In Cambridge there is a line of beautiful college buildings that have their main entrances (facing east) along streets in the centre of the city. At the back of these colleges (on their west sides) are gardens and open spaces that slope gently down to the river Cam. An area, accessible to the public, of grass and trees, criss-crossed with paths, lies to the west of the river separating it from Queens Road which is a north south route from Westminster College to Fen Causeway.
The view across the river Cam from Queens Road is fantastic with beautiful buildings, gardens, fields and meadows. The area is known as The Backs and there are gorgeous spring flowers which is why I visited it by bike a week or so ago.
First I had to get ready, starting with helmet and high vis jacket.
Then the bike, in the shed where I checked the tyres which were well pumped up this time.
The first leg of the journey could be in any town i.e. a residential 1930s street with the usual semi-detached houses and parked cars that you can see below.
However once I reached the river things changed. The photo below is downstream from the centre of Cambridge (north-west of the Backs), with a view towards Jesus Green, and houseboats, bikes propped against a tree and a gorgeous display of daffodils in the foreground.
I cycled on and reached the stream behind St John’s College.
My photographic technique is basic so I was pleased to notice the railings and bike wheel shadow, as I was putting my phone away.
And here are some of the wild flowers, anemones and primroses, growing there.
The next photo is the back of Trinity College with the Wren library through the trees on the left.
And below is a view with Kings College chapel on the skyline.
I cycled a little further on and turned east for a short distance along Garrett Hostel Lane where I took the next two photos, the second one giving a good view of the Wren library in the centre of the picture.
Here is the wrought iron gate into Clare College. Normally this college has a very open attitude to visitors and it is possible to walk through but a combination of current restrictions and construction work meant this was not possible. The flowers are always beautiful in the spring with sheets of crocuses to start with, then daffodils.
Turning through 180 degrees to face Queens Road I noticed the dramatic catkins on this tree. My guess is that it is alder.
The next photo (not brilliantly in focus…) is the famous tourist view of Kings College chapel with Clare College to the left.
Then I arrived at the back gate to Kings. As I was taking the photo I was surprised how many pass holders were going through despite the online arrangements for many of the students at present.
Next stop was looking across to Darwin College from the back of Queens College.
Then a view from Silver Street Bridge with Queens College on both sides of the river (newer to the left/west, and old to the right/east) and the mathematical bridge visible in the centre.
I cycled home by a different route, through the centre of Cambridge and, as I rode up Silver Street there was St Botolph’s church catching the sun on its stone.
I took the last photo from the foot/cycle path along the side of Jesus Green where a stream (covered in duckweed!) flows past the back of Jesus College.
In summer and autumn 2020 our gazebo sat on the terrace just outside the conservatory doors and was a great success, astonishingly. But it covered several, admittedly rather poor quality, flower beds, so a month or two ago we decided it was time to plan some improvements to boost the overall quality of the area.
There were plenty of ideas floating around but eventually we decided to turn some of the flower beds into hard standing using bricks. Without the gazebo these will be perfect for pots, that we hope will be burgeoning with blooms from March onwards – fingers and toes crossed!
This is stage one – a quick drawing and list on a piece of scrap paper.
The terrace looked pretty drab in late January as you can see below so we decided to lay bricks over the area where the bench stands. This includes removing the old tree trunk and the ‘pond in a bowl’, and only keeping plants that climb up the fence.
The first stage was clearing the soil and moving the pond.
Then we brought bricks from the allotment that had been used as paths (now replaced by chippings between rows).
And here are some of the bricks in a pile waiting to be used.
The process of laying the bricks looks like this – below. It is tricky to make sure that the surface is aligned with the existing paving and that it is level and relatively smooth.
It doesn’t take too long to build up the area of hard standing.
And brushing in earth between the bricks is astonishingly effective.
The photo below is the other side of the terrace before any improvements were made.
And here it is with the bricks laid and a space for one of the paving slabs that we found at the other end of the garden.
The slabs are propped up waiting for Jim to move them into position – they are too heavy for me to handle.
One slab is in place below – getting the earth totally level and settled before it goes down is half the battle. I stood on it and rocked the corners – some slack so Jim had to lift the slab for me to add more earth underneath.
And in the picture below it is finished.
