Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Gig-a-Blog™ (Cambridge Early Music Summer School, Emmanuel URC, Trumpington St)

Also featuring moments of Weekend-a-Blog™, Punt-a-Blog™, Birthday-o-Blog™, Dyke-a-Blog™ (no, not like that Tamsin), an ting.

Re: Friday 3rd August.

Almost a fortnight ago we had a nice, interesting, and hot weekend in Cambridge, or Fulbourn, or both. My eldest daughter was doing the very excellent Cambridge Early Music Summer School and also becoming 22. So we went through in dribs and drabs (four journeys to get five people and a dog there - ouch - but at least three of those trips were by train so it's ouch financially but less so, er, carbonistically), and eventually we all ended up in Fulbourn having Becca's birthday dinner, cake etc chez David, Amelia and family. This was exceedingly pleasant.

With an eye on the clock and when the back gate to Sidney Sussex would or wouldn't be open we set off to take Becca back to her somewhat swish accommodation there. A GPS or map would've been jolly useful but we had neither - Bec's GPS was very usefully at the college and I hadn't thought of bringing mine (train tracks can give you a false sense of security you see) and we got spectacularly and lavishly lost. Passing the station for the second time was a particular low point. In the end we realized that more nerve was required to get us through some "Access Only" bits, access being a thing we could really do with. After a brief Pietra Ligure Moment or two we arrived at the College's back gate (cheer) which was open (two cheers). I am slowly getting used to Becca's power chair and the process of fettling and unfettling it and we got it sorted on this occasion with magnificent grace and skill hem hem. And hardly any swearing. In the college bar we met various nice people (three cheers) many of whom I'd met at the Richmond LBO gig. Sadly it was getting a bit late to stop for a drink, plus someone had to drive back. So we saw Becca to her rather fine room and headed off back, mercifully guided by Bec's GPS, which knew a whole lot more about finding Fulbourn from there than I did. Which is good.

On Saturday Deb and Amelia took the dog out early for a walk but I'm afraid the rest of us were a little less energetic, and it was quite late before we set off to go punting. This wasn't a disaster, but meant it was a bit busier (this being a really beautiful sunny day) and that we had some time constraints - Martha needed to get back to London and Paul to his job at the station M&S.

We split into two punts and set off - or rather we tried to. I had forgotten how completely useless I am at this and there was a point where I was despairing of ever getting the thing away from the boatyard area. It was really quite horrible - I seemed to have no control at all over the punt. Eventually I started to get the hang of it a bit more and we made some progress. With me punting it was never fast had I was envious of some of the skilled and rapid punters (puntists? puntizers?) that we saw but at least we got somewhere.

We were on the Granchester side, above the weir. You don't get to see the backs but apparently it's a bit quieter and there are slightly fewer clueless tourists (like me); and it's certainly more suitable for a picnic.

So we made our, er, stately way upriver a while then found a pleasant place to stop for lunch. I think the dog - though she had been very good - was relieved to get out of the boat and have a wander round, both in and out of the water. After some nice sandwiches had been eaten and some nice cava drunk, we needed to get moving again. Amelia very heroically took one boat back with the station party, so the rest of us went on up a bit further before turning.

Clare and Deb both had a go at driving, enabling me to explore just how little help it is possible to give with the paddle, especially in the matter of steering. I believe I'm right in saying that I actually accomplished a true 99% uselessness in this regard. How is this possible? You'd think, there being hydrodynamics and such, that sticking a paddle in the water and waggling it around should have some effect, wouldn't you? I developed a very very slight belief that paddling backwards on one side had an incredibly minor effect of turning the boat away from that side a bit. But that also annoys the punter by slowing the boat, and the steering effect is tiny (if it really exists at all) and nothing else I did with the paddle made the slightest bit of difference to our course. Go figure.

After a while we turned to go back. On the way down we met an interesting puntload of young people trying to do a sort of trick at a bridge. This involves (when it works) someone climbing out of the boat onto a bridge, then getting back into the boat on the other side of the bridge. This particular bridge was apparently a notoriously difficult one and indeed the attempt ended with a big splash, but great cheerfulness.

A little further on we met Amelia who was walking upstream having dropped the kids at the station. She joined us in the boat. Daisy hopped out and was tricky to coax back in, as she had entered Annoying Collie Mode. Once we had re-achieved the proper staffing levels we blasted on back down to Scudamore's, our huge bow wave no doubt causing massive environmental damage.

Back on dry land we enjoyed a brief farce over boat hire receipts and car park tickets, both of which categories were down to very roughly 50% of the numbers that we should have had. Mmmm. Fortunately sweet reasonableness abounded in both places, Dr Jobsworth was not in the house, and we were required neither to buy the punt nor to pay for the carpark to be resurfaced (in caviar), which were essential elements of the official Lost Paperwork Policies of both places, as I roughly recall them. Yay and woo.

