Wicken Fen and Dr. Max Walters

cache_udKswaT_14859I read on the Botanic Garden website that the inaugural Max Walters Lecture will be given by Dame Fiona Reynolds, latterly director of the National Trust and now Master of Emmanuel College.

Max Walters was director of the Botanic Garden between 1973 and 1983 and curator of the University Herbarium between 1947 and 1973. He received the Linnaean Medal for Botany in 1995.

The lecture will be held in Emmanuel College, and tickets (£15) can be obtained by following links on the page here. As well as the lecture, they give you a cup of tea.


Among other things, Max Walters was much concerned with the preservation of Wicken Fen, near Soham, a few miles to the north of Cambridge.

Fens are areas of managed low-lying marshy wetland situated for the most part around the Wash (South Lincolnshire and North Cambridgeshire). They were subject to wholesale drainage beginning the seventeenth century, under the direction of Dutch engineers (mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in a post on Ely, the City of Eels).

Wicken Fen was the first reserve curated by the National Trust, starting in 1899. It is one of the last remaining fragments of the Great Fen Basin of East Anglia – only four wild Fens remain, with over 99.9% of former fenland now given over to arable planting. In addition to its fenland, Wicken also has extensive reed beds and marshland proper, and is home to numerous nationally rare species of, among other things, birds, snails, beetles, spiders, dragonflies and lepidoptera. It is a beautiful and unarguably strange place.

Wicken Fen is hard to reach by public transport, but worth the effort – take a bus to Soham and walk over the fields, or cycle from Cambridge – about 10 miles. Details here.


Linear City

For their project this week students are planning a city of the future. In this context, I found myself talking to my group about the Linear City of Arturo Soria y Mata.

fig.1Town planning is predominantly a literary form. The boiling visions of the great city planners remain for the most part locked on the page, quaint and harmless. Writing, insofar as it is a way of bringing the imagination to heal, offers the planner a medium in which he can tame the baroque and unpredictable growth of the city, and vent his own mania for order.

This is a great pity. The world would be more picturesque were it filled, like Calvino’s Empire of the Great Khan, with Ideal Cities, and Floating Cities, and Radiant Garden Cities Beautiful. But wherever a visionary plan does intersect with the empirically real city, it is rapidly overwhelmed, subducted. Ideal geometry is no match for people, or capital, or time.

Take for example the Linear City of Arturo Soria y Mata. In a series of articles from 1882 onward, Soria theorised a single developed strip of no more than 500 metres in width, with a central tram and roadway and residential and commercial plots on either side of stipulated size and separated by smaller streets, at the intersections of which there would be kiosks and shops, and in the centre of which there would be schools, hospitals, courtrooms and so on as need determined. No point in the city would be more than a few hundred metres from the countryside.

This five hundred metre strip could be as long as humanity required, might ultimately stretch from Cadiz to Saint Petersburg, from Brussels to Peking.

fig.2His vision was to unwind the city. In part this was a pragmatic response to the insanitary conditions of the industrialised cities of the nineteenth century, which he regarded as compacted, compressed and diseased organisms lacking proper anatomy. The Linear City, by contrast, would be a strong, healthy, vertebrate animal.

But Soria’s underlying organisational impulse was as ancient as cities themselves – the hankering for a rational civic geometry. Not a geometry in this case of ideal forms, but one which respected the underlying linear forces of the modern city: the railways and tramways, the telegraph and telephone, electric light and steam heat. The city had become an interlacing of lines and networks, draped inappropriately and uncomfortably over antique nuclear cities.

And it was not only rational to give play to the fundamental linearity of the city: it was moral. The straight line sanitizes, purifies, cleanses, it opens up to the light and air: there was to be no more rotten innerness. The straight line – the linea recta – had become prime in all planning.

In 1894 Soria managed to found a company, buy some land to the east of Madrid, and start work on his tramway. The initial plan was for a 55km belt running north to south which would act as an attractor for suburban development, but Europe was already old, all the land had been parcelled up long since, and it proved impossible to put together more than a 5km stretch which was no sooner completed that it was absorbed by the wholly unplanned and riotous expansion of the city.

Of course the Linear City was doomed not only by the contingency of Madrid’s expansion: it was corrupted by its own rationality. Unlike the Linear City, the world is three-dimensional. Thus any connection with an object lying outside the axis of the city – a source of raw materials, an outlet to a port – will create a node, a gravitational point, an attractor; the gentle pulsing flow (trams!) along a single trajectory will be interrupted or diverted, in places it will coagulate, atrophy, and in places accelerate, vivify. It will become, in other words, a city.

The Ciudad Lineal itself is now a leafy district of Madrid, ranged around the Calle Arturo Soria – as though the great man’s giant bones had been laid out and petrified.

fig.3It will no doubt amuse psychogeographers  to think that the original linear city is still there, hidden, silently determining the health and well being of the (wealthy) inhabitants. But the reintegration of the Ciudad Lineal was, in a way, apt. Soria was aware that all cities were now fundamentally linear; he simply states the logic more clearly. In his mind’s eye, the city is no longer a place of tortuous possibility, a garden of forked paths, but a contemplative ritual cursus, a salutary treadmill of the spirit.

And while this is an interesting thought, it is of course a wholly literary one.

Linear City was originally posted in The Dabbler under the title Norbiton: Linear City.

A Very English Education

The BBC has just aired a follow-up to Public School, a documentary which first aired in 1980 and which took a look inside Radley College, one of the country’s most famous public schools.

