Nine Wells

Note: there is now a page devoted to Nine Wells which you will find here. I eill keep this updated more regularly.

I continue my ecological survey of the fields south of Addenbrookes Hospital around the Nine Wells nature reserve.The field on the hospital side of the cycle path is wonderfully wild at the moment – this morning I heard 3 corn buntings there (right) and saw 2 (possibly 3) pairs of reed buntings. A yellowhammer was also singing and several skylarks.

The field on the other side of the cycle path had been earmarked by South Cambridgeshire District Council for further development. However, the conservatives suffered a shock defeat in the recent local elections. The liberal democrats, who now have overall control of the council, had campaigned vigorously against the proposed development. Let’s hope they now throw it out – I am trying to clarify the position. In case they need reminding, you can write to local councillors.

My 2017 survey of the area – which you can download below – showed that the area remains extremely valuable for farmland birds of high conservation concern, with exceptional numbers of grey partridge in the autumn, as well as good numbers of skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and corn bunting.3P

‘The square km south of Addenbrookes has this year supported a grey partridge population of at least 11 spring pairs/km2 and 85 birds/km2 in autumn. The arable farms typical of Cambridgeshire support between 0 and 5 pairs/km2 and 0–20 birds/km2 in the autumn.’

Corn buntings also did particularly well last year, with 8 pairs. This is an important population – there are just 11,000 birds in the UK and its recent extinction in Ireland risks being repeated in large parts of Britain if its breeding sites are not protected. The RSPB’s nearby Hope Farm had 2 pairs in 2016 in 1.8km2.

In addition, the site supports a thriving population of water voles, both in the start of Hobsons Brook, and in the ditch that runs alongside the cycle path.

You can download a copy of my report for 2017 here.


My reports for 2016 are here:



My reports for 2015 are here:



The story of Heroes of the floes

It was a friend who worked for the British Antarctic Survey who first told me the story of John Rae, the Orcadian doctor and explorer.

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir in 1813. He qualified as a surgeon in Edinburgh and in 1833 left Scotland to work in Canada, first as a ship’s surgeon on board the Prince of Wales, and then in Moose Factory for the Hudson Bay Company, where he was to stay for 10 years.

Rae, in contrast to most of his white contemporaries, respected the First Nation people, learned vital skills from them and dressed like them to face the winter cold. From the Cree he learned how to make snowshoes and hunt caribou, and from the Inuit how to build snow shelters.

Rae was asked by the Hudson Bay Company to complete the mapping of the Arctic coast. He was a remarkable athlete – in one two-month period he covered 1200 miles on foot – and he spent whole winters in the far north. His expeditions filled many gaps and confirmed the existence of the North West Passage.

In 1848 Rae was asked to help search for the men of Lord Franklin’s expedition. He learnt from the Inuit that 40 white men had starved to death and had resorted to cannibalism in their final days. However when his report reached London, it led to an outcry. As my friend says, ‘Royal Navy chaps don’t eat each other’. Or as Charles Dickens put it, no white man should believe the Inuit who were ‘savages and liars’.

Later expeditions proved Rae and the Inuit right. However by then Rae was thoroughly discredited and his own discovery of the North West Passage was attributed to Franklin. His achievements were written out of history. My friend suggested that, as Franklin already had songs to his name, I might like to write a tribute to a true hero of the floes. I hope the song does him justice.

Nine Wells


All lovers of nature have their favourite wild places. I’ve written about some of mine in other pieces – many are in the north of England or in the Eastern Pyrenees, which are the areas we tend to walk in most, or on the windswept coasts of East Anglia. But it’s important to have wild places nearer to home, and one of my favourites is the area around Nine Wells, just south of Addenbrooke’s hospital on the edge of Cambridge.

At first sight you could be forgiven for thinking that the area is unremarkable, made up as it is mainly by arable fields. Indeed I have heard it described as ‘uninspiring’ and I fear that some on Cambridge City Council may share this view. But getting to know it better brings many rewards.  Along with the arable fields there are woods, area of scrub, springs, streams, hedges and White Hill – the final chalk rising before Cambridge and the fens. And of course the local nature reserve of Nine Wells itself:


All wild places are full of surprises. One early spring afternoon a fox sauntered down the field from White Hill, crossing the track about 20 metres in front of me – the wind was behind me so it must have been aware of my presence. And just recently I watched a marsh harrier languidly quartering the largest field for half an hour. Forty years ago just a single pair nested in Britain, and although there are now over 300 pairs across the country they remain a rare sight away from the coastal marshes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut for me the stars of the area are the birds of arable farmland. When I was a child, these were the numerous and everyday companions of spring and summer. Singing skylark (right) were my first sign of sign of spring, while yellowhammer and corn bunting reeling away across the ripening corn were the very essence of summer. These birds, which were then so common, have suffered catastrophic declines: we have lost 90% of our corn buntings and grey partridge since 1970, and half of our skylarks, yellowhammers, linnets and yellow wagtails.

