For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.
The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.
Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.
The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.
So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…
…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.
The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.
The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.
The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.
Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.
Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.
We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.
For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”). Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.
But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries. Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.
So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.
*Oxford, I meant Oxford.
Punting on the Cam
If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam. These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower), and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed. It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.
The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery. You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers. Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.
If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt, and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge style rather than Oxford style) if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers). Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour. It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online. Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.
If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).
It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real. Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined). Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.
King’s College Chapel
In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel(£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight. The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows. They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.
Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir. Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space. (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)
The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places. Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter). A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.
Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures. All listed below are free to visit.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute
In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base. The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
If, like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home. It gathers together artifacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero). The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.
Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples. Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia. A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula). Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.
But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.
Robert Falcon Scott
**I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences
The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since. Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.
***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?
Museum of Zoology
Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom. These include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares. The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history. Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.
This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day. The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.
Explore by Bike
After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artifacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well be in need of some fresh air. Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills. The council website has maps available to download.
To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations. Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it. Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it. Simple.
For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside. The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there’s no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.
Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles. Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses. When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.
Eat and Drink
Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh foccacia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things. Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels. I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles. Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s. Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies. They also do a full brunch menu and a very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but it’s likely you’ll have to wait a while for table space.
The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process). A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century. It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.
****Cake Manger #lifegoals
Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?
I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.
Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund. I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavnfor a week longer than expected.
The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales. Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars. And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.
I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now. I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town. And Portuguese food is pretty good too.
Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.
What I’ve done:
Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park. It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.
I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month. So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing. Watch this space for more news.
I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter. I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.
Do bears run in these woods?
Parkrun timing chip
My autumn love list:
Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read. But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind. An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.
Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin. Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history. With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period. Which brings me on to…
Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews. The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.
Dressed for the chill
What I’ve loved this autumn
Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season. That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab. I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.
Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most. As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.
I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about. It’s one of my cold weather essentials.
Treats: Autumn always means mince pies. They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season. I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.
I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family. I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.
I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides. In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east. Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two. This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Here’s to fair seas and following winds.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead. Let me know in the comments below.