Living in Cherry Hinton: Cambridge’s pocket of peace

Ramya SriramPersonal Essays, Writing12 Comments

A year of living in the lovely neighbourhood of Cherry Hinton, Cambridge: finding calm in the chaos.

I was standing by the railway crossing on the High Street, admiring the row of cherry trees that lined the street. In full bloom, they made for a postcard-worthy picture: pink and white flowers against a clear blue sky. Walking on the other side of the footpath was a lady in a summery dress, equally enamoured by the sight. We stood two metres apart and talked about how lucky we were to be greeted by a sight like this against the dreary backdrop of a global pandemic. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I had the chance to explore the neighbourhood of Cherry Hinton during the permitted once-a-day exercise. Thankfully, there were plenty of open spaces to escape to. The vast grounds of the Cherry Hinton Hall Park offered a meditative space during those unsettling months, when the cases rose in the UK and flights to my home country (India) were suspended. I found solace in the consistency and regularity of nature’s ways: spring came and went, as did summer, the leaves fell in autumn. I know now that the trees have been faithful friends, the duck pond a quiet absorber of my worries.

We were well into the third week of lockdown when I realized that the situation wasn’t going to let up anytime soon and I had to figure out ways to keep myself sane. And getting out for a walk was one of them. When the news got worse, my walks got longer. It was early March when the first lockdown was announced, the beginning of spring. It was comforting to see little signs of new life appear everywhere: snowdrops in a neighbour’s garden, specks of green re-appearing on bare branches. Gardens burst into colour, bringing out their best displays of hyacinths, daffodils, bluebells and tulips. This was not a bad neighbourhood to be confined in at all. As the number of people on the streets decreased, online communities grew: the Cherry Hinton Residents Association and the Community News group in particular did a great job of keeping everyone connected. 

Cherry trees on the High Street in spring

Cherry trees on the High Street in autumn

Summer came with the arrival of seven swan babies in the park. This news was collectively celebrated in the neighbourhood: people of all ages went to look at the grey-brown cygnets. Those of us who could, went to check on them regularly: we felt a sense of great responsibility for them. Pictures and updates were shared on the Facebook community groups so that everyone was in the loop. We echoed exclamations of dismay when two of the babies disappeared (possibly caught by foxes on Snakey Path).


Proud new parents

As the lockdown dragged on, months passed in a blur. Watching the trees in the park helped me mark the passage of time. It’s incredible what a tree can tell you about the seasons. My particular favourite was (and is) the horse chestnut tree. I love its dramatic display in spring and its equally grand colours in autumn. It was also on this tree that I spotted my first ever Great Spotted Woodpecker, something that went into my book of Remarkable Events During The Lockdown. The Cherry Hinton Tree Trail helped me tell a beech from a birch and also took me to trees I wouldn’t have found otherwise: the paperbark maple, the Japanese pagoda. In autumn, I watched the sweet gum tree turn a deep, rich red, and the Persian ironwood a dull golden. About a month before Christmas, bunches of mistletoe started appearing on the Rowan tree. The trees simply went on with their lives, lockdown or no lockdown. It reinforced a sense of normalcy when everything else seemed absurd.   

The Persian ironwood tree in Cherry Hinton Hall Park
Mistletoe growing on a Rowan tree in the park

As an amateur birder, I discovered that the Chalk Pits (and the surrounding woods) were teeming with birdlife. A kestrel one day, a sparrowhawk the next. I went early morning one day with my binoculars and was pleased to meet a fellow birder who was squinting up at the trees just like I was. The Chalk Pits make for a great day out especially during the summer, when the white chalk seems to reflect the sun, taking on a strange kind of luminosity. It’s also a place to look out for rare plants. 

In the winter, a walk along the (in)famous Snakey Path grew to be something of a ritual: this winding road by Cherry Hinton Brook offers plenty of opportunities to watch wildlife at close quarters. I don’t know if it’s just me but the birds on this path seem to be less shy. Robins, jays, all kinds of finches and tits: they seem to be a little more fearless on this path and are curious to get to know you. Imagine my delight when I recently saw a little egret land with a splash into the waters right in front of me! In winter, I met a muntjac deer, that stared at me with its big dark eyes from across the brook, the way only deer can. Snakey Path produces the soundtrack of a horror movie on December mornings: the wind whooshes through the trees, the branches creak, and the sounds of woodpeckers drumming seem to come from all directions: you’d almost think that they were ventriloquists.

