A Day Out: Cambridge

Monday, November 14, 2011

I asked around a bit and the consensus seemed to be that of the two big university towns – Oxford and Cambridge – Cambridge is more interesting to visit.  Even Rick Steves says so!  Thus it was that I ended up setting the alarm on Sunday morning (horrors!) and then catching the 8:50am train on a beautifully clear and sunny day.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of Cambridge station were the bikes – there must have been thousands of them parked in two big lots outside the station.

I’m not kidding… thousands! 
I later found out that there are about 30,000 bicycles in Cambridge, and a bit more than 100,000 people.  I think I probably saw more bikes than people that day – they are chained to every fence, pillar, post, or stationary object in the city.  I suspect if I’d stood still long enough I would have ended up with at least four bikes attached to me, three of which would have had wicker baskets on the handlebars.  Since there are no vehicles allowed in parts of the historic city centre, cycling remains the best way of zipping from getting around town, especially if you’re a student on a tight budget with a full class load.

I managed to navigate from the station to the main market square with only minimal confusion.  (This was not helped by the fact that my iPhone – my primary navigation tool – has developed the alarming tendency to drain its battery from a full charge to nothing in about 4 hours.  Charming.  It looks like there’s a new phone in my immediate future…).  I knew I’d reached the centre because there was a nice market where I wandered around slightly grumpily after discovering that the Tourist Information Centre, which had been my navigational goal, is closed on Sundays.  This was a minor setback, but I fortified myself with coffee from a market vendor and set off to discover a bit of the city on my own before returning to see if the promised 1:00 pm guided walking tour would actually take place.

The first thing I found was something I’d been planning to seek out, but which I stumbled on accidentally – the Corpus Clock.  This is a relatively new site in Cambridge, having been unveiled near Corpus Christi College in 2008.  It’s a large gold plated mechanical clock surmounted by a nasty looking borg-like grasshopper.  The grasshopper – called “Chronophage” (time eater) - is actually the clock’s escapement, and is the world’s largest “grasshopper escapement” (an escapement is a method of converting the motion of a pendulum into rotational movement, a rather important notion in clock-making).  The grasshopper appears to march along the top of the clock while pushing the outer ring around it.  Instead of hands, the Corpus Clock lights up a series of blue LEDs that shine through slits around the clock’s face. It’s a bit hard to explain, but if you check out this video, all will be revealed:

It’s a bit long, but this is the inventor of the clock itself explaining how it works, which is cool. (Ian – this one’s for you.)

Since I arrived just before the hour I stuck around long enough to see the clock strike eleven, which was satisfying in a rattly, mechanical way.  Then as I started walking down the street I was stopped by the sounding of the 11am gun marking the start of two minutes of silence – it was Remembrance Sunday.  I waited where I was standing and looked around to see that a lot of other people had stopped too.  As time passed more and more people clued in and just stopped and stood quietly where they were facing towards the sound of the gun.  Even cyclists stopped in the street and stood astride their bikes.  A few foreign tourists were clearly baffled by the whole thing - I imagine they thought it was some kind of elaborate practical joke and were looking for hidden cameras - but I thought is was bloody excellent.  Then after a full two minutes a second gun fired and everyone went about their business.  Nice.

I eventually did find the one o'clock guided tour after a pleasant wander on my own, a light lunch and another cup of coffee to counteract the early alarm.  Sadly the guide was only mediocre despite sporting the coveted Blue Badge. However, she did explain about the college system at Cambridge (and Oxford), which is quite different to how North American universities operate.  Cambridge is comprised of 31 colleges, which are not to be confused with the departments/faculties.  Colleges are where the students live, and include residences, dining halls and libraries.  Faculties are the areas of study.  Thus a student might belong to King’s College but study biological science in a class with students from Trinity College and St. John’s College and Corpus Christi and so on.  Colleges concentrate on housing, welfare, social activities and tutored study sessions for undergrads, whereas departments deal with classes and research.  Clear as mud, right?

Never mind, the important thing if you’re a tourist is that the oldest colleges have stunning architecture and  lovely grounds covered in untouchable grass that is a super-intelligent shade of green.  (The grass really is untouchable – only fellows of the college and their guests are allowed to walk on it.).  Most colleges admit visitors to poke around (though not inside the buildings) and some are so popular they can charge admission.  This is the case with perhaps the most famous – King’s College.  Luckily, my £15 walking tour included entry into King’s College and, most importantly, into its famous chapel.

King’s College Chapel, from the outside
The chapel is one of the finest examples of  perpendicular architecture and has huge stained glass windows dating to the 1500s.  The most striking feature of the building is its fan-vaulted stone ceiling which weighs close to 2,000 tons and is the largest anywhere - 289 feet long, 40’ wide and 80’ high.

Nice work!  The interior of the chapel is also festooned with Tudor roses, because though it was started by Henry VI in 1446, construction was delayed due to the War of the Roses. It wasn’t finished until 1515, under Henry VIII.  He’s the one who added all the Tudor bits and had his and Anne Boleyn’s initials carved into the oak organ screen that divides the chapel. 
The walking tour continued when we left the chapel and walked along the Cam River (Cam-bridge, get it?) and through Queens’ College, even crossing over the famous “Mathematical Bridge”.  It’s an arched wooden bridge purportedly designed by Isaac Newton without the use of bolts or fasteners.  The legend is that students were so fascinated by the design that they took it apart to see how it worked and then were unable to put it back together, which is why it’s now assembled with hardware.  Sadly, the story is merely a legend; the original bridge was designed by a carpenter 22 years after Newton’s death.  It’s a great story though, and the fact that names like Isaac Newton are tossed out so casually is an indication of the depth of history and prestige associated with Cambridge. For instance, Queens’ College boasts a bit of masonry called Erasmus Tower.  Why?  Because the 15th century Dutch theologian and humanist Erasmus studied and lived there, of course.

