19 July 2015

‘A fantasy we create about people
and places as we’d like them to be’

The Gates of Paradise in Cambridge at Owlstone Croft, once known as Paradise Garden and now part of Queens’ College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

The song “I’ve Never Been to Me” is probably better known by its chorus line: “I’ve been to Paradise, but I’ve never been to me.” This ballad, written by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch in the 1970s, became a hit for the American singer Charlene when it was re-released in 1982, and the song went to top of the charts in the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Ireland.

The song tells the story of a singer or star who addresses to a desperate wife and mother who would like to trade her prosaic existence for the jet-setting lifestyle the song’s narrator has led. The narrator recalls the many hedonistic episodes in her life, including times on the Greek islands. She describes our images of Paradise as “a lie” and as “a fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be.” Instead, now that it is too late, she realises that Paradise is found in holding a baby in your arms, or being with the people you love and the people who love you.

And while she concludes that she has “been to Paradise,” ultimately she has failed to find self-fulfilment: “I’ve been to Paradise, but I’ve never been to me.”

But earlier today, I was in another, different and pleasant Paradise in Cambridge. I was at the morning Eucharist celebrated by the Revd Anna Matthews in Saint Bene’t’s Church, beside Corpus Christi College in the centre of Cambridge. There was a Baptism too, and it was enjoyable to return on a Sunday morning to the church that I have come to feel is my own parish church each year in when I am staying in Sidney Sussex College at the annual summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

“How shall I sing that majesty?” ... Coe Fen in the sunshine earlier today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Saint Bene’t’s and Corpus Christi College are close to the corner of Trumpington Street and Silver Street, and after a very late breakfast I found my way down to the River Cam at Scudamore’s, below Silver Street Bridge, and strolled on along the west bank of the river, with Coe Fen to my left on the other side, through Sheep’s Green, passing Crusoe Island and Crusoe Bridge, before eventually a small bridge to reach Paradise Nature Reserve.

Paradise can be a fantasy we create ... but it is also an island on the River Cam south of Cambridge on the way to Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Today, Paradise is a small island in the nature reserve on the west bank of the River Cam, south of Sheep’s Green and west of Coe Fen. But at one time Paradise referred to the whole area up to the Lammas Land.

Paradise nature reserve is a meadow that has been left to turn into woodland, with huge willows and towering alders. In its informal, unkempt state this is an attractive area for walkers and anglers. Some open areas have a variety of fen plants, such as Stachys palustris, and there is an important collection of different species of willow too.

A recent report recommended Paradise should be maintained and not allowed to get further overgrown, and it said Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust had taken this in hand. It also said new pollard trees should be started along the river bank to replace trees that had fallen into the river. The paths which can be muddy in winter, are the nearest rough ground to the middle of Cambridge and should not be levelled or hardened, the report said, but broadwalks would be useful in places to prevent erosion.

The references to Paradise go back a long time. The earliest mention of bathing in Cambridge records that while he was a student at King’s College, the son of Walter Haddon was drowned in 1567 “while washing himself in a Place in the River Cham called Paradise.”

While he was at Corpus Christ College, the 18th century antiquarian, William Stukeley, wrote in 1704: “I used to frequent, among other lads, the river in Sheep’s Green, and learnt to swim in Freshman’s and Soph’s Pools, as they are called, and sometimes in Paradise, reckoning it a beneficial exercise.”

Byron’s friend Charles Skinner Matthews became entangled in weeds and drowned in the River Cam at Paradise Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

It was here too, on 3 August 1811, that Lord Byron’s brilliant but enigmatic and libertine friend, Charles Skinner Matthews became entangled in weeds while bathing and was drowned.

Paradise Garden was once the name of the larger area now called Owlstone Croft, and it now provides post-graduate accommodation for Queens’ College. In 1740, Paradise Garden was taken over by a Mr Rowe, who had introduced to Cornwall a system of force-growing early vegetables for the London market. At Paradise Garden, he produced them in a scientific way.

Rowe’s son Richard became associated with a Dutch bulb grower, outstripped all competitors in the production of beautiful flowers, and invented the hyacinth glass for growing bulbs in water only.

Owlstone Croft ... once known as Paradise Garden and now part of Queens’ College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015

By 1802, the site was known as Owlstone Croft and in the Grantchester Parish Enclosure Award that year it was described as a garden of 2.24 acres, owned by Mary Harrison, “in the Occupation of R[ichar]d Row.”

The streets now known as Grantchester Street, extending to Paradise Island, and Grantchester Meadows are the only streets shown on that map, along with a branch from Grantchester Street to what is now Owlstone Croft. This branch survives today as a track for part of its length, connecting to the south end of Owlstone Road, which did not exist then.

