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Then & Now

This is the last evening, and I am on the road tomorrow. In a little while I’ll go out and stand on the Fen near Laundress Green.

It’s been a small shock to recognise for all the movement of the city – its growth, development, its domination by chains and high street shops – Cambridge is still the city Sylvia Plath lived in and tried to absorb. This is from January 10, 1957:

‘Brilliant clear blue invigorating day. To heart of town. Sun pale warm orange on buildings of Newnham Village. Fens clear green, rooks nests bared in trees, wet dew standing transparent on every branch, across white-painted wooden bridges. Wind rattling dry rushes. Ducks dipping on river in front of Garden House Hotel, shiny green heads of mallards and speckled brown dames. Wetness on tarred sidewalk reflecting blue glaze from pale sky. Water whipped white by mill raise. Noise of continuous rushing. Pale blue-painted Anchor. Orangy plaster of Mill pub….’

The Garden House Hotel has changed names, and the Anchor and the Mill are no longer those colours. But it is the same scene. Now, in summer, minus the brown cows that cool themselves mid-leg in the dirty Cam. Still ‘Some students in black gowns drinking beer on the stone bridge by the pale blue Anchor over the rush of the mill race…’ (March 4)

If you walk the other way from Newnham towards the village of Grantchester over Grantchester meadows you come across 55 Eltisley Road, the first house Plath and Hughes lived after they were married in 1956. This house in unmarked by blue plaque. England resists too much Plath. This is the house of which Hughes writes aptly

Our first home has forgotten us.
I saw when I drove past it
How slight our lives have been
To have left not a trace.


There is no poetic aura left. It gives off a feeling of being uninhabited. That house ‘our first camp, our first winter’ contains no ghosts, bears no ill will.

Then onto the green meadows of Grantchester, where Plath once – as the myth goes – recited the opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales to a rapt bovine audience. I know from experience that cows – of the Irish persuasion at least – are similarly open to Wilde. As my elegant friend G. observes, quoting Hughes, ‘A dramaturgy of whim/ That was our education’. Au revoir, Cambridge.

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