IT IS TEMPTING to concentrate on the wonderful collection of exhibits in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, but you should spare some of your attention for the magnificent decoration of some of its galleries. Look up from the paintings and display cases to see superb ceiling decorations above you, and also around you when using the grand staircase. You are sure to be amazed.
The museum is housed in a neo-classical edifice initially designed by George Basevi (1794-1845), architect of London’s Grosvenor Square. After Basevi’s death, the planning of the structure was completed by Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863). Built to house the collection bequeathed to the University of Cambridge by Richard FitzWilliam, 7th Viscount FitzWilliam (1745-1816), the present museum was opened to the public in 1848. Over the years since then, the museum has been enlarged by adding newer buildings and now it is home to about 500,000 artefacts.
Years ago, I remember reading (I cannot remember where) a comparison of a museum in the USA designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) with another one, the Guggenheim in Manhattan, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Both buildings are elegant but that by Mies Van der Rohe modestly allows the exhibits to grab the viewer’s attention more than the architecture, whereas the unusual design of Wright’s building competes with the artworks for the viewer’s attention. The internal decoration of the older galleries of the Fitzwilliam are sufficiently eye-catching to be able to compete with the exhibits housed in them, but somehow, they hardly do this. That is why I am asking you to take your eyes off the exhibits if only to glance briefly at the décor of the galleries,
THE SCYTHIANS ROAMED around the steppes of Central Asia from about 800 BC to about 300 BC. I write “about” because very little is known for certain about this group of people, also known as the Saka-Scythians or Saka. My interest in the Scythians, who were dependant on horse riding for their not inconsiderable exploits including ruling most of Central Asia, was aroused by discovering that they used the double-headed eagle, a symbol that fascinates me, in their handiwork. So, it was with great excitement that I visited the special exhibition of Scythian gold at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The show, “Gold of the Great Steppe”, is on until the 30th of January 2022.
The exhibition is well worth seeing. The gold and other items found in Scythian grave mounds in Kazakhstan are superb examples of sophisticated technology and fine craftsmanship and they are displayed beautifully. The labelling is clear and easy to read. However, what is very clear from what is written on these labels is that almost nothing concrete is known about the people who created the exhibits. The curators make numerous reasonable-sounding suggestions about the possible ways of life that the items suggest, but these seem to me to be mainly intelligent guesswork. The Scythians left no written records. What we know about them depends mainly on metallurgical and genetic findings, as well as a few linguistic studies. Various Ancient Greek writers have written about them, but their opinions were often biased against them. So, it is not surprising that visitors to the exhibition are left little wiser about the people who created the magnificent artefacts on display. Interspersed amongst the items found in the graves in Kazakhstan there are modern recreations of how the Scythians and their horses might have looked in life. I felt that these mock-ups were rather too speculative for my taste. That said, I was pleased to have seen the show.
KINGS COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE has a superb perpendicular gothic chapel, whose construction commenced in about 1446 and took almost 100 years to complete. Its fabulously intricate fan-vaulting makes it one of the finest buildings in Cambridge, if not in all of England. Until recently, it was the one and only building in Cambridge that visitors to the city needed to see, even if they did not have time to see anything else. Although this continues to be the case, there is another building, which visitors should make time to see in addition to the chapel. Unlike the college edifice, this is not in the historic academic part of the city but in Mill Road, not far from the main railway station. Near the eastern end of this thoroughfare, which is rapidly becoming a ‘trendy’ part of Cambridge, you will come across a wonderful modern building set back from the road and separated from it by a pleasant, small garden. This structure is The Cambridge Central Mosque.
The mosque was completed in 2019 and designed by Marks Barfield Architects (London) in conjunction with Professor Keith Critchlow (1933-2020), who was Professor of Islamic Art at London’s Royal College of Art, and the garden designer Emma Clark. The designers of the mosque aimed (in the words of Abdal Hakim Murad, chairman of the Cambridge Mosque Trust) to create:
This has been achieved very successfully. The visually spectacular deep portico, reached after walking through a pleasant garden, is supported by clusters of curved timbers, which immediately bring to mind thoughts of the masonry fan-vaulting in Kings College Chapel. These clusters continue through the entire building, creating a sense of continuity of the exterior and interior spaces. The vaulting that reminds us of the mosque’s gothic relative at Kings College also evokes purely Islamic architecture such as one finds at the Alhambra in Spain. The outside of the building is covered with brickwork in two colours, the bricks being arranged to produce patterns which are contemporary versions of a traditional Islamic design. The centre of the mosque is topped by a single dome made in matt-gold coloured metal.
