Hit the Road and I'm Gone. Part 2. The One with the Beavers.
Disclaimer - no beavers are harmed or in any way disturbed in the course of this blogpost. In fact, although they are discussed at some length, no beavers are actually seen.
Before the beavers, a quick round-up of some of the other highlights of my East Anglian Road Trip, focusing as always on what you get for your money.
Sutton Hoo. I’m an NT member, so the entry fee wasn’t an issue here. Again, booking had to be done in advance, but I was more organised this time, and on my arrival was waved through after a briefing about what could and could not be seen. Treasure, sadly, was off, owing to Covid. As was the original burial ship, or what is left of it. There was, however, a full-scale iron replica, which gave the general idea very satisfactorily, the ice cream shop was open, and I could walk to the burial mound. I explored all these options, none of which took very long, and I have to say the burial mound is right up there with the Mona Lisa in the “Is that it?” league. By way of compensation I learned from an information board that the principle Saxon dynasty of the time were known as the Wuffings. Their family motto almost certainly wasn’t “There ain't nuffing like a Wuffing”, but we can always dream.
Ely Cathedral. This was very much there, and open, and every bit as impressive as I had been led to believe, particularly viewed as you approach the Isle of Ely from the surrounding fenlands. I arrived by train, alone in the carriage for the twenty-minute journey from Cambridge apart from an unusually tall youth in one of those slightly sinister black masks that President Trump wears. This was lifted at intervals to allow him to drink from a can of Seven-up and belch loudly. In consequence I climbed the hill to the Cathedral in quite the wrong frame of mind, and when I found that they wanted eight quid to go in, I baulked. I shouldn’t have, I know. I mean £8 for the ancient intricate majesty of one of the country’s finest cathedrals is a snip compared to what English Heritage wanted for their piece of spiritual stonework, and cathedrals are famously high maintenance. All the same. I wandered off a little grumpily in search of a sandwich.
Cambridge University Botanical Gardens. Loved ‘em. Great value at £6 (I stayed for two hours), with a decent coffee shop and acres and acres of interesting plants and trees, laid out in a pleasingly non-geometric fashion. And you could wander where you wanted! Across lawns, through shady groves, round winding rockery paths and in between borders herbaceous and otherwise. There was splendid exhibition of nature photography and a clever walkupon spiral construction of quite considerable scale that took you through the evolution of plant life. Highly recommended for a contemplative meander on a sunny summer’s morning.
The Beavers. Cee and Ludo had set off from Cambridge a couple of days ahead of me and the agreement was we were going to rendezvous for a night’s camping in a field somewhere in deepest Somerset. In the event I arrived first because C and L were visiting a friend who lived in the area. It turned out this friend had another friend who worked in the local wildlife organisation and knew the whereabouts of the recently re-introduced beaver colony. So after Lu had knocked up an impressive one-pot vegan supper, we set off with the directions. Now I have to be vague here, because obviously, while giving away the route to the free Stonehenge viewing platform is one thing, telling everyone where the beavers hang out is quite another.
Anyway, it’s dusk, and we fetch up in this remote layby and strike off down a path. Eventually we get to a river, and there are some weird looking constructions that might be beaver dams, though they don’t look quite as neat as they do in the cartoons. The thickly wooded valley is deserted as far as humans go, although there were other cars in the lay-by. We hang around for a bit, and it’s incredibly still, and creepy, but also a bit midgey, and something tells us either this isn’t actually the place, or the beavers are lying low.
Then we spot another path, less well-trodden, heading off downstream into the bush. This we creep along, not speaking, for there is a sense that the territory is getting, well, more beavery, I suppose. The path twists and turns, dips and rises, and suddenly we are in a kind of clearing, and no longer alone. A small phalanx of cagouled figures is perched on camping stools behind tripods, peering across a stretch of water into the thickening dusk. Their heads turn as one and they stare at us disapprovingly. I feel we have stumbled into some strange ritual, a cross between a Quaker meeting and a game of sardines.
As you would do in either of these scenarios, we quietly and solemnly attached ourselves to the group, feeling a little psychologically disadvantaged by our lack of seating and viewing equipment, and hoping desperately that we had muted our phones. Clearly, this was Beaver Central.
Well, Beaver Central it may have been, but the critturs were either snoozing, or playing backgammon or watching TV or something. We sat in the darkling, midgey chill with our row of solemn brethren for twenty minutes, then made our excuses in sign language, and shuffled away backwards through the trailing branches, like genuflecting courtiers leaving the presence of a woodland deity.
Back at the campsite over cocoa, we agreed that while it would have been splendid to have actually seen some beavers, the experience had nonetheless been one to treasure. And nobody had charged us a penny.