And the next photo shows the same on the other side of the terrace, where the bricks and new paving slab are level enough for the seat to stand on them without wobbling – a pretty basic requirement but often harder to achieve than you’d expect!
Below is the same patch after rearrangement of pots etc to make it all look as nice as possible.
On the other side of the terrace there are more pots – which will look lovely when they are in flower and the wintry looking strawberries are producing fruit (we hope).
Last but not least the ‘pond in a bowl’ is looking better in its new location than it ever did in its old position so I am looking forward to an abundance of aquatic creatures sometime.
A few years ago I signed up for a course at a local church on making an advent wreath. It was brilliant. We started from scratch with a bale of straw from which to pull handfuls that we steadily twisted and bound (with wire) into a ring about 30 cms in diameter. The next step is to cover the ring with greenery, using ivy, yew, holly etc as long as it is evergreen and fairly pliable. The idea is to lie the stems in the same direction to give a tidy look.
This process is quite time consuming as the stems have to be secured by sticking the ends into the straw ring and binding them down with wire. The ring must be totally covered so when it sits flat no straw shows.
After 4 weeks or more the greenery can become rather dry and dull but regular spraying with water helps to keep it refreshed. When the festive season is over the advent wreath has to be dismembered and the reusable ring, decorations and wires put away for next year.
So that is where I started this year.
In the photo above you can see the straw ring, spare wire, red ribbons and 4 new white candles. The strong wires in the base of each candle are from the original candles that came with the wreath making course. I use the wires most years, pulling them out of the old candles, heating the ends over the gas cooker and forcing them into the new candles. Sometimes this has been tricky to do, depending on the nature of the candle wax, so in 2019 I bought a set of spiked candle holders that I used instead, as can be seen in the final photo in this blog.
I chose a fairly dry day to cut greenery from the garden – we have far too much holly and ivy!
The evergreen below was bought as a tiny plant over 30 years ago. We keep it well chopped and it is excellent as the first layer on the straw ring. Each short stem curves easily over the ring. After two or three circuits, tied down with wire, the ring is covered.
Below the greenery is piled up on the floor.
Unfortunately I was so carried away with covering the ring with evergreens that I forgot to take any photos.
The course leader all those years ago was very keen that we should divide the ring into four – 4 advent candles and between them red ribbons. Last year I tied the ribbons below each candle and added decorations between.
I decided this year to put a Christmas Day candle in the middle so, for the first time there are five candles. Thinking about it, the central candle should be taller than the four advent candles so I may stand its holder on a small block of wood.
This photo below is the 2019 advent wreath with all candles burning. So that means I took the photo on the fourth Sunday in Advent.
The candles are different heights because the one that is lit first (on Advent Sunday) is lit again on each of the successive Sundays. The same applies to each candle in turn and the tallest is the candle that was lit for the first time on the fourth Sunday in Advent.
Summer extends into October and the garden gets a second flush of flowers.
The new grass seed germinates.
The clocks change – lovely light mornings, and ‘cosy down indoors’ evenings
The gazebo has a battering in wind and rain so on a dry day, down it comes to sprawl in the conservatory as it totally dries out. The garden takes a good deep breath and the light levels indoors rise without the huge green barrage balloon sitting just outside. Plans for more hard standing, new pots etc – exciting winter projects.
From the end of September chrysanths have been flowering on the allotment and during October more and more come into flower there. Patrick’s chrysanths in the garden start to flower – beautiful large blooms in the most splendid colours. So we have plenty to pick. They last for at least two weeks indoors – brilliant.
Here are other activities – piles of books, ready for the next book group and borrowed from friends, a cabinet full of music, games on the left and a rug to keep warm on the right.
And the next picture shows a visor and masks, bottom right – typical of pandemic times.
Pumpkins, real and emoji; will there be trickers and treaters? Probably not and anyway we don’t want to encourage them this year (helping yourself to a sweet or two out of a large tin might be a good way to spread germs….). Highlights – a glittery spider’s web card from 2 great nephews, lovely pumpkin soup for lunch, and the ugliest jack o’ lantern ever.