The glass walls that separate the portico from the interior of the mosque reflect the mundane houses opposite the mosque (across Mill Road). I do not know whether the designers intended it, but I felt that these reflections were a way of giving the impression that the garden and the world beyond the mosque is merging with the building itself, that the religious structure was merging with its secular surroundings. Whether or not this was the designers’ intention, this mosque deserves a place in the highest echelon of great British architecture alongside Kings College Chapel. The beauty of the chapel and the mosque, separated by many hundreds of years in age, both have the effect of taking one’s breath away in amazement.
IF YOUR TRAIN FROM CAMBRIDGE to London stops at Shepreth and Meldreth, you can be sure that you are in for a longish journey because only the slower trains halt at these stations. Over the course of many years, we have been travelling to and from Cambridge by train and as I enjoy looking out of the window, I have always noticed this pair of oddly named stations. Only recently, we visited both places by car and took a look around these lovely villages between Cambridge and Royston and close to the A10 road, which runs from London Bridge to Kings Lynn via Cambridge.
The ‘reth’ suffix in the two villages names means ‘stream’. Shepreth means ‘sheep stream’ and Meldreth means ‘mill stream’. There is archaeological evidence of settlements in both places long before the Romans invaded England. The Romans may have occupied part of the parish of Shepreth and their successors, the Saxons, developed the village of Meldreth. Both villages are listed in the Domesday Book (1086). Little appears to have been recorded in the history books about events in tiny Shepreth. The larger village of Meldreth also played no great role in the history of England but, in the 16th century, Christ College of Cambridge moved to its estate near the village to escape from the plague. Members of the Meldreth Local History Group might disagree with my assessment of Meldreth’s place in British history. Their superb website (meldrethhistory.org.uk/) details many aspects of the place’s past, but most of them are about the village rather than the wider world.
I imagine that the building and opening of railway stations in the two villages in 1851 were major events in their history and development. Currently, the stations are served by Thameslink trains. The villages are popular places for commuters to both London and Cambridge.
Both villages are rich in historic buildings of great beauty. Many features of vernacular architecture can be found including many fine thatched roofs. A particularly charming old, thatched edifice In Shepreth is Corner Cottage, which is close to a more aristocratic looking building, Docwra House. This former manor house was built in the 17th century and then provided with later additions (www.docwrasmanorgarden.co.uk/history.htm). The village sign at Shepreth is suitably adorned with sheep, bales of fleece, a stream, a bridge, a water mill, and a leaping fish. The bridge, which we did not see, was built in the 17th century. It crossed the River Rhee, a tributary of the River Cam, in which sheep were washed, and was used by farmers taking sheep to the market in Cambridge.
At Meldreth, through which flows the tiny River Mel, a tributary of the Cam, we entered the parish church of Holy Trinity, whose construction began in the mid-12th century on the site of an 8th century church. Its square tower, nave, and chancel were all constructed in the 12th century. The church contains some fine brass chandeliers; an elaborately carved pulpit and choir stalls with wooden carvings; fragments of pre-Reformation frescoes; a lovely timber beam ceiling; some heavily whitewashed carvings supporting some of the ceiling timbers; and a mediaeval parish chest. The latter is one of about 150 surviving examples. It was made in Baltic pine with iron bands between about 1400 and 1420 and was used for securely storing valuable liturgical items (e.g., silverware, books, and vestments). In addition to visiting the church, we drove through long village to its station, which up until our visit by car, we had only ever seen whilst speeding through it by train. However, we did not see any mills as suggested by the meaning of the name Meldreth.