Pausing only to tip Lottie out of the car at the station - a place we seem to have seen quite frequently this weekend - we returned to Fulbourn for urgent tea drinking and similar activities. I also had a highly necessary kip, having expended about a month's worth of energy on the punting (or "aquaplaning" as I like to think it might more accurately be termed).

The reason for needing a refreshing snooze was the really terrific concert to which we then went. This was the end-of-course show for the summer school, its theme ''Handel in Italy". This was better than just good, and yes I know I'm a biased/proud parent - even so. Becca was a bit of a star (I know I know), particularly in the Marin Marais piece where she kept being the only low voice in a little choir otherwise composed of high woodwinds, to stunning effect. Yeah babay. She was on "her" really gorgeously beautiful new Baroque viola made by Shem Mackey. The reason for the quote marks is that it is on appro so it is still currently Shem's, but I don't think there's much enthusiasm for it going back. I am the first to admit that I am just a thick trumpet player but this instrument's sheer loveliness communicates itself even to me.

Apart from the Marin Marais there were works by Biber, and of course Handel himself. This was a most enjoyable concert. The standard was amazingly high and, if there was the odd tiny moment or two to remind you that it's broadly inclusive and not auditioned, it just made the overall professionalism more impressive. Amelia came to the concert with us and was full of praise - and this is someone for whose musical opinions I have the highest respect. This was a seriously good gig to go to even if your daughter wasn’t playing and if she was, well, even better!

At the end it was a bit of a scramble - Becca was heading off-doon-the-boozer with the band and we were meeting Martha and Paul at the <sigh> station at 10.00. Martha had been at the NYO's Prom supporting inter alia Isobel, but had decided to come back to Fulbourn rather than stay at home. She'd timed her arrival back at Cambridge to coincide with the end of Paul's shift: however, that had changed so having collected her we had an hour to kill before Paul would be ready. This was spent very pleasantly in a nice pub, Brown's, with cocktails and coffee and stuff. It’s nearly opposite the Fitzwilliam, has a nice outdoor loggia-ish thing, trendy wooden furniture etc. Towards the end of this Becca rang to point out that, oops, we'd gone off with her room key (trapped in a bar, poor lamb!) so we nipped round there, dropped the key off, visited the station again to get Paul and off we went home.

That night or some time this weekend we got to watch a DVD of most of the two-families concert that we did last summer in Poujols, near Lodève. This was good in parts and funny in others, notably when pretty much the whole group corpsed quite badly while trying to sing the Mozart Bona Nox round. There was much discussion about the possibility of doing it again - the concert not, I hope, the corpsing - some other summer. Oh yes.

Somewhere along the way more wine was drunk and that was pretty much it for the evening.

On Sunday I foolishly got up too late to have breakfast with Deb: as a consequence she and Amelia and Daisy were off for a walk while I was still fairly much out of it. I thought at first that I didn't mind - and indeed it was exceedingly pleasant to have a chat and a coffee or two with David - but I suddenly came to my senses, realizing that I wasn't likely to get too much exercise that day only by eating and drinking. So l set off, half- intending to meet the others if possible.

The walk soon escalated, though, when I started to appreciate what a very nice morning it was and how very pleasant to be walking. I went into the nature reserve, this being nicer and easier without the dog, who would have had to stay on the lead. Once I'd crossed the first field (with grazing cattle and a superb, massive oak) I had the opportunity to wave at the other party who had just reached the track junction at what I think might be deemed the reserve's main entrance. They had already been out a while and were on their way home, so I kept going. The next bit to cross was a very nice, slightly marshy area were the path is up on planks, or perhaps sleepers; this leads to a small pool which was alive with dragonflies.

After another slightly soggy meadow (they're keeping the water table artificially high compared to the surroundings, to encourage a more fen-like environment) there's a gate, then a bridge over a ditch leads you out of the reserve and onto a public footpath round the edge of fields. I followed this for a few hundred metres till it met a farm track so I followed that too, arriving soon at a junction with an interesting public footpath sign. For the last couple of minutes before this my objective had been to get onto some slightly higher ground I could see just ahead: though very nice round Fulbourn it's quite flat so a slight rise becomes a mountain offering views, mystery and excitement - perhaps. The ground rises gently as you drive from Fulbourn towards the A11 and this was further along the same slope.

