books into the available space they’ve opted for head-high “island” shelving, which interferes with sightlines and counteracts the airy sense of space which should result from the soaring roofline. And where are the public meeting rooms, a vital resource for the modern public library, welcoming shared spaces where community groups can get together to explore culture, literature and learning?

But it’s the children’s section of the library that disappoints me the most. It’s not big enough, feels austere and clinical, and lacks both colour and character.

In my view the most important part of any public library is the children’s area. More than ever in this digital age we have a duty to encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the written word, to develop their language skills, and to experience the power of story. I worry that the dazzling white shelves and uninspired furnishings will struggle to achieve this.

The children’s area: austere, clinical, lacking colour and character

Perhaps I’m being too harsh? The library is clearly an enormous improvement on what the town has had to put up with for the previous 80 years, and we’ve not seen it at its best. In the post-Covid environment (whenever that is!) I’m sure the staff will work hard to make it fly, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

But this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something brilliant for culture and learning in Belper, to create a new, vibrant community venue, and it seems to have slightly missed the mark. I leave the library feeling a trifle underwhelmed, debating whether, when I write this post, I should somehow weave “Paradise Lost” into the title of the piece.

Sadly, I won’t be spending as much of my retirement in the library as I’d once imagined.

Renishaw Hall and Gardens

A few weeks ago the attractive gardens and grounds at Renishaw Hall provided a perfect pick-me-up after the drudgery of the Covid-19 lockdown, bringing some much needed colour to our lives.

Renishaw’s bluebell woods, May 2018

As the Covid-19 infection rate falls and the country starts to open up, we decide it’s time to make the most of summer before it morphs into autumn. One of our first day trips is to the gardens at Renishaw Hall, in the far north of our home county of Derbyshire. We’ve been here before, in spring when the bluebell woods are a magnificent sight, but it looks rather different in the height of summer.

Renishaw Hall: Big is not always beautiful

Renishaw Hall was built around 1625 by George Sitwell, who made his money from iron. By the end of the the 17th century the Sitwells were the largest producers of iron nails in the world and their furnaces were producing more than a tenth of England’s entire iron output. 

They made a fortune, which enabled one of George’s descendants to enlarge and extend the Hall between 1793 and 1808. The man commissioning the work was called Sitwell Sitwell. Yes, his father really was so obsessed by the family’s name that he forced his wretched son to endure it both as a forename and a surname. Poor bugger.

In the mid-19th century the Sitwells fell upon hard times. The residents deserted the Hall to live in Germany, where the cost of living was cheaper, and its contents were auctioned off. Renishaw might have suffered the fate of so many grand English homes and crumbled away into dust and obscurity, had it not been for the timely discovery of coal on the estate.

Weathered, classical-style statues, topiary trees and a distant view of the fountain

The north-east corner of Derbyshire is riddled with coal seams, so we should not be too surprised by the Sitwells’ good fortune. However they made the most of the geological generosity with which their estate was blessed: the family’s fortunes were restored, later enabling the development of Renishaw’s outstanding gardens.

Renishaw Hall is an imposing building, but the curtain of climbing plants clinging to its façade can’t disguise the fact- in my humble opinion, anyway – that externally it’s fairly unremarkable, despite its Grade I listing from Historic England. Big is not always beautiful.

The gardens, however, are rather special. Nearly 120 years ago Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), fourth baronet, created what is today regarded as one of the most important classical Italianate gardens in the UK.

Sir George could think of no good reason to be modest about his horticultural knowledge and skills, and therefore felt moved in 1909 to show them off by writing An essay on the making of gardens : being a study of old Italian gardens, of the nature of beauty, and the principles involved in garden design. Wouldn’t be my choice of bedtime reading, but what do I know?

Garden features at today’s Renishaw include well-trimmed lawns, immaculately clipped topiary, ornamental ponds, a spectacular fountain, a scattering of statues – both classical and quirky – and borders overflowing with blossoms. And beyond the formal gardens can be found handsome lakes and parkland.

Renishaw’s garden enjoys a II* (“two-star”) listing from Historic England, a non-departmental arm of the British Government funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Also, in May 2015, it received the UK Garden of the Year award. The award, organised by the Historic Houses Association and sponsored by Christie’s auctioneers, recognises the importance of some of the country’s most spectacular gardens, gardens that have outstanding horticultural and public appeal.

