Category Archives: England

Stour Valley Path

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Across the Stour Valley

Across the Stour Valley

In order to test out all our new Lakes District hiking gear we went for a nice long walk last Saturday. Since we also had a desire to visit Colchester I combined the two by picking up a hire car and choosing part of the Stour Valley Path as our walking ground (just to the north of Colchester.)

Things kicked off on Friday night really, as we packed the core items into our packs. We were aiming to carry what we’ll be starting with on the Lakes expedition. This meant clothes for a week; actually just 2 changes of base layers, one change of a couple of mid layers, and a windshell. Trying to keep it light! Major weight factors are water (which diminishes through the day of course, I start out with 3.5kg of the stuff) and food (about 4kg), followed by tent (1kg), and sleeping bag (0.8kg.) In the end my pack weighed about 20kg. I did also carry my Asus EEE, which is more than a 1kg – I’ve almost decided that carrying a laptop through the Lakes would be really silly :)

We drove to the Rushbanks Farm campsite, which is near Wissington and right on the banks of the River Stour, and started walking pretty much straight away. Leaving assurances that we’ll be back in the evening to the somewhat bemused camp warden, or whatever you’d call him, who must have been wondering why we were trekking off with huge packs on. (Note on the Rushbanks Farm site: it is clean and well maintained, though because of its small size you’ll always be close to the neighbours. The price of camping there seems steep, it is based on the number of tents you have and is £9 per tent. Quite annoying given that we had two tiny ultralight tents, so would have paid twice what a family near us with a massive mansion of a multi-room tent would have paid.)

We walked solidly for about 4 hours, getting us along 15km of the Stour Valley Path. The path itself, this part at least (there’s 60 miles of it in total) was a little dull, with just a couple of short stretches actually near the river. In the map above you can see our route, most of what is north of the river is the Stour Valley path, the point where it crosses the river to the right is our 4-hour mark (halfway), where we sat on a small patch of grass for a rest.

Unfortunately, by this point I had the most appalling headache, and was feeling mildly nauseous. We can only put this down to me having had no caffeine for 24 hours, pretty typical withdrawal symptoms my sister tells me. Great, 24 hours without coffee leaves me in a state of debilitating pain (it was one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had.) As is probably obvious, I never go 24 hours without an espresso. So a couple of choices for the Lakes: take coffee, or go cold turkey. I haven’t made up my mind on this, but I have to admit I’m somewhat disturbed at the side-effects of this lack of coffee. Might need to reassess my coffee drinking habits (again.)

I grinned (well, grimaced) and bared it. No choice really, we still had to get back to the camp. For the route back I chose a quicker stroll along the Essex Way and some roads (including the amusingly named Burnt Dick Hill.) We rocked up back at the campsite at about 18:30, 8 hours after we’d set out. All up we’d covered just under 26km, or 14 miles (I prefer the sound of 26km personally!)

Setting up our tents was a snap, just a slight issue with the ground being very hard (held the pegs firm at least!) Then, while I rolled around in agony in a tent, Kat and Yaël wandered off to gather some dry sticks and twigs for dinner. The sticks and twigs feed our little Bush Cooker wood-gasification burner. The BC is a little beauty of a device, boiling our 600ml of water in a few minutes. Lit with a flint and steel and a bit of Hammaro paper (just half a segment is enough), a couple of big handfuls of sticks will boil a couple of rounds of water. Leaving nothing behind in the burner but the finest of white ash. Most impressed!

We ate our cous cous, had a hot chocolate, then headed to bed at about 10:00. Being in the middle of a field, it was still quite light even this late. Thanks to our walking I don’t think any of us had any real issues getting to sleep, despite the campsite being rather noisy.

Waking up was easy the next day, thanks to it getting light before 5. There had been a heavy dewfall but we were all dry inside our tents. The tent Kat and I were using had collected a lot of condensation inside the fly, not surprising a it is quite a small space for two. The inner tent was entirely dry however and protected us from brushing against the wet outer. We opened the tents up a bit in the hope that they’d dry out while we sorted out breakfast.