We did not spend nearly enough time in the two villages as we fitted them into an already busy day of sightseeing. However, having sampled them, we feel that they merit a longer visit in the future. Once again, these places provide good examples of the wealth of historical features to be discovered in England’s rural areas.
LOVERS OF ARCHITECTURE will find much to enjoy amongst the buildings that fill the historic centre of the university city of Cambridge. Amongst the sea of old colleges, which are rich in fine architectural features, there are some attractive buildings whose existence are not solely due to the requirements of academia. One of these stands at the southern end of Sidney Street. Formerly Foster’s Bank, this picturesque edifice faced with alternating stripes of red and white and topped with a highly decorative clock tower, now houses a branch of Lloyd’s Bank.
Ebenezer Foster (1776-1851) and his brother Richard, both born in Cambridge, founded their bank in 1804. The bank was originally founded for the workers at the three mills that the Fosters owned (www.findagrave.com/memorial/181142444/ebenezer-foster). Because the university would not allow the Fosters to build railway lines to their mills, they constructed another mill close to the existing railway lines. This mill is now called Spillers Mill. The Foster family lived at Anstey Hall in Trumpington (near Cambridge) from 1838 to 1941. Ebenezer died in Trumpington. Ebenezer was Mayor of Cambridge in 1836, and later a county magistrate, then the High Sheriff in 1849. In addition to other public positions, he was a governor of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Ebenezer’s obituary in “Cambridge Independent Pres” on Saturday the 31st of May 1851 noted:
“Mr. Foster was at the head of the first banking and mercantile establishments in the town. It is unnecessary, therefore, to say that his life was one of great activity and usefulness; and it is not too much to say that in every occupation, whether public or private, his conduct commanded universal respect.”
Before 1891, Fosters Bank was housed on Trinity Street in what was once the Turk’s Head:
“The rather attractive Tudor shop on Trinity Street now occupied by a clothes shop was once the Turk’s Head Coffee House, one of the earliest coffee houses in the country (17th century). It was much frequented by students. The upper floors later became the Turk’s Head Carvery, but it is now entirely given over to floral prints. The building was once the home of Fosters’ Bank, which later moved …” (www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~ckh11/cam.html).
Years ago, in the late 1960s, four of us, three friends and myself, ate a meal at the Turks Head. The bill for the four of us came to 14/6 (72.5pence) and we gave the waiter 15/- (15 shillings: 75 pence). My friends were horrified when I told the waiter:
“Keep the change.”
For, even in those far-off days, sixpence (2.5 pence) was a rather mean tip for a bill of 14/6.
In 1891, the bank building at the south end of Sidney Street, once Foster’s now Lloyd’s, was completed. It was designed by the architects A and P Waterhouse. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was the eldest of eight children. One of his siblings, Edwin Waterhouse (1841–1917), was one of the founders of the accountancy company Price Waterhouse (now incorporated into PWC). Alfred’s son Paul (1861-1924) joined his father’s architectural practice in 1884, becoming a partner in 1891, the year that the Foster’s Bank building was put up in Sidney Street.
Alfred Waterhouse and his practice were responsible for the design of many impressive buildings in the Victorian era. One of them, which is very well-known, is London’s Natural History Museum. Slightly less famous but equally impressive is the Prudential Assurance Building in London’s Holborn. This building is opposite numbers 337 and 338 High Holborn, which survived the Great Fire of London of 1666, and were restored by Waterhouse. Apart from the bank in Cambridge and the Cambridge Union building, he also designed buildings associated with the following colleges: Jesus, Gonville and Caius, Pembroke, Girton, and Trinity Hall. The bank in Cambridge is one of seven designed by Alfred Waterhouse.
I have entered the former Foster’s Bank only once. The glass-ceilinged banking hall is a riot of colour, its surfaces covered by tiles with sculpted surfaces. The octagonal clock tower is topped with a sharply pointed octagonal roof, one of the city’s many spires. The clock faces with their Roman numerals are made with tiling in several colours. Although now a branch of Lloyds, the name Foster can still be seen clearly above the main doorway.
