• Renata Haidle

Day Trip From London: An Autumn Walk Through Cambridge

The Bridge of Sighs, St. John's College, Cambridge

"October 4th 1922, 3 Hyde Park Street, London, and 47 Bridge Street, Cambridge

When I woke this morning, I had only one thought in mind: I wanted Cambridge to be a success."

So begins Cecil Beaton's wonderful memoir, "The Wandering Years", in which the legendary photographer and designer reminisces for posterity about the time he spent at St. John's College, as an 18-year-old with rather lofty dreams yet very modest academic inclinations.

Downing College, Cambridge

Before I visited Cambridge last October, I knew very little about this East of England town. I could probably count the facts on one hand. Naturally, I knew the obvious: that it was home to one of the oldest, greatest universities in the world, which broke from Oxford early in the 13th century to become its forever rival.

St John's College, Cambridge

From a more scholarly friend, I had learned that C. S. Lewis taught at the Magdalene College for almost a decade, after being unanimously elected in 1954 as Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

Pembroke Street, Cambridge

And from some brief travel research, I had learned that the River Cam ran through it, and punting on the Cam was a thing not to be missed.

That was probably the extent of what I knew.

Punting on the River Cam

Short on time as it always seems to be the case when I travel to Europe, I had asked my very knowledgeable English friend Amanda to help me make the tough decision between Oxford and Cambridge, for a day trip from London.

She thought, without hesitation, that I'd love Cambridge more.

Emmanuel College - its chapel was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677.

Not long after our conversation, I bought my train tickets (weeks early, but always a smart thing to do in England, as the prices can increase wildly closer to departure) and added the trip firmly to my schedule.

King’s College Chapel, which took almost 70 years (1446-1515) to complete, is one of Britain’s most magnificent buildings.

Well, it turned out, I fell in love with Cambridge. I was charmed by the small-town atmosphere, the classical architectural jewels, and the aura of high-end academia. It probably didn't hurt that the sweet autumn light painted everything in gold, amber, and rust at the time of my trip.

Downing College, founded in 1800 with an endowment from Sir George Downing III. The eponymous London landmark was named after his grandfather, Sir George Downing I.

I spent a good part of the morning visiting Queen's College, its coarse brick walls a canvas for the curvaceous shadows cast by wrought iron lamps.

Walking through the arched passageways adorned by geranium-filled window boxes, I retraced the steps of tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of scholars that had done the same, ever since Queen Consort Margaret of Anjou founded the college in 1448.

Queen's College - scroll for more images.

Later on I enjoyed a stroll through the city center, with its cheerful bunting streched across the highly commercial Green Street. I had a hard time deciding on the most picturesque location for lunch - for there were plenty, including the farmer’s market happening in, where would you guess, Market Square. As it is often the case, there were quite a few diverse food choices there, from Thai to French and so much more in between.

I ended up eating a hearty pulled pork sandwich at SmokeWorks, on the corner of Free School Lane and Bene’t Street. The spicy, smoky, barbequed meat reminded me more of something I’d eat at home rather than in fish-and-chips country, but when you’re hungry and it’s late in the afternoon and most restaurants are full, you're not all that picky anymore. And to be fair, the pork was good.

Green St, Cambridge. In the background: Sidney Sussex College.

After lunch I took the highly anticipated punting ride, and it was everything I expected it to be. They say that it's the best way to see Cambridge, and I won't dispute that - it is really beautiful and romantic. Our punter, a knowledgeable and humorous young man, brought the sights to life with facts and anecdotes.

"The Bridge of Sighs at St. John's College is my favorite," I heard the punter say. He was echoing the sentiment of  Queen Victoria, who supposedly mentioned something similar during her visit to Cambridge, which occured between July 5-7, 1847. Her beloved Prince Albert must have favored King's College Chapel, as it is said he visited it three times during their three-day stay. It should not come as a surprise that he was not a fan of St. John's College. After all, a large number of its members had unsuccessfully opposed his election as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge earlier that year.

The Bridge of Sighs, a Gothic Revival covered bridge at St John's College, Cambridge

As for me, I didn't make it to the famous chapel. As much as I'd love to see all things in all places, time is never on my side. And that's alright. This might be a cliché, but it is true nevertheless: there is always next time. 

Oh, and a little spoiler alert: I did make it to Oxford, too, just two days later. Come back in a few days for that story. 😉


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