Our breakfast for the trip is a high-calorie muesli, eaten with milk reconstituted from a powder. Quite tasty actually, and on this morning I heated some water so we had warm milk with our muesli.

After breakfast we started packing our bags, leaving the tents until pretty much last. They were still quite damp though, ours especially was very wet on the inside of the fly. I wasn’t sure what to do about this and eventually resorted to wiping it down with one of our ultralight towels (basically a chamois), this seems to have worked quite well.

Backpacks all re-packed, we tossed them in the back of he car and drove off to visit Colchester! Anyone observing us over the previous 24 hours would have thought us quite bonkers.

There are a few items to think about coming out of the trip, the first is to not forget to bring the ibuprofen! The second, to remember my contacts. More seriously though, I need to consider what to do about my shoes. For a couple of years now I’ve been wearing an excellent pair of Scarpa boots, but the soles are nearly worn through and they have cracks in the sidewall where they flex at the toes. The primary problem with them is that, due to the cracks, they’re not at all waterproof. So I bought a new pair of Scarpas a month ago, which I have been wearing a lot since buying them. They didn’t treat me so well during our walk, they’re not exactly the same as the old ones (which are no longer in production) but are a very similar model. I’m certain there is less room around my toes though, and that this isn’t just my old boots being thoroughly worn in. I got a typical back-of-ankle blister on one foot, and blisters on my little toes on both feet (from my toes being compressed together) and a bruised big toe nail on one foot. Very far from ideal.

So, perhaps I’ll wear my old boots and hope it doesn’t rain too much. I could also try something totally different, such as the Innov8 shoes that seem to be all the rage in fell walking circles. There isn’t really any time left to wear-in a new pair of shoes though.

Food-wise I think we calculated pretty well, we could probably even cut back a little. But then we might feel different about that idea by the third day into our trek so will stick with what we have (there will be food around of course, it isn’t wilderness!)

Our Lakes walking will be far less of a forced march though, we’ll never cover 25km in one day (let alone 8 hours.) That said, the terrain will be very different. They may call it the Stour “Valley”, but you’d barely notice you were walking in and out of a valley without being told, it looks more like gently undulating countryside. In the lakes we’ll be covering a lot more vertical, so 10km may very well feel like our 25km! Still, we’ll take it easy and enjoy the scenery. I envisage a rough template of 3 x 3-hour walking stints through the day, with ample scenery-enjoyment between-times.

Expedition Planning

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Phew, been spending a huge amount of time planning for our Lakes District hike. Only two weekends between now and the weekend we head off. Next weekend we’re going for a trial run, a two day hike around countryside along the River Stour north of Colchester. It is just for the weekend, camping at a proper campsite on Saturday night. We’ll have packs fully loaded as they’ll be for the start of our Lakes District trip though.

This quick weekender will give us one last-minute chance to make adjustments and find any issues with our gear or procedures. (The weekend after is a write-off as the local Rhythms of the World festival is on and we’ve all volunteered for the opening and closing steward slots. 0800 until midday Saturday, and 2000 to midnight Sunday. We won’t have time for much else that weekend!)

What is fully loaded? That’s the main question that has been bugging me. The most obvious thing is water, we each have 500ml bottles and 3 litre platypus bag (they go into your pack and you drink from them using a hose.) In my case I’ll aim to start each day with the full 3kg of water, plus an additional 1000 to 500 millilitres. Food is the next big thing, and what’s great about food is that over the trip it gradually reduces in weight :) (As does the water through each day of course.) I’m working on carrying myself 8 days worth of ~2100 Calories per day (I’ll be burning more than that, but that isn’t a problem), that’s about 3.5kg of food. The food in question is mostly carbs, lots of high-Cal-per-gram dry carbs like granola and couscous. Plus plentiful dried fruit and nuts.

