CAMBRIDGE THEN AND NOW
This is not how I pictured it: tourists thronging the narrow, winding streets, the air filled with the sounds of a myriad different accents and languages, the smell of fish and chips wafting out of open pub doors, and giggling couples posing for selfies.
But yes...this is Cambridge, England, on a July afternoon.
I’d imagined a dignified English university town, where medieval college bastions, would line cobblestoned roads, and where groups of earnest, bespectacled students would walk, or cycle, to their classes. Genteel English upper-class accents would be heard in passing. All that would be needed to complete this picture would be the soundtrack from Brideshead Revisited playing in the background. (The setting for Waugh’s novel is Oxford, not Cambridge, but in my mind’s eye that’s just a trifling detail.)
Well...idealistic visions aside, the vitality of my surroundings is infectious. It is a glorious sunny day and I am swept along with a swarm of humanity, goggling, exclaiming and camera-clicking just as madly as the rest of the crowd.
Along with me are relatives who live in England, and my son Glenn, visiting from Vancouver. Niece Eden Hildreth is a student at Cambridge, and she is acting as host and guide as we stroll through its historical colleges and chapels.
And how ‘historical’ are they? Well, according to the University’s records, the first group of scholars congregated here in 1209, and Peterhouse, the first college was founded by the Bishop of Ely in 1224. King Henry VI laid the foundation stone of Kings College Chapel in 1446 and Henry VIII when he wasn’t busy marrying and divorcing his wives, founded Trinity College in 1546. The awe inspiring list of alumni includes John Harvard, (who founded the University that bears his name in the USA), Milton, Wordsworth (England’s Poet Laureate), Byron and Tennyson—and more recently, Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister) and Stephen Hawking.
Eden is a scholar at St. John’s College and she proudly takes us past the Great Gate with its ornate gilt facade. The curious beasts on either side of the crown and shield are yales, mythical animals having elephants' tails, antelopes' bodies and horned goats' heads.
The college, founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, sprawls across three courts each with their turrets and medieval heraldic symbols. I’m enchanted by the “Bridge of Sighs” (it resembles the one in Venice) under which a punt filled with visitors is being poled along the river Cam. Quintessential Cambridge.
Once off the main street, the campus grounds of colleges are tranquil and uncrowded. The afternoon sun sends shadows across lawns, and at Pembroke College, a hedge of wild roses and lavender scents the breeze.
We drop by the oldest college of all – Peterhouse – and Eden, with an impish grin takes us to visit the loo, where the lids of toilet seats are embossed with the college crest!
There are other unexpected curiosities too, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, popularly known as the Round Church. Built in 1130 it is the second oldest building in Cambridge and one of only four round churches in England.
The most intriguing monument of all, however, is the grotesque, but mesmerizing Corpus Clock, the invention of Dr. John Taylor. The plated gold face has ripples (representing the Big Bang) radiating towards concentric circles where a traveling blue blip measures the speeding seconds, minutes and hours. A disturbing feature is the ghoulish “chronophage” – a grasshopper-cum-dragon-like beast that sits above the clock, and “eats” the minutes as they pass by. It is a grim depiction of the transience of time.
No visit to Cambridge would be complete without a visit to Kings College chapel where we attend Evensong. What words can possibly describe listening to the College’s world-renowned choristers, their voices soaring to the high-arching fan-vaulted ceiling in their rendition of The Magnificat, or the rolling tones of the organ in a Bach fugue.
As we drive out of Cambridge the evening light is mellow and golden, and the road we’ve chosen in preference to the highway, winds through avenues of trees and past undulating fields dotted with sheep. It’s a perfect English country scene. Masterpiece Theatre signature soundtrack please!
PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise attributed
1. Detail of the mythical ‘yales’ on the entrance gate to St. John’s College
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