Having an allotment is a lovely way to get away from normal busy home-based activities. Of course it includes a lot of physical work. Even pickling fruit and harvesting vegetables involves bending and stretching, while digging and weeding (often both together) are more strenuous. So we have regarded the allotment as a way to tick the government’s exercise box during ‘covid summer’! However it isn’t all hard slog and the photos below are meant to highlight some of the more pleasant and less muddy aspects.
Allotment holders are often on their plot for a bit of peace and quiet, so long conversations are not always the norm. However over the years we have talked quite a lot to the people with allotments near us. We also talk with friends who have allotments in other parts of Cambridge, sharing ideas, comparing notes about water supply, how things are growing etc.
A friend with two allotments on a different site from ours gave us wildflower seeds that he had bought in Germany. We set aside a fairly unproductive patch as it would be ideal for wild flowers (relatively infertile with no grass to compete with the flowers). Here they are in mid-June. I am writing this in September and there is a second flowering for some of the species.
Below are typical summer crops. The potatoes are mainly pink fir apples, with a few charlottes that escaped the first digging. Weather during peak potato growing time was far from ideal – dry and warm to start with, a late frost, very high temperatures later in the summer and hardly any rain – so we were pleased with what we found. We grew several varieties of French bean and for the first time we have had a successful tomato crop (ie no blight). Behind our shed is a cultivated blackberry that has produced fruit for weeks. We grow mainly autumn raspberries and they have done quite well although they were set back when temperatures topped 30C. However the crop has carried on and there are promising signs for more fruit as we move through September into October. Sweet corn and parsley have been feeble – not enough rain is my guess.
The next picture is of one part of the site where we have successfully grown bronze fennel, more ornamental than anything else. We also had a small patch for peas (under the netting – now cleared and replaced by a sowing of chard) and successional sowings of beans that were still producing in September. In the foreground are new patty pan plants. The first plants are on a different part of the allotment and never properly got going. It seemed a good plan to try a second planting – but maybe shorter days and lower temperatures will conspire against us. The plants are much bigger, a month on from when the photo was taken in August, with plenty of growth and we have already harvested some.
I recently weeded the brassicas. As you can see below, it meant opening up the tight mesh that we use to cover the plants to stop white fly, cabbage whites etc attacking the plants. The mesh provides a micro climate which combines with the pest protection to make a good growing environment for not only the crops but also weeds and self-set potatoes (a few of them in the punnet). The Italian kale is one of three brassicas under this mesh. The others are purple sprouting broccoli and cabbages. These three should be ready to harvest in late autumn, winter and early spring. We have parsnips and leeks for autumn/winter harvest, and rampant self-seeded spinach and chard.
There are leisure and social aspects of the allotment which add to its attraction. One of them is that when we are there for an afternoon we always take a flask of tea and some cake. Pretty much the first thing we do is put the chairs out! When Will stayed in August we had our usual nice relaxing cup of tea as you can see below.
A finally there is quite a lot of sharing. Patrick makes a comfrey oil balm to rub on aching joints and limbs. Comfrey was called knit-bone and it has miraculous properties we find. P has used it before going to bed when his knees are playing up. The pain disappears very quickly so he can relax and go to sleep. Our allotment neighbour (Italian) has knee troubles and Patrick gave him some of his home made comfrey oil. As a thank you the photo below shows what was in our shed next time we were on the site!
It was a really good chianti which we much enjoyed!
We have three compost ‘bins’ in the garden and three on the allotment. The structure for five of them is basically a frame (posts or old pallets) with wire netting sides. The sixth is slotted planks bought for the purpose. All six bins are in a fairly precarious state now as over time the wood has loosened and rotted and the netting has distorted. However the outcome in terms of well-rotted vegetation is always good by our standards.
The three garden bins operate on a three year cycle 1. Filling with peelings, old plants etc, 2. Covered with plastic sacks and leave to rot, 3. Ready to use
The photo below shows them with compost ‘ready to use’ in the foreground, ‘currently filling up’ in the middle and ‘covered in plastic to rot down’ in the distance.
You can see that the compost that is ready to use is dark brown and friable but it is not in perfect condition. Larger pieces ideally should be removed and returned for further composting. It is also obvious from this picture that the bins are in a slightly ropey state!
