10 September 2014

Getting away from it all on
Robinson Crusoe Island

Robinson Crusoe Island is a tiny islet in Cambridge where the River Cam splits between Coe Fen and Sheep’s Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

There is an island in the South Pacific that is known as Robinson Crusoe Island or Isla Robinson Crusoe. It is the second largest of the Juan Fernández Islands, and lies 670 km west of the coast of Chile. A neighbouring island is known as Alejandro Selkirk Island.

Robinson Crusoe Island was once known as Más a Tierra (Closer to Land). It was the island that became home to the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk from 1704 to 1709, and is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719).

To reflect the literary associations of Más a Tierra – but more especially to attract tourists – the Chilean government renamed the place Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966.

I was on Robinson Crusoe Island on Tuesday [9 September 2014] – but not in the South Pacific. Instead, I visited Robinson Crusoe Island, a tiny islet in the River Cam, between Coe Fen to the east and Sheep’s Green to the west, on a point on the river south of the weir where Scurdamore’s Punts are moored at Silver Street Bridge and immediately north of the Fen Causeway.

Cattle grazing on Coe Fen in the late summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Coe Fen is known beyond Anglicanism as the name the tune composed by Ken Naylor for the hymn How shall I sing that majesty. And during an afternoon break from the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College I had decided to go for a walk by the river at Coe Fen, inspired, of course, by that tune.

Naylor was the music master at the Leys School, at the corner of Trumpington Street and the Fen Causeway, and named his tune after Coe Fen, an open space beside the school.

Coe Fen on the east bank of the Cam and Sheep’s Green on the west bank form a natural area that was once important for commercial activity in Cambridge. There was many watermills her, but because the land between the artificially raised banks of the watercourses was liable to flooding it was only suitable for grazing.

Cows grazed on one side of the river on Coe Fen and sheep on the other side, Sheep’s Green, and so they have been named.

By the 19th century, the Fen had become so marshy and boggy that it became necessary to drain it as a measure to prevent the outbreak and spread of diseases. A public subscription in 1833 raised £150 to drain the Fen, and later, in 1912-1914, the level of the Fen was raised by dumping rubbish on it.

In the late afternoon, I walked down Trumpington Street to the Leys School, and turned along the Fen Causeway. The Fen Causeway Bridge opened in 1926, and I am told it is sometimes called the Lesbian Bridge because of the graffiti sometimes written on its underside. Instead of checking this out, I joined a footpath south into Coe Fen, where the land is a semi-natural area and cattle still graze.

I walked south until the path meets Vicar’s Brook and then turned west and crossed a narrow bridge that took me onto Sheep’s Green, a small island formed by the way the river has split further north at the weir at Silver Street Bridge.

Sheep’s Green Bridge is a second narrow bridge that was rebuilt in 2006. Here pedestrians and cyclists jostle to give way to each other, and the bridge led me onto Lammas Land, a town park, with a small open air pool for children and a playground.

Lammas was observed on 1 August in England as a harvest festival when loaves of bread were made from the first ripe corn. Areas of green designated as Lammas lands in law were common land for nine months of the year, but passed to the sole use of their owners for the other three months on Lammas.

To the south of Lammas Land is the aptly-named Paradise, a nature reserve and woodland with a central marsh area, wet woodland and a number of riverside mature willows.

Crusoe Bridge, built in 1898-1899, is a steel footbridge with timber deck and supported on four cast-iron columns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

I walked back north along Lammas Land and walked east along the Fen Causeway for a brief distance, and then turned to the north side of Coe Fen, where I found the bridge that crosses Robinson Crusoe Island to my left or the west.

Stepping across Robinson Crusoe Island and Crusoe Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Crusoe Bridge, which was built in 1898-1899, is a steel footbridge with timber deck and supported on four cast-iron columns. This is the final bridge on the “Upper River” before it reaches the small weir at the mill pond.

Robinson Crusoe Island was once known as Swan’s Nest, but the present name has been in use for more than a century.

The land is deceptive in places here, and many apparently dry channels running through the grass are filled with marshy water, often filled with reeds and damp growth. These channels date back to the time when this area had many mills grinding corn for Cambridge.

Punters on the river between Crusoe Bridge and the weir at Silver Street Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

I crossed Robinson Crusoe Island and the bridge, and enjoyed the spectacle of people enjoying the late summer sunshine in kayaks and punts. But the old boathouse that has been on Robinson Crusoe Island was closed and fenced off, and difficult to see.

Coe Fen and Sheep’s Green are important thoroughfares for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly between the city centre and Newnham, and part of the pathway along the river out towards Grantchester runs through this space.

We are enjoying an extended summer this week and the river is still busy with tourists and punts. I walked on north to the weir and stopped at the Anchor at Silver Street Bridge for a glass of wine. There I sat watching the bustle at the pubs and the punting station at Scudamore’s.

Before returning to the bustle of academic life at Sidney Sussex College, I had one more look at the Mathematical Bridge that links one side of Queen’s College with the other across the river. The punters below seemed to be deft enough not be marooned on Robinson Crusoe Island further south.

Punts at the Mathematical Bridge below Silver Street Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Unknown said...

Enjoyed this account as I visited the island as part of a year's project of visiting 70 Islands as I turned 70. Took along my brother who is an ex lecturer at Sidney Sussex College who had never heard of the island .

Anonymous said...

This is actually known as the Mathematical Bridge. Originally built in 1749, it has been rebuilt twice - in 1866 and 1905. It joins two parts of Queens' College land and buildings.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you ... Mechanical changed to Mathematical ... corrections always wlecomed; spotting typos always welcome. Patrick