Cambridge

Following last year’s visit to Oxford, we completed the learning curve with a visit to Cambridge. Just fifty miles north of London, it’s a morning’s drive in the hire-car from Russell Square, through ever decreasing suburbs into the low countryside beyond Epping. Past the Gog Magog Hills, Cambridge nestles in the fen lands, a sodden lowland through which snakes the River Cam. Romans, Angles, Vikings and Normans have stomped across this geographically open landscape, now it is pure middle England.

Cambridge is somewhat smaller than Oxford with a population of about 125,000. There is less of an urban ambience, less classical in its streetscape, it is more the winding country town. The university is the dominant force by far. About a fifth of the population are students. Formed by Oxford rejects at the start of the thirteenth century, it grew to become its keenest rival. The annual boat-race on the Thames is a famous manifestation of that rivalry.

View across the Paddocks at Downing College

View across the Paddocks at Downing College

We have a room at Downing College. It overlooks a quiet quadrangle, an arcade to one side adjoins a small theatre hosting a seminar. At quieter moments we decamp there with coffee and a book. At crowded tea-breaks it is useful to eavesdrop on the networking and hob-nobbing of the seminarians. The college is in a mellow yellow stone throughout. It is cast in the neo-classical mode. Built in the early eighteen hundreds, it has been described as the last of the old colleges, and the first of the new. Its patron, George Downing also gave his name to Downing Street. Of course, knowledge is also a corridor of power. We note, with some amusement, that certain walks are confined to the Fellows. At this time of year, we should be okay. The view across the Paddocks is, in a way, quintessentially English. Yet, the spire of the church on Lansfield Road also recalls home. It’s the uncanny valley again, so near and yet so far away.

Later, we step outside of the groves of academe for our evening meal to eat curries from the carton at an Indian deli and store across the road. There’s posh for you. It was very good indeed. Next morning, we breakfast in rather grander surrounds, at Downing’s great hall. Food to feed a horse, if a bit rushed owing to our late-coming tendencies. We resolve to be better tomorrow.

The Hopbine Pub advertises an invaluable service.

The Hopbine Pub advertises an invaluable service.

There are plenty of good restaurants here, incidentally. On our second evening we make a more serious scouting effort for our dining pleasure. The good spots fill up quickly as evening falls. We get a table at the Wildeside, another English meal with the great man, though of course he was an Oxford man. It’s quiet and stylish, with a little patio to the rear.

During the day, Cambridge, even with the tourist throngs, is eminently relaxing. Although it doesn’t quite have an aspect of dreaming spires, it is both evocative in its atmosphere and rich in visual delights. Kings Parade is probably the definitive vista. Old vernacular streetscape to one side, the impressive frontage of major colleges, notably King’s College, to the other. The winding thoroughfare retains a sense of the ancient. The oldest building in Cambridge, St. Benet’s Church, a quiet, simple structure, dates back to 1209.

Author deposits his books at Cambridge University Library

Author deposits his books at Cambridge University Library

Beyond the Cam, parkland cradles the more modern campus of the University. Cambridge University Library is a startlingly modern addition to the skyline. Built in the 1930s, the huge central tower has all the pulsing power of industrial art deco. Its architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, was also responsible for the Bankside power station that houses the Tate Modern. Chamberlain is said to have referred to it as a ‘magnificent erection’! Indeed it is impressive, it is also a repository for all books published in England and Ireland; mine too, I’m sure.

King's College Chapel viewed from the Backs.

King’s College Chapel viewed from the Backs.

Walking the city centre periphery illustrates Cambridge’s inevitable affinity with boating. Punting on the canal, or the corralled section of the Cam, is central to the Cambridge experience. Punters ply the serene waters, keeping up a patter of history, myth and gossip. Our host Phil hails from Northern Ireland, but is well versed in local lore with the gift of the gab thrown in. The route travels along The Backs, with views of the colleges across well-tended lawns. The Cam was rerouted for this. Henry VIII being instrumental in a scheme aimed at enhancing his and England’s prestige. The gothic grandeur of King’s College Chapel is another element of his legacy. Silence may have been preferrable at some sections. The Bridge of Sighs is evocative, indeed the entire poem of still water and ancient stone is a joy. But it really is a crowded river at times. You can hire your own punt too. Many do, floating drink parties are still drifting about at dusk.