The three allotment bins, sited behind the shed, work differently. One is for current waste while the other two are turned and watered almost weekly by Patrick. This means that by the end of the autumn two bins are well rotted and ready to be spread on the allotment as mulch/fertilizer over the winter. Even the active ‘filling’ bin has the turning and watering treatment to speed up the composting process. Its contents will be ready later.
The photo below shows the two well rotted bins in the foreground/centre and, almost invisible, the active bin that we are currently filling. Because the front of each bin is relatively insecure loose material leaks out which makes them look pretty shallow compared with the garden bins – not the case, as we discover when digging them out.
Below is a picture of Will turning the active compost.
Apart from the seriously collapsed netting it is almost impossible to see clearly! The brambles, tree and water butt block the view.
As an aside, that water butt (old barrel inherited from our predecessor) is one of four that are interconnected by pieces of old hose pipe. The rain from the shed roof feeds one of the water butts via a gutter and down pipe. Then the water finds its own level in the other three water butts so we have a huge storage system that is a massive help during dry spells. We can fill cans under the tap on one of the water butts or dip into the old barrels from the top.
Back to compost – we happily accept that partially rotted twigs etc may end up being spread on the ground. However a recent visit to my sister Gilly and her husband gave a demonstration of what we ought to do once the rotting process is well under way. She had open ‘bins’ like ours but they have gone as she has moved the contents into two plastic bins, the ones that look like daleks, with a lid on the top and a door at the bottom to scoop out the compost.
While we were there she spent a large chunk of an unseasonably hot September afternoon improving her compost by sieving it. The photos below show this.
Compost into bucket
From bucket to sieve
Sieving into wheelbarrow – look at the lovely fine compost in the barrow.
All this seems quite calm and relaxing with the low sun and lovely tidy set up. But it was very hard work!
What was left in the sieve was tipped into a garden sack ready to be returned to the compost bin once it was empty.
So a few ideas on composting that seem to work well whether the starting point is ancient home-made bins or well contained daleks.
We bought two gazebos about 10 years ago and they have had intermittent use. Quite quickly one of them went to my sister Caroline as there was no way we needed two, although initially that might have been possible. Ours was used at a street party in 2012, and friends have borrowed it for various occasions. Essentially it is too big to be conveniently put up and taken down and it uses up a large space.
Looking down into the garden from our loft conversion this is what we normally see – lots of lovely trees, an expanse of lawn and flower beds and a paved area with benches etc adjoining the conservatory.
This summer, 2020, we decided that the gazebo counted as ‘garden’ and could be useful for outdoor visitors so we put it up on the paved area. It will deflect gentle rain but is far from weather proof if conditions are stormy.
So the photo below shows the new view from the loft conversion – a huge green tent – and even from the garden it looks fairly large and obvious.
Once inside, however, it creates a totally different feeling. It is difficult to explain but perhaps one friend’s description ‘the sultan’s tent’ is best – the netting and curtain effect is pleasant and frames views of the garden which is attractive to see.
We use it for relaxed cups of tea, reading, and also to meet friends. Not only has it made entertaining possible – ‘why not pop in for a cup of tea in the gazebo?’ – but it has also allowed some live music. Instead of playing flute duets over zoom (it works, but not perfectly) we can now play 7 feet apart ‘outdoors’, ie in the gazebo. It has made recorder quartets feasible. One memorable recorder playing session included rumbling thunder and during another a robin joined in as an additional top part. Even the ‘maximum of six with social distancing’ has been possible – a long table with three couples sitting in pods with a breeze blowing through has been sociable and fun.
The down side is what happens in wild weather. This photo below shows the effect of 40mph winds. The gazebo lifted with each puff and in no time it had moved across the garden. You can see the chairs and table still in position and the gazebo 8 feet from where it started straddling flower beds and lawn! It was exciting when it happened – we could just see it setting off from the kitchen where we were having lunch – like a light footed giant delicately hopping along. The very long pink rope (inherited from Patrick’s father – such a lovely colour!) was handy to tie it down temporarily.
As further winds were forecast we partially demolished the gazebo – just the top frame standing on half legs stood back on the paving waiting for the weather to calm down. Then back it went into full position but this time with some very firm ropes tied to nearby substantial shrubs. Below you can see two sets of ropes – the standard guy rope and the substantial pink one.
