Saturday, 23 May 2009

Wandering Through the Colleges of Cambridge

Much like the famous rowing race, Jules and I have a bit of rivalry over the English university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. Having visited both places in the 1980’s, Jules took a fancy to the larger metropolis of Oxford, while I really enjoyed the more compact city of Cambridge. So I was particularly pleased to once again travel the few hours north of London by bus to visit my cousin who had made the district of Cambridge his home. Upon arrival, the town looked somewhat bigger and more bustling than we had remembered, which is not totally surprising with a jump in population from 90,000 in the 1980’s to around 125,000 today. It’s population boom confirming that many other people have recognized the appeal of this historical town and what it had to offer beyond its universities. This may in part be also due to the fact that Cambridge has developed into the English version of ‘Silicon Valley’, attracting some of the UK’s most qualified people, who come here to explore a wide range of developing technological industries.

On a bright and sunny day (somewhat untypical), we traveled into Cambridge from the outlying village of Sawston where we were staying. After a lovely picnic in one of the many parks, we were ready to once again explore the centre of the town with its many historical landmarks. Of course the University of Cambridge itself dominates the streetscape with numerous colleges spreading out throughout the town. One of the first to be revisited was Kings College which is one of our favorites and is easily recognisable by the traditional gothic spires of its magnificent cathedral. It’s from here that every Christmas Eve ‘Carols from Kings’ is telecast throughout Britain and Australia, so it holds a special place in Jules’ heart who always insisted that we played the angelic tones of the young choristers every year in the lead up to the big day. Another favorite of mine is Trinity College with its strong historical connections to Henry VIII, who established the college in 1546 and whose unmistakable figure looks down from above from the sculptures of Great Gate. Passing through the gate we arrived at ‘Great Court’, made famous in the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ in which the annual ‘Great Court Run’ was reinacted. The premise of this annual event is that students should undertake a dash around the 400-metre parameter of the court within the 43 seconds it takes for the old clock to strike twelve o’clock. A very difficult task but to prove that it could be done, in 1988 Olympic runner Sebastian Coe actually managed to complete the sprint it in 42.53 seconds!

One of the largest and most impressive of all the colleges is St. Johns College with its sprawling buildings and grounds. While it has several grand gates and courtyards, for us the jewel in the crown is ‘The Bridge of Sighs’. A small gothic styled bridge that spans the River Cam and is possibly one of the most photographed structures in Cambridge with picturesque scenes reminiscent of Venice. The appeal of this landmark is further enhanced by the sight of students (or at least young folk) punting under it and down the river. ‘Punts’ are nothing like gondolas, as these are simple flat bottom boats, yet similarly they have a person standing at the back who dips a long poll into the water in order to propel the unstable looking craft along. On a summers day this is a very popular pastime that creates quite a bit of congestion on the narrow waterways. For us it was good fun just observing novices tackling their poll technique and while there were some pretty wobbly boats out there and a few near misses, to our disappointment none managed to fall in while we were watching.

Scenes such as these, combined with the classic gothic architecture of Cambridge, certainly conjure up some quintessential images of English life. While the city itself has certainly grown since we last visited, its tourist appeal remains much the same. For the thousands of students who pass through the various historic gates of the colleges, their time here must truly be memorable. In places it appears as though time has simply stood still and there is comfort in the knowledge that things will generally remain the same as it has done for centuries. You could say that we are all just passing through Cambridge (not just us tourists) and that it will always provide a constant reminder of what is ‘great’ about Great Britain.

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