Episode 5, Barrington to Malton Farm

June 1st, Walk 5, Barrington to Maldon. Susan Griffiths gamely came with us and we were rewarded with an auspicious start in Barrington with three wonders – King Arthur himself couldn’t have done better.

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A smug and stately procession of tractors.


A wild boar rampaging over a straw roof.

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A birthday party in Rapunzel’s tower. (The ordnance survey says a converted mill, but we could see plainly there were windows and no stair.)

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We joined the river just past Barrington,

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gliding out of a green tunnel of willows under a fierce sign saying ‘no trespassing’. It was an omen we should have taken more notice of.

We turned the other way, scarcely more welcoming, through a bed of nettles, a herd of bullocks, a riot of hawthorn.

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The journey continues along the year as well as the river: everywhere the intense green of early summer, the meadow flowers a battleground of colour, a regiment of marching teasels, plantains like exploding cannonballs.

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Someone had carefully p2013-06-01 13.29.07lanted a wood, complete with nature notes, since the makers of our elderly ordnance survey map had been there. But they didn’t let us get too close to the river: a scummy pond (why? Who’d left the scum there? Flanders and Swan should investigate) and a sparkling clean drainage ditch.

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Further on, the map promised us an ancient earthworks with a moat. Two large bullocks persuaded us not to investigate.

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We should have been told, but we pressed on, until the river slyly turned a corner and left us behind as it sauntered off through a manicured golf course. A lady in a bright pink shell suit whacked the ball out of sight. Our last view of the river was of a jaunty duck showing us its backside.


Home along a proper footpath (nearly), past a house sign that asked an ontological question:


‘Do you really know where you’ve been? Do you even know the name of the road you’re taking? ’ Well, that’s why we’re going on the journey. Next time, if the river ever escapes from its dalliance with golfers, we’ll follow it to Wimpole Hall.


Stage 4: Harston to Barrington

Back to the river at Harston, this time the whole family and the 13.04.28.magots mound (15)dog.  The river’s just out of sight, across a field edged with chestnuts, curious ponies coming up to look at the dog.  Past Harston Mill, once a main pathway connecting with the Icknield Way.  Now the building turns its back on the path and defies tresspasse13.05.05.harstontobarrington (4)rs.

Through a copse, over a gate, and back to the river.  The dog poses briefly for a photo with the family before racing to hurl herself in the water.  The footpath forks off straight for the next village, but the river twists and turns, round the edge of a ploughed field. We walk in single file, the dog racing from front to back of the line, keeping the pack in order.  A willow trailing a straggly beard of dead grass in the water, which bubbles and ripples round it.  Frilly hawthorn leaves reflected in the still water,  and sticky bud candles, feathery against the stream.  An old willow

13.05.05.harstontobarrington (10)scorched black and broken.  The ri13.05.05.harstontobarrington (38)ver, a silver ribbon, cuts across open country under gathering clouds. The path turns away  by the old railway line, we force our way down a bank, through the nettles and the saplings, and out on to the Barrington road.

Telephone boxes customised by the village.  One full of paper plate artwork proudly says ‘Class 1’.  Another is a village library, bring and share books.  Some of us eye them greedily.  Over the wide greens, past thatched cottages, the half-timbered pub.  Small dead-end lanes promise water at the end: Mill Lane, River Meadows.  A tiny stream, just a ditch, tumbles apologetically under the road and away to meet the river somewhere tidily out of sight.  That’s where we’ll start next time.  As we start for home, an ominous swan glides out of the dusk.  A scarlet sunset V lights up the sky.13.05.05.harstontobarrington (18)

A digression: Magot’s Mound

New boots, the sun’s out, the whitethorn bursting with blossom, ground ivy spread13.04.28.magots mound (6)ing purple flowers, trekking out towards Newton to look for the obelisk. Along the edge of a spinney bursting with different greens, a derelict tent, surrounded by beer cans polythene sheeting and an elderly rather withered fertility garland.. Round the edge of the spinney, a ploughed field stretches up the hill, and on top, bleak in the open, the obelisk newly lifted up on an enormous concrete base:

To Gregory Wale Esqr. Jus???????????????????????????????tice of the Peace for this county, deputy lieutenant, county treasurer, conservator of the river Cam. He lived an advocate for liberty, a good subject, an agreeable companion, a faithful friend, an hospitable neighbour and in all parts of life a useful member of society. He died June 5th, 1739 in the 71st year f his age: universally lamented and was buried in the parish of Little Shelford. This obelisk was erected by his surviving friend James Church Esqr. as a public testimony of his regard for the memory of so worthy a gentleman.

James Church put up the monument to his friend on this spot where they met every day, between the two rivers and near the water’s meet. Gregory Wale’s daughter Margaret apparently lived on in her father’s old house, and sat in the window looking out every day at the monument on the hill above. She sat there long enough to give the hill a name, Magot’s mound.

stage 3: Water’s meet to Harston

Ewaters meetaster day 2013 with my children. It took a while to get to the place where we’d stopped last time but on the other side of the river. We kept thinking the path would take us away from the river, but it carried on right the way along to Haslingfield.willow shoots

Past willow coppices, very pale green buds in a magical quarter of an hour of spring sunshine.


