Volunteering at the Leper Chapel

Last week volunteers from my workplace braved a heatwave inferno to help a local charity with their ‘meadow management’. In energy-sapping temperatures of up to 36 degrees C (96.8 F) we raked hay while the sun shone and enjoyed the break from our office screens (if not the air-con).

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Cambridge Past, Present & Future (CPPF) is “dedicated to protecting and enhancing the green setting of Cambridge for people and nature”. They look after five sites in the area – we have previously volunteered at Wandlebury and Coton – but this was the first time we had visited the Leper Chapel and its meadowland. This 12th century Romanesque building is one of the oldest in Cambridge and was originally the chapel of an isolation hospital caring for people with leprosy.

It is now bordered by a main road, a railway line and a car scrap yard, a crazy juxtaposition that makes you wonder what the town planners were thinking. But this also has the effect of making the building and the land behind it feel more precious.

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CPPF wardens Ray and Thev explained that the aim of the hay-raking work was to encourage more wild plants and flowers. Ray took us to a patch of the meadow which had more biodiversity and gave us a quick botany lesson: we learned the names of plants and flowers such as plantains, knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil (or ‘eggs and bacon’). We saw grasshoppers and crickets and stumbled over a minefield of ant-nest mounds.

Lunch in the cool of the Chapel itself was a blessed relief. Ice-cold Coke and honeydew melon never tasted so good. Breaking news of a change to the UK’s Prime Minister was dispiriting, but also made some of us attack the hay a little more violently in the afternoon.

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As with the politics, the landscape around the Leper Chapel is also changing: diggers are gouging out a cycle route called the Chisholm Trail, which will soon join the two Cambridge railway stations and link to St. Ives. The result will be a window for cyclists onto the meadowland oasis that we helped to preserve.

20190723_131606Photographs by Heather Daniel

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