Stourbridge Common

Dr Michael Hrebeniak describes himself as inveterately curious about people and places. His fascination for a messy patch of Cambridge, best known for its traffic jams and retail park, has led him to create with words and film ‘a deep map’ of the layers of human experience on the fringes of the city. 

I’ve always been attentive to traces of cultural memory. I'm interested in the habitat and signatures of place and how they’re encoded within the material forms of the commonplace.

Michael Hrebeniak

The traffic pouring into Cambridge from the east along Newmarket Road passes a tiny flint and stone building that squats on a scrap of meadow. Built around 1125, the Leper Chapel was part of a hospital which took in those afflicted by a disfiguring disease that resulted in stigma and rejection.  In his 1954 guide to the historic buildings of Cambridgeshire, Nikolaus Pevsner described the chapel – St Mary Magdalene – as standing “desperately alone”.

This gem of a building, once given to the University of Cambridge but now owned by a trust, sits in the centre of an area known as Barnwell. With its sprawling retail park, poor air quality and scattering of sandwich shops, it has an aesthetic that contrasts sharply with the carefully conserved city centre just half a mile away.  But it was precisely this mishmash of unplanned cityscape that prompted Dr Michael Hrebeniak to stop his car one day and walk towards the chapel.

At a seminar on Monday 19 January, Hrebeniak will talk about his journey into the historic and modern narratives that exist on the edge of the city, an in-between place with a rich but largely unrecorded working class past. In what promises to be a presentation full of surprises, he will move from a description of the smells and sights of mediaeval life to a discourse on ‘culture without archive’ and the ‘ontological terminality of neo-liberalism’ – the way in which late-capitalism commodifies space and experience.

In particular, Hrebeniak will explain how his investigation of a liminal zone inspired him to create what he calls ‘a deep map’ that dramatises the immense variety of human transactions within the social and ecological realms. The points of reference for this metaphorical map are the human impulses to create and consume, expend and express. Its contours are created by the layered exploitation of the landscape to forge channels of communication – both actual (road, rail and river) and imagined (myth and memory).

His research takes place within broader concerns about the loss of vulnerable culture worldwide. In 2003, UNESCO adopted a series of points agreed at the Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage which drew attention to the importance of this strand of heritage "as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development".

Hrebeniak is a lecturer in English at Wolfson College, and a former jazz musician and journalist. He’s been interested in places and atmospheres ever since he was a boy. “I grew up in an area of suburban north-west London striking for its lack of character – a nowhere kind of place where 20th century development wiped out the past,” he says. “I suppose I’ve always been attentive to traces of cultural memory. As a child, I lacked the language to frame it as such but I'm interested in the habitat and signatures of place and how they’re encoded within the material forms of the commonplace. I remain inveterately curious – a kind of urban Thoreau.”

In 2014 Hrebeniak wrote several papers in which he explored – using Barnwell as his case study – the readability of landscape as a ‘palimpsest’ of surfaces that has been repeatedly created and erased over time. His arguments reference work by other authors and artists exploring themes of transience – including performance artist Bruce Lacey, film-maker Patrick Keiller and social anthropologist Tim Ingold. Hrebeniak's first book, Action Writing, concerned the American writer Jack Kerouac, who was similarly preoccupied with registering how the past mediates the present within his experimental prose.

To capture the permeability of layers of human and ecological stories, Hrebeniak has also used film as a way of expressing the ways in which people and places intersect in a ritualistic cycle of loss and renewal. Filmed over a two-year period, Hrebeniak’s Stirbitch will be screened sometime in the summer, possibly at St Peter’s, a Norman church even smaller than the Leper Chapel, standing on a rise just above Kettle’s Yard.

At Monday’s seminar, Hrebeniak will show brief clips of the film and talk about his creative collaboration with friends at Cambridge University: Robin Kirkpatrick (Modern and Medieval Languages) is narrator and Jeremy Thurlow (Music Faculty) has written the music. Together they have produced what Hrebeniak describes as a cinematic interpretation of a prose poem, written to celebrate the vegetable, animal and mineral connections locked into a messy patch on the fringes of a historic city.

Stirbitch is a variant of the older name Steersbrigge, a place where steers (cattle) could cross the river north of Barnwell. Today the name Stourbridge is confined to Stourbridge Common, a fragment of what was once a much larger parcel of common land. Here, for several centuries, an annual fair played a central role in the economic and cultural history of the east of England. The story of Stourbridge Fair is embedded with that of the Leper Chapel which, along with a small number of street names (Oyster Row, Garlic Row, Mercers Row, Cheddars Lane), represents the only surviving evidence of the physicality of an event that attracted people from all over the country.

