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.
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.
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.
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.
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.