Guerrilla gardening on Victoria Road

Finished product! (and hopefully the Japanese anemones will stop sulking after some rain)

A few weeks ago I spotted this rather barren-looking area on Victoria Road, opposite St Luke’s church. Using Google Street View I found that there was once a buddleia bush in this space, and from old bolts in the ground (in the concreted part in the bottom left of the photo) it looks like there was at one point a bench, too.


I called upon the Cambridge Guerrilla Gardeners group to see whether any of them wanted to have a go at sprucing the patch up – and Agent “A” came to my aid.

The first hour or so was spent digging the ground, and removing a fair bit of buried rubble (to add to the pile of not-buried rubble you can see in the corner)

Making a start on the digging
Mostly done!

I dug a couple of sacks of manure in to help the future plants on their way. “A” brought loads of plants – hellebores, passion flower, Japanese anemones, irises, geraniums, phygelius, and more. I’d brought along a couple of giant scabious, some pansies, violas and dwarf tulip bulbs.

By the time it was all planted, it was dark – but the whole thing actually took less than two hours.

Some kind passers-by (known to “A”) brought us refreshments!






Road signs – replacing missing letters

In the UK, [most] road signs use the font Transport, designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert in the 60s. For light lettering on a dark background, “Transport Medium” is used; when dark lettering is on a light background a bolder form is used instead: “Transport Heavy”.

I got a version of these fonts here:

The size of the font is defined in the official guidance by its ‘x-height’ – that is, the height of the lowercase ‘x’ character. On many road signs this x-height will be one of 37.5mm, 50mm, 75mm, 100mm.

dsc_3649.jpgWhat I’ve done when replacing missing letters on signs is:

  • Create an A4-sized document with the relevant letters. Size-wise, I’ve found that for example an x-height of 50mm corresponds to a font size of something like 269pt.
  • Make a mirror image, and print it out
  • Glue the mirrored letters on the back of a sheet of outdoor-grade adhesive vinyl (e.g. Ritrama O-Range, which is rated for 5+ years) – so that when I cut the letters out, they’ll be the correct way round from the front.
  • Cut out letters (while watching an episode of my favourite crime drama)
  • Stick them on the sign. Kerning/letter alignment is hard – especially when I’m worried someone’s watching me! Sometimes the sign still has a residue in the shape of the missing letters, which helps me tell where the originals were.

(A note on street name signs (e.g. “MILTON ROAD”): many (in Cambridge, at least) use the Kindersley font – and I got a version of that here:

Guerrilla carpentry – making replacement slats for benches 

Cambridge has loads of benches in this style – metal sides and then a number of long wooden slats. I’ve repaired two – here’s what the second looked like beforehand : 

Many of them are Wicksteed’s Huntingdon range (it’s embossed on the metalwork), with either hardwood or softwood slats. 

Some of them have missing slats (where they’ve been broken or rotted away and discarded). I couldn’t find a way of buying replacement wood of the correct size (other than perhaps buying spares from Wicksteed), so I set about making them myself. To make them more durable, I chose larch wood – which I got from Cottenham Sawmills (check them out if you’re after fencing etc).

As I said above, I’ve done two benches so far – two slats on one of the ones opposite the Botanical Gardens on Trumpington Road, and three slats (two at first, then another one) on the bench by the bus stop by Hazelwood Close on Histon Road. 

For each slat, I had to plane the wood down to 54mm x 34mm (approximately), cut it to 2m length, and round the top edges. For the second bench, I borrowed a friend’s circular saw instead of using a plane.

I then treated them with a clear preservative, then several coats of Sadolin Superdec opaque woodstain. (The first bench I did with a translucent lighter brown Sikkens stain, which was a nice finish but didn’t blend in!)

Depending on the bench, the slats are either fixed in place with M6 roofing bolts (with cross heads) or with M8 coach bolts (with the plain domed head).

And here’s the second bench with its new slats :

Milton Road underpass – what next?

The recent lighting works left several large bare areas of earth, which I had been keeping clear from the return of bindweed, nettles, brambles, in order to plant something there.