Approaching the Anchor Pub

Approaching the Anchor Pub

We put our anchor down at the terminus in Mill Pond. Appropriately enough, The Anchor pub nestles there. This was once the hangout of Syd Barrett, where, as a teenager, he used to bend an ear to the resident jazz band. He would later lead his own band, those masters of avant garde psychedelia, Pink Floyd. Barrett would ultimately be replaced by his hometown friend, Dave Gilmour. Barret is commemorated in two panoramic panels on the lower level. An open terrace looks out over the maelstrom of the pond. In a town not exactly falling down with good pubs, it quickly becomes our favourite for a few drinks. There’s keg ales and good food. The pub rises through three levels. At the top, a jazz band plays. Imagine yourself back in Floydian times, let the mellow jazz merge seamlessly with Pink sounds. Put on a gown that reaches the ground, float on a river, forever and ever…

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Dublin – National War Memorial Gardens

I first discovered these gardens in the 70s, heading for Phoenix Park from Drimnagh, just past the Grand Canal and Kilmainham. Discovery is the appropriate term, back then these gardens were forgotten and in a ruinous state. Hardly a soul would venture in there, other than those wanting to step outside of society. Burnt out cars and burnt out people came to be the companions of the marooned masonry and overgrown parkland.

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You could just about discern within the remnants the outline of something which once must have been impressive, perhaps the whisper of faded empire. It was a place to give free rein to ghostly imaginings, conjuring a Classical past from Gothic decay. There were mood altering substances at work too. Like I said, it was a place where we could step outside of society for a while.

The decay was at last reversed. In the 1980s, the Office of Public Works (OPW) began the restoration work. Completed towards the end of the decade, The Irish National War Memorial Gardens were restored to their original state. The memory of our true past was once more cherished. It is sometimes thought that the Gardens were allowed to go to ruin as they were essentially a British Army memorial to those who fell under that command in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. This does not stand up to scrutiny. The 1970s saw widespread degradation of our urban fabric, including parks. In large part this was caused by the economic recession of that period, but there was also a disregard for our architectural heritage, a craven desire to prefer the modern over the old. It is the reversal of the latter trend that has allowed us to reclaim the treasures of our built heritage.

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Mind you, the Gardens at Islandbridge are not particularly ancient. In their decade of ruin they were barely forty years old. The concept of a memorial garden came shortly after the end of the Great War, at a time when Ireland was entering the throes of its own War of Independence. The object was to commemorate the fifty thousand Irishmen who had died in the European conflict. This project was initiated in the fraught first decade of Irish independence, in a country riven by the bitterness of the Civil War. 1931 saw the development of the parkland between Islandbridge and Chapelizod on the banks of the Liffey. If the accession to power of Eamon De Valera did not seem auspicious, the project didn’t founder. Work commenced on the Memorial Gardens themselves in 1933. The project was completed in 1939, as another global conflict broke out. It’s notable that, in a spirit of shared memory, with the wars of independence so fresh in the mind, the workforce consisted in equal halves of ex-servicemen from the British and Irish armies.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of the finest British architects of the Modernist era, designed the Memorial Gardens. World renowned, Lutyens had worked extensively in Ireland, including Heywood Gardens in County Laois, and at Howth Castle and Lambay Island in Dublin. His work is characterised by its harmonising of Classical and Modernist styles. At Islandbridge, he set out a symmetrical plan, rich in imagery yet restrained in effect. The main lawn is centred on a War Stone, symbolising an altar, while the flanking fountains are marked by obelisks representing candles. At each end are a pair of granite Bookrooms linked by pergolas. The Bookrooms are a repository for the eight volumes of books recording the names of all those Irish who perished during the war. These were designed and illustrated by Irish artist Harry Clarke, most renowned for his stained glass.

The Bookrooms and books can be viewed by appointment. We had contacted the Gardens in advance, and received an informal, personal tour of the monument from one of the OPW onsite team. It is an informative and moving experience, to see entries for such young men, mere boys really, who drew their last breath on a foreign field, preserved here by name, forever young.

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Passing through the linking pergolas of granite columns and oak beams, we enter the sunken rose gardens. Each are centred on lily ponds and surrounded by yew hedging. These are points of tranquil reflection, allowing the monument to recede into a serene mixture of flora and elements. To the south is the most imposing statement. The Great Cross presides over all, inscribed to ‘the 49,400 Irishmen who gave their lives in the Great War.’

The restoration of the park restores the dignity of those who fought in the war, but it is not, nor was it ever, a triumphal memorial. The classical elegance underpinning Lutyens design is a quiet reflection on the sacrifice of these men. It is, in effect, a monument to peace. The first visit of an English monarch to an independent Ireland, in May 2011, was marked with the laying of a wreath by Queen Elizabeth II at the Great Cross. Almost a century after that great fallout, a note of reconciliation was sounded.

That war, which we now call the First World War, did not end all wars. Sadly, such dreams are just that. We can wallow in wishful thinking, seek solace in forgetfulness, but it is, perhaps, better to remember our history and hopefully to learn by it. Ireland did gain its independence through bullets and blood, our National Anthem notes this fact. But it was the force of civil solidarity, allied with vision and idealism, that won the day and, to an extent, won the peace. Don’t forget that.