The 8 days is one day is surplus of requirements, which gives us some flexibility. We also do go through one reasonably sized town, but we aren’t planning for ad-hock sustenance on the road. No doubt we’ll have a pub lunch if we find such a thing along our more cosmopolitan walking routes, and National Trust tea and scones at Beatrix Potter’s house is probably on the cards.

Combine the food and water above with packs, clothes, tents, mats, bags, and other gear and I seem to be talking a starting load of about 12kg. Our test walk next weekend will be interesting! If it goes well perhaps I’ll pack some additional luxuries, if not then I’ll have to see where we can cut back. Kathlene will, of course, be carrying a lighter load from the outset (I’ll take the tent and all the cooking gear.) Hopefully Yaël will have a weight somewhere between the two of us, though she also has to take her whole tent (which is heavier than ours) – perhaps I can carry the poles or something to rectify the loadings.

So much stuff, so many online orders rocking up at work (my collogues may think I’m about to go off-grid!), so much planning. But it is a “first time”, of sorts. We’ll make mistakes no doubt, but I’d prefer to minimise them. And next time it’ll be so much easier!

Meanwhile we’ve also been working up our endurance a little, nice long weekend walks. I also rode all the way home from work on Friday, a 67km bike ride, which took me a little over 2.5 hours (about 25km/h average speed, which was better than I expected.)

So much to do! But first I must cook dinner: tagliatelle with prawns, scallops, and chorizo (the latter from Barcelona!)

Preliminary Lakes Route

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

I’ve been asked to post a mudmap of our planned Lakes District walk. So here it is. There’s a rather small version iframed below too. The last two days (yellow and cyan) are very vague, I just threw in some random lines really. This starts on July 12th at the blue marker. The dark blue line is a steam railway, everything else is walking. The intention is to do about 10 miles per day (FYI: long days, no hurry, very wrinkly terrain in places.) If we find this is too easy, we’ll cover more ground, if it is too difficult then perhaps less. The current plan loops us back to our departure point well within time, so we have a lot of flexibility for timing. It’ll probably all change drastically once we’re on the ground and have the first couple of days of walking behind us!

Sat, Sun, & Mon: St. John’s, Mills, Ales

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

We stuck close to Cambridge on Saturday and Sunday, wandering the town and driving the fens. On the latter, the history of the landscape is intriguing. Once the whole area was boggy wetland and many of the historic sites and towns were considered islands, as only the higher and drier areas were originally settled. Through the centuries the landscape has been transformed into fertile pastures that are usually not under water, aside from the occasional flood. Ditches and dykes criss-cross the landscape. I hope to learn more about it all some day, for now here’s what we did…

Saturday: St. John’s College, Hemp, Books, and Ale

We decided that we must visit at least one of the colleges while we’re here. In the end one is as far as we got, and that one was St. John’s since it was the first we found that was accepting visitors. As a tourist you pay £2.80 to enter, this gives you a guidance pamphlet with interesting notes and, I guess, peace of mind (you could probably just wander through as there is a regular traffic of locals and students – also, you could just wander in from the backs.) Thanks mainly to the more interesting points highlighted by the pamphlet the wander through the college was a worthwhile experience. Most of the more obvious questions that came to mind were answered by the terse document, and many less obvious points of interest were highlighted. Especially amusing are details in the chapel’s large western stained glass window.

Our examination of the college took us well into the afternoon, taking more than two hours in total. We’d started out late that day, sleet and heavy wind keeping us inside-looking-out. After St. John’s we headed towards the car and bought ourselves hempen scarves from a hemp stall at the market, Kat also picked up an oversized “baker boy” hat she liked from another seller. Our next adventure was to take us out of town and involved ale, so we dropped the car back at the hotel and caught a bus back in. We’d settled on driving that morning and paying an exorbitant parking fee, just to avoid some of the weather. In the end the parking, for three hours I think, was £8 – the taxi would have been the same each way so driving was cheaper. I’m glad we didn’t try driving into town in the afternoon though, it was near to 15:00 when we drove out and we noticed all the parking spots were full and there were traffic queues leading for a couple of miles out of the town centre! The way out was clear thankfully.

