Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Threat to Madingley Dell

Westwards from Cambridge, the first glimpse of real countryside comes as you turn off the main road at the foot of Madingley Hill.  Head towards Madingley village and at once you’ll see farmland on your right and, on your left, a windmill overlooking the fens, which start here. On a clear day you have a level view towards Ely Cathedral, north east on the horizon.  

The verge widens as you approach the American Military Cemetery; from the road you can look back and up to the Memorial Building and Chapel, but the sweeping rows of the crosses are hidden behind a hedge. It’s an extraordinary place, perhaps the most beautifully landscaped of any military cemetery in Europe. Visitors standing by the flagpole near the main entrance see the ancient Madingley Wood on their left and, beyond the slope of the cemetery and road below, the wide-angled landscape of the fen edge. In 1954, the British Government promised the American Ambassador that the land around the cemetery would always be ‘restricted to agricultural use’ – and so it has remained, until now.

But now, there are plans for a new and much larger Madingley Park and Ride to be sited up near the roundabout at the top of Madingley Hill. That the present P&R has to be relocated somewhere because of the University’s rapidly progressing North West Cambridge development, I accept. What is harder to credit, though, is that one of the County Council’s key proposals is to create a new busway that, skirting the corner of the American Cemetery, will cut into the lower edge of Madingley Wood and then plough through the new 800 Wood. This wood was opened with great fanfare in 2009 to mark the octo-centenary of the University’s foundation, and to make a major contribution to the ecology and topography of Madingley.  It would seem to me utterly cynical to decide, only six years later, that the wood is so unimportant a bus route can be driven through the middle of it.  Madingley Wood is an even more precious place, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (an SSSI) whose flora and archaeology have been studied and recorded for over 350 years. This makes it one of the oldest continuously-recorded woodland sites in Britain.

And in the corner of Madingley Wood where it abuts the 800 Wood and where the bus way will start its ascent towards the new Park and Ride, there is what I should like to call a SSLI, a Site of Special Literary Interest. This is Madingley Dell, and it provides another argument for not allowing proposed siting of the P&R and the dedicated bus route to go ahead. A petition has been launched, and I hope you will sign it.

Madingley Dell features in E.M. Forster’s Cambridge novel, The Longest Journey (1907), the one Forster called ‘by far’ his best book and ‘the only book which has ever given something back to the places from which I took it’. Madingley Dell mattered to Forster, and to this novel, as much as the Marabar Caves mattered to A Passage to India:

A little this side of Madingley, to the left of the road, there is a secluded dell, paved with grass and planted with fir trees [….] Rickie had discovered it in his second term, when the January snows had melted and left fjords and lagoons of clearest water between the inequalities of the floor.  

Indeed, the dell looks to Rickie, the Cambridge student who is the protagonist of The Longest Journey, ‘as big as Switzerland or Norway’ and ‘and he came upon it at a time when his life too was beginning to expand’.  He treasures it as a special place, ‘a kind of church – a church where indeed you could do anything you liked, but where anything you did would be transfigured’:

If the dell was to bear any inscription, he would have liked it to be “This way to Heaven”, painted on a signpost by the highroad, and he did not realize till later years that the number of visitors would not thereby have sensibly increased.

Later in the story he brings his girlfriend Agnes to Madingley: they visit the church and Madingley Hall; what happens next, in the dell, prefigures everything that will happen to Rickie thereafter. The dell is the locus of the novel’s action.

To follow Rickie and Agnes into the dell today you would have to trespass: casual visitors are not welcome in Madingley Wood. But you don’t have to take Rickie’s route over the gate (which wasn’t there in Forster’s day), and along the main ride through the wood before turning right, finding yourself in the centre of the dell and feeling yourself enclosed by a great wall of chalk. Instead, you can look down into it from the easternmost edge of the 800 Wood. Standing there, you are almost on the lip of the ancient and abandoned chalk pit, but tread carefully: the fence is precarious and the drop precipitate. The dell still has a strange atmosphere – a hidden world no one can enter, walled in by chalk and only twenty yards but a world away from the road.

Chalk provides a leitmotif running through The Longest Journey. Later in the novel, Rickie is in Wiltshire, where ‘chalk made the dust white, chalk made the water clear, chalk made the clean rolling outlines of the land, and favoured the grass and the distant coronals of trees.’ Forster sees the chalk formations that spread across southern and eastern England as veins and arteries running to and from the heart of the country and uniting the elements of his story. Indeed, at the defining moment of the novel, Rickie, standing on the edge of Salisbury Plain and learning a secret that will change his life forever, ‘was reminded for a moment of that chalk pit near Madingley’.

Would it matter if Madingley Dell were destroyed? Forster would have thought so. I hope you’ll think so too.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: Madingley Dell, 2009

For full coverage of the background to the online petition against the proposed bus route, and to sign the  petition,  CLICK HERE.

There is a counter proposal to site the new Park and Ride site  north of the Hardwick roundabout on the A428 that is gathering momentum. The Madingley Village Traffic Group is urging everyone responding to the City Deal survey to object to a P&R at Madingley Mulch and to relocate it 1.25 miles further west at Hardwick.  If successful, that would remove the threat of light and emission pollution from a P&R site at this elevated position.

I have written about Madingley Dell before, and some of my account above draws on that earlier writing, which can be found in my book Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning (Lutterworth, 2012). I’ve also written about Forster and the dell in World and time: Rupert Brooke and E.M. Forster.

I recommend also the website of the Friends of the Forster Country.

For an Inventory of all my blog posts 2011-2015, please click here.

Text and photo ©  Adrian Barlow 2015


  1. Thank you! I've signed. My memories of the area go back over fifty years.

  2. Good to see you back Adrian.

    I read this blog on Wednesday evening. By coincidence at lunch I was reading a short article in the Guardian by Patrick Barkham about Smithy Wood near Sheffield. This 11th century woodland is due to be bulldozed to build a service station for the M1. The developers aim to plant new woods in mitigation in the absurd belief that they can offset an ancient wood. See:
    It seems that Madingley Dell is not an isolated case.