The quest to find the black squirrels of Cambridge

As soon as I heard that there were black squirrels in Cambridge, I knew that this was something I had to see. The only time I’d ever witnessed one before was in Belgium, of all places, and at the time I thought I was going mad. In fact, I’d spent hours convinced it was some sort of small, squat pine marten until I found out that black squirrels were a thing that actually exists. Then I started questioning all squirrels I saw, which I’d never really paid attention to before. Had grey squirrels, for example, suddenly started having white tummies, or had I only just started noticing them? Needless to say, I was eager to go through this harrowing and existential experience once again.

My informant told me that black squirrels can be spotted at two Cambridge colleges: Churchill and Girton. But how did they get there? Well, as a “melanistic” mutation of the Eastern Grey Squirrel, it made sense to assume that they can be found anywhere that grey squirrels exist.

Grey squirrels, as we all know, were brought over from the Americas as a fancy pet and proceeded to drive out our smaller, cuter reds. Given their reputation as invasive “tree rats” nowadays, it’s hard to believe quite what a highly-prized status symbol they were at first. One of the things that’s always driven it home for me is a fancy oil painting in Wolverhampton art gallery, displaying a family of Georgian nobility decked out in their finest attire. And right at the centre, there’s a grey squirrel on a silver chain:

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The Family of Sir Eldred Lancelot Lee, by Joseph Highmore, 1736 – can you spot the grey squirrel?

Little did we know that Cambridge’s squirrels would turn out to have a rather more intriguing past…

And so, on a sunny Saturday, me and my trusty Executive Squirrel Assistant set out to the first of the squirrel-heavy locations.

1. Churchill College

Named after the stalwart prime minister who shepherded the UK through the blitz, you would think the college would look a little less dystopian and futuristic…

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But it still had its fair share of nature and rustic features, so we kept a beady eye out for any shadows moving among the trees…

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We did hear a few skittering sounds and spotted a couple of grey tails whipping through the branches, but as we made our way past the oddly picturesque compost bins and out to the final line of trees at the end of the college, we still hadn’t seen any of the promised sable beauties. I was fine with this – I didn’t actually expect to spot any, and was just happy to have an excuse for a quest. But then we stumbled through the trees, we found ourselves somewhere entirely different…

2. The Astronomy Department

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Tall, ivy-clad domes loomed over us and we realised we had wandered in among the uncanny observatories of the Astronomy department. And here, there were far more grey squirrels, who were unnervingly tame. We even managed to photograph one…

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And where there are higher numbers of grey squirrels, there must surely be more chance of spotting a black one. Spurred on, we made our way through the towering pines and redwoods, but it wasn’t until we were finally attempting to stop trespassing and exit the site that I saw it – not one, but TWO beautiful black squirrels, streaking up the tree in front of us.

I was absolutely delighted! Especially since I’m NEVER the first to spot things – that’s why I’m not into birdwatching, despite writing for a bird charity. But this time, I’d done it! Sadly, they were too fast to photograph. My Executive Squirrel Assistant left a handful of presciently-purchased cashews on the edge of the table and we waited for a while, but they didn’t return.

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And so we set off towards our next destination, passing through one of the strangest places in Cambridge:

3. A brief detour to Eddington

This is one of the most sinister places I’ve ever been. It’s a brand new village on the outskirts of Cambridge, built specifically as overspill housing for academics. Much of it is still being built, creating a bizarre vista when you look out across cranes and skeleton apartments to the countryside beyond. Much of what has been built is still empty, and even for those poor souls who have already moved in, there must be something very odd about living in a village designed from scratch all in one go, rather than springing up organically over centuries. A strange shrimp kite – or was it a squid? Fluttered from a tree as we approached the village, and I attempted to appear three times in a panoramic vista.

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But soon enough, we shrugged off its sinister atmosphere and set off to our second destination:

4. Girton College

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This is like an adorable version of the Blair Witch Project

-Executive Squirrel Assistant

I really really love this college. It’s so harsh and Victorian! It’s just how I imagine the desolate boarding school in the middle of a moor that Eustace and Jill escaped from at the start of the Silver Chair. It’s also the closest anything has ever come to the building I dreamed about in my song “School for Lost Souls”.  And there are so many ravens! It’s just great.

After a brief detour to their orchards for some scrumping and a packed lunch of peanut butter and crisp sandwiches, we set off through its grounds, seeing nothing at first. But then, suddenly, while my Executive Squirrel Assistant was taking a photo of something completely different…

I mean, you still can’t see any of the squirrels – but at least you can see our reaction to them. And with the lens flare and the shaky camera, you certainly can’t say it isn’t atmospheric!