Early morning robin on Snakey Path

Another reason that I like Cherry Hinton (and Cambridgeshire) is for its vast sky, that curves like a hemisphere over the flat fenlands. Whether you’re looking out from your kitchen window or are walking near the airport grounds, there’s something always going on above you. During the pandemic it was impossible to go a few days without looking up and being mellowed by the sight: smoky messages of hope scribbled by skywriters, rare Marshall aircraft, a stunning sunrise or sunset, double rainbows. From my backyard, I saw the Starlink satellites appear, one by one, into the Earth’s orbit, another time I saw the Perseid meteor shower.

Much-needed sign over Addenbrooke’s Hospital during COVID-19 times. Also got the pilot in frame!
Winter sunrise

I’ve spent over a year here now, and it’s been a year of exploring a relationship with this neighbourhood. Michelle Bullivant’s blog has been a great source of information, and the Cherry Hinton Memories group is full of interesting stories about the village’s history. I’ve enjoyed reading about local legends like Gogmagog and I’ve seen residents’ memories of the recently-demolished Green Hut come to life. If you walk a little further away from the heart of Cherry Hinton, there are longer routes waiting for wayfarers: such as the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke. But you don’t have to particularly walk very far: even a short amble around the High Street is rewarding. Whether it’s a huge open space like the Cherry Hinton Hall Park or a smaller green space like the Church End ground, it’s incredible that we have these spaces to sustain and nourish us, especially during trying times. I’m glad to have got to know some of the secrets this little part of the world holds. And I can’t wait for spring to come again, when I can smell the sweet, powerful scent of hyacinths from someone’s garden while waiting for Citi 1 at the bus stop.

Magical Monsoons of India: Reminiscing the Rains

Ramya SriramPersonal Essays, WritingLeave a Comment

A nostalgia-soaked essay on the magical monsoons of India. There’s nothing that says home like thunderous rain and hot roadside bhutta (roasted corn).

Monsoons of India: Making Paper Boats

It’s the season that brings a whole upheaval of emotions. Great big drops fall from the saturated sky, at that breaking point beyond which the earth can’t hold back anymore. These are tears of happiness, of sadness, of anger, of release. Some of us run into the streets with abandon – they say the first rain of the monsoon washes away all your worries. Some of us crowd at windows and balconies to observe this phenomenon – one that has the capacity not only to create, produce and give, but also to disrupt, destroy and take away. Status updates are shared within seconds – those two magical words – ‘It’s raining!‘ Social media is filled with pictures of grey skylines, wet window panes and flooded streets.

I love the rains. For me, it’s symbolic of a crescendo of events which reaches its peak of concentration, before erupting and being diluted eventually into nothingness. It’s starting over.

I’ve been the person standing on the street, looking at the clouds in anticipation. I remember relishing each drop until they converged into a steady stream that soaked me to the bone. I’ve made paper boat after boat, racing them on the street’s rivers with family and friends. I’ve stood with dozens of others under bus stands, grumbling on the phone to various people about being ‘stuck’ in the rain but actually absolutely loving it. I’ve had bhutta from the bhutta-shop that would, like most Indian stalls, magically appear at the end of our street. I loved watching the coal burning black spots into the corn, that would soon be rubbed with lime and salt and that peculiar masala that never quite tasted the same when made at home. I’ve been on a two-wheeler (not fun at all) in a traffic jam, cursing the rain, cursing the traffic and cursing unexpected potholes. I’ve sat in autos, with my jeans slowly soaking up the water on the seat like a sponge. I’ve got doses of muck from cars as they drove past me through large muddy puddles. I’ve had chai-samosa with Amma in the balcony, laughing and making up stories about that uncle running with the plastic bag on his head, or that school boy chasing another down the street. We knew, once the rain started, that it would only be a matter of time before the power went off. The monkeys would all come out, swinging on the neem trees with their little ones and climbing up and down the pipes of our apartment. We’d light candles (because the emergency light would always be out of charge) and we’d stand at the door and chat with the neighbours. Power cuts brought everyone together, before people started installing back up generators. Power cuts were a time when we narrated stories, played 20 questions and found ways to pass time together, while the sound of the rain dulled into white noise in the background. And the food! Bajjis, bondas, vada paavs and other fried goodies made their way into our plates within minutes.

Every June/July called for a trip to the Western Ghats, where the southwest monsoon arrives first. There’s so much drama in these hills during the rains that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on overhead and underfoot. The leeches and frogs are out and about, the canopy teems with life and even the smallest leaf is awake, dancing. The rivers rage in full force, and waterfalls burst with life as they tumble over the mountainsides with an explosion of joy. Kerala proudly displays a large amount of insects and Popy umbrellas, both of dazzling variety. The hills of Maharashtra take on a paddy-green colour, with streams and rivulets running onto the roads. In Bombay, romance is at its peak, and it drives the city out to its beaches in hordes. The Dudhsagar of Goa has travellers going into raptures as they are drenched in its spray while aboard the train that runs through it. In Karnataka, a whole world of treks await, the trails often lined with scaly animals. In the drier parts of India, parched land drinks in the water slowly, forming the warm brown colour of mud. In Kolkata, the yellow taxis form a sharp contrast to the grey overcast skies. In Meghalaya, it pours relentlessly, and the forest births waterfalls overnight. The Ganga is full, flowing and flourishing. Peacocks dance, farmers heave a sigh of relief – and the whole event becomes a poem from my 7th Grade Sanskrit textbook.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all revelled in the rains – one season that the country unanimously agrees is a time for celebration. The monsoons of India are like a gigantic living creature moving across the country, morphing into various shapes as it journeys. Unpredictable, overwhelming, with the power to birth a new leaf as well as to uproot a tree, the impact it has on a country and her people is phenomenal.

It’s my first monsoon away from India and I never thought I’d miss it this much. But it’s not the rains that I miss – it rains almost every day here. What I miss is everything that makes the monsoons of India so exhilarating: the heady mix of rain combined with the smell of earth, the samosas, the echoes in the apartment corridor, the infectious enthusiasm, the collective, widespread joy, and a balcony with a view.


Also read: Manjapra, a little-known village in God’s own country

Nostalgia trip: A childhood made of dreams

Ramya SriramPersonal Essays, WritingLeave a Comment

I don’t know where my parents procured the Magic Toothbrush from, but it remains, to this day, the single most fascinating thing I have ever seen in my life. My brother and I woke up one day to find that we had just willed the ‘changing colour’ toothbrush to jump straight out of the TV ad into our hands. We carefully filled a mug full of hot water and dipped the brushes in it, waiting in anticipation. And sure enough, the purple toothbrush turned into a blush of pink and my brother’s red into a happy yellow. (Ei my colour is better!, I told him triumphantly.)

And so every morning we spent a considerable amount of time dipping the toothbrushes in hot water, waiting for them to change colour, and watching them gradually fade back to their original colours while we brushed. In the household’s morning madness of only-one-hour-running-water, dubbas to be packed and tiffins to be carried, the event of brushing our teeth suddenly assumed prime importance.

We were fortunate enough to live just across the street from Walden, one of Hyderabad’s best-loved bookstores, and next to Prime Time,’ the dashing-car place’. And of course, we were fortunate enough to have parents who walked us across that street. Baker’s Inn was a stone’s throw away, and soon, Pizza Inn, one of Hyderabad’s first pizza outlets came up behind it. There’s a secret underground passage between the two, my brother told me, in hushed tones. Only I know about it. I’ll take you some day. He never did.

I worshipped my brother for many years of my childhood. He was So Cool. He taught me to blow Big Babol bubblinggum bubbles. He read to me every night the abridged version of Count of Monte Cristo (which, for the longest time, I called CountayMontay Cristo). He took me on bike rides. He was Star Swimmer in Secunderabad Club, another place which adopted us when we were kids. He could do Scary Folded Eyelids. He taught me to play book cricket and ‘house, hut, palace’. He got home tamarind seeds from his school, and I rubbed them against each other all day, trying to make a fire. He taught me swear words (unintentionally). But his Hero status ended abruptly, when, one night, I was woken up by a ghostly, ghastly apparition hovering over me, moving its pseudopodia-like arms about furiously. BOOOOOO, it rumbled at me menacingly. AAAAAAHHH!!, I screamed. When my parents pulled the bedsheet off his face, I went to bed furious, resolving to be a better judge of character in future.

And then there was the Curious Case of the Cupboard Cricket.  A Godrej almirah stood like a morose sentinel in the room that my brother and I shared. Every night it would emit a series of shrill chirps, following which Anna would give it a bang, and the noise would stop. After five minutes, it would start again. What is this cricket? I asked my mom. She said it was a harmless insect. I rummaged about at the back of the cupboard one day trying to find it. I had (thankfully) never seen a cricket before. (The sight of crickets today makes me jump like I’m one of their own.) I didn’t find the insect, but I found an old giant pop-up birthday card instead.

Pop-up cards were something. So were yo-yos. So were my dad’s beautiful letterhead papers that he carefully brought for me from various hotels that he stayed in. And then there were my mom’s cakes. And Diwali sweets. And Holi pitchkaris. And notebook labels with cartoons on them. Balloons from Tank Bund were a special treat. And Lucky Dips.  And cups I would fill with soap water and blow bubbles out of with a straw (I later graduated, with the help of the maid, to blowing rin soap bubbles right off my hand). Santa came to Walden every Christmas. The annual house-washing event was also looked forward to with enthusiasm because the soapy floor favoured skating adventures.

Summers were spent in my grandparents’ place in Gujarat, where my cousins and I grew up eating mangoes, getting into neighbourhood fights, adopting street cows and generally having a notoriously gala time. We slept on the terrace on rajais, after having had puri-Shrikhand and having listened to my uncle’s bedtime stories under the night sky. My grandfather was a great storyteller too – tales of the Trojan horse, anecdotes from the Mahabharat, quotes from Wodehouse, his own experiences as a teacher. In Chennai, another uncle, a sailor, told me stories of his travels, of ships and whales and tornados, and I waited patiently for an octopus to show up in them. A older cousin once came home and taught us to make boats of paper and camphor and float them in our bath buckets.

School was an altogether strange and surreal world. Maria placed cracker (balsam) seeds on her tongue, upon which they exploded. She could also walk on her hands. It was my dream to excel in similar feats. There were skeletons in the lab (that came alive at night with glowing red eyes) and crocodiles in the drain. There was piano class, where you could open up a piano to see the hammers hitting the strings. SUPW taught us to make jumping frogs out of paper. There was groupism and tree-climbing and ice-cream uncle and there were fights and tears and iodine knees. There were competitions and choir practice and dramatics (where I appointed myself as pianist for fear of being made an inanimate object).

Out of school hours, I was made, like many other kids, to learn Bharatnatyam and Carnatic music. When I hit a couple of notes on the Casio, my parents enrolled me for piano lessons. I made a get-well-soon card for my brother with a pig’s face on it – and this, taken to be the sign of a budding artist – prompted my parents to send me to a variety of art and craft classes. And so I learnt to stitch odd-looking soft toys, paint on glass, mould pots and flowers from POP, pencil-sketch, carve sola wood, make gift boxes, write calligraphy, and what not. Happy with the fruits of their encouragement, my parents tried badminton and tennis on me but soon discovered that I was a lazy lump of lard. I did enjoy periodically poking the touch-me-nots growing by the court, though.

We also travelled quite a bit, during which the family transformed into a bunch of jokers. My dad worried about shower pressure in hotels. My mother worried about wild animals and about my brother, who went Too Close to Edges. I gambolled along gaily. In Hyderabad, we went annually to the P C Sorcar magic show and to my favourite childhood haunt, the Birla Science Museum and Planetarium. Trips to Softy Den and Pick N Move spelt Heaven.

Looking back, I feel that in more ways than many, exposure just landed on my plate. The simplest of simple things made a difference. Sometimes, my mother would deliver the love in the form of two dots and a smile of ketchup on a round uttappam. My parents, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, teachers at school, teachers at various hobby classes, school friends, hobby-class friends, parents of friends, maids, drivers, watchmen, other apartment inhabitants, grocery shop uncles – everyone played an exclusive role in gifting me a glorious, magical, happy childhood. A childhood that is tangible when I rub two tamarind seeds against each other and press them on my palm, feeling the sweet, familiar thrill of their warmth.