To get to the best bus stop near the hotel requires a five minute stroll along a narrow path that connects the business park the hotel is in to a south-eastern suburb of Cambridge. The path is narrow, enclosed on each side by a high wire fence and shrubby bushes, and after a rail crossing passes between an army exercise yard on one side and a body of water on the other (this latter a private fishing reserve.) The suburb our bus stop is in isn’t on a route out of Cambridge so the bus got into town without any delay. We found ourselves with a little over an hour to kill before moving on to our planned train departure. In this time we found a wonderful bookshop, which I’ve written about separately (will post later this week), we also had tea and scones at “Aunties” near the market square – the latter was good but unexciting.

We caught the 17:35 service from Cambridge to Kings-Lyn and hopped off five minutes later at Waterbeach. A few minutes walking and we were at The Bridge, and found ourselves before 20 cask ales! I’ve written more about this separately (will post later.)

The ales pretty much wrapped up our day, we left The Bridge at 21:30 and thanks to incorrect advice from the barman waited at the station for 35 minutes until the 22:15 train took us back to Cambridge. (We don’t blame the barman at all, it’s our own damn fault for not making a note of the timetable!) While waiting in the cold we noticed something interesting, we heard a strange popping whumphing noise, almost like distant fireworks. It turned out that at one end of the platform was a track switch, alongside the rails near this was an enclosure full of gas cylinders, there was gas being let into an enclosure alongside the switching mechanics and this was being ignited at short intervals. Keeping it warm, and functioning, in the cold weather. In time, and on time, our ride back to Cambridge arrived. We reached the city far too late to catch a bus so, me being me, we discovered that the walk between the Cambridge Rail Station and the Holiday Inn Express only takes around 35 minutes (at a fast pace for an unladen 4’8″ person.)

Sunday: Houghton Mill, and Ale

Looking out the window this morning we saw whiteness, overnight snow had coated the landscape. We were somewhat slow in getting out and about again, not quite sure what to do. Our vague plan was to head down to the Lordship Gardens, but given the general slushiness this seemed less appealing than before. So, as a replacement, we selected Houghton Mill as it seemed a more enclosed destination.

The drive up to Houghton from Cambridge took around 30 minutes, mostly a fast zoom along the A14. Driving into the town the first thing of note is the thatched roofs, there’s even a clock tower in the town square that has a thatched-roof shelter as a base. The mill is found down a short and narrow road running from the south of the square, a wall on the right side and a bust of the most renowned head (and philanthropist) of the milling family on the left. At the end of the road you turn through a gateway on the left and see a field (and caravans) ahead, a small tearoom to the right, and further right, unmistakably, the mill and river. The field is usually green I imagine, but this day it was mainly white with a thin crust of snow. There were also two crude snowmen to be seen, looking bent and dirty – snowtramps maybe.

The mill doesn’t open its doors until 13:00 and we were early so took a quick and very cold stroll along the path that begins with the passage through the mill. They have an interesting lock around the bend, very different and much more industrial looking than those we’re used to seeing on the Grand Union canal. That’s as far as we went, as we were not properly prepared for the cold or the mud. In sunnier, and drier, times we’re keen to revisit as there are extensive walkways along the river Orse. We returned to the mill and had tea and scones in the tearoom, much better that what we’d had in Cambridge the previous day!

Just after 13:00 we entered the mill, paying a small fee to the National Trust for the privilege (and making sure we signed the forms that ensue the government adds another 25%, UK tax-payers rejoice.) The mill was excellent, well documented, and in good order. Two things of note are that the mill, in part, is functional, and that there is a hydro-generator fitted in the sluice. The latter typically generated enough power for 10 homes, which is neat. The mill was brought to working order just before the turn of the millennium, thanks to a lot of work contributed by the army (maybe airforce.) They have a photo-album on the ground floor that is worth a perusal.