Yet around Nine Wells their numbers are remarkable – this year there are over 20 pairs of skylark, 10 pairs of grey partridge, almost as many linnets and yellowhammers and a couple of pairs each of corn bunting and yellow wagtail. One warm summer’s day I sat for a while looking up at White Hill, with a corn bunting singing behind me and a yellow hammer in the hedge to my left. Partridge (below) chuckled among the peas growing in front of me, while overhead dashed swallows, house martins, swifts and ‘parcels’ of linnets.


Yellowhammer_AddenbrookesI worry that this area – currently designated as green belt – may be released for development. Already the ever-expanding Addenbrooke’s is growing inexorably towards it – on the right is a yellowhammer singing in front of the new hospital car park – while over the railway line the new Great Kneighton/Clay Farm development emerges.

To remind those who decide such things how valuable the area is for farmland birds I carry out an annual survey of the area. Here is my report for this year – please do download and share.

Nine Wells Survey 2014

Edale and Kinder Scout

Edale 1

This May we celebrated Isabelle’s 60th birthday with a day’s walking in Edale and up on Kinder Scout, in the Derbyshire Peak District. At 636 metres Kinder is the highest point in the Peak District – indeed just about anywhere in England south of Yorkshire – and the nearest place with real hills to Cambridge.

Edale 2Edale is famous for several reasons. It is the start of the 267-mile Pennine Way – though somewhat confusingly when you leave the village you are offered two versions of the route, up Grindsbrook or Jacob’s Ladder. As Edale can get very busy on a warm spring Saturday, we avoided both, preferring the Crowden Clough footpath which also leads up to the Kinder Scout plateau.

Edale 3Crowden Clough is usually quiet and so it proved on this occasion – we passed but a handful of people on our way up the valley, and probably saw more dippers and grey wagtails flitting around the waterfalls. Curlews hung on the air as we made our way up towards Crowden Tower and the start of the plateau. As we stopped for lunch, a ring ouzel was singing on one of the rocks across the valley.

Edale and Kinder’s second claim to fame is the mass trespass. On 24th April, 1932 a group of Sheffield ramblers, protesting for the right to roam, set off from Edale for a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, where they successfully met a second group of ramblers who had started from Hayfield on the other side.

Kinder_trespass_articleFollowing scuffles with gamekeepers six ramblers were arrested and five were found guilty and given sentences of between 2 and 6 months prison. Their efforts were not in vain when seventeen years later the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act led to the establishment of the Peak District National Park, and the first recognition of a right to roam. Ever since the peaty bogs of Kinder have been a prime target for the walkers of Sheffield and Manchester.

At the trial, Benny Rothman spoke memorably: ‘We ramblers, after a hard week’s work in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation, a breath of fresh air, a little sunshine. But we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us, just because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days a year.’

Ewan McColl was to succinctly rephrase this in The Manchester Rambler: ‘I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday’. There’s a video of Mike Harding singing the song at the Moorland Centre in Edale, or another good version from Sean Cannon of the Dubliners.
Edale 4
It may have been a Saturday rather than a Sunday, and I haven’t been a wage slave in the strict sense of the word for some years, but we certainly felt like three free men and a free woman as we stood up on Crowden Tower. From here there are several choices – you can turn left along the edge of the plateau towards the Swine’s Back, Kinder Cross and along to Kinder Low or down into Hayfield.

One clear day, armed with a compass, I set out straight ahead across the plateau. After what seemed like endless peat bogs I eventually emerged at Kinder Downfall, little more than a trickle on that summer’s day. I have seen it as a spectacular waterfall after wet weather, with the west wind blowing the water back up onto the moor, or reduced to icicles in a harsh winter.

This time, with a long drive back to Cambridge ahead of us, we turned right along the edge towards Grindslow Knoll. We passed more weathered Edale 6gritstone outcrops and appreciated the National Trust’s attempts to improve the path as it crosses the degraded peat.