But I think it might be better if I leave those areas to regrow. The lush green-ness of the areas that are still overgrown by bindweed and brambles etc (the areas that weren’t disturbed by the council’s digging) is actually quite nice – better than bare earth, certainly – and I think making the underpass strip look “tidy and formal” by removing everything I designate “a weed” might not actually be a good thing. I’m not sure. Maybe something a bit more “cottage garden” is in order.

It is important that the path doesn’t get obstructed by brambles, but other than that I’m not convinced it’s necessarily an improvement to strip out vegetation in order to replace it with different vegetation. Hmm.

Anyway, I’ve just planted some autumn- and some spring-flowering crocuses – let’s see how they turn out, and maybe I’ll leave it there for this year.

Milton Road underpass planting map (+request for suggestions!)

Below is a “map” of the length of the “flower” bed down the side of the Milton Road underpass. In the table, I’ve divided the bed into 3m blocks (using the 3m concrete blocks at the top of the retaining wall for the roadway). The bed ranges in width, but on average it’s about 1m wide. In this diagram, the wall is on the left, and the underpass gets deeper further down the table. Plantings so far in bold. The bed gets the sun for part of the day, but becomes more shaded further down the slope.

There are several areas of bare earth as a result of recent digging by the council’s lighting installation contractors – and which had started to be taken over again by re-growing bindweed/bramble/nettle root fragments. I’ve dug most of these out, now, so it’s ready for replanting if I/we should so wish!

Edit: planting list updated 22/9/16

Chrysanthemums and lavender, in June
Chrysanthemums and lavender, in June – near the top of the slope
Fuchsia Mrs Popple (newly planted)
Fuchsia Mrs Popple (newly planted) – in the middle of the slope

Planting suggestions welcome. I’m wondering about a wildflower mix for the bare area at the top that gets the most sun? (leaving the grass at the very top alone). Low-maintenance hard-to-kill plants would be good!

Also I would be glad of help clearing the existing weeds (although maybe let’s plant things in the bare areas first?)

Cosy cyclamen!
Cosy cyclamen! Near the bottom of the slope (Edit: unfortunately someone later pinched it)
Block no Contents
Top of slope Grass/bare earth. Also scattered scabious and cephalaria (+ v old nasturtium + poppy) seeds
1 Bare earth, lamp post (+ lychnis 21/9). Also scattered scabious and cephalaria seeds
2 Weeds
3 Bare earth (+ spring-flowering crocuses 22/8)
4 Weeds
5 Chrysanthemums and lavender. Bed 120cm wide.
6 Weeds
7 Weeds
8 Weeds, banked ground
9 Bare earth (+ obstruction in soil)
10 Fuchsia (+ autumn-flowering crocuses 22/8)
11 Young hazel trees (+ autumn crocuses 22/8)
12 Young sycamores
13 Lamp post, hazels
14 Weeds
15 Hazel
16 Hazel
17 Weeds, banked ground
18 Bare earth
19 Hazel, brambles
20 Brambles
21 Bindweed, cyclamen. Bed 80cm wide.
22 Bindweed, brambles
23 Bindweed, brambles
24 Bindweed, hazel
25 Weeds
26 Elder
Bottom of slope Block paved area

DNA stripes – take 2

Following feedback from a number of people, I’ve decided that for now, I’ll just repaint full stripes on the DNA cycle path – and limit myself to just the ones that have been completely (or almost completely) eroded (of which there are a fair few). This avoids the “touched-up” look, and also makes the job smaller in scope, since I’m not doing all the little chipped corners/edges (which take ages to mask up).

Here are some full stripes in yellow that I did at the weekend:

I’m pretty pleased with how it looks. The masking was much neater than I expected: the lines are really crisp. I think this yellow is OK as a colour match, when it’s full stripes – and this yellow (by Blackfriar) is a better match than the brand of yellow (Plasti-Kote) I was using at the beginning, which to me looked brighter:

I still have quite a lot of the green left, which I think will be a good enough match to look OK as full stripes. For blue, I can use the Screwfix brand (which is a good match for the original blue) but I still have a lot of the (bolder, less-pale) Blackfriar blue left, so I’ve been having a go (in my garage) at colour-mixing to see if I can make use of the remaining blue first rather than it being wasted. I also have lots of red, which I’m similarly hoping I can avoid wasting. If anyone has a knack with paint mixing, do let me know!