After months of near-confinement at Platypus Towers, it’s great to get out and about at Renishaw. The flower-beds are ablaze, and a ballet of butterflies flits happily between the blossoms. The statues, including an unexpected elk (for anyone reading this in North America, a Eurasian elk’s just like your moose), look splendid in the warm sunshine, and down at the lake a swan paddles happily amongst the rushes and reeds.

Renishaw Lake

The Sitwell family still live at Renishaw. In the first half of the 20th century it was graced by the famous literary trio, Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, who were all patrons of the arts and played a significant part in the artistic and literary world at that time. Today’s residents have a lower profile, but are pleased for us all to line the family’s pockets by visiting their gardens and, occasionally, the Hall itself. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Chatsworth House at Christmas

It’s become the fashion in recent years for stately homes – whether in private hands or run by a charitable trust – to open their doors to the public in the run up to Christmas and show off their festive decorations. Some seem to regard it simply as another money-making ploy: just whack up a few trees and glittery baubles, scatter artificial snow liberally in the library, hang a sock or two from a suitable fireplace and watch the money roll in.

Chatsworth House, featuring the “Emperor Fountain”, August 2018

Others – like Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – take it far more seriously, and clearly invest heavily to develop an annual Christmas offer that will delight their visitors. They still watch the money roll in, of course – that’s the name of the game, after all – but at least the punters go away with a smile on their faces, and maybe a few goodies from the seasonally stocked gift shop.

In the magnificent Great Hall the national theme is Russia

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

The Chatsworth House website explains the role of the Trust as follows;

Every penny of visitor admission goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, which is dedicated to the long-term preservation of Chatsworth House, the art collection, garden, woodlands and park for the long-term benefit of the public

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts. In this context the Christmas opening isn’t a deal-breaker, but every little helps, not least in building Chatsworth’s reputation and encouraging return visits in the main, summer season.

In the splendid chapel the national theme is Spain

And as we pull into the car park around ten days before Christmas, the place is buzzing. A host of eager attendants, resplendent in their dayglo yellow tabards, direct us to its further reaches where they can just squeeze us in.

National theme: Russia

The theme of this year’s decorations is ” a land far, far away.” Here’s what the website tells us to expect:

Discover lands afar at Chatsworth this Christmas, following in the footsteps of explorers Phileas Fogg and Amelia Earhart. Our guides will lead you on a festive adventure around the globe as you travel from a Nordic winter wonderland, through blossom trees in Japan, to a baroque Spanish church on the journey of a lifetime.

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

National theme: Canada

It’s a clever choice, a chance to give each room or space a theme relating to a specific country, such as the arched branches of russet maple leaves in the Canadian room (actually, more of a corridor than a room, albeit the grandest corridor most of us will ever see.)

Visiting Chatsworth at Christmas is meant to be educational as well as enjoyable, so signposts in each room advise us of the capital of each nation featured, how far it is from Chatsworth, the average December temperature and how much snow falls there that month.

To give the exhibition a more human touch there are also panels bearing snippets of personal information. For example, the 9th Duke was Governor-General of Canada from 1916 to 1921. Not a lot of people know that.

National Theme: Japan

Generally speaking it’s highly creative and although some of the national themes work better than others, overall it’s very well done. There’s certainly no shortage of Christmas trees, no surprise really considering that there are whole plantations of the things on the Chatsworth estate. But I hate to think what Chatsworth’s electricity bill will be this month, lighting up so many trees across no fewer than 22 separate rooms.

Most of the punters seem content that their £25 entrance fee has been well spent, although a gentleman from the other side of the pond – Texan, judging by his drawl – is overheard complaining bitterly that the American room should have been bigger.

National theme: China

In the interests of transatlantic harmony, and mindful of the fact that we Brits need all the friends we can get these days, I refrain from pointing out that if a larger space really is necessary he could always offer to donate his mouth to the cause. But I keep quiet, and am momentarily dismayed by the sense of an opportunity for innocent merriment that is forever lost.

