Cambridge Curiosity Cabinet: Clare’s Old Court

Guy Lewy 16 January 2015

This city is not one for walking around with your eyes pointing forward.  When you move from place to place, look up and down; there is always something mysterious and unexpected.

If you find yourself walking through Clare Old Court, cast your eyes downwards and take a look for the first time at the floor – the cobblestones are hiding a story.

 Crudely set near the entrance to the hall is a peculiarly mottled rock, carved with the letters “CLF”.  Although this cobblestone has watched boot soles in Old Court for hundreds of years, it is a stranger. As a rhomb porphyry, a type of stone found uniquely near Oslo in Norway, it is much further from home than a lone cobblestone should be. Until recently, it was tucked in a corner of the court by H staircase, unmarked and unnoticed as special by all but any particularly observant passing geologists. 

It being Cambridge, one of these happened to pass often and was very fond of the rock. The late Colin Forbes was a man most of us have not heard of, but who has undoubtedly shaped our lives.

Dr Forbes was born in 1922. He spent his childhood at Chilmark House in Wiltshire, his parents’ Georgian mansion, surrounded by nannies and the eccentric paraphernalia of the family’s adventures around the world. He grew up quickly, and when the war split his Natural Sciences degree at Clare in half, he learnt the skill that would serve him and protect the flow of life in Cambridge in years to come.

This skill was moving water from the ground to the people, and Colin learnt it from the jury-rigged lessons that wartime in the royal engineers teaches. When the war finished, he put these pragmatic paths of thought into use as a geological consultant for the Cambridge Water Company. His military-style tactics were unorthodox but mostly successful.

Forbes’ technique of pouring tankers of acid down slow-flowing chalk wells to the aquifers once led not just to a fixed well, but to a spray of broken ground and hot gas, not to mention a manhole cover which flew through the air and only through luck did not injure anyone. His characteristically laconic reply was “maybe half a tanker-load would have done”. For feats like this we owe him the water that we drink.

Forbes, eventually director of Cambridge Water, as well as curator of the Sedgwick museum of Earth Science until his retirement in 1982, was always a passionate geologist even into the illness to which he succumbed in 2014. We see the inscription on his favourite pebble today because of his gleeful recognition of the long journey it must have taken to reach Clare Old Court, pushed along by glaciers. His geological friends had his initials carved into his rhomb porphyry, and presented it to him on his deathbed. In the last week of Colin’s life it was set back into Old Court in a place which for anyone else would be slanderous, but for Colin was recognition of a life’s work.

Next time you walk through, notice the engraved pebble on the ground next to the central drain.