Within a series of up to 12 photographs, explore a landscape, or a small part of a landscape, which you believe to have some kind of significance. This may be a landscape with which you have a personal relationship, or it may be somewhere that is more widely known. You may wish to begin your research with your findings from the local history exercise (3.5).
The objective of this assignment is to engage with the question of how a ‘space’ becomes a ‘place’. Your project should put into practice the idea that a ‘place’ is a constructed, subjective term that, for whatever reason (political, industrial, mythological, environmental), is imposed upon, or becomes associated with, a particular ‘space’. This may be a very specific location, or it may be a more generic type of space.
You’re free to approach this project with whatever strategy you feel is appropriate to your subject matter. Introduce your work with a supporting text (around 500 words), as in previous assignments.
In this Assignment I look at the way in which a particular place along the River Cam – Grassy Corner has become distinguished from other places along this space – other equally picturesque but unmarked twists and turns, other benches, other places used by runners, rowers and fishers. This is a confluence of specific geography on both sides of the river, interests of different classes of Cambridge society and different river users.
Potentially there is nothing particularly spectacular about Grassy Corner – just one of many twists in the River Cam. It is not even the most picturesque.
Though, like most places along the River Cam it can be extremely beautiful when photographed in particular light and weather conditions.
I first became interested in Grassy Corner as one of a series of locations of benches along the River Cam where I walk every day and which I had selected as a possible subject (among other possible subjects along the river) for the final Assignment on Transitions. But the more I observed Grassy Corner itself, and the more I researched around it as part of the local history project, the more interesting it became for the way in which this rather ordinary-looking place has become meaningful and marked in different ways by different groups of people using the space.
It is unclear how long this particular spot along the river has been marked as a ‘place’ – it is a narrow bend between the on the River Cam between the Plough Reach in Fen Ditton and Chesterton Fen. Parts of Chesterton itself were settled during Roman Times and there are many iron age and Anglo-saxon remains in the area. The River Cam was an important riverway – from medieval times Stourbridge Common a little further upstream hosted Stourbridge Fair – the largest market in Europe. There was a pub over the river from the 16th Century and ferry over the river.
But like most of the landmarks in and around Cambridge, it was Cambridge University that made Grassy Corner more important. From at least the 19th Century – 1827 – it became a key site for viewing the Cambridge University May and Lent bumps student rowing races. In the 1890s a well-known Cambridge photographer -Thomas Stearn, who pioneered the use of modern photographic techniques, photographed the river and boat races from Fen Ditton’s river banks and had a photographic studio at Grassy Corner – in 1995 this was rebuilt and restored to its 1892 state. A photograph he took of the race looking across the river from Grassy Corner can be found at:
Compare this with my photo above of the pollarded willows – the very same willow trees but more closely pollarded?
Today Grassy Corner is very clearly a ‘place’. This remains largely linked to the University – and also now town – rowing clubs and their races. This has led to a whole row of very prominent signs – change left signs for rowers and Keep Left signs for the Cyclists so they don’t collide with each other while following the rowers. These signs can be seen from a very great distance, and somewhat spoil the ‘picturesque’ views, unless very carefully cropped out or hidden by shadows at sunset.
There are also many concrete posts around the bench. Their purpose is unclear – possibly some were posts for barges along the towpath. Other markers along the towpath are to mark staged in the races themselves. They are currently painted bright magenta – the colours of the winning boats (men only???) I am told. But Caius college won the 2015 bumps and their colours are blue and the magenta colour has not been changed now for years.
There has been a bench here for very many years – certainly since I moved here in 1984. But the current new metal bench was put here in memory of Rebecca Jane Chamberlain. For me the bench started to seem special when I found daffodils attached to the bench in April. One set had faded, others that had been in the plastic bottles attached to the other end of the bench had already gone. Someone must visit very regularly. I found this really poignant. In my research for this assignment I found number of articles about her death can still be found on the Internet: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2134038/Cambridge-University-student-21-killed-car-crash-way-rowing-training-camp.html Rebecca was a keen rower, killed in a car crash in April 2012 at the age of 21. Finding this out now makes this bench particularly special – though other benches also have commemorative plaques that I will look up in future.
The bench is also a sitting place for walkers and runners -one had carefully placed their can. Others have lost keys. Others use the bench as an exercise place to stretch their muscles – leaving dirty, muddy marks behind. The gateposts are a prime spot where pieces of dropped clothing – hats, gloves, babies clothes – are placed for other walkers to see in case they have lost them.
The bench is located also at the end of a path leading to Grassy Corner Caravan Park – a traveller site that has now become a prime location for development with the expansion of the Cambridge Science Park and forthcoming new station on the Kings Lynn to London main line. This was purchased and refurbished in 2013: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/11m-project-buy-refurbish-Fen-Road-travellers-site/story-22364004-detail/story.html . In the summer there are also many migrant labourers from Eastern Europe who come to work on the local farms. There are frequent rumours of crime, vandalism and fights between the different communities. The bench – located by the river safely at the end of the path and far from anyone else – is used as a party place at night – bottles and cans are scattered behind the bench and do not appear to even be cleared. The glove on the post appears to point accusingly up the path to the caravan park as the source of all evil around the bench.
The space that is Grassy Corner has therefore become ‘a place’ through the ways in which different groups of people use and mark it off from other spaces. As a photographer I have learned a lot through thinking about what and how to photograph it in order to highlight specific features:
- the picturesque through careful cropping out, timing, lighting and weather choices
- class differences and proprietary marking by the University of this like many other spaces
- memory of the dead and place for contemplation
- the ugly through closely focusing on litter and cloudy streams
The space that is Grassy Corner is all these things at the same time – many places co-existing in one space that the process of ‘landscaping’ has helped me to explore, unravel and communicate.
Other images of Grassy Corner
For links to large format files of all the images see: