The cold spell around Nine Wells

December 5th 2022 saw the start of a very cold fortnight in Cambridge. Temperatures rarely rose above zero, and fell to -11.3C early in the morning of the 15th; 10+cm of snow fell in the night of the 11th and stayed until the 19th. Ponds and lakes froze, and even the Cam had started to ice up by the 18th.

The lake in Hobson’s Park across the railway line was no exception. However the springs in Nine Wells continued to flow, and indeed on the coldest morning a misty steam rose from Hobson’s Brook. The area rapidly attracted the waterbirds that were displaced from the lake.

Snipe have always been occasional visitors but following the snowfall I counted five around Nine Wells and along the brook and nearby hedges. Little egret (right) and grey heron, more regular visitors, also appeared. Two new species to the site were more surprising: a couple of teal in the springs, while a family of five barnacle geese sought food in areas of the stubble field where the snow as less deep.

Other winter visitors flocked to the area – up to 200 redwing (below left and centre) thronged the hedgerows and shrubby areas, growing less timid as the cold spell wore on. This is more than I normally record around the site and more than were present immediately before of after the freeze began – it is possible that they were drawn by the presence of water, which may also have made adjoining areas slightly less cold. Good numbers of fieldfare (below right) were also present.

And one more treat lay in store on the 15th: another new species for the area, lesser redpoll, which called from one of the bushes along the brook.

For more about my study of the wildlife in the fields around Nine Wells, see my book A haven for farmland birds.

Nine Wells

Note: there is now a page devoted to Nine Wells which you will find here. I will 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 there (right) and saw 2 (possibly 3) pairs of 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.

Edale and Kinder Scout

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

Edale 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.

Crowden 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 met a second group of ramblers who had started from Hayfield on the other side. Following scuffles with gamekeepers six ramblers were arrested and five were found guilty and given sentences of between 2 and 6 months prison. At the trial, Benny Rothman spoke:

‘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.

Despite the severity of the sentences, more mass trespasses followed and eventually, 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.

It may have been a Saturday rather than a Sunday, and I haven’t strictly speaking been a wage slave for many 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 gritstone 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. It’s the place I head to when I need to escape the flatlands – good both for the feet and the soul.

We 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.

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…