Doing only full stripes (and only those that have completely eroded) does have the disadvantage that partly-disintegrated stripes will often be left alone, but I can live with that for now. I don’t really want to overpaint stripes where the existing stripe is still largely intact – I think the joins/overlaps would look weird, and if possible I’d rather not be “replacing” or obscuring the original art.

I think it looks better than doing nothing at all, and I think it’s better than touching up “haphazardly” – which is what I started off with, and which looked like this (shield your eyes!):

So then, what do you think of the “full stripe” approach?


DNA stripes – conclusions

Here are some conclusions I’ve come to about what I want to do next on the DNA cycle path. Thanks to everyone who’s responded here and on Twitter.


– In my opinion, the green and the paler blue are a good enough match to keep using as-is. Does that sound reasonable?
– It might be best for me to focus on the stripes that have almost disappeared – both in terms of priority and also because it means I can repaint the whole stripe at once. As Colin said, there’s a particularly bad section near the northern end.
– As Joe suggested, I may experiment with sprinkling fine sand onto the wet paint, for better grip and to take the edge off the brightness. I did a trial of this yesterday using a lump of old tarmac and the red line-marking paint – it’s not perfect but perhaps worth trialling further:


– Several people have shared my feeling that the appearance of having been repaired (provided it’s tasteful and not garish) is actually somewhat appealing.
– I obviously can’t please everybody, but my general impression is that people like that I’m doing it, so it would be nice to continue if possible (even if that doesn’t make everyone happy) rather than leave it to wear away.

DNA stripes – feedback

Over the last couple of weeks I started repainting the damaged stripes on the DNA cycle path between Addenbrooke’s and Great Shelford.

A member of the public was concerned that my paint was too bright – so I’m considering what I should do next – hence the following deliberations. Your thoughts would be appreciated (here or on Twitter).

The stripes were installed in 2006, to commemorate the 10000th mile of Sustrans cycle path in the UK – and the stripes represent the 10257 bases in the human gene BRCA2. Now that it’s ten years old, it’s showing considerable wear in places, so I wanted to touch it up.

Here’s a what the path looked like back in 2007 (courtesy of Wikipedia/Keith Edkins, CC BY-SA 2.0):

Here are some of the parts I’ve repainted:




(Third photograph in dim light so may have overemphasised the brightness of that red!)

I had critical feedback from a user of the path (while I was applying masking tape to do some more painting): while he agreed that the stripes needed repairing, he objected to the brightness of the new paint I’d applied. We discussed his concerns and he said he’d be satisfied if Sustrans gave the OK. I contacted Sustrans, asking whether it was OK to continue using the colours I had, and they said it was.

However, I want to make sure I’m not annoying anyone by doing this, so I’ve got some more things I’d like to consider before continuing.

Colour matching

I’m hoping my new paint will fade/wear over time to blend in better with the existing paint. I’ve suggested (and several have agreed) that it might be worth stopping for now, and waiting a few months to see whether this happens.

Road-marking paint is (usually) only available in a small set of colours – yellow is common, red and blue less so, green difficult to find. The exact shade varies between brands, though, so there is a little bit of choice when trying to match a shade. The green I’m using looks like a good match to me. I’ve used two brands of blue, and the first one (middle picture above) looks like a good enough match whereas the second one (third picture above) is rather darker. If I stick with Blackfriar’s green and Screwfix’s blue, I think these two colours will be fine as-is.

The new yellow is very bright, whereas the original yellow seems more muted – but perhaps dirt will dull it soon enough?

The orignal red was quite orange-y/pinky and I don’t know if I can get a line-marking paint in a shade like that, given that even the original wasn’t as red as the red paint I’ve put down.

