A slightly dizzying 24-plus hours, which began at 6.45 on Thursday evening, with an after-hours tour of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, conducted by the incredibly knowledgeable volunteer guide Richard Price. We started on the Brookside lawn and moved along the path towards the Old Gate (moved to its present site when the gardens were relocated in 1846), the main avenue and the ‘champion’ dawn redwood, the first to be planted in Britain from seed sent from China and raised in the Garden.
We were entertained en passant by a family of jays overhead in a flowering chestnut (Aesculus indica, from the Himalayas), the fully fledged young ones still insistent on being fed, and quite happy to ignore the human cluster a few feet below. The florets on the chestnut ‘candles’ change colour from yellow to red when they have been fertilised, thus letting bees know which ones not to bother with, and conserving their energy.
I didn’t know that before emmer (the wheat cultivated by our prehistoric ancestors in the Middle East), there was goat grass (Aegilops tauschii), a rather unimpressive little plant which none the less shows by its DNA that it is an ancestor of all the modern wheat (Triticum) family. The whole range of wheat development, up to the tallest plants and back down again to the high-yielding, short-stalked ones (less likely to be flattened by wind or flood) developed by Norman Borlaug, ‘the man who saved a billion lives’, is displayed in the genetic beds.
Another new fact: apparently, the sculpture in the central fountain (which I had always assumed was a representation of Victoria regia waterlily leaves) is in fact a representation of the outline of the dawn redwood.
All this and much more, including a rather depressed white mulberry (see Part 2)
and some of J.S. Henslow’s ‘monstrosities’, plus a glass of wine! Apart from the after-hours quiet, the quality of the evening light made some aspects of the Garden not unrecognisable but strangely different: a memorable experience.
There followed a (not so dizzying) period of sleep, interrupted only by Max the Cat (as usual), and my own subconscious concern that I would fail to wake up, and miss the train (not so usual). At an hour at which I would prefer not to be conscious, I staggered down to the station, for a day-trip north of the Trent!
Cambridge to Peterborough, ho hum. Peterborough to Retford, and then a disconcerting walk along a country path to a platform some distance away from the station, and underneath the rail tracks on which I had arrived – I’ve never been on a real rail crossroad before.
A two-coach train with wide seats and deep windows then carried us with a stately clanking to Sheffield, past Adlestropian stations, and tracksides, embankments and field headlands exuberantly decorated with wild flowers.
There were waterfalls of dog-roses, cascading down twenty feet from the trees which supported them, honeysuckle, field poppies, ox-eyed daisies, elder, purple loosestrife, white and purple foxgloves, larkspurs, and some garden escapees, including light purple oriental poppies, a philadelphus, lupins, and bright crimson antirrhinums sprouting from crevices in the stones lining the embankment as we trundled downhill into Sheffield. And if this wasn’t all amazing enough, there was a pair of llamas (or alpacas?) in a field …
I’ve cheated on the pics, as the pace of the train was not quite slow enough to allow photography: these images are from the wilder parts of CUBG, but they give some idea of the wonderful botanical variety on display. In the next installment: I arrive in Sheffield, and make my way to the 13th Floor…