In 1199, the monks who ran the leper hospital were given permission from King John to hold an annual three-day fair to raise funds. The fair flourished and soon outgrew its original purpose. By the turn of the 14th century, Stourbridge Fair had established itself as one of medieval England’s most important marketplaces – a trading post linked by road and river where all kinds of goods and services changed hands.

It was at Stourbridge Fair that Isaac Newton bought the glass prisms he needed to prove that light splits into a spectrum of colours. The bear that Lord Byron kept as a pet at Trinity College (students were not allowed dogs) is likely to have been purchased there too. An 18th century map of the fair, which took place on land that stretches down to the River Cam, shows it divided into a series of smaller fairs, selling horses, coal, hops and oysters.

In his Tour Throughout the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724), Daniel Defoe wrote that “Sturbridge Fair is not only the greatest in the whole nation, but in the world”. He described it as “a well-fortified city [with] the least disorder and confusion … that can be seen anywhere … with coffee-houses, taverns, brandy-shops, and eating houses, innumerable”. But the gathering had a darker side too: prostitutes, peep shows, menageries of exotic animals and displays of ‘freaks’ (giants, dwarves, ‘faeries’) drew the crowds.

The allure of the fair lies in its fleeting nature which creates a transgressive space on the margins of everyday life where rules are temporarily suspended – a zone of earthy Saturnalia connecting people, place and performance. Cambridge Corporation and the University of Cambridge asserted their control on activities at Stourbridge, prohibiting ‘idle games and diversions’. But University men – most famously Dr Richard Farmer, Master of Emmanuel – flouted the rules and cavorted with the other revellers.

Hrebeniak’s encounters with Barnwell led him to research the (frustratingly slim) archival material, explore the wildlife of Stourbridge Common (the hops that ramble over the hedgerows are thought to have been introduced by traders) and engage in conversations with the groundsmen at Cambridge United football club (where the bones of lepers are said to lie under the pitch).

In 2009, Hrebeniak became a Cambridge United fan, after receiving a free ticket to an Oxford and Cambridge game held to mark the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University. He’s a member of a supporters’ group, the 100 Years of Coconuts, that runs a virtual museum and collates oral histories, and takes its name from the Billy Cotton hit. It was the first piece of music played when the club’s public address system went live in the 1950s and it’s played as the final whistle blows every time that Cambridge United has a home win.

“The club really got under my skin and last summer my eldest son Louis trained as a goal-keeper with the club’s youth scheme.  The stadium is named after Barnwell Abbey. It’s what the French theorist Michel Foucault would call a ‘heterotopia’ – a contested space, surrounded by the ruins of a lemonade bottling plant and cows grazing on the common,” he says.

“Northern soul and ska are played over the terrible sound system. Decades of suffering and ecstasy are etched on the subsiding terraces. It’s a proper working-class football club, a place of generational continuity, and nothing to do with the corporate mercenaries that have corrupted the game higher up the pyramid. Our retired players drive taxis, put out fires, and deliver the post. And the ground really gets rocking. There's a hell of a racket. I haven't enjoyed myself this much in 20 years.”

The development of permanent shops brought an end to fairs as trading places. Stourbridge Fair took place for the last time in 1933. Money now changes hands in the giant stores that cluster on Newmarket Road, built on the site of a quarry that supplied the gault clay used in Cambridgeshire brick. With its car parks and loud signage, it’s a retail park like many others up and down the country. Yet something of the fairground persists in the defiant spontaneity of people and places.

Each time a new retail unit is constructed, items of debris from the past turn up. While Hrebeniak was filming one day, a workman involved in a recent project explained that one of his colleagues had found a pair of nylon stockings. They dated from the 1940s and, still in their packaging, had almost certainly been brought over by American GIs in the Second World War.  “Did he keep them?” asked Hrebeniak. “No,” replied the builder. “He put them on over his overalls and danced.”

Michael Hrebeniak will talk about Stourbridge Fair: Performance, Memory and the Vanished Polis for 15 minutes at a work-in-progress seminar at CRASSH on 19 January 2015, 12.30pm to 2pm. Anyone wishing to attend should email Michelle Maciejewska

Inset images: Leper Chapel (James Myatt via Flickr Creative Commons), map of Stourbridge Fair (Cambridgeshire Collection), murals in Newmarket Road underpass (Martin Pettit via Flickr Creative Commons), Abbey Stadium ( Further reading: Cambridge and Stourbridge Fair by Honor Ridout is published by Blue Ocean Publishing.



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