Several people have suggested repainting entire stripes at once, for each stripe that needs some repair. I’m not convinced this would look very good, partly because you’d still then have bright stripes that had been repainted next to dull stripes that had been left alone. And I’d need something like 10 times as much paint to do this.

Gathering opinions

On Twitter, most people seem amused/positive about what I’ve done – this is not a big surprise to me because there’s obviously a selection bias, in that people who follow me are presumably doing so because they approve of my antics in general.

When I’ve been out there doing it, comments have been almost always positive – people making genetics jokes, thanking me for doing it, saying “good job!”.

I suspect people who are mildly against it (or don’t care) are less likely to comment, so perhaps it’s only people who feel strongly that I’m making a mess of it (like our friend above who prompted this post) that say so. I don’t want to miss the “mildly against”s.

Aesthetics and “subtext”

I think with this project it’s not just about a good colour match  – there’s several ways in which I think people approve of something and “suspend criticism” even if the repair sticks out fairly clearly as having been a repair job:

  • There’s some goodwill towards sincere effort and care, e.g.”someone’s finally doing something about this”. The fact that you can see it’s been repaired either doesn’t matter, or could in fact be a nice feature showing that it’s being maintained rather than being forgotten about and left to decay.
  • The “geek factor” – people appreciate this art not just on the surface as “nice decorative colours” but because of what it represents in terms of Cambridge’s role in historical and current DNA research – it doesn’t have to perfect in colour to convey that. And given its location, quite a lot of biologists and medics pass over it! And where a stripe is completely gone, I’m looking up the correct colour using a printout of the full gene – in the colour scheme used by this artwork it’s yellow for G, green for A, red for T and blue for C – so I’m maintaining the scientific accuracy of it (cf the repair to the southern end of the main section, where contractors seem to have just made up the stripes when replacing a short section of tarmac!)
  • “Geek factor” again – it’s a bit like DNA repair that happens in the real genome!


What are your thoughts? Is it a big problem if the new red doesn’t eventually blend in with the existing red? Should I wait for a few months to see how the colours bed in?

Otherwise, is leaving it to wear away really the best option? Would those officially responsible (assuming they wanted were willing to spend the money) be able to repair this in some more effective way? (short of removing and replacing every single stripe!)

Repainting at Gasworks War Memorial square, Newmarket Road

The Tescos on Newmarket Road is built on the site of the old Cambridge gas works. In about 2003, as part of the building works, the war memorial for the gas workers was moved to a small paved public square on Newmarket Road, next to one of the paths down to Tesco.

In front of the memorial itself are four benches with litter bins, and there is a row of black cast iron bollards along the side of the square nearest the road.

By 2015, the metalwork on the bins, benches and bollards was showing a lot of exposed rusted areas, and the wooden slats of the benches were weathered and faded.



Plenty for me to do here!

I gave the rusted areas on the bins and the metal parts of the benches a good scrub with a wire brush and gave them all a full coat or two of direct-to-rust Hammerite. I did a few of the row of bollards as well.



For the bins, I used gold paint for the lettering and the ridges.


To try to restore a nice colour and finish to wooden slats on the benches, I sanded the wood down, and applied several coats of Sikkens woodstain.



There’s quite a bit more I’d like to do here this year – two benches still haven’t had the wood restained, and there are lots of bollards left with rusty patches – but that will have to wait until after April (onwards) shower season…!

Guided Busway cycle path, Orchard Park – hedge campaign

The guided busway spur in Orchard Park has a lovely wide shared-use path along it. Where it passes between Graham Road and Chieftain Way, it’s bordered by a hedge (Lonicera I think?).



I don’t know who’s theoretically responsible for cutting it back, but it’s clearly been trimmed regularly in some places and in others has been left to grow for a long time. Parts of it it were growing about 60cm into the cycle path which was a problem near the junction, where some of the path is already taken up by posts for traffic lights and signs.

After several sessions of cutting (and about 15 loads of my Bosbag garden sack) over the last week or two, the most overgrown parts of the hedge are mostly now in check. It was quite a hard cutting-back in places but I think it should green up again.