There was so much of the lovely pink that we could tie it through the frame inside and string fairy lights through it.
As the days have become shorter this has been totally gorgeous – eating outside on a mild evening under sparkly lights. The photo below of Patrick, me and cousin Elin, was taken by son Jim when he visited. We all love the gazebo – a massive plus side to the Covid months.
It will stay in place for as long as possible and next year will come out earlier, whatever the virus situation. Over the winter I will be planning the layout and planting so we no longer have flower beds under the canvas – a plethora of pots maybe?
On August the 21st we went to Reach, a village east of Cambridge, with Will, our Shetland son who was visiting.
It is a very interesting place, on the ‘fen edge’ with a derelict quay on the north west side of the village at the head of Reach Lode, once an important transport route to the rivers Cam and Ouse and out to the North Sea via the Wash. On the opposite side of the village is the north western end of Devils Dyke, an 11 km Anglo Saxon earth rampart and ditch aligned north-west to south-east. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Dyke,_Cambridgeshire
Over the years we have visited Devils Dyke on many occasions and it has spectacular flora and fauna, particularly linked to its chalk soils. The google satellite view below shows the section of the dyke nearest to Reach. It forms a cross shape (lower half of the view in the centre) where the dyke was cut through by the Cambridge to Mildenhall railway. This line went through Burwell, the village on the east side of the satellite view.
We walked along the dyke until we arrived at the railway cutting. The photo below was taken looking along the line of the old railway towards Burwell (we could just see the church spire) and the position of Devils Dyke is approximately at the telegraph pole. The point of our visit was to find butterflies and their food plants (not to study transport routes from the past!) and the photo below is typical of Will and Patrick both looking out for anything interesting.
This cutting is sheltered and has a rich flora including many food plants for butterflies such as chalkhill blues. The next two pictures show Will photographing some of them. He is patient and experienced in wildlife photography. His pictures come out well as he knows how to get good close-ups. My efforts are pathetic by comparison along the lines of ‘that was where the butterfly was but it flew away’, ‘you can just about see it but I wasn’t really close enough’ etc!
And here they are checking the pictures.
The photos below are some of those that Will took:
Pair of chalk hill blues
And below a male chalkhill blue
This photo is a male brown argus
Our return took us past this signpost – it indicates that the designated footpath is ‘Earthworks Way’ not surprisingly given that most of it is along Devil’s Dyke, a dramatic earthwork.
Once we were on our way back to Reach we noticed plenty of interesting plants and this profusion of sloes (blackthorn). Normally we pick sloes in order to make sloe gin – but it’s too early in August. Ideally they should be frosted, but that’s not always possible unless there are early frosts in November. By January/February when there are more reliable frosts the berries have gone past their best.
The ditch on the south west side of Devil’s Dyke is very deep. This photo below shows the shallower ‘ditch’ on the north east side of the dyke. It was a rich area of plants, butterflies and ants – we saw at least two anthills.
This very pleasant outing achieved what we had set out to do, to see chalk flora and fauna, particularly butterflies. It ended with a drink in the Red Lion in Swaffham Prior, on our way back to Cambridge!
On the 22nd of July we went for a short walk on Magog Down. This area of chalk downland is on the south west side of the A 1307 opposite Wandlebury Country Park and the Gog Farm Shop. It was our first visit and the combination of plants and butterflies was absolutely stunning. The slopes of the down lead up to an area of woodland (first photo) that is edged on one side by a steep slope (second photo).
These are the butterflies that we saw:
Essex skipper, Small heath, Brimstone, Large white, Small white, Marbled white, Peacock, Hedge brown, Meadow brown, Comma, Common blue, Red admiral, Small tortoiseshell, Ringlet.
The plants included marjoram (which was humming with bees), mignonette, kidney vetch and clustered bellflower/campanula (which we have spent some time identifying, and disconcertingly it is not on the Magog Trust list of plants so have we made a mistake?).
The photos below show both plants and butterflies (which, as in real life, you will need to look closely to see).
The blue flower below is what we think is clustered bellflower.
Magog Downs is designed for people to enjoy with seats, paths (mown areas, fenced paths and a board walk), parking facilities and a picnic area.
There is also a relatively new scrape to encourage chalk species.