An Afternoon of Cantabrigian Delight :)

I feel that having written a whole blogpost on Oxford last year, it is only fair for me to write a brief one about Cambridge, seeing as I went there for the first time today and therefore have a slightly more balanced viewpoint.

It was late morning when I arrived at King’s Cross and on viewing the Departures list, saw to my dismay that I would have to get a replacement bus service from Royston. Add to this the fact that I hadn’t eaten a proper breakfast, and you get a decidedly unchirpy Ellie, who very nearly decided not to bother going at all.

On arriving in Royston, there was a light shower which threatened to possibly become a proper downpour later. This further dampened my expectations, but luckily on arriving in Cambridge the weather brightened up somewhat.

The station is a few minutes walk from the city centre, so you have to walk through the outer slightly-shitty bits of the city to reach the best bits in the middle. Like nibbling round the edge of a Jaffa cake before biting into the scrummy orange-jelly centre. Or something.

As I got closer to the city proper, I could see some older buildings – churches and so forth – which looked distinctly promising. By the time I started walking down towards King’s College, I was beginning to feel much more optimistic, particularly as the threat of further showers had almost entirely dissipated.

Unfortunately most of the colleges were closed to visitors because of student examinations – I love that, anywhere else (apart from Oxford) it would just say “student exams”, but here all the signs said “examinations”, which made it sound so much more impressive and important 🙂 However, I did go and see King’s College Chapel – which was frankly far too narrow, dark and self-important for my liking – although the history of the Chapel’s construction, starting with Henry VI in the fifteenth century, was surprisingly interesting.

I also visited Queens’ College, which was for some reason NOT closed for examinations – perhaps their students are less easily distracted? The gardens were rather pretty – lots of roses in various dazzling colours – and it was here that I saw my first glimpse of the river, with punts passing up and down it almost continuously, the punters jovially imparting little titbits of information about the university to their passengers as they glided downstream.

The reason I wanted to visit Queens’ in particular was (for those who don’t know/haven’t guessed):

“Famous Fellows and Alumni of Queens’ College include: Desiderius Erasmus (scholar); Sir Thomas Smith (Secretary of State to Elizabeth I); Bishop John Fisher (beheaded in 1535 for his opposition to the Reformation); Richard Hickox (conductor and musician); Stephen Fry (actor); Graham Swift (author); Dr Michael Foale CBE (Astronaut); and Sir Richard Dearlove KCMG OBE (MI6).” 🙂

On exiting Queens’ College, I found myself right by the river and main punting sheds. I wasn’t terribly keen on doing the punting after finding out the price and seeing the sky cloud over again, but after sitting on the bridge watching the punts come and go for a while, and realising that the punters would also give a talk about the history of the colleges as we went past them. I changed my mind and decided to go. Miraculously, as soon as I got on the punt and snuggled down into the rugs and cushions on the seat, the sun came bursting out from behind the clouds, as if it had finally got bored of the peek-a-boo game it had been playing all day. The trip down the river was thus bathed in glorious sunshine, which also meant that, as well as the fact that I grinned like a particularly loony loon the entire time, I got some cracking photos of the bridges and colleges along the way.

I can’t remember everything that was mentioned during the trip, but I do recall our punter, a Romanian girl, informing us that when the Carol Concert at King’s Chapel opens with a solo by a young boy, he will only have been informed that he’s doing it literally just before the performance is about to start. Apparently this approach is designed to eliminate any disaster that may occur after weeks of nervous tension and rehearsal beforehand. I’m sure that must be very comforting to the poor little bugger who gets about 30 seconds notice that he’ll be singing alone, live, in front of an audience of thousands during an annual event that is for many the highlight of the Christmas season!

Also, Queens’ College is named after two queens, hence the apostrophe being AFTER the S, unlike King’s, where the apostrophe comes before. The queens in question, in case you were wondering, are Queen Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Queen Edward IV.

The Trinity College library further down the river was designed by Christopher Wren and all the books are on the first floor, to protect them from the river floods that sometimes occur. Within it are contained original manuscripts of works by Isaac Newton, Lord Byron and A.A. Milne, who all studied at Trinity College. Apparently if you stand at one end of the cloisters on the ground floor and clap your hands, it echoes back three times.

We were also informed of several pranks that had been played by students of various colleges, perhaps the most memorable being carried out by older students at St John’s College on the freshers one year. There is a door in the outer wall of the college, just above the waterline of the river. The older students made signs pointing towards this door as being the fire exit. They set off the fire alarm, and the freshers, not yet knowing the layout of the building, all went charging out through this door and straight into the river! Hanging on the wall of the building on the opposite side of the river was a sign that read: “Welcome to St. John’s!” 🙂

Oxford may be grand and beautiful (and of course it has the X too), but Cambridge has a charm all of its own – mainly, I would suggest, because of the proximity of the river and the fact that it is rather smaller than Oxford. I liked it very much, and all through the afternoon I kept thinking of that poem by Rupert Brooke: “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, which I had seen in a bookshop in Brighton the day before.

Here is an extract, which will explain much better than I can what a sunny afternoon in Cambridge is like:

“Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .

…I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .”

That is pretty much exactly what it felt like to be there. And below there are some pictures for you, so you don’t have to rely entirely on your imagination 🙂

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