I find Cambridge an asylum, in every sense of the word.
–A. E. Housman
Legend (?) has it that Cambridge was founded by students fleeing criminal charges at Oxford. Legend goes on to say that this is the reason why Cambridge is always referred to by Oxonians as “the other place.” And I’ve discovered that this pattern of diction is also employed by parliamentarians when referring to the chamber to which they themselves do not belong. There may be more to Housman’s witticism than I thought when I first read it. But, in truth, we enjoyed every minute of our stay at the second oldest university in Britain. It’s been a long time since 1209, hasn’t it?
It wasn’t quite that long ago that H attended Cambridge University. He was only there for a year, but as we recently discovered, once you are a member of King’s College, you are always a member. This fact stood us in good stead on the day we caught the train from London’s Liverpool Street Station north to Cambridge. It was the most glorious day of our time in England, with temperatures in the mid 20s/70s under gigantic white cumuli floating through dazzling blue skies.
We made the mistake of thinking a taxi would deliver us more reliably and with less consternation about timing from our hotel to the station. Instead, we crept along in London’s morning rush hour, which is many ways amounted to a bicyclist’s steeplechase amidst roadworks and stalled traffic. We saw plenty of the city, though, as the driver expertly wound his way among the obstacles.
Arriving midmorning, we walked a couple of blocks from the train station to a bus stop where we could board the Cambridge City Sightseeing Hop-On Hop-Off bus. This proved to be a worthy investment. It gave us the full tour from the oldest central colleges to ultramodern scientific laboratory complexes out to residential quarters at one end and the American military cemetery at the other. With all the convenience of being chauffeured around town and none of the trouble of hailing a cab (which seems nearly impossible in Cambridge), the bus also afforded us the opportunity to sit and rest our bones from time to time during the day.
Our first adventure, though, was to go punting on the Cam. The only other time I’ve visited Cambridge was on the Feast of Stephen–two days after Christmas–and I remember mostly wanting to see the insides of tea shops, pubs, or anyplace else where the temperature was above freezing and the wind was prevented from piercing the overcast skies and into my scarf, overcoat, and sweater. So the idea of indulging in the quintessential undergraduate laze on this brilliant, solsticial day was definitely at the top of the list. No matter if this punting on the Cam is now instead a quintessential tourist activity: even our punter was an ex-student, and a graduate of Edinburgh at that. And Japanese by birth (to a Scottish father). Cambridge endures, but it also changes.
Nonetheless the punting was lovely, and we did see plenty of students lazing on the river banks. There were swans, and views of Trinity and King’s and the Bridge of Sighs, willows hanging over the water, even a few hardy undergraduate swimmers celebrating the end of term.
Once we’d finished our cruise, which took us from Queens’ past King’s, Clare, and Trinity, to St John’s and back again, and before we got back on the bus, we decided to walk back toward the heart of town and King’s Parade. We strolled past St Catherine’s College and up towards King’s, as our punter had advised us that the public could be admitted to King’s Chapel for Evensong services at 5:30 in the afternoon. Arriving at the gates to King’s, we made the most delightful discovery of the day.
As I mentioned earlier, once a member of King’s, always a member. The Colleges of Cambridge, unlike institutions of higher learning in the United States, are generally not accessible to ordinary folk. You can’t simply wander into the quads at will: only members are admitted. When H showed his recently re-acquired membership card, the doors opened to us with a warmth and delight last seen at the return of the Prodigal Son to his father’s estate. Since noon had come and gone and food was on our minds, we decided to try our luck at the King’s College dining hall instead of at the dimly remembered Cambridge Chop House (which frankly had more nostalgic than gustatory appeal).
There were no tables laid with silver and linen; the High Table where the faculty dined was sparsely attended and not at all grand, and the idea of cafeteria lines and eating off trays wasn’t exactly the romantic spectacle I might have imagined, but there was no denying that the atmosphere of the dining hall with its oil portraits, carved woodwork, and stained glass windows was a far cry from the utilitarian food courts of modern American campuses. Similarly, after we’d eaten and were making our exit through a nearby common room, it was the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” that serenaded us. But I’m not complaining. The chance to glimpse contemporary King’s was too good to regret the loss of a certain degree of Merchant/Ivory mystique.
After lunch, we hopped back on the bus and completed our circuit of the city, past Magdalen College (pronounced “Maudlin”) where Pepys’s library is ensconced, and Jesus, near the site of storied pub crawls, past houseboats on the Cam and the museums devoted to geology, archaeology, and anthropology. We eventually found ourselves back on King’s Parade, where a little shopping provided a diversion before we plunked ourselves down on the wall in front of King’s to watch the afternoon foot traffic pass by. Students with the makings of supper swinging in plastic sacks and tourists cooling down with ice cream from a truck parked up the road kept us amused until it was time to re-enter the College and queue for the Evensong service.
Once again, membership proved to have its benefits. Not only was there a separate, and much shorter, queue for members, but once inside, we were ushered to the private stalls. We were seated against the wall of the Chapel, and when the famed Boys Choir entered, there took their places immediately in front of us on either side of the aisle. Candles perched atop tall sticks floated between the heads of the choristers like a small sea of angelic lights. The service lasted about 45 minutes in all and for the last time that day, I indulged my fantasies of medieval scholarship and Renaissance humanism combined with an utterly English air of peaceful contemplation.
We grabbed a quick meal across the Parade from the College, realizing too late that a return to the dining hall would have been a wiser choice. But soon it was time to head back to the station for a relaxing ride through the sundown splashed countryside. I couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion, not only to our time in England, but to our travels across the continent. The combination of personal history and enduring England, of revisiting places seen before and exploring new corners of the country, of being in the present and surrounded by the past, was the perfect coda to our excursions.