Oh, all right, fine. We did manage to get a sneaky photo of ONE:

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Can you see it?

And after that, we started seeing absolutely loads of them! About 20 or 30 at least, frolicking alongside their grey fellows. And that’s when we started noticing strange things about them. For example, they seemed bigger than their grey counterparts. Surely this couldn’t be possible if it was just a colour mutation? Maybe the fact that they were black just made them stand out more and their outline look bigger? Not only that, but they were different shades – some were solid black (reminding me of the Black Rabbit from Watership Down – maybe they were there to ferry the souls of the grey squirrels to the afterlife?) – but others seemed more of a brown-black – and I could have sworn one had a tan tummy. This required further exploration…

The true origin of Cambridge’s black squirrels

My research took me to places I never could have imagined. Firstly, I found that black squirrels aren’t just a rare mutation of grey ones – in fact, in some places they used to be the main colour morph. In the deep, dark forests of the Eastern United States, for example, their black fur used to give them an advantage over greys – but now, deforestation is overturning this trend. And not only does the mutation make them have a higher concentration of melanin pigment in their fur – it also makes them bigger, better at defending their territory and more attractive to females. No wonder it had spread so fast at Girton!

In fact, I found that at Girton, three quarters of the squirrels there are black! No wonder they were so easy to spot. I felt a little less proud of my observation skills, but no less intrigued. And then I found out something else – scientists had analysed the genes of Cambridge’s black squirrels, and found that they were actually more similar to modern squirrels living in America than they were to the ones in this country. So they aren’t actually mutant local squirrels. Instead, the story goes that, thanks to novelty of their monochrome fur, some black squirrels were captured from America and displayed a fancy menagerie at a posh manor house, from which they escaped.

And so history repeats itself once again…

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A Tale of Two Apple Days: a Photo Essay

It’s that time of year again, folks – APPLE time!!!! Having been raised by a apple-mad dad who turned our entire suburban garden into an orchard and took us to the amazing all-singing all-dancing Ironbridge Gorge apple day every year, my standards are pretty high. So imagine my delight when I found that there were not one, but TWO apple days going on in Cambridge: the low-key, homegrown Murray Edwards College apple day, and the classy Cambridge Botanical Gardens apple day. Below I review and compare both, because why the ruddy heck not?

Saturday: Murray Edwards College apple day

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Too many young people and too many apples.

-my housemate

She had a point. We arrived to find that the entire place was overrun with hoodlum whippersnappers, or “students”, as they are commonly known. To us, some of the Freshers looked like actual children, and we couldn’t remember (or imagine) ever looking that fresh-faced and idealistic. However, once the existential crisis had worn off, we were able to start exploring and soaking in the “vibe”. I’ll start with the positives:

1. It was free

And when I say free, I mean everything was free – Murray Edwards College has its own orchard, so this knees-up was plainly an excuse for them to get rid of as many of their apples as they possibly could. We even saw a squirrel carrying one on the way in, which we interpreted as a good omen. So it wasn’t just free to get in – there was also free apple juice…

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Free apple pie (which all three of us had to eat out of a single cup, because the bowls ran out the minute they managed to replace the spoons, which had also run out…)

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Free giant marshmallows, which we melted on a lovely fire:

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2. There was a lovely fire

There’s nothing as wonderfully Autumnal as the smell of wood smoke and searing sugar. After I’d melted (well, burned) my marshmallow, I was advised to put biscuits on it to create what is known as a “smore.” But I’m not entirely sure I did it right…

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3. The apples were pulped and pressed on-site

Just like any self-respecting apple day, the apple pulping and pressing was happening right under our very noses, with the bitter scent of crushed pulp fresh in the air and the juice poured by straight from the weird machine thing:

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4. There was a lovely dog

It just added something to the atmosphere, you know?

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4. There were cool crafts

Roll over potatoes, there’s a new plant-based stamp in town…

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But there were also some negative points…

1. The apple bobbing was too character building

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I mean, usually there’s at least a little stalk or something you can bite onto. But in this case, the apples had absolutely no purchase at all, and I ended up feeling like I was being waterboarded…

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In the end, I just gave myself one as a reward for my ordeal. It was delicious!