When you next visit Cambridge, by all means admire Kings College Chapel and other architectural gems within the various colleges, but do spare some time to enjoy the former Foster’s Bank building on Sidney Street before visiting the nearby marketplace, which I always enjoy.
CAMBRIDGE IS A CITY which I have visited often since I was a child. My first recollection of the place was visiting Gonville and Caius College to meet my father’s long-term collaborator, the Hungarian born economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002). Later, after 1965, during my childhood and adolescence, we used to visit Cambridge to spend time with my father’s friend from his student days in Cape Town (South Africa), the social scientist Cyril Sofer (died 1974) and his wife Elaine. At first, I used to visit them with my family and when I was in my teens, I used to stay with them in their large Victorian house near Selwyn College. It was Elaine, who first introduced me to the joys of the drink known as ‘Bloody Mary’.Further travels to Cambridge followed when a childhood friend of mine attended Clare College to study for his bachelor’s degree. Through him, I met his good friend, now a well-known writer, Matthew Parris.
Many more visits to Cambridge followed my graduation at University College London in 1973. Although I remained in London to study for a higher degree, some of those who had graduated with me moved to Cambridge to pursue further studies. Three out of the nine of us, who graduated in physiology in 1973, embarked on doctoral theses in the city’s university. One of these was Lopa, who is now my wife. While she was at Cambridge, we were still ‘just good friends’, as the saying goes.
On one of my visits to see Lopa, I stayed in a house in Owlstone Road, which is south of the historic centre of Cambridge. A mattress was set up for me in a ground floor room with a street facing window. The room had been recently occupied by a female student, who had moved elsewhere. This sojourn in the city was during the time when the so-called Cambridge Rapist was assaulting young women, always within their homes, at an alarming rate. He carried out his attacks between October 1974 and April the following year.
Apparently, he followed potential victims to their homes and noted down their addresses in a notebook.The rapist carried out his first rape on the 18th of October 1974. Then another on the first of November, and yet again on the 13th of that month (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Samuel_Cook). The latter was carried out within Homerton College, now a part of Cambridge University. He struck again on the 13th of February 1975, and then, unsuccessfully, on the 5th of May.
I slept soundly at Owlstone Road when I was staying there for a night or two. One morning, I woke up and saw police vehicles out in the road. It was the 8th of December 1974 and the rapist had raped a woman in the house next door to where I was staying, having broken into its ground floor room, which mirrored that in which I was sleeping. What none of us knew until after the perpetrator, Peter Samuel Cook, was eventually caught during his attack on Owlstone Croft’s nurses’ hostel in June 1975, was that the villain had listed the house in which Lopa was living with some other young ladies in his notebook of potential targets. The young lady who had occupied the room where I spent a couple of nights was in the rapist’s list of future victims.
Cook, who had knifed at least one of his victims, was a violent person and might have been awfully annoyed with me had he broken into the room where I was sleeping and found me, a man, instead of one of his intended female targets. Subsequent visits to the wonderful city of Cambridge have not, I am pleased to relate, been so potentially hazardous. Cook was jailed for life and died in Winchester Prison in 2004.
THE TINY VILLAGE of Madingley is just under 3 ½ miles west of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, yet it feels a long way from anywhere. The settlement was recorded as ‘Matingeleia’ in about 1080, as ‘Mading(e)lei’ in the Domesday Book, and ‘Maddingelea’ in 1193. The name means ‘the leah of Mada’s people’, a ‘leah’ being a glade where mowing was done, in other words, a clearing. What became of Mada and his or her people, I have no idea. In 1086, there were 28 peasants in Madingley but by 1279, there were 90 people in the village (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp165-166). The population in the 18th century reached about 150 and increased to over 200 in the 19th century. In 2011, there were 210 people living in the civil parish of Madingley (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madingley). Whenever I have visited the village, where my cousin lives, I have never seen many people out and about.
The earliest record of a church in Madingley was in 1092. Much of the present, attractive church (St Mary Magdalene), which was closed when we last visited, contains structures that date back to the 13th and 14th centuries (www.madingleychurch.org/history/). The building has a square tower topped with a tall steeple. The north side of the exterior of the nave of the church is brickwork made of irregularly shaped and equally irregularly arranged stones and mortar. The south side looks plain because the stonework is covered with plaster rendering. A church official who was passing by while I was taking photographs explained that the rendering, which protects the wall from penetration of rainfall, is probably original and that the church authorities are currently trying to decide whether to cover the north side with rendering.