Paradise is a meadow that has turned into woodland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The branch road connecting Grantchester Street to Owlstone Croft was then described as: “One other private carriage and drift road of the like breadth of twenty feet leading from … [Grantchester Street] and extending … through and over an allotment [now part of Paradise Nature Reserve], hereinafter awarded to the said Master, Fellows and Scholars of Benet College [Corpus Christi] into the said garden ground [Owlstone Croft] belonging to Mary Harrison, now in the tenure of Richard Rowe ...”

When it was sold at auction in 1879, the site plan was headed: “Plan of an Estate at Grantchester, Cambs, known as ‘Paradise’.”

The Chief Constable of the Cambridgeshire County Police, a Major Calvert, bought the estate in 1879, when the grounds were described as “not to be surpassed in the neighbourhood for growth and beauty,” with “choice fruit trees.” The house was rebuilt, with cottages for a coachman and a gardener, in 1881.

The site, now described as Owlstone Croft, Grantchester, was sold again in June 1892. By 1914, it was a girls’ school. From the 1920s to the 1940s, it was owned by Theodore Fyfe, Professor of Architecture at the University of Cambridge.

In the late 1940s, it was bought by Addenbrooke’s Hospital as a nurses’ hostel and training school. But when Addenbrooke’s Hospital moved out of the centre of Cambridge to a new site south of Cambridge, the use of Owlstone Croft declined. When the training school closed, it was leased in the 1980s to the Social Services department of Cambridge County Council, and for a period, students of CCAT, now Anglia Ruskin University, had rooms there.

Owlstone Croft was bought by Queens’ College in 1988 to provide post-graduate accommodation.

The walk to Grantchester begins at Paradise Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Paradise House in Grantchester Street, near the entrance to Grantchester Meadows, was built ca 1780 and is the earliest house in the area, but is almost invisible on a tree-covered island in the river.

At one time, there were tennis courts known as the Paradise Courts on the University Hockey Ground. This hockey ground, located at the junction of Barton Road and Grantchester Street, has since been developed for housing, but this area is the opular starting point for walks to Grantchester for aesthetes and tourists interested in the life and writings of the poet Rupert Brooke.

I hope to be in Grantchester later next month. But after walking through Paradise today, I walked back across the Fens and on the Cambridge Rail Station to catch the train to Broxbouurne, the nearest station to Hoddesdon and the High Leigh Conference Centre, the venue for the the annual Us Conference.

In previous years I have walked from High Leigh to Broxbourne, but this afternoon I waited for taxi, and noticed a pick-up mini bus for Paradise Wildlife Park.

This other Paradise is about three or 6 km south-west of High Leigh, and was once a zoo with a poor reputation. But it has been transformed since it was bought by the Simpson family over 30 years ago in 1984. Today, it is a family-friendly place – and I believe it even has, appropriately, a special corner for Birds of Paradise.

The Irish TV puppet Dustin the Turkey, who is anything but a Bird of Paradise, re-worked the lyrics of the hit song “I’ve Never Been to Me” on his album Unplucked, bemoaning that he has been to Paradise but he has “never been to Meath.” But the, he has probably never been to Paradise in Cambridge either.

Punting past Paradise from Cambridge to Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I’ve never been to me

Hey lady, you, lady, cursin’ at your life
You’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife
I’ve no doubt you dream about the things you never do
But I wish someone had a talk to me like I wanna talk to you
Ooh I’ve been to Georgia and California, and anywhere I could run
Took the hand of a preacher man and we made love in the sun
But I ran out of places and friendly faces because I had to be free

I’ve been to Paradise, but I’ve never been to me

Please lady, please, lady, don’t just walk away
’Cause I have this need to tell you why I’m all alone today
I can see so much of me still living in your eyes
Won’t you share a part of a weary heart that has lived a million lies
Oh I’ve been to Nice and the isle of Greece
Where I sipped champagne on a yacht
I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed ’em what I’ve got
I’ve been undressed by kings and I’ve seen some things
That a woman ain’t s’posed to see

I’ve been to Paradise, but I’ve never been to me

Hey, you know what Paradise is? It’s a lie
A fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be
But you know what truth is?
It’s that little baby you’re holding, and it’s that man you fought with this morning
The same one you’re going to make love with tonight. That’s truth, that’s love

Sometimes I’ve been to cryin’ for unborn children
That might have made me complete
But I, I took the sweet life and never knew I’d be bitter from the sweet
I spent my life exploring the subtle whoring that cost too much to be free

Hey lady, I’ve been to Paradise, but I’ve never been to me

I’ve been to Paradise – never been to me
(I’ve been to Georgia and California, and anywhere I could run)
I’ve been to paradise – never been to me
(I’ve been to Nice and the isle of Greece
While I sipped champagne on a yacht)
I’ve been to Paradise – never been to me
(I’ve been to cryin’ for unborn children )

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