07 March 2009

From Christ’s Pieces in the snow to Jesus Green and Paradise

Jesus Green, covered in a white blanket (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2009)

Patrick Comerford

I never realised I was going to be stuck in Cambridge, or that it was going to be so difficult to get out of there.

It all started on the evening I was preaching in the chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge, where the Revd Christopher Woods is the chaplain. It was here that Archbishop Rowan Williams was an undergraduate, as were four other previous Archbishops of Canterbury. Here too, one sits in the same chapel where Charles Darwin, William Paley, John Milton and Jan Smuts once sat and – presumably – prayed.

After wandering across Coe Fen and through the courts of Queen’s College and Peterhouse, I was walking back to Christ’s College to meet Christopher, the chapel choir and the musicians, when the snow began to fall.

First Court in Christ’s College ... before the snow fell (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2009)

I paid little attention to the snow after Choral Eucharist as we wandered back through First Court, past the Master’s Lodge, where the wisteria vine and its elaborate Oriel Window date back to the time of the foundress, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and into the Hall for dinner as we sat beneath the portraits of Milton, Darwin, Smuts and Bishop John Fisher.

I woke in the morning to find Jesus Green had turned to white, Christ’s Piece’s were covered in a think blanket of snow, and Paradise had become heaven for small children but hell for anyone older with unsteady feet.

First Court in Christ’s College ... covered in snow (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2009)

I have had a long fascination with the sacred-yet-strange names of the colleges, streets, colleges and public parks in Cambridge, which still make me stop and draw breath when I encounter them, and I find myself asking at times whether they are irreverent if not blasphemous.

Apart from enjoying Coe Fen, without ever singing a single note, let alone a whole hymn, it is possible in a short space of time to enjoy walking through Christ’s Pieces, to ignore Emmanuel, to stroll along Jesus Lane, to walk on the same path as Adam and Eve and still to be assured of ending up in Paradise. Since 1209, Cambridge has been a unique centre of education, and this year it is celebrating the 800th anniversary of its foundation. But this city is unique for its plentiful open green spaces, and – even as winter was forbidding spring to break through – I knew few cities can boast such a variety of flowers, shrubs, bushes and trees.

Christ’s Pieces

Snow falling on Christ’s Pieces in the early morning (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2009)

On the north side of Christ’s College, Christ’s Pieces is an open area that some local people and visitors prefer to avoid. It faces the bus station on Drummer Street, and local people in Cambridge say it is a popular spot for hoodlums or decry its use as a pedestrian rat-run between the Grafton Centre and the main city centre.

This Victorian city centre park dates from 1884, when Jesus College decided to sell its interests in the area that had become known as Christ’s Pieces with the understanding that the space would be used as “a public garden or recreation ground and for no other reason whatsoever.” The original offer of £500 was refused by Jesus College, but two years later the land was brought for £1,000 by Cambridge City Council and the park was drained and planted in 1886.

Today, Christ’s Pieces is a well-maintained park, with tree-lined avenues, cut grass, large ornamental shrub beds and colourful flower beddings throughout the year. At times it feels like a piece of countryside in the middle of the city, with the changes in the seasons reflected in the flower beds with their year-round colour. When the snow is long gone, this is an ideal place once again for picnics.

Jesus Green

To the north of Christ’s Pieces, behind Jesus College, Jesus Green is another area of open parkland grass where the seasonal bedding area is planted each June and October for the coming seasons’ colourful displays.

Before 1496, this land was the site of the Nunnery of Saint Radegund, first founded in 1133. Jesus College was established on a large area to the south of that site during the early 16th century. Jesus College takes its name from Jesus Chapel, the oldest building in continuous use in Cambridge. But the official name of Jesus is “The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the Glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge.”

Until 1890, Jesus Green was part of an area now known as Midsummer Common. The two areas were separated in 1890 when Victoria Avenue was built. Soon after, grazing cattle were excluded from the land and it was laid out for recreation. As this new park was laid out over the decade that followed, its avenues were lined with newly-planted London Plane and Horse Chestnut trees.

When the Royal Agricultural Show was held on Jesus Green in 1922, the crowd was entertained to the first parachute jump as a man and his daughter suspended themselves from the net of a hot air balloon and then ascended and released themselves.