Normally they have the mill working but they couldn’t on this day since the Environment Agency computer had decided that the sluices needed to be open, preventing flooding I assume, so there wouldn’t have been enough power to run the mill. This was a pity for us since it meant we couldn’t buy any flour! Maybe next time.

All in all our visit to Houghton Mill was very enjoyable. It seems to be well suited to youngsters, fitted out with many action-models of mill mechanisms, some very elaborate (turn on the tap, turn th handle, etc.) We’re considering heading back that way in summer, with a tent as there is a camping ground nearby. I’d be great if there’s somewhere you can have a small fire, imagine it: damper made with flour milled only a few hundred meters away!

We departed the mill after a couple of hours and wound our way back towards Cambridge on back-roads. Taking in views over the flat expanses of fenland, seeking out mounds marked on the OS maps (unsuccessful), and eventually finding ourselves in Histon.

Histon was added to the route because it is the home of a certain The Red Lion that comes well recommended complete with a history of CAMRA branch and national “pub of the year” wins. The reputation is deserved as far as we’re concerned! The full details are a story for another article, to come.

After a couple of halves we headed back to the hotel with take-away beer (await other article for details), popping into a place called Yu’s Chinese for dinner. This place does pretty good food, generous serves, and at a decent price. It’s on Newmarket Road just past the Perne Road roundabout on the way into Cambridge.

Bloated with Chinese we eventually arrived back at the hotel to drink our four pints of real ale, relax, and, for me, write the words before you.

Monday: Anglesey Abbey & Lode Mill

Time is short and thus my description of this day will follow suit. We drove out to Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property about 15 minutes from Cambridge, and wandered the grounds and house (abbey nee priory.) It’s excellent and entirely worth the £9.50 entry fee. When I first came to the UK I joined the National Trust since the £20 membership fee was accounted for after only two property visits and a few uses of National Trust car-parks. However, once you’re over 25 (my word, is is really that long since I first hit this little island?) the fee more than doubles and being vehicularly-challenged it didn’t seem worth the price. Anglesey Abbey changed my (our) mind, since we expect we’ll visit at least once more this year. So two times 20 quid is 40 quid, and membership for a couple is 77 quid … £37 should be a pretty good incentive to see some more great National Trust properties. Honestly, I’ve seen quite a few in the last three years and they’ve all been excellent.

In short: the gardens alone are worth the trip, and the house is an interesting addition but less interesting than the mill. The Lode Water Mill was the second mill we saw over the weekend and like Houghton Mill it has also been restored to working order. At this mill we could actually buy flour though! We also bought some oat meal for the making of our morning porridge. The wheat (“corn” in the old speech) milled comes from a National Trust property, the nearby Wimpole Home Farm (which also supplies the wheat milled at Houghton Mill.)

The history of the property as you see it today is mostly not so ancient, and the late First Lord Fairhaven seems like a dude I’d like to meet. I’m not sure if he’d be so keen on my ignoble presence however, though he was “new nobility” so possibly less picky about such details. The most ancient part of the property is the dining hall, the structure of which actually dates back to the original monastic building that occupied the “island.”

There’s far more observations I’d like to make about this property than I have the time for. I expect to visit Anglesey Abbey in the summer, maybe I can go into further detail then.

We whiled away most of the day at the property, visited an unexciting pub, picked up some cheese and snacks on the way back, and ate in our hotel room. Here ends the day.

Hitchin, Stevenage, & Cambourne

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Our goal on Friday was to explore a couple of towns on the train line between Cambridge and London. This we did, then we also had a look at a business park cum housing estate (or vice-versa?) outside Cambridge.

I failed to mention in my previous notes that I’ve forgotten the camera. We tossed around the idea of driving down to Ricky to pick it up but decided not to bother, it’d probably have been a 1.5 hour round trip from Stevenage. No photos! Quite liberating actually.

