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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…