The church stands next to the entrance to the grounds of Madingley Hall. A long drive climbs sinuously up a slope to the hall, whose construction was begun by Sir John Hynde (died 1550) who acquired the Madingley estate in 1543 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000627). Hynde, who had studied at Cambridge University, was an important judge. He was called to the Bar at Grays Inn and became Recorder of Cambridge in 1520. In 1539, as a result of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) ordered by King Henry VIII, he was granted the Cambridgeshire estate now known as Anglesey Abbey and in 1542-43, he came to possess lands at Madingley (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hynde). The construction of the Hall was continued by John’s son, Sir Francis Hynde (c1532-1596). In 1756, Sir John Hynde-Cotton, employed Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (1716-1783) to landscape the Hall’s grounds. I do not know how much of the landscaping seen today was that created by Brown but the lovely pond at the bottom of the lawns sweeping down from the front of the house looks like one of his typical features. The property remained in the Hynde family until 1858. A descendant of the family, Maria Cotton, married Sir Richard King, who obtained the part of the estate that included the Hall. In 1861, Maria rented the Hall to Queen Victoria for use by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whilst he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Currently, the Hall is home to the University’s Institute of Continuing Education and has sleeping accommodation both for those attending courses and also for visitors to the area.
In 1871, the Hall was sold to Mr Hurrell and then later to Colonel Walter Harding, who completely renovated the Hall. His heirs sold it to the University of Cambridge in 1948 (www.madingleyhall.co.uk/). Harding’s granddaughter Rosamund gave 30 acres of land on which the American Military Cemetery now stands beside the village of Madingley. The graves in this cemetery, mostly Christian and a few Jewish, are arranged neatly with military precision.
A half-timbered thatched lodge stands by the entrance to the drive next to the church. The former was built in about 1908 by Colonel Harding. The driveway crosses a bridge at one end of the lake or pond. This fake bridge was one of Lancelot Browns landscaping features. Sadly, when we last visited, most of the Hall was covered with scaffolding. Despite that, we were able to admire the mainly 16th century architecture of the building. One particularly interesting feature is the ogival gothic archway that leads into a courtyard behind the original Hall. Decorated with heraldic and other mouldings, this brick and limestone archway was originally part of the Old Schools in Cambridge. Sir John Hynde-Cotton brought the archway to Madingley Hall in 1758. It is worth passing beneath the archway, which bears the date ‘1758’, and entering the walled kitchen garden on the left of it. This area contains a lovely variety of well-tended plants and shrubs.
Tiny Madingley, dwarfed by the Hall and its gardens, has one pub, the Three Horseshoes. It has been in existence since 1765, if not before. Attractively thatched, as is the village hall nearby, the pub we see today was built in 1975, following destruction of an earlier building by fire. I have eaten at the pub once. My impression was that it is a place to which most of its customers drive from elsewhere. It is more of a restaurant than a typical pub. I am curious to know how many of the villagers use it to enjoy a pint or two. On our recent visit in April 2021, the establishment looked sad, being closed on account of the covid19 lockdown.
Peaceful Madingley is home to a private nursery school, housed in a building dated 1844 as well as a discreet complex of University of Cambridge animal behaviour laboratories. Apart from these attractions, there is a disused telephone box that now serves as a library where anyone can take books for free so long as they replace them with others. It is a pity that there is no village shop, often a focus of village life, but given the small population of the place, maybe its absence is not surprising.
Little Madingley is now a suburb of Cambridge yet it has not merged with the city physically. It remains at heart a picturesque and charming example of ‘village England’ – a place to take refuge from the stresses and strains of modern life.