Meanwhile a couple of visitors have no time to worry about national pride. We watch a young lady – in her early 20s probably – move from room to room having her photo taken in front of every tree. Not once, not twice, but dozens of times in front of every bloody tree in Chatsworth House.

National theme: Switzerland

She poses and postures, pouts and preens, tossing her hair and placing a quizzical finger to her chin, but never looks directly at the guy with the camera. Does she think it makes her look more alluring, more seductive? If she does she’s sadly mistaken, she just appears evasive.

And who is this guy anyway, what is he to the Queen of Preen? Boyfriend? Brother? Agent? Pimp? Who knows, but he’s clearly on a mission, clicking away like crazy on his Pentax. The pair of them are in a little world of their own, obsessed with the photoshoot, indifferent to the magic of Chatsworth House.

National theme: Morocco

But the Queen of Preen and Pentax Man are in the minority: most visitors have simply come here for an hour or two of harmless fun. The organisers have done an excellent job in managing the hordes, and there’s a surprising air of serenity.

Chatsworth at Christmas harks back to a gentler age, an age that is a world away from the madness that assails us in the shops and across the media at this time of year. OK, the vision of Christmas portrayed at Chatsworth is a chocolate box fantasy, a bit of feel-good escapist nonsense. But it’s good to escape sometimes.

And god knows, there’s loads of stuff in December 2019, in the UK, that I want to escape from.

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.

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.

Cambridge through Chinese eyes

My last post bemoaned the hordes of tourists who clogged the narrow streets of Cambridge’s historic centre during our visit a few weeks ago.  Most of them appeared to hail from China, and as they came in groups of up to 50 they were impossible to miss or ignore. The days of Japanese mass tourism may be over, but in China the tour companies have found a worthy Far-Eastern successor.

Kings College Chapel: look carefully and you will see at least three tour groups

The new-found wealth of the People’s Republic of China has changed the face of international tourism.  We witnessed this first-hand during our trips to Tasmania (2016) and the USA’s Yellowstone National Park (2018)

In both places the bus-loads of phone-wielding, selfie-snapping Chinese tour groups were the dominant feature in the tourist landscape.  It was therefore no surprise to see so many Chinese folk in Cambridge, which is, of course, one of the UK’s major tourist destinations.

Punting on the River Cam

What was a surprise was to learn that there is another reason why the Chinese flock there in such large numbers.  In November 1928 a Chinese poet who had previously studied at Kings College, Xú Zhìmó, made a return visit to Cambridge and was moved to capture the moment in verse.  Xú is considered one of the most important modern Chinese poets, and Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again is his most popular poem.

Xú died in controversial circumstances in a plane crash in 1931.  In 2018 he was commemorated through the creation, in the grounds of Kings College, Cambridge, of the China-UK Friendship Garden, also known as the Xú Zhìmó Garden.  Four lines of his poem are inscribed on a rock in the Friendship Garden, close to the banks of the River Cam. 

File:Kings College Xu Zhimo memorial.jpg

Photo credit: Cmglee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Xú’s poem, and the Garden commemorating the poet and his most famous work, appear to be a contributory factor in attracting Chinese tourists to Cambridge.

The translation (below) is sourced from the East Asia Student website.

Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again
by
Xú Zhìmó

 
Lightly I leave,
as lightly I came;
I lightly wave goodbye,
to the sunlit clouds in the western sky.
 
The golden willows of that riverside,
are brides in the setting sun;
their glimmering reflections in the water,
ripple in the depth of my heart.
 
The waterlilies in the soft mud,
sway splendidly under the water.
In the gentle waves of the Cam,
I would be a water plant!
 
That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.
 
Looking for dreams? Push a punt
to where the grass is greener still upstream;
a boat laden with starlight,

singing freely in the glorious light of stars.
 
But I cannot sing freely,
silence is the music of my departure,
even the summer insects are quiet for me,
tonight's Cambridge is silent!
 
Quietly I leave,
as quietly I came;
I cast my sleeves a little
not taking even a strand of cloud away
.

What a beautiful, evocative poem.  But the tranquillity it conveys is a million miles away from the febrile tourist trap we visited recently. 

I wonder what Xú Zhìmó would make of Cambridge, August 2019?