A swan washing its feathers threateningly. Out of the woods into proper fen country: a mutilated willow lowering over flat fields of cabbage stalks and yellow-brown grass, miles of sky.

Mud and puddles.  That Cambridge clay can destroy a pair of walking boots

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The blackthorn is bursting out more desperately than ever.???????????????????????????????

We abandoned the river at a place that called itself Burnt Mill, quite pretentiously for a place that was a weir, an electricity substation, and two swans in a cabbage field.

Back to civilisation: families with children and Labradors on an Easter day slog through the mud, a typical English village: thatch and tiles, a country church, police investigating a pile of dodgy car parts outside a tumbledown warehouse.


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We ended our search at the Queen’s Head at Newton. We suspected we wouldn’t find the river’s source, but were more confident about getting beer and soup. We heard the story about how the landlord’s grandfather, the first man in England to sell Adnam’s ale outside Suffolk in an era of fizzy keg beer and mock-Tudor bar stools, had to go to the Suffolk border to pick up his first barrel, so sure were the brewery it wouldn’t sell outside the county, and started the real ale revolution in East Anglia.

Next time we’re headed towards Barrington cement works.  If we don’t find the river source there, we’re confident at least of another pub.

Stage 2 from Lammas land to the Waters’ Meet

W2013-02-16 16.42.22e started off from Lammas Land in warm weather. Paradise Nature Reserve is upwardly mobile, with a new Pussy willow edging to the path.2013-02-16 16.54.14

Past Skater’s fen, where the old Fen Tiger Chafer Legge used to squeeze the waists of young Newnham ladies under the pretence of teaching them to skate. At least that’s what we told two unwary tourists as we took their photo for them.???????????????????????????????

Willows looking ominously over the river at Dead Man’s Corner.  Past the field where my daughter and I danced to Mamma Mia and my son proposed to his girlfriend (not simultaneously).IMAG0030

A phone box in Jeffrey Archer’s garden. And fine compost heaps. He has more than enough  manure to last several lifetimes.


The church clock defiantly going, in spite of Rupert Brooke.  The mill pool IMAG0033showed no signs of Chaucer’s miller, getting his come-uppance from two lusty students.

Byron’s pool has now been renamed Byron’s Pool LNR. Obviously because it is now a corporate place surrounded by metal fences and weirs.  Signs left around for Lord Byron telling him to respect the local wildlife and beware of currents.  We didn’t see the promiIMAG0041sed woodpeckers, grey wagtails and little grebes, but we did see Merlin trying to escape from his blackthorn bush.


The mapIMAG0045 told us sternly that we should end our walk here: but a hole in the fence, a scramble over felled wood where they are about to build a new town, a squeeze under the M11 and there we were at the waters meet.


A clump of snowdrops marked the place.  Pretty, but not much help with directions -Which arm of the river to follow?

We’ll start off next time from the Green Man in Grantchester – a good place to mull over life decisions and river choices.


And maybe we’ll try to get home before dark.

Setting out

Cam.journey.2013-01-27 (1)Last week we began an epic journey to find the source of the Cam.    We had a hunch it was near Newnham car park, but we were wrong. Still, we revisited many interesting stories, including the legend of Henry VIII and the chairleg, the split willow, the mistletoe bough, and the epic story of how Finian lost the lid of his memory stick in a swan’s nest in St. John’s punt pool. There was also good beer.

The fullest we've seen the river for a long time.  Even the ducks look worried.

We began at Jesus Green lock in Cambridge, where the river was so full even the ducks looked worried.



The guerilla knitting was still wrapped round the lamp posts all along Jesus Green, and it was still cold enough for them to need it.

The river was still rising, and Bin Brook looked like it was just about to take over the colleges, throwing itself heart and soul over a tiny weir.

A IMAG0029grateful Chinese poet had left a haiku carved in a slab of stone in the middle of St. John’s.


The scent of flowers and the scent of books

Drifting over the Bridge of Sighs.
It’s my sort of journey. It’s not a straightforward walk along the river – it doesn’t work like that Spinola_Gargoyle_closeupin Cambridge or probably anywhere else along its length. You have to duck and dive around it, choosing which of many paths will take you closest to it, crossing and recrossing at intervals. In Cambridge, after so many years here, it’s especially hard to get along – so many stories, so many associations at every step to distract and delay. Who was Benedict Spinola? What’s the salsa band doing in the University Social club? Is there still a bicycle in Orchard court? And that’s without counting the pubs.

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We got to Lammas land at Newnham, which was mobbed by geese and children.  We’ve done our share of  getting cold by the paddling pool there in our time.  The river went on, but we headed home.

We’re now working on the theory that the river bubbles up just under the Green Man at Grantchester, but that will have to wait for another sunny day.