The Mathematical Bridge, linking the two halves of Queens’ College across the Cam
The River Cam is crossed by nine bridges in Cambridge, and is the site of a particularly diverting pastime for tourists and students alike – punting!  A punt is a shallow, flat-bottomed boat that’s propelled by a punter (no really, that’s what they’re called) who stands on the back deck with a comically long pole and moves the boat along by dropping the end of the pole to the riverbed and pushing off.  I forked over £13.50 for the pleasure of 45 minutes being propelled along the Cam with a group of other tourists by a quite yummy young Cambridge resident named Nick.

Nick, with his pole.
Nick was a much better guide than woman from the walking tour, and he amused us with anecdotes about the different colleges, and about punting, and was skilled enough to avoid the continual parade of amateur punters in self-hire boats who managed to end up perpendicular to the river blocking traffic at regular intervals. Even though it got a bit dark and chilly, the punting was a great activity and well worth the money, if only because I got to sit back for 45 minutes and have a nice break from the hours of walking.

A punt and punter and a load of… errr...  puntees?
After the punting I was quite chilled and hungry, but I still had one more important thing to do in Cambridge so I decamped to a pub for some mediocre roast beef and some good real ale and a disappointing rhubarb crumble with custard.  This was all to kill a bit of time and to fortify myself for the last activity of the day.  King’s College Chapel, which you’ll remember from about 600 words ago, was to hold a special Remembrance Sunday Requiem service at 6:00pm, and I was determined to attend so I could hear the famous choir of King’s College Chapel, who were to sing that night, accompanied by an orchestra.

I arrived to the entrance of King’s at about 5:30pm, having been warned that there would be a full house.  Indeed there was a queue forming in the dark, and I took my place dutifully and even struck up a bit of a conversation with two older gentlemen, one of whom was in academic robes and both of whom were so quintessentially “Old Boy” that it was a bit hard to believe.  The queue wound slowly through the grounds past the untouchable grass until we were outside the doors to the cathedral.   While we waited a small church across the street started ringing its bells – proper change ringing, mind – and the organ in the chapel echoed the sequences back so you could say it was just a tad atmospheric.  And of course there were the inevitable queue-jumpers who were met with muttered indignance by all they passed (“Just shameless…” said the guy behind me, but not so loudly that anyone else could hear.  So English!).  And then we filed quietly into the cathedral.

It was fantastic. It was dark outside and the space was lit mostly with candles and just one or two floodlights aimed up the walls.  (Well, they’re not going to hang banks of fluorescents from the fan vaults now are they?)  Everyone found a spot in the pews, which are arranged parallel to the long sides of the church facing towards each other, and there were programs of the service on each seat.  The choir and clergy entered, and everyone stood, and then the orchestra started up and the choir started singing – 14 men from the college and 16 boy sopranos from the King’s School – and it was pretty magical.  Yes, there was a lot of standing and a lot of back and forth between clergy and congregation about how we all were not worthy and were wretched sinners. (High Church of England services are just a spit from Roman Catholic it seems - there was even incense).  And there was a long wait while people lined up to take communion (optional, phew).  The service lasted just over and hour, and it was dim and moody and the music was great.  The whole thing was quite lovely, even for a godless heathen like myself, and I found myself thinking that while the church may be responsible for a lot of nastiness, they’ve also given us unbelievably beautiful buildings and soaring music that’s pretty hard to criticize.

And then I filed out of the church, leaving a little something in the collection plate.  The night had grown chilly and the walk back to the station turned out to be an unmitigated navigational disaster that required stopping in a shop to ask for help and being pointed in a direction 90 degrees from the one I’d been doggedly following.  Thus I arrived at the station slightly out of sorts but was able to get right on a slow train back to King’s Cross where I intended to start blogging right away but was so utterly done in that I contented myself with the crossword and a little light emailing.  I finally walked in the door at about 10pm in time to join my lovely housemates and guest for the cheese course, a glass of wine and some nice conversation. 

And that was Cambridge.  I saw a lot, but there is much more I didn’t do – like the Fitzwilliam Museum of art and antiquities, which had an exhibition of Vermeer on that people were queuing for outside the gates.  And there’s the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum (closed on Sundays) and more colleges, and more super-intelligently green grass and more markets and shops and about a zillion galleries, and… well you get the picture.  Cambridge is certainly worth another visit.  And perhaps next  time I can find a decent rhubarb crumble.

Me, on a bridge over the Cam

P.S.  More photos of Cambridge, Nick, and me are in the Cambridge set of photos on Flickr.


Marilyn said...

Thanks for another adventure tale my dear. Loving the long hair as well. You look very content, seems like things are working out for you.

Anonymous said...

Wow! That's the first thing I thought too - long hair!! A x

Anonymous said...

Make that another who noticed the long hair. Looks good.

You make Cambridge a very appealing place. You should be on the Cambridge Tourist Board!

Great blogs - keep it up.

Unknown said...

An extra nice blog on Cambridge. It does sound like a place I will have to make some time for in one of my future trips. Your travels are affecting mine - thanks very much for the insights.

And the contented look, yes...the London Chapter seems to have firmed up for you this fall.

Are you venturing home to Canada for Xmas or what?

Cheers, Rob H.

Ian Timshel said...

What a wonderful day out. Thanks for taking us along. The clock is quite a show piece. Very dramatic.

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