Red Lion and other Lost Pubs

I am pleased to see that Cambridge local activism is alive and well. A campaign to restore the Red Lion to Lion Yard following the shopping centre’s refurbishment some years ago attracted a total of one signature. And failed.

I was unaware that the Red Lion had been removed, in fact, and only dimly recalled its existence. It seems it has now been donated to Cambridge Rugby Union Football Club, whose crest is, coincidentally I suppose, a red lion.

There is no particular Cambridge association with red lions. Lion Yard shopping centre, the oldest of the city’s three shopping centres, is so named for the pub that stood there until its demolition in 1969. The Red Lion was in fact one of the most famous coaching inns in the city, along with the Eagle and the Mitre/Baron of Beef (which used to be a single institution; the two pubs are now separated by an archway leading into Blackmoor Head Yard). By 1969 it had fallen into disrepair and had been closed for four years, and was not, it seems mourned – a pity, since what replaced it and some of the other older buildings on Petty Cury was probably the least prepossessing building in the city.

Along with the Red Lion, an inn called the Falcon was also demolished to make way for the shopping centre. Queen Mary (Tudor) once attended a play in its courtyard, apparently, and it was there that Ted Hughes met Sylvia Plath.

photo: Magnus Manske

Petty Cury today photo: Magnus Manske

Only a tiny handful of pubs from before the 19th century in Cambridge retain their character and function, and it would a satisfying business to blame the collusion of developers and city functionaries (as some have done for the development of Lion Yard); but in truth it is the university that has swallowed up the vast majority – the White Horse, for instance, famous as a meeting place for early English reformers, was destroyed by King’s; the Dolphin by St. Catherine’s, the Green Dragon by the Senate House, and so on and on.

see an old photograph of Falcon Yard here


Typhoid Mary and the Broad Street Pump

On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street…

John Snow, letter to the editor of the Medical Times and Gazette, 1854

Sickness is on my mind.

Cambridge has been weathering an epidemic of gastric flu, at the centre of which I have been languishing. My family have all had it, half of the teachers have had it, half of the Mallon-Mary_01university has had it, and I suppose half of everybody else has had it. And somewhere or other, you start to suspect, there lurks a Typhoid Mary.

The original Typhoid Mary was an Irish woman, Mary Mallon, who emigrated to the USA at the end of the nineteenth century, and who was afflicted with asymtomatic typhoid fever, hence was a carrier of the disease. Unfortunately for the USA, her chosen profession was cook. She worked in a number of families in the first years of the twentieth century, nearly all of whom contracted the disease, with a number of fatalities. Mary moved on whenever there was an outbreak, and when she was finally confronted (by a sanitation engineer and typhoid researcher called George Soper, employed by one of the families) refused to co-operate, going so far as to deny the basic tenets of hygiene, and so was quarantined against her will, twice: on the first occasion for three years, and then, having been released on an undertaking not to take a position as cook, only to take up several positions as cook, again for 23 years, until her death in 1938, not of typhoid.

A Typhoid Mary need not be a person, of course. In 1854 the English physician John Snow made a breakthrough in the understanding of the transmission of cholera when he traced an outbreak in Soho, central London, to a single contaminated water pump on Broad Street (as part of his evidence, no monks in an adjoining monastery were infected, since they only drank their home-brew beer).

I could go on to notice the prevalence of campylobacter in supermarket chickens as noted in the newspapers today, but I am starting to make the school appear a pestilential charnel house, and it is nothing of the sort. It is an open sunlit precinct of healthy learning. One of two of us happen to have been poorly, that’s all.

Peas Hill: Cradle of the Reformation

We were searching for an English bishop and saint in the teachers’ room yesterday – not in person, but in name, for a crossword clue. And someone mentioned Hugh Latimer (1485-1555)

Latimer was the right number of letters, but was disqualified on account of his not being a saint; rather the opposite, since he was altogether of the wrong persuasion for sainthood, being one of the central figures of the English Reformation. He was, however, a martyr of the first water: he was burnt at the stake with Ridley in Oxford (as I relate elsewhere).

Latimer was a fellow of Clare College, and he was a regular preacher at the Cambridge church sometimes known as the cradle of the Reformation, St. Edwards King and Martyr on Peas Hill, where the first openly heretical sermon of the English Reformation was said to have been preached on Christmas Eve 1525 by Robert Barnes, one of a group led by Thomas Bilney which included Latimer’s (Bilney was said to be responsible for Latimer’s conversion). The pulpit the new heresy was preached from is still there, but Bilney, Barnes, and Latimer all burned for their beliefs, sooner or later.

photo: Magnus Manske

photo: Magnus Manske

Peas Hill – probably a corruption of the Latin pisces – was the location of the city’s main fish market before Henry VI razed that part of the city to make room for King’s College. St. Edward’s Passage, which runs between Peas Hill and King’s Parade, would have run down to the river through what is now King’s, hence the name, Hill (any slight eminence in these flat parts merits the name hill). The passage dates from the 13th century (as do parts of the church, the majority however dating from around 1400), so Latimer and Bilney and Barnes would have known it well.

The bishop and saint in question, by the way, turned out to be Wifrid (633-709) – an interesting man in his own right, but one without a Cambridge connection that I can find.

Coals to Newcastle

The Scottish media are delighted by the idea that tea is now grown, albeit in limited quantities, in the Highlands; and that it has ‘generated interest’ from China.

The tea plant is pretty hardy: as the representative of the Wee Tea Co. is keen to point out, some of the best tea-growing areas in the world are high in the mountains – Darjeeling, for instance, where the plant thrives at up to 1500m in the Himalayas. Scotland, therefore, should present no problem once the plants have hardened off.