Paradise and Paradise Island

On the north bank of the River Cam as it enters the city, Paradise is a small, low-lying nature reserve that includes Paradise Island. This fragment of semi-natural habitat was once a common on the margins of Cambridge. Because it is still on the flood plain of the Cam, large parts of Paradise are frequently under water during winter, turning it into a wet and muddy wood. But this also guarantees that Paradise is safe from building development.

Extensive work was carried out on Paradise Nature Reserve a few years ago, so that overhanging trees were cleared from the footpaths, making access to the site unimpeded. Pollarding and coppicing – forms of pruning that allow regenerative growth – have increased the potential life span of the willows in Paradise, and in recent years 50 hazel whips were planted along with a rural hedgerow.

Parker’s Piece and Sheep’s Green

Other popular parks and pieces of open land in Cambridge with peculiar-sounding names include Lamas Land, Parker’s Piece, Petersfield and Sheep’s Green. Parker’s Piece in the centre of city, a short walk from Christ’s Pieces and the bus station on Drummer Street, was acquired by the city from Trinity College in 1613. Its name is taken from Edward Parker, a cook at Trinity when the land was bought.

In the past, Parker’s Piece has hosted several great festivals, including a celebration of the defeat of Napoleon, with 6,000 people taking part and 15,000 looking on, and a celebration of Queen Victoria’s coronation, with 15,000 guests and 17,000 spectators.

But for many the real fame of Parker’s Piece dates from the early 1800s, when a group of students agreed on a common set of simple football rules emphasising skill above force. These rules were pinned to a tree on Parker’s Piece, and in 1863 the “Cambridge Rules” became the defining influence on the Football Association Rules. These remain the fundamental of rules of soccer to this day.

Until World War II, Parker’s Piece was also used by publicans on Good Friday each year to mark their traditional annual day off.

Bordering the north-east corner of Parker’s Piece is Petersfield, which was used for allotments and grazing wild stock up to 1900. From April to October, cattle and horses can be seen grazing on Sheep’s Green to the west of Coe Fen along the west bank of the River Cam.

About half a mile south-west of Cambridge city centre, Lammas Land is bordered by the Fen Causeway and Newnham Road, and is a popular park during the summer. During World War I, the land was turned into allotments. The rights of common land were extinguished in the 1920s and the land was laid out for recreational use.

Coe Fen

Coe Fen (right), close to Peterhouse and the Backs, is an open space on the banks of the River Cam that has given its name to one of the outstanding hymn tunes of the 20th century. It was written by Kenneth Naylor for John Mason’s hymn, How shall I sing that majesty, which has been described by Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison as “a truly noble and majestic hymn with a noble and majestic tune to go with it!”

The tune was written by Kenneth Naylor (1931-1991), who was director of music at the Leys School in Cambridge. Mason had been an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge, while Naylor read music at Magdalen College, Cambridge.

Naylor, who was an organist of considerable repute was also known for his ability to persuade schoolboys to sing, and was the Director of Music at The Leys School in Cambridge until his death in 1991. His tune for this hymn is appropriately named – as the Leys School is only a few steps away from Coe Fen.

Irreverent and inappropriate

My feelings about the irreverence of some of these park names turned to flippancy as I saw a truck from Ridley’s delivering Carslberg to the Maypole, close to Jesus Green. I wondered how inappropriate this might have seemed to the martyred Bishop Nicholas Ridley, a former Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, who was burned at the stake during Queen Mary’s reign in 1555.

Little did I realise that as the snow deepened across East Anglia, I would spend the rest of the day hauling myself on and off buses and trains, waiting for hours as I was crushed in the icy weather and trudged through the slush and snow.

This was the same day that Michael O’Leary boasted that Ryanair was better placed than many of its rivals to weather the recession – yes, he actually used the word “weather” as Ryanair was cancelling my flight home from Stansted. They told me – plainly and simply – to go away, they couldn’t cope with this weather. Nor could I. I was facing a repeat performance of waiting for trains that never came, for buses that never arrived, and changing platforms, waiting, and waiting. It was dark, cold, and the snow was still falling when eventually I got back to Cambridge. There I was glad of the hospitality that was cheerfully offered once again at Christ’s College. Just then I felt that the chaplains and porters of Cambridge colleges are among the kindest and most generous of souls.

For all my awareness of irreverence and inappropriate names, I still prayed and hoped that I could get across country the next day on a marathon journey, hoping to catch the only remaining Aer Lingus flight available at Birmingham. That was another day, and another story. But by now I have seen more of England than I ever expected – and some of it still feels a little like Paradise.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the March 2009 edition of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).

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