Hitchin

Hitchin, our first destination, won us over quickly. Old village architecture, a permanent market area, and an interesting collection of shops in the town centre. The market was quiet and had a collection of pretty dodgy stuff in the guise of “antiques”, however there were also decent looking fruit, vegetables, and meat. Given that it was Good Friday I guess, and hope, that it may have been quieter than usual. To bolster my hope far fewer stalls were occupied than not. But it may be possible that the market is past its heyday, which would be sad.

On walking the winding streets of Hitchin what stood out was the classic white-walled, black-beamed facades. These were even more remarkable since in many cases one end of the first floor was a foot or more higher than the other! I have to imagine that for modern use the core of the buildings has been rebuilt and only the extremely characterful shell of the original building remains. I’d not be surprised to find red brick out the back.

The town centre boasts all the usual High Street brands, ho hum. There is also a brilliant deli with an excellent selection of cheese and the butcher looked good (in addition to two butchers in the market area.) There’s also, surprisingly and amazingly, the best catering store I’ve ever seen in the UK!

The physical features of the town centre are a large square, used part-time for parking and otherwise for reasons unknown. The market area is elsewhere, down a passage from the main square. And on one side is the imposing edifice of the church, seeming much patched together and patched up over the centuries. The church is buffered by the usual graveyard an pleasant grassed grounds. Running to the east of the church is the tamed river Hiz, this bisects the town and runs under the market. I expect this river is actually a remnant, transformed to a channel (or drainage ditch) and now mostly subterranean. The name, Hiz, is pronounced Hitch – thus the name of the town. I’d expect it is better phrased as “pronounced Hitch in antiquity” since the modern phonetic pronunciation must surely be more common now.

We’ll probably pop along to Hitchin once more on the way home, to test out the accessibility by train.

Stevenage

The drive into Stevenage from Hitchin was short and we found ourselves on the main street of the Stevenage “Old Town” in less than 10 minutes. The street was OK but kind of devoid of life, it also seemed to not have any produce stores at all. We wandered the street but weren’t impressed.

We got back into the car and followed the signs to the Stevenage “town centre.” What a travesty of “new town” design, what a hideous beast they’ve built. This is a cold, dank, shell of a town center. A veritable zombie, no doubt actually consuming the brains of any unfortunate enough to inhabit the area.

We did note that Stevenage seems to have excellent provision for cycling. There is, what appears to be, a dedicated road network for cyclists (and walkers.) There’s also a large central parkland that is quite pleasant. However nothing we saw in Stevenage made up for the soulless horror of the so-called “town centre.”

It would seem that our interest in Stevenage is probably now damaged beyond repair.

Cambourne

Heading back to Cambridge we chose a route via an area named Cambourne, our interest in this being derived from the fact that it is supposed to be a hive of high-tech businesses. The actual business park in Cambourne seems small, but there is clearly room for it to expand, and massively (roads leading off into fields, and the like.) The buildings are all shiny, glassy, and new looking. The landscaping is elegant and involves a lot of water, always a points-winner in my book. In typical English “you are being watched” style there are CCTV cameras all over the place too, quite horrible in my opinion.

An interesting note is that along with the business park it seems a whole suburb has been built where I was expecting only business buildings. There seems to be far too great a capacity to serve just the small collection of commercial buildings in Cambourne so I wonder what area the population is supposed to serve. As far as the “town” goes, what we saw didn’t impress us, the place looked bleak. No character, no cafés, just a supermarket, a “fish and chicken” shop, an uninspiring pub, and a flock of real-estate vultures.

Cambourne is about a 20 minute drive from central Cambridge, and it took us 40 minutes to get up there from Hitchin. So the other thing about it is that it isn’t even really close to anywhere. The main road connections other than Cambridge seem to be St. Neot, and Royston, but both seem rather small so probably have little use for a population “overflow” town. There are bus services to Cambridge it seems, but there’s no train line in the area. Most interesting, for a high-tech business park, is that it must take 1.5 hours or more to get there from London. Maybe close access to Cambridge is enough though, I really don’t know.