SINCE THE FOURTH OF JULY 2020, the anniversary of the day Britain lost a large American colony and when our worldly wise Prime Minister deemed it safe for all of us to be liberated from the constraints of ‘lockdown’ and encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, a policy that appears to have helped to spread the covid19 virus as well as restaurant owners, we have been roaming around the countryside, discovering what a beautiful country we inhabit. What has struck me when driving from A to B is the number of exceptionally attractive, yet not well-known, villages we have passed through. The village of Comberton in Cambridgeshire was one of these, which we nearly drove past without examining it. However, as time was on our side and it looked so lovely, we stopped there for a few minutes and took a stroll around.
We parked next to an oddly shaped small village pond in which clumps of reeds were growing. A small family of ducks wound its way between the vegetation, occasionally disappearing from view. At the far end of the pond, there is an old low brick wall. Behind it, there is a long two-storey house with a brick roof and decorative chimney stacks. Before describing some of the other lovely buildings in the village, let me give you a flavour of its history.
Sometime between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, someone dropped a polished Neolithic stone axe near where the village stands today. Somewhat later, the Romans built a villa near Comberton. Even later, the village’s name began to evolve, as is described on the village’s website (http://www.comberton.org/home/about-comberton/history-of-comberton/):
“A lot is said about the name of the village and its origins. It is believed that the name is of Celtic origin, possibly named after a landowner by the name of Cumbra. The Domesday Book (1086) has it recorded as Cumbertone. According to William Kip’s map of the area in 1607 Comberton is spelt as it is today and interestingly Barton is spelt Berton”
The village has several churches, which we will visit in the future. One of these is St Mary’s, is in the Early English style with later modifications. Another still extant place of worship is used by non-Conformists. There have been associations between non-Conformism and Comberton since as early as the 17th century. The Puritan William Dowsing (1596-1668), an iconoclast, visited the village in March 1643, and recorded:
“‘We brake downe a crucifix and 69 superstitious pictures we brake downe, and gave order to take downe 36 cherubims, and the steps to be taken down by March 25.’”
Prior to 1772, when a new road, a turnpike (now the A228), was built, Comberton was on the road connecting Oxford with Cambridge. Apart from the usual activities found in villages, such as butchery, bakery, saddlery, harness-making, inn keeping, blacksmithing, and so on, the place had one industry for a while. That was in the 19th century when Comberton became a small centre for mining coprolite, fossilised dung. This material used to be ground in a mill to produce a powder that made a good crop fertiliser. Judging by the good state of the houses and the high-quality cars parked near them, the inhabitants of Comberton appear make their living in reasonably well-paid jobs. Were I to have had a profitable career in or near Cambridge, this village might have been a good place to live.
Every village is unique, but many share the same features. In Comberton, we saw several houses with well-maintained thatched roofs. However, we also saw something I had never noticed before. Some of the houses had what you might describe as ‘hybrid’ roofs: partly thatched and partly tiled. One house near the village pond had something we have seen on thatched roofs in many other villages. That is, the ridge of the thatch is decorated with animals made of thatch. Here in Comberton, this one roof was adorned with thatch sculptures of four birds with long necks, that made me think they are supposed to be depicting geese rather than ducks or swans.
The village pond, which is across the road from a dental surgery and ‘Millionhairz’, a hairdresser’s salon, is encircled by an attractive low, neatly built stone wall that curves around the water in a visually pleasant way. On the green next to the pond, there is a timber post that supports a sign (erected 1977) with the name of the village and a two-sided picture above it. On one side, a priest is depicted handing fishes to three people with outstretched arms. This refers to years long past when herrings were handed out to the poor in the village soon before Easter. The other side of the picture above the village name depicts a farmer ploughing his field with a plough drawn by a horse. Behind the farmer high on a hill, there is a white coloured wooden windmill. This reminds us that once Comberton had two working mills.
Our visit to Comberton lasted no more than ten minutes partly because we had to reach somewhere to meet my cousin and because the weather was miserable: grey, cold, and wet. However, what little we saw of this delightful place made us realise that it was well worth stopping en-route to our destination. We have already driven through so many intriguing villages on our excursions through the English countryside. I would have liked to spend time in all of these, and hope to return to some of them in the future. I would rather spend time wandering around picturesque villages than sitting for hours in traffic jams, as happens so often these days.