2. The music was too quiet

The Murray Edwards choir was lovely, but you had to get up pretty darn close to know that…

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Then there was a duo who had made some quite… interesting fashion choices. They both had ginger hair, and had opted to wear matching tops that also matched their auburn locks. Perhaps it was their “unique selling point.” Their guitar-backed vocal harmonies created a  mellow, Simon and Garfunkel-esque soundtrack to our peregrinations, but again, they really were too quiet – even though there was a PA system! They obviously hadn’t turned it up to eleven…

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3. There really were too many young people.

My housemate put it best when she said that the clientele of adorably traditional events like Apple Day usually make her feel younger, whereas here, the opposite was true – and we all started getting rather existential…

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But then again, there were cool straw bales. And we did all have a lovely time!

Score: a solid 7/10

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A little while after this photo was taken, my housemate insisted we go home due to “apple fatigue”. But that wasn’t an option for me! So the next day, I was onto the next one…

Sunday: Cambridge Botanical Gardens apple day

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This had better be worth the £8

-my colleague

As you can imagine, this was an enterprise of a whole different scale. Rather than accidentally gatecrashing a college event (which I fear is what happened on Saturday), this bonanza was the highlight of the Cambridge social calendar, which had both up and down sides. We’ll start with the positives:

1. Cambridge Botanical Gardens are beautiful in Autumn

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2. I mean really, really beautiful

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3. There was an apple identification stall!

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My apple, which I had brought from my garden, caused quite a bit of controversy and intrigue as nobody in the tent seemed to be able to work out what it was. It was passed around the tent from expert to expert as they hummed and hawed and talked about ridges and sepals and other bizarre parts I never knew apples had. Finally, one of them shouted “listen! It squeaks when I rub it!” which somehow apparently meant that it was a Lane’s Prince Albert cooking apple. “Prince Albert” because it was named to commemorate the monarch’s visit to the orchard, and “Lane’s” after the outraged gardener who had actually invented the breed, and added his name on afterwards in disgruntlement at the mustachioed monarch stealing his glory.

4. There was delicious food

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From food vans outside to a whole market inside, there was no limit to the fancy schamcy food on offer. I would particularly recommend the gloriously creamy Cambridge Blue cheese. Perfection!

However, there was one item of food that proved the source of a particularly fervent quest. My American colleague insisted that we find out if there were any “caramel apples” left and, thinking this was just the American way of saying “toffee apple”, I allowed her to lead us on a film noir-style odyssey from stall to stall until we finally arrived, tousled and out of breath, at a van that possessed the last three such items in the entire garden. We had purchased two when, hot on our tails, a small child arrived in pursuit of the third one. As my colleague put it, “I would have felt bad if I’d taken the last one, but I still would have taken it.”

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However, no sooner had she taken a bite than she recoiled in horror. “This isn’t a caramel apple!” She exclaimed. “Caramel apples are soft!” When I suggested our brittle, inedible toffee version was more “character building”, she went into a diatribe about the British habit of “taking a perfectly good food and making it worse”. This didn’t stop both children and adults from running up to us and asking where we’d purchased these much-desired items, and us having to turn them away in disappointment.

5. There were Morris dancers!

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Through the trees, we could see them mustering. They were definitely up to something. But by the time we got there, they’d finished their routine and were making a beeline to the beer tent. I’ve always thought Morris dancers were flighty creatures. They only perform for about three minutes at a time, after which they run off for another half hour break, and I always seem to miss their set. But this time, we stuck around. And after a while, they started doing things again:

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The Morris dancers were a particular source of fascination to my German colleague, who had never seen anything like them and kept asking “Why do the do it? What is it for?”. I couldn’t really think of any way to explain it, really, except that the Spanish have the Flamenco, the Argentinians have the tango, and the English… have Morris dancing.

But apart from the customary flightiness of the Morris dancers, there were a couple more negatives:

1. You had to queue for everything

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Not only did you have to pay for entry (£8!) and food, but the event was a victim of its own success. It’s a good job I went into the apple-tasting tent last year, because this was the queue for it this year. Luckily, I could still remember the experience of sampling slices of hundreds of different apple varieties, and no-one else seemed that enamored of the prospect, so we moved on.

2. Some of the food stalls had some rather bizarre signage…

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But all in all, I would say that the £8 was worth it, and we did have some very jolly and non-existential fun, in stunning surroundings! So I’d give it a shining 8/10.

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Well, I hope you enjoyed this apple-themed romp! And don’t forget to tune in for my next extremely rock n roll adventure, where I’ll try to make soap out or conkers! The fun never ends…