The only think I can say for certain about Cambourne is that I wouldn’t want to live there… older, characterful, English towns are more my style. It does seem a pleasant working environment however.

I wrote the above paragraphs yesterday. I have two amusing notes to now add over lunch on Saturday. Last night we popped into an Indian place for dinner and by chance we overheard the two couples sitting next to us briefly discussing Cambourne. One of the men was a flight instructor and the other his pupil, the instructor was discussing the “mushrooming” of Cambourne with a note of certain horror in his voice. There was a clear agreement that the place seemed rather strange and difficult to understand, the only positive point voiced was “they have a Morrisons.” Morrisons is one of the smaller supermarket chains, not all that exciting I think.

The second note is that in one of this morning’s Cambridge newspapers there was an article on how these new housing estates are depressive. Cambourne was dubbed “Glumbourne” and the news was that they had to set up a specialist psych unit there to deal with the higher than average rates of depression. The theory, apparently a controversial one, is that these “new towns” are devoid of social structures and networks that many people are dependant on as an integral part of their happiness. In my opinion it could also be a case of the place looking terrible, being isolated, and having no cultural interest.

To Cambridge! Drizzle, Fishy Chats, and Horseshoes

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

I’ll attempt to make brief daily notes about our long, long, long weekend in Cambridge (and surrounds.) The alternative is to have grand designs on restaurant reviews, photographic mapping, and all sorts … which I ultimately never have time to complete.

We got up as if it were a work day this morning, out of bed at 06:00 and ready for the train by 07:00. A 07:15 from Rickmansworth got us to Kings Cross just before 08:00, just enough time to buy tickets from a machine and pop onto the 08:15 Cambridge express. We got a tiny bit lost in Kings Cross station and didn’t have time for a coffee, not even a quick-n-bad one, so I found myself arriving in Cambridge just after 09:00 and uncaffeinated. The trip was certainly speedy, 45 minutes all up and a good first exposure to train travel between London and Cambridge.

The first thing we realised on exiting the train was that it was damn cold, slightly damp, and windy. Typical English joy. Websites are predicting a minumum of -5 this weekend with possible snow. Spring! Anyway, we hopped onto a bus that took us to Cambridge Car and Van Rental on Newmarket Road, they’re directly opposite the National/Alamo car hire branch. (A vendor of cars that I’ll never use again since the branch in Watford ripped me off claiming I’d returned the car short on fuel even though they’d checked it in my presence when I dropped it off and ticked everything off. The branch claimed the charge wasn’t on their books, the head office said it was the branch’s responsibility, after several unfulfilled promises of action I gave up since the 20 quid wasn’t worth it. Abysmal customer service means they’ll never get any business from me again. Anyway…) We picked up our little red Mini Cooper D and hit the road for a 2 minute drive to a shopping-centre car-park to get our bearings. Then 5 minutes to dump the car at the hotel (too early for check-in) and a drizzly wander and bus ride into Cambridge centre.

In town we did my usual first-day thing and just wandered the streets, though the weather had us bouncing in and out of cafés (none good, mostly chains.) We browsed the permanent market found, sensibly, at Market Square. Wandered past the fronts of the main colleges and down a few narrow and intriguing alleys. Did a loop around the back of the colleges, crossing the Cam twice and spying a few rained-upon tourists taking punt-tours (I guess they’d taken a punt on the weather clearing a little … not their morning.)

After a couple of hours of this wandering and espresso-hopping we found ourselves at the Fitzwilliam Museum, a welcome refuge. The Fitzwilliam is, it seems, a museum worth either devoting either a whole day to (very tiring), or several visits. We only explored the Egyptian collection in detail before skimming over the more modern ancients and the ceramics collection. A couple of hours was enough to take in the Egyptian rooms in some detail and give Greece and Rome a reasonable treatment too. On the way out we took in a little of the porcelain, pottery, far east, and armoury collections and they’d be worth revisiting.