Radley_Hall,_Radley_College,_22-05-2007English public schools, as everyone by now probably knows, are to be distinguished from state or comprehensive schools, and are in fact private and typically very expensive. Radley, in common with most of them, is a boarding school, with boys from 13 to 18 resident for most of the year in the college.

The school was founded in 1847 by William Sewell, in order to provide an education in the style and spirit of the Church of England, and it still quotes with pride his emphasis on ‘the aesthetic, good manners and kindness’ in its prospectus. Interesting to notice then the excerpt from the beginning of the original documentary in which the then Warden (or headmaster) solemnly abjures his new charges to polish their shoes and not speak to people with their hands in their pockets, and wonders aloud how many of them have clean nails.

I do not say these things are not important. I am not keenly interested in the cleanliness of my students’ nails, but I can see that certain peripheral habits of attention to detail can benefit the whole individual, so to speak. In any case, the follow-up to the original documentary is well-worth a look, if only for the odd moment in British social history which it captures.

See the BBC documentary here.

Welcome to the North Atlantic

For new students arriving in Cambridge this weekend, a number of stereotypes will have been confirmed: that it always rains in Great Britain, and that the British are only really comfortable socially when talking about the weather.


Both are of course perfectly true, but there is a question of degree, and it is raining more today than usual. We were preparing, with some relish, for the worst storm since 1987, when the South East of England lost some millions of venerable trees, but I read instead on the latest updates that ‘hundreds’ of trees are down, and Gatwick Airport is operating a ‘near-normal’ service. Some chap in Dorset has had his car crushed, and a train to Peterborough was delay 40 minutes. In truth 220,000 homes are said to be briefly without power, but roads and railways have not been washed away, and cows are not floating out to sea on the roofs of VW Beetles. It is, all in all, a suitably understated British apocalypse. So far, anyway.

Aftermath_of_the_Great_Storm_of_1987For my part, the house I am staying in (in the South West of the country) lost a tile on the roof. I foolish parked the car under some trees, and looked out this morning expecting to see a branch lying athwart it like in the Richard Scarry books, but it seems, to my mild disappointment, to be fine. When I was at school a spell of ‘bad’ weather (an inch of snow, for example) would keep me off for days on end; but it seems that this time I will be back at work tomorrow, no doubt talking about the weather.

For latest updates and rolling storm news, see here.

Cambridge Festival of Ideas

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas is now underway around the city.

lamp_post_banner_appThe Festival is an annual public engagement initiative organised by the University of Cambridge, members of which and other invited guests present talks, films, exhibitions and workshops of various sorts, all concerned with promoting research and scholarship in the fields of arts, humanities and the social sciences.

This year’s theme is ‘Frontiers’, with talks today, for example, ranging from considerations of the contribution of the Cambridge Platonists to the history of philosophy, to an open discussion between four ‘artists in residence’ on the intersection of the arts and astronomy, archaeology and the earth sciences; a talk on the ethics of boosting brain power by artificial means; and an exhibition focusing on the history and culture of Mali and Timbuctu.

The festival runs for twelve days (from Wednesday 23rd October to Sunday 3rd November) at various venues around the city. Have a look at the website, or download the inevitable app.

Parental Guidance


The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in conjunction with the British Museum in London, is hosting an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts and books of the Edo and Meiji periods (c. 1600-1900), mostly drawn from its own collection, and including prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige and others. (Details here).

The subject of the exhibition is the presentation of love and desire in Japanese art, and the prints range in nature from the allusive, to the evocative, to the erotic and sexually graphic. Parental guidance is recommended, so bring your mum.


On the subject of parental guidance (although nothing remotely of a sexual nature to see here) I read that the new Imp Lord of Cambridge has been christened at St. George’s Chapel.

The Imp Lord in question is Prince George, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The British are not, historically, a deferential people – Voltaire, visiting in the eighteen century, was surprised by the healthy and humorous disrespect with which the English treated their aristocracy – and while there are some conspicuous exceptions, perhaps it is not deference so much as sleeping dogs that keeps the royal family in place. Do not stir up the anthill of executive power, even if it means humouring a vision of family life so anodyne it is verging on the pathological.

The Fitzwilliam exhibition is open until 12th January 2014. Entry is free. 

All the Same Stuff

One of our students, Takeru Kimura, paid a visit yesterday to Price Waterhouse Cooper in Cambridge – he works for PWC in Japan. He told me before he went that he was looking forward to it, but was a little apprehensive.


That is only to be expected. In part it is a question of language – Takeru has an excellent command of English, but taking a step outside the controlled environment of the classroom into a professional context, however relaxed, is never a straightforward thing to do.

But I’m sure that in part it also has to do with the slightly alienating fact of an intra-company visit itself. Everything is familiar, but everything is transformed. I have paid visits to the OISE schools in Bristol and Oxford, and to the agency in Milan, over the years, and while it was always pleasant, it was also always a bit odd – the same corporate approach, the same décor, the same logo everywhere, and so on; but different faces, a slightly different way of doing things, as though I had not travelled from one city to the next but from one universe to another, and found other people who looked a bit like me or like the people I worked with living out near-identical lives in near-identical surroundings.

Perhaps this is just a paradigm for travel. For various complicated reasons I once found myself in Rouen in Northern France with a man who had never left Britain before, and after looking around he said he was not impressed – everything was nice, but it was all the same stuff in the shops. He had a point: we do live in an increasingly homogenised world; but then again, perhaps he was just reacting to the disconcerting strangeness of seeing all the same stuff, in all the same sorts of shop, without being able to understand, or precisely fix, any of it, as though his world had wobbled a little on its axis.

PWC Cambridge in other words, is a foreign country: they do things differently there. And it may be a different Takeru who returns.