Coe Fen – the place
Coe Fen is the smallest of the places we’ve looked at in this series so far. It’s a piece of open land on the edge of Cambridge. Even people who live nearby are unsure where it begins and ends, but it forms part of a nature reserve.
It’s used for grazing cows. Historically, cows used Coe Fen and sheep went to Sheep’s Green over the river. Bookings to graze cows there can now be made via Cambridge City Council’s pinder service. ‘Pinder’ – that’s a word I had not come across before.
In the 19th century, the stretch of the River Cam dividing the sheep from the cows was used for swimming. A mile or so downstream from here, a college master is said to have answered Queen Victoria’s question, “What are those pieces of paper floating in the river?”, with, “Those, Ma’am, are notices prohibiting bathing.”
Coe Fen’s location avoided that problem. The swimming was male and nude, and women were advised to position their parasols to prevent sight of anything unsuitable.
‘Coe Fen’ – the tune
The tune ‘Coe Fen‘ was written in 1958 by Ken Naylor (1931-1991). He taught music at The Leys School, which abuts directly on to Coe Fen, from 1953 to 1980. He then moved to teach at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex, retired back to Cambridge in 1986, and died after a heart attack on Trinity Street.
His output is explored in the book Beyond Coe Fen – The Leys School musical inheritance by Rod Ashby-Johnson. A trigger for Naylor’s composing seems to have been a note he had from Alan Barker, the head teacher from 1958-1975. The note was attached to a list of melodies proposed by a senior cleric at Liverpool as being tunes that were singable enough to deserve being sung more often than they were. Alan Barker’s note read, “Let us have more singable tunes such that all the school and congregation shall enjoy singing.”
The Leys School is a Methodist foundation. Religious assemblies with hymn singing were the norm in British schools at that time. The Leys went further, with regular congregational hymn practice (“Congo”) on Thursday evenings. Rod Ashby-Johnson, himself a boy at The Leys then, remembers all this well, but says, “I cannot recall singing one from the Liverpool list during the next five years. Instead, we had a regular introduction of new tunes composed by Ken himself.”
‘Coe Fen’ was the third of the tunes produced during this fertile period. The previous two went through several changes of title. ‘Alan’s’ became ‘Barker’ and then ‘Girton’, the name of the village outside Cambridge where Naylor had a house. ‘Gloom’, a setting of Cardinal Newman’s hymn ‘Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom’, some years later became ‘Cherry Bounds’. Cherry Bounds Road was the street the house was in.
More in this series
How shall I sing that majesty?
‘Coe Fen‘ was written for the hymn ‘How shall I sing that majesty?‘ by John Mason (1646?-1694), Vicar of Water Stratford in Buckinghamshire. The text as Naylor knew it was four stanzas from a longer poem, published in Mason’s book Spiritual songs, or songs of praise in 1683.
Singing hymns in church services, other than psalm translations, was highly controversial in the 1680s. Even now, the Canterbury dictionary of hymnology (£), in separate entries, offers different opinions as to whether Mason meant his words to be used in this way.
Mason’s later life had further controversies of its own. As physical and mental illnesses took their toll, he preached exclusively about Christ’s personal reign on earth, which he understood to have begun in Water Stratford. He attracted a large following. An abscess killed him, and the followers refused to believe the news. Mason’s successor even had the body exhumed to prove his death, but the cult remained active for another sixteen years.
Today’s Water Stratford has a web page presenting Mason’s poem in its full version. Their commentary, by Sara Edwards, looks wryly at the eight verses that don’t get into modern hymn books, and says one can see why.
What ‘Coe Fen’ did
Sara Edwards attributes the popularity of ‘How shall I sing that majesty?’ to the ‘Coe Fen’ tune. Within the world of hymns, this combination is indeed popular — it’s featured at least once: The UK’s top 100 Hymns from Songs of praise.
Why did Naylor call the tune ‘Coe Fen’? Rod Ashby-Johnson’s researches haven’t come across a definitive answer among the manuscripts. Naylor’s two previous tunes, as we saw, reached their Cambridge place names after some trial and error. Maybe, with ‘Coe Fen’, Naylor decided it was best to cut to the chase, and use a place name straight away. Several later tunes of his have names of that kind.
Or maybe — let’s be imaginative — writing the tune to a hymn that mentions brightness, and footsteps, and sun, and beams, and heaven, meant that walks on the expanse of land just outside the school came unbidden to mind. There’s no harm in hoping it was so.
“COE FEN” is also the acronym of Peru’s El Centro de Operaciones de Emergencia del Fenómeno El Niño. I’ve written to them via Flickr to ask if this is a coincidence.
Many thanks to Rod Ashby-Johnson, Alison Lainchbury and Amanda Zuckerman for help with this article. Copies of Beyond Coe Fen can be obtained from The Leys School, Fen Causeway, Cambridge CB2 7AD