The news would have surprised Dr. Johnson, the great poet, critic, essayist and tea-drinker, who made a tour of the Highlands in 1773 with his friend, intellectual punchbag and fawning amanuensis James Boswell, and noted its economic shortcomings with his usual acerbic wit.

Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they would choose it. Johnson: “Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.”  Boswell: “Come, come, he is flattering the English. you have now been in Scotland, Sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there.”  Johnson: “Why yes, Sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.” Boswell, Life of Johnson

In truth, the Scottish tea revolution is in its early stages. All interviews I have seen, such as the one above, are with one or two men standing in a field of 2000 plants, their whole empire. In consequence, it is one of the most expensive teas you can buy.

I have seen Dr. Johnson’s teapot, held as an exhibit in the museum of his birthplace in Lichfield, and it could probably contain half of their annual output in a single brew – Dr. Johnson himself could down twenty-five cups at a sitting. No doubt Boswell would have had him snorting with derision at the idea of a plantation of Scottish tea. But then he might also have had something to say for the parallel Cornish tea explosion – it seems they too are doing very well in China – evidently the media litmus test of a successful tea enterprise.

Cambridge Literary Festival

I’m a little disappointed I haven’t been invited to appear at this year’s Cambridge Literary Festival (Winter Edition) – I’d have thought by now the blog would have firmly established my reputation, either as a nature writer, a moralist, or as a sort of zeitgeist litmus machine.

But no. I only found out about the festival because it was briefly turned to the top of the compost heap that is Twitter. And I suppose that part of me is relieved. I have never attended a literary festival, but I think I must imagine correctly that they are by turns dull and insufferable – writers talking about their own work is usually like hearing athletes or footballers reflect on their performance: wholly beside the point.

There are, as always, exceptions. Here for instance is the extraordinary poet and scholar Anne Carson, being interviewed at just such a festival more than a decade ago.

Anne Carson, so far as I know, will not be attending.

Some others will, however – among them Clive James, Nick Hornby, Ali Smith, Helen Macdonald, Robert Macfarlane and, um, Claire Balding. They may very well be as entertaining and original as Anne Carson. They may not. Unfortunately, there really is only one way to find out.

The Cambridge Literary Festival will be held next weekend, on 30th November. Find details (and enthusiasm) here

Oman National Day, and Harald of Wales

I’m delighted to announce that we have a privileged inside line on the visit of Prince Harry to the Sultanate of Oman in honour of the Omani National Day, 18th November, which happens also to be the birthday of the Sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said (an honorary General in the British army, I notice). A colleague of one of our long-term students, Major Mohammad Al-Alawi, took the following photo spread.

image-1image-3 image

And here are the same events, related by the Omani news service.


What is the actual name of our genial Prince Harry?

It seems that Harry must be short for something: Harold? Harald? And the royals always go for meaningful strings of the names of their illustrious forebears, like South Sea islanders eating the heads of their deceased fathers in order to imbibe their mojo (I made that up, I think).

It seems like too much effort and not much fun to Google it. Perhaps we can work it out from first principles, or rather, the law of averages. Cry – God for Harry! England and St. George! is Henry V talking about himself, so I suppose Henry is more likely than the rather more left-field Harald, but there has to be something unexpected in the mix. There’s almost certainly a George in there somewhere. Perhaps a Charles. William is unlikely, unless they forgot about his brother when they were naming him. Victoria? A nice idea, but improbable. Edward, perhaps. Clarence?!

So this is my best guess: Prince Harald George Charles Edward Wales. Second guess: Henry George Charles Victoria Wales.

I refuse to look into the matter any further. Answers on a postcard, or whatever passes for a postcard in this day and age.

Don’t Mention the War

I read that Duxford is in a bit of trouble for funding, and may have to cut its educational budget. That would be a shame.

Duxford, for those who do not know, was for many years a military airfield, from which spitfires flew in WW2 and various fighter jets during the Cold War, and is now part of the Imperial War Museum. Located just to the south of Cambridge, it hosts regular airshows of historic aircraft. I haven’t been for a while, but the last time I went I saw, among other things, a B-17 and a Fairey Swordfish (which I was pleased about, because my father flew in them in the war).

Here one of the IWM’s historians tells something of the history of the airfield.


We do not send our students to Duxford as a matter of course, but some find there way there anyway (there is a regular bus service from the centre of town). The history of armed conflict between nations is a potentially sensitive issue for a language school (and occasionally a formative one – I have a memory that the Bell School in Cambridge started life as an educational charity in the founder’s conviction that the promulgation of a common language would lessen the chances of conflict in Europe and the world).

Peoples remember their wars as they remember their histories, and WW2, especially, tends to come up a fair bit in conversation. We date things from it – yesterday, I was talking about something or other happening ‘after the War’. Over the years I have found myself apologising for the bombing of Lübeck (‘not to worry’, said the student; ‘we started it’), and to an Italian admiral for the torpedoing of the Italian fleet at anchor at Taranto – an action carried out not by my father, but by my father’s squadron, as it happens. I have also  congratulated a Mitsubishi engineer on the excellence of his ‘Zero’ fighters, which sank the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse of the coast of Malaysia, I think, in 1941.

Duxford is not a museum of war, of course, but of a certain sort of technology. Aeroplanes fascinate in the same way that steam trains fascinate. And if that fascination is tied in with a nostalgia of old men for their youth, then that is passing too. Not many veterans get along to Duxford these days I shouldn’t think. And as memories get less personal, so language schools get less idealistic and political, and more commercial. And that it is a good thing, because doing a bit of trade and business with other nations is often the best way to be at peace with them.

Although, having said that, perhaps I should take the opportunity to apologise again for the Opium Wars.