Now it was about 16:00 and we were both rather hungry! I was suggesting we grab something quick at a sandwich bar, but the Kat spied fish. The wander from the museum back to the main bus stops leads you past Loch Fyne, a purveyor of fishy delights (so you’re lead to believe, they’re actually one of a largish chain of seafood restaurants based around the Loch Fyne branding.) There are two sides to the Loch Fyne story, and I’ll start with the food – it wasn’t false marketing, they are rather good. While we didn’t try the “Probably the best Fish & Chips in Cambridge” we did go their Thai Mussel Pot, it was well done though a few of the shell dwellers were on the gritty side. We also had a second course each. Kat went for a Dressed Crab, this simple dish met with her approval – and it’s reassuring to know your crab isn’t rude. I had char-grilled lightly smoked salmon with a shellfish, mushroom, and whisky sauce (a creamy reduction), very rich and highly recommended. I must admit though that my meal was really a bit much for lunch (even at 16:30) and this was of some concern since I’d booked a table in a restaurant for 19:30! Oops!

The second side to the Loch Fyne story isn’t at all fishy. Shortly after we were seated an older gentleman was seated quite near us. He was eating alone and overheard us chatting about the food and gave us some suggestions, it seems he’s a regular and knew the menu well. Anyway, we got to talking and had a far ranging discussion over our meals, it was quite joyous. My life seriously lacks good discussions. It turns out the chap is an architect, both professionally and academically – he’s responsible for a lot of design around the University, especially music venues. He has his own firm (in partnership) and also teaches at Cambridge. He’s travelled a lot, seems to know a great many notable people (probably hard not to after a lifetime in Cambridge, and I suspect he has a titled, or at least highly moneyed, family background.) The discussion ranged from architecture, of course, to business, economics, politics, and sociology. Covering the near, Cambridge’s history and place in British politics and economics, to the far, far-east economics & sociology, and problems in Africa. This chance encounter alone has raised my interest in Cambridge phenomenally, and after less than a day in the city.

Our architect had a lot of advice to offer about Cambridge too, and brought the direct Cambridge to Liverpool Street Station rail link to my attention and the news that higher speed links are planned for it. This could bring living in (or nearer to) Cambridge into the realm of possibility, since Kat’s work (and the City in general) is a short walk from Liverpool Street Station. He also had a lot of advice on where to eat (by chance we’d wandered into one of the best as far as he was concerned), where to stay, what to see, and even where to buy a house (as if we could afford that!)

Eventually we had to move on, we said our goodbyes and best wishes then headed for the buses. First we caught the wrong bus and rode a full loop of its route, a little interesting but mostly a waste of time. We eventually got back to the hotel at around 19:00, checked in, then jumped in the car to head out for dinner.

Dinner was at a place nearby that was recommended by a friend: The Three Horseshoes in Madingly. It’s a small pub up the front and a restaurant out the back and is only about a 5 to 10 minute drive from central Cambridge. The recommendation was a good one, we enjoyed our dinner (as hard as it was to squeeze it in on top of lunch.) The hour grows late so I’ll have to rush this, though I think the place deserves a more detailed treatment. First I had a carpaccio of seared peppered tuna – quite brilliant. Kat had mozzarella, with asparagus and rocket – each component near perfect, though a very large amount of mozzarella for an “antipasti.” For a main I had char grilled veal liver on a warm legume salad – the liver was juicy and pink (and I verified in advance that it was British veal), very good but quite a large serve. Kat had Gnocchi alla Romana – these were quite unlike “normal” gnocchi and Kat seemed unimpressed, though that could mainly be down to their overzealous salting (crystals of sea salt on top, probably a bit too much really, and Kat likes salty food.) Since they make their own desserts we had to give something a go, and that was the pannacotta with prunes in grappa. Divine pannacotta! I’m a bit indifferent to the prunes. We ventured espresso, it was good but too long, the usual story – I suspect that these quite decent restaurants in England get good coffee and good machines but then go and make espresso as it is expected to be by the English (too long by far.)

All in all it’s been a good day.