Edale has long been one of my favourite places in the country, with special connections to my family. My father and grandfather were walking there when my mother went into labour for my birth. We in turn were there on the cold New Year’s Eve when my father died. Growing up in Manchester and Rochdale gave me a love for the gritstone moors, and it’s the place I head to when I need to escape the flatlands – good both for the feet and the soul.

Edale 7We have walked around Edale in all weathers, but never as fine as this day. The sun was still shining as we headed down the slopes of Grindslow Knoll back towards the village, past the fortunate drinkers in the Rambler Inn who had less far to drive home.

A few years ago I finished writing Hold On during a day’s walk from Kinder. Here it is, with Lester Lloyd-Reason on lead guitar and Amanda Hall on harmony vocals:

Walking near Rutland

Cambridgeshire has long declared war on grass. The fens to the north of the city and the low chalk hills to the south have all been put to the plough, and at this time of year provide a monotonous vista – black to the north and brown to the south.

To find the pleasing green of meadows and pastures you have to head west, and so on the last day of September we set off for the Rutland/Leicestershire border and Tilton on the Hill – a typical village of the area with quiet streets of warm stone, perched on top of a 200-metre high ridge.

We tumbled down the hillside in the direction of Lowesby, disturbing the tranquility of flocks of sheep and flights of sparrows.

After a while we crossed one of Beeching’s disused railway lines – though remarkably the isolated Lowesby station is still intact and lovingly cared for. It put me in mind of Michael Flanders’ ‘The Slow Train‘ – ironically just a day after I had learnt that his daughter Stephanie, purveyor of the rampant market economics that had cost us our rural railways all those years ago, had left the BBC to join J P Morgan.

As the sun burst through we picnicked overlooking Lowesby church, surrounded by munching cattle and watched by wheeling buzzard, red kite and kestrel. A passing walker told us of the 100 bus which still runs from Leicester to Melton Mowbray through these villages, somehow surviving Osborne’s cuts, and allowing fellow walkers to leave their cars at home.

Moving on from Lowesby we wandered through more fields of rich green to Hamner’s Lodge Farm, another survivor from a lost age when farmyards were less tidy, more ramshackle and full of animals. A largely unconcerned ‘guard’ dog looked vaguely in our direction, leaving it to the cattle to warn disgruntledly of our passing.

From the farm we continued to climb back up the escarpment amidst clouds of linnet and charms of goldfinches. We stopped again for a while to soak in the views west to Charnwood and far beyond towards the Peaks before turning back into the easterly wind towards Tilton and thence home.


Nightingales – as so many of our best loved birds – have taken a hard hit in recent times. In the last 40 years they have declined by 90% which means that where 10 may have been singing when I was young, only one is singing today. So when a friend told me he had never heard a nightingale, I thought we had better put that right quickly before we lose them altogether.

On Sunday morning we set out for a place near to us that has bucked the trend, and still holds good numbers of of the legendary songsters – Paxton Pits, near to St Neots. We were treated to at least six different nightingales, and at one time could hear four of them carolling together. I managed to make a rough recording of one of them, who is joined towards the end in a duet by a second bird:

I’m not the first poet or lyricist to be stunned by the beauty and intensity of the nightingale’s song, but I’ll probably restrict myself to the one that features briefly, and eight miles from home, in ‘The last bus to Leeds’. But it does give me an excuse to quote a few lines from Keats’ ode, one of my favourite poems:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

The corn bunting and the grey partridge may not have the nightingale’s ‘full-throated ease’, but they do most certainly ‘sing of summer’ and they too have declined by 90% since 1970. Later on Sunday evening we wondered around the countryside behind Addenbrookes Hospital listening to them.

Our City Council is keen to build on green belt and threaten the habitat of these quintessential farmland birds and last night I spoke to the council’s ‘Planning and Development Scrutiny Committee’ to encourage them to think again. It was a disappointing meeting – the committee members seemed to regard the occasion as an opportunity to proof-read the local plan and discuss minor points of detail, rather than to debate points of principle and ask the civil servants to find better solutions. The reply to my own statement was ill-informed. It was not a good advert for democracy.

Of course people need places to live – but so does wildlife and we need to do a better, more imaginative job of reconciling our own needs with those of our companions on this planet. It would be criminal if future generations were unable to hear the ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ or his arable counterparts.

But I’ll sign off for now with a little more Keats:

O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim…

PS Here’s a link to an earlier blog and you can also download report of a more recent survey I carried out this year below: