Try a visit sometime to the southern side of Cambridge and then a little further eastwards away from the City to discover what I find to be the most graceful and sophisticated parkland in the whole of southern England. The gently rolling and low rising chalk landscape will reveal elegant secrets all of its own. I generally go and have ‘another look’ for myself every week.
First of all, head to Cherry Hinton just on the edge of Cambridge City. Leave via the Lime Kiln Road and find a place to park your car. Just behind the hedgerow alongside the road you will find a vast, recently abandoned, deep chalk pit that has now been given back to nature. It is declared to be a site of Special Scientific Interest. It presents itself simply as the ‘East Pit’.
If it is a clear day you will instantly sense the bright reflection of the sunlight from the deep, white chalk trenches. It will be a little enigmatic and perhaps just a touch magical. Some people claim that they need their sunglasses on a summer afternoon. The gradually changing colours of the layered bedrock reveal the changing ages of the sedimentation. Nature is taking over and rare species of fauna, wild creatures and birdlife are repossessing the once industrial landscape.
The chalk mine provided material for the construction of some of the recent Cambridge Colleges up until 1980. It was proposed at that time that the then redundant area should be used as a parking area for roving travellers. Protestors opposed this plan and the pit was eventually acquired and managed by the Wildlife Trust. Today it is kept as a nature reserve and forms part of the ‘Cambridgeshire Chalk Living Landscape’.
This space is open to the public every day and entrance is free. It has become home to plant life such as St. John’s Wort, Selfheal, Fairy Flax and the rare Moon Carrot. Harebell and Kidney Flax are thriving. These plants provide food for the rabbits, about 60 species of bird life and various types of rodent. These creatures in turn provide food for the patrolling Kestrels that are always on the prowl from their lofty domain in the sky.
The old chalk mine is extensive. It is a living nature reserve and attracts many walkers and scientists that keep track of all the changes. The landscape, especially when it is under a thunderous cloud cover, can appear spiritual. Archaeological excavation at the base of the mine was carried out in 2009 by the University.
Travel on further down Lime Kiln road and take a left up the hill towards Fulbourn village. Locate the ‘Beechwoods’ reserve. This is part of the Cambridge natural landscape of the ‘Gog Magog’ hills. They rather ironically take their name from the Biblical giants but the ground does not rise much beyond 250 meters.
Beechwood is quite wild but is maintained as a nature reserve in its own right. Medieval farming took place on this area but vast numbers of Beech trees were planted over the ancient site in the 1840s. There are still some signs of medieval farming methods remaining within the tree rooted base.
Beech trees are very tall, thin trunked and spindly. The fragile chalk soil that they grow in is not very supportive and prominent signs advise visitors to stay clear of the woods in windy weather. A really wild place of chalk hillside!
It is stirring to admire the Beech leaf canopies so far above your head and to observe the ever changing, flickering sunshine through the tops. Wild and wandering pathways provide a walking route through the forest and the young saplings that have replaced the fallen trunks.
Beechwood supports many species of rare, hardy plants including Crab Apple and Dog Rose. The reserve is famous for its crop of natural but rarely found Helleborine Orchids. Beechwood is the most northerly source of these plants. Many visitors make the springtime pilgrimage to the reserve to view the plants and photograph them.
Many unusual species of wildlife live in the wood. There are grey Partridges on the southern side and Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers and Nuthatches all making their homes amongst the trees.
There is a great depression deep in the centre of Beechwood called the ‘bomb crater’. This is what it must be I suppose. During the last war there were many military aerodromes in this part of Cambridgeshire. Many of the bombers did not quite make it back after a raid and some crashed just short of their home in the open countryside. This depression was where one of them must have struck the ground with its remaining bombload exploding. Nowadays the crater is forgotten about and is just a popular point for dogs and children to play.
The colours of the trees are beautiful for so much of the year from early spring until late autumn. Beechwood really is the ‘Wild East’ of southern Cambridgeshire.
Wandlebury Country Park
Leave Beechwood and go down the hill again to the main road. Head south eastwards a couple miles and you will stumble across Wandlebury Park. This is another bit of the Gog Magog ‘range’ of hills and is another charming piece of chalk real estate.
Wandlebury contains a great house that used to be the home of the Earl of Godolphin. It is a splendid large country manor topped by an imposing rooftop clock that can be seen for miles around. The Earl of Godolphin ran a sophisticated stable yard that once was home to King James’s race horse. The grounds also contain the grave of the Earl’s personal horse that was used for breeding called ‘Godolphin Barb’. The building today is now the headquarters of the charitable organisation called’ Cambridge, Past, Present and Future’. They manage much of rural Cambridgeshire.
The prominent house rests on the site of an ancient Iron Age fortress dating back from 2500 years ago. It is surrounded by a dried up moat bed but the grounds remain open to the public. The old stable yard is still present and maintains the culture of the history of the house.
The park itself is extensive, heavily wooded and beautiful. It covers about 110 acres. It is operated now as a protected area and is home to many species of wildlife and birds. Cows graze in the surrounding meadows and sheep live there in the spring. Wild tracks provide walking access through the often dense and dark completely embracing tree life.
There is a signposted viewing point in Wandlebury Park where Ely cathedral can be spotted on the horizon. This lies about 25 miles to the north across the flat Cambridgeshire Fens. Visitors might need binoculars to spot it.
Many wild creatures live in the forest. Butterflies, Voles, Badgers, Beetles and occasionally a Fox can be found amongst the undergrowth. Meadows have been sown with wild flowers and mushrooms and fungi share their space.
Many events take place in the park throughout the year. There are open air cinemas, theatre groups, organised walks and picnics for children abound. Entrance is free but you have to pay three pounds to park your car. Bicycles, of course, are exempt.
Magog down is different from the other chalk landscape parks. It really is my favourite though. It is a wide, open plan living place for all creatures and people. Leave the main road back towards Cambridge and find the sign.
Magog Down is a gently rolling and curved chalk hill that is sown almost entirely with grass. It provides spectacular and panoramic views of Cambridge City, southern England beyond and the broad sky above. Magog Down provides an elemental symbol of freedom. Car parking and entrance is free.
The hill side landscape was bought by the Magog Trust in 1989 to prevent commercial development of the site. It is now preserved and maintained by volunteers as a public natural reserve. Anyone can ask to become a ‘friend’ of Magog Down. It covers about 160 acres.
There are things to see and do on this Gog Magog principal slope all through the year. Tobogganing down the broad hillside after winter snowfalls, sheep grazing in the spring and kite flying in the summer. It is quite the most perfect place to fly a kite that I have ever seen. People walk and jog all year round and in the summer and autumn some people hold picnics and birthday celebrations.
The surrounding meadows are sown with wild flowers and cowslips encouraging ground nesting birds like skylarks. There are many familiar wildlife creatures and birds including caterpillars and species of Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Wren, and Robins.
The recently deceased Professor Stephen Hawking from Cambridge University was a long term patron of Magog Down. He was a frequent visitor and opened the first pathway up to the top of the crest.
Resting right at the peak of the hill lies a ghostly and mysterious tree coppice. It is a little scary to explore the interior; there is a sense of living and chilling witchcraft going on!
Magog Down is not far from the Imperial War Museum at Duxford aerodrome. Often the sky above the chalk slope vibrates to the growling sound of Hurricanes and Spitfires based just across the fields.
I personally love the chalk land natural parks of Cambridgeshire. I find the wild and wide open spaces give me a real sense of being alive and being free. Walking is easy and the subtle changes in the gently rolling hill country throughout the year are so permanently attention grabbing.