Impressions of Cambridge

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Travel Features >> Impressions of Cambridge

Impressions of Cambridge

March 08, 2013

When I first arrived at Cambridge many years ago as an international student and an undergraduate, I had butterflies dancing The Swan Lake in my stomach. After a peaceful two-hour ride from London Heathrow, passing through some scenery with the stuff that pastoral bliss is made of – well-fed cows and quietly grazing sheep, gentle rolling hills and country houses – my bus reached Cambridge. I will never forget my first impression – medieval colleges with the watchful look of patriarchs looming over students cycling past in colourful windbreakers, little ivy-covered cottages straight out of Enid Blyton snuggling alongside narrow streets, and the weak English sun making a valiant effort to shine through trees shedding leaves in a million autumn colours.

Cambridge is considered one of the hallowed university towns of the world, and despite every effort made by students to ignore its existence (the most popular method is getting stone-drunk), the University of Cambridge undoubtedly dominates town life. Before the establishment of the University by some black sheep who were expelled from Oxford way back in the 13th century, Cambridge was a sleepy agricultural town, supported by revenues from goods ferries plying on the river Cam (the name ‘Cam-bridge’ derives from ‘the bridge on the river Cam’). Royal patronage, especially by Henry VIII, helped the fledgling university greatly, and soon Cambridge colleges grew up and competed with the best in Oxford. From the beginning, due to the University’s octopus-like spread, hostility has existed between the townspeople and scholars, or between ‘town and gown’, as the locals call it. In my time there, the students who managed to make friends with ‘townies’ were regarded as cool beyond belief.

Today, Cambridge is one of prettiest towns in all of England. The river Cam runs like a slender glittering thread through the town, with college buildings on one side and a luscious strip of green known as ‘The Backs’ on the other. In the summer, the normally placid surface of the Cam is broken by hundreds of locals and tourists punting and doing their best to throw dear ones into the water. The Cam is also punctuated by many beautiful bridges each with their own story including the Mathematical Bridge (built to a mathematical design that allows it to stand without a single nail), the Clare College Bridge (with stonework left unfinished by the disgruntled, underpaid architect) and the Bridge of Sighs (where Wordsworth is reputed to have wasted his student years sighing and writing poetry). The Backs are absolutely splendid to walk through any time of the year, and to doze off after a picnic on a lazy afternoon, with the quack-quack of turquoise-necked Cam geese in your ears.

Cambridge colleges themselves (when not intimidating scores of hapless undergraduates into producing their best essays) are some of the most beautiful and atmospheric buildings in the whole of Europe. Many of the older colleges like Christ’s, Trinity and St. John’s boast acres of strictly maintained grounds and fellows’ gardens that make it possible to understand why the Victorians went gaga over their outdoor tea and cucumber sandwiches. Cambridge also has some beautiful old churches and cathedrals, like the breathtaking King’s College Chapel with some of the best stained glass in Europe and the 10th century Round Church, the only one of its kind in England.

Winding themselves between all these sights are some delightful cobblestone streets, many resonant with live music by struggling music students. The grandest of these streets, Kings Parade runs almost parallel to the Cam and is a great mix of boutiques, cafes and students speed-walking or cycling their way to classes (when it is not overrun in the summer by tourists leaving trails of ice-cream on the flagstones). Next-door is market square, the hub of town life and teeming with open-air stalls and shops selling anything from peppermint bath salts and blue cheese to silver jewellery and Cambridge souvenirs. The weekend arts and crafts fair in All Saints Garden near the entrance to St John’s College is a treasure trove of local crafts and artwork. Also concentrated in the center of town are innumerable teashops and restaurants where one can watch life go by over such English gourmet delicacies as baked potato.

The Cam, the colleges and the Backs make up the compact historic center of town. Beyond this center are further pastoral delights for ramblers like the University Botanical Gardens, Midsummer Common and the path to Grantchester, an altogether charming little village nearby where the likes of Virginia Woolf, J.M Keynes and England’s favourite poet Rupert Brooke ‘took tea’. Also worth checking out are the numerous events on the local calendar, which include fireworks on Guy Fawkes’ night, the college May Balls (where hundreds of shiny-faced boys in dinner jackets and pancake-faced girls in revealing ball-gowns test new limits of debauchery), the Strawberry Fair in May/June where one-time hippies and future yuppies mingle happily in pot-induced camaraderie, and the various folk music festivals.

Cambridge student-life is neatly divided between the library and the pub, and till date, nobody has been able to say which institution has had a greater hand in producing scholars of distinction. No academic achievement can be put into perspective in Cambridge until it has been dissected over a couple of pints and successive degrees of drunken-ness. When Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA, they allegedly ran breathlessly from their dingy laboratory on Free School Lane to arguably the most famous pub in Cambridge – The Eagle – and bought all their friends a beer, shouting “we have discovered the secret of life”. Cambridge allegedly has one of the highest concentrations of pubs per square mile in the world, and has produced more than 90 Nobel Laureates. Put two and two together…

When in Cambridge, if you cannot win the Nobel Prize, drink a pint or several, you would have lived half the Cambridge dream, like I did!

- Sunalini Kumar

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