Cambridge creaking at the seams

Last month we spent a few days in Cambridge.  So, it seems, did everyone else. Back in the day I was a student at Cambridge University for three years but I was never there in August, the height of the tourist season.  And, of course, tourism – both home-grown and international – has expanded massively in the 42 years since I graduated. I was, therefore, totally unprepared for the crowds we encountered during our visit.

Gonville and Caius College

Cambridge has a lot to offer the tourist.  Here’s what Lonely Planet has to say about its attractions:

Abounding with exquisite architecture, exuding history and tradition, and renowned for its quirky rituals, Cambridge is a university town extraordinaire.  The tightly packed core of ancient colleges, the picturesque riverside ‘Backs’ (college gardens) and the leafy green meadows surrounding the city give it a more tranquil appeal than its historic rival Oxford … The buildings here seem unchanged for centuries, and it’s possible to wander around the college buildings and experience them as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

I’ve got a lot of time for Lonely Planet.  Their guidebooks are invariably well-written, and often encourage the more intrepid visitor to get off the beaten track and walk roads less travelled, which is the best way to get under the skin of a country or a city.  But, based on what we experienced a few weeks ago, the words “tranquil appeal” seem sadly out of place in any description of Cambridge in August 2019.

Peterhouse College

We had a lot to pack into our visit, and so were out and about by 9am.  At first all seemed well, the streets lively but not uncomfortably busy.  Then, around 10am, the coach parties began to arrive. 

Long crocodiles of visitors, up to 50 in a single group, descended on the historic city centre from all directions, following obediently behind their flag-waving guides.  Soon the narrow medieval streets were crazily crowded, visitors jostling one another to get a view of – or even better, a selfie in front of – one of the city’s architectural gems. 

St John’s College, and bicycles galore

“Tranquil appeal?”  I don’t think so!

Lonely Planet is also unrealistic in suggesting that the average tourist can “wander around the college buildings.”  Many of the colleges are doing whatever they can to keep the hordes at bay, barring their doors and placing stern messages outside warning the masses that THIS COLLEGE IS CLOSED TO VISITORS. 

Others, Kings for example, take a different view and charge a pretty penny for admission.  Of course, everyone wants to see Kings College Chapel up close and personal, so the college bursar must be raking it in.

Interior of Kings College Chapel

I will confess that these attempts to deny or charge for admission don’t worry me personally.  As a graduate of the university I can get in pretty much anywhere, and without spending a dime, so long as I flash my alumni card and behave myself. 

But I’ve a lot of sympathy for the serious tourist, who maybe has travelled a long way and spent a small fortune to visit Cambridge, only to find that lots of the places he wants to see won’t let him in or will only do so in return for a fistful of dollars.

Kings College Chapel, viewed from “the Backs”

Tourism is hugely controversial in Cambridge.  In 2017 over eight million tourist visits were recorded, in a city of just 146,000 people.  The city is creaking at the seams. Tourists keep some shopkeepers afloat with their purchases, but other business owners complain that these are the “wrong tourists,” visitors who just don’t spend enough or buy the right stuff. 

For Cambridge residents going about their normal daily business the crowded streets must be distressing.  But tourism reportedly accounts for 22% of jobs in the local economy, and only the most hard-line critics would seriously consider killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

The Mathematical Bridge, Queen’s College

Mass tourism is a mind-bending conundrum, but not one that is unique to Cambridge.

In another blog I wrote at length about the impact of tourist numbers on the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in the USA.  There, as in Cambridge, the scale of tourism is in danger of destroying the very thing that tourists want to see.

As an habitual tourist I was, and am, part of the problem.  I cherish the prospect of being a tourist again, in Cambridge, in Yellowstone, or elsewhere, but what will be the cost to the places I want to visit and those who live in them? 

I don’t have the answer, but it seems plain to me that things can’t go on as they are.

*

In case you’re wondering why, despite my protestations about the Cambridge crowds, there are so few people in the photos that illustrate this post the answer is simple: Mrs P hates anyone getting between her camera lens and the focus of her interest. She’s been known to wait a long, long time for a clear shot, and when she can’t get one she gets very cross indeed. You have been warned!