The Cows of Cambridge, by Ben Jeapes

Photo by Pixabay.  

I enjoyed last week’s British Christian Writers Conference very much. I also enjoyed the evening beforehand, far more than I had expected.

I was staying at Cambridge Central Travelodge which is not, let’s face it, in one of the prettiest, touristy, picture postcardy bits of Cambridge. It’s on Hills Road, a long and busy triple carriageway, where the middle lane is for bicycles – a quaint Cambridge habit I’ve not come across anywhere else but which makes it extra interesting when you have to move into the left, turn-off lane. But I went for an evening walk and within ten minutes I had come to a gate into some open land, with a cattle grid, and cow pats on the ground beyond.

I had discovered Coe Fen, which is indeed a fen and, yes, it has cows. Cows, a few minutes’ walk from the city centre! Very calm and friendly, not skittish like their rural cousins and quite prepared for people to get close and gawp.

I didn’t do that. I was intending to have a burger later so couldn’t really look them in the eye.

But, city centre cows! How cool is that? Why do we never see this on TV? I don’t know Cambridge well but I’ve read books set there, I’ve watched it on TV … But while I distinctly remember Lord Peter and Harriet going punting, I’m pretty sure they never went dodging the cow pats. Less romantic, perhaps..

I love this sort of detail. I could very easily set a novel in Cambridge and do some general finding out about the place, look up some names, give the characters a route to follow … but it probably wouldn’t occur to me to include the cows.

At this point I’m going to go cite Robert Harris, because he is my opinion a master of unexpected cows. By which I mean, he is very good at throwing in detail that you probably wouldn’t think of if you were just making it up. It makes his books real. His novel Munich dealt with the talks between Hitler and Chamberlain, and sure, we all know how they worked out … But did you ever wonder what it was actually like to fly from Britain to Germany in those days? Or where the talks were actually held, or how the geography of the building and the area actually affected events?

So, what are the unexpected cows you can put in your own work?

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of eight novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His most recent title is a children’s biography of Ada Lovelace.


  1. I love this analogy. I think ‘unexpected cows’ is what makes reading so enjoyable, it helps you get lost in the world you’re reading about. Some writers just pick the juicy bits to write about, but after a while that gets a bit sickly - like only eating the jam out of a packet of jammy dodgers.

  2. I do like that! Unexpected cows. Brilliant. I find myself writing about Cambridge quite a lot for one of my freelance jobs and it is full of the unexpected. Punting on the river, the Backs, historic colleges, the Greens yes. But plenty of bovines into which one was not expecting to bump. Great post! And so nice to finally meet another fellow MTW-er at last Saturday's conference. Ticking you all off, one by one (she said, not at all creepily)

    1. It was lovely to meet you too, Ruth! Inspired by you, for the journey back to Oxford I selected the comedy playlist on my iPod: Noel Coward, Tom Lehrer, Kit & the Widow and more ...

  3. ' I was intending to have a burger later so couldn’t really look them in the eye.' Brilliant! Unexpected cows are everywhere aren't they? I guess sometimes we need to stare them down and sometimes walk away. Enjoyed this post. Thank you 🙂

  4. Hi Ben, I think you sat behind me at the conference and I can remember me thinking in my head, ' is that the guy who is a cook and a photographer as well?' I don't know if your 'unexpected cows are metaphorical but when I visit my sister in Cumbria, I do EXPECT to see cows and sheep and God uses them to beautify the meadows and surrounding greeny all over Cumbria. Good for using as a setting! Lovely post. Blessings.

  5. Great photo…and I can confirm they had survived the night. I stayed at Ridley Hall Friday evening and wandered into Cambridge past the unexpected cows wandering about contentedly chewing the cud entirely unimpressed with this early morning walker.


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