When I read the sign and wandered on a bit, though, things did indeed get more exciting. It turns out that what I was seeing as a small wooded hill steepening the general slope was actually not a point but the beginning of a line. This was the northwestern end of the Fleam Dyke, a Saxon earthwork from the 5th-7th centuries which runs about 5km from here to Balsham. You can read about it all over the web and if you go there you'll find that it has excellent information boards. Suffice it to say that they think it was a security and trade barrier, controlling traffic on the Icknield Way and limiting the possibility of other routes. The thing that astonished me is its size - it's massive. I don't just mean the length though that is very impressive: what gets me is the size of the cross-section. The rampart, along whose top you walk, is very substantial, never less than a few metres above the surroundings, and its ditch is amazingly deep and broad. It's not like some token border ditch - it's a very serious obstacle.

What this all adds up to, of course, is that it's irresistible to walk along. It's a bit like an old railway track, only more so, and I defy anyone to stand at the bottom of the first rise where it begins and not feel drawn to walk up, onto and along it. So I did. Oh, and you can't really get on or off it much - the earthwork plus the vegetation (can you say "wildlife corridor"?) combine to mean that there's no casual path-hopping. You can only turn round at some random point (which always feels slightly like a defeat) or you can keep going till you reach something significant - in my case the A11.

I don't want to rabbit on about it too much but this really was the most fantastic walk. It's a very good path, mostly: there's major but avoidable (as I realized too late) trouble with nettles at the Fulbourn end; and unavoidable but minor problems of the same kind up near the A11. In one spot the path is slipping downhill a bit and is slightly oddly overgrown, but this is only 10 metres' worth. Otherwise it is superb, a nice, narrowish path over springy turf dotted with flowers. To one side there's a shorter slope back to the normal ground level, and this is covered with trees and scrub becoming in effect a field hedge at the bottom. On your other side is the huge, imposing slope down into the ditch. This is mostly also covered in scrub although it's clearer in one or two places (I think they permit some grazing). The bottom of the ditch is impassable throughout, packed solid with small trees and undergrowth. Beyond the ditch is more scrub, the rise back to ground level and the hedge.

It was really just such a delightful environment to be in, like having your own private, high-level express path through the countryside. I went a couple of miles, passing an interesting place where a railway used to cross it. You can't get onto the railway at all now (it just looks like a very overgrown cousin to the ditch) but the path does an odd kink where they meet, perhaps on old spoil or repair work or something, so it's like you're going round part of a small and very neglected amphitheatre.

After a while the earthwork flattens out a bit, near a burial mound, then you start to become very aware of the traffic noise, and you suddenly lurch forward 1500 years to meet the A11. At this point the dyke path has its own footbridge over the road, and from it you can see the junction for Fulbourn and admire (or something) the fast-moving traffic.

I crossed the bridge and went a few more metres, just to get a feel for it and to take a couple of photos. It was very tempting to keep going, but the phone was starting to remind me of my responsibilities and I needed to get back. The reverse trip was just as good, perhaps better because I now had both sun and traffic behind me. It seemed to go pretty fast, too, though I suppose it does when you know where you are going. Ooh very philosophical Vogel.

In seemingly little time I was back in Fulbourn and then shortly after that I was setting out back to Sidney Sussex to have lunch with Becca and see her safely on her way back to London. Lunch was a rather superior affair, Sidney Sussex being a rather nice environment, with its beautiful garden courts, and Mr Marks and Mr Spencer’s emporium being a splendid place for the acquisition of al-fresco luncheon materials. Woo yeah. The mulberries were pretty goshdarned good too, though I must add that the interaction between (a) wheelchair wheels, (b) the ground under a mulberry tree, and (c) a hired room [and indeed (c.i) its hired carpet] can be an interesting source of, er, additional colour in your life. But my goodness it is soooo beautiful there. Cambridge always does this to me – I am knocked out by its beauty, history, charm etc and then also slightly prone to fits of bitterness and wanting to dash round abusing senior members of staff, music persons et al. But that’s really another story, or another eight thousand quid’s worth of psychotherapy, or another three gallons or strawberry yoghurt, or something. So hey. Yah. Yup.

Eventually lunch was lunched – we had met some very nice people, Selene and Nick Webb (thanks Bec for the names-reminder!) who are the course admin and her husband, also sitting in the garden and participating in the Great Messy Mulberry Massacre – then the Nissan was packed and the daughter was off in the direction of Londontown, Englandsville. I found my way back to Fulbourn but did not get quite as badly lost this time. After various diplomatic formalities we also packed and set off. When we all got back to London – in dribs and drabs again, natch – it was still beautiful weather and tea took place, quite delightfully, in the garden at Mrs von Neustadt’s parents’ humble abode in Highgate. The Famous Birthday Cake Made By Granny was deployed and it was all very very very pleasant indeed.

This was one of those mad weekends where I feel I have been several different people (I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, doctor) and we seem to have packed in forty-three activities where there was time for perhaps six. But, my word, what fun. More please.

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