Cambridge: Yesterday & Today

Cambridge started like most British cities. Way back, when the Egyptians were busy building pyramids, we raised some lowly farmsteads  in the swamps. The Romans appear afterwards and build some roads (handy) and then the Saxon and the Vikings did various medieval things, after which William the Conqueror assumed control. Then, the tumble of the next millennia created the anthropocene that we lament today. Curiously, the village of Cambridge, used to be called Granta-Bridge (or some middle English variant) it then changed to Cambridge at some point – and according to my dubious sources at Wikipedia – the river name was changed because the city had, not the other way around. 

I guess if you had to pinpoint the defining moment in this city’s history it would be the fleeing of scholars from Oxford in 1209. They came here and created a similar college system of learning to that already established at Oxford. These two cities ran a monopoly on education or the next 600 years. If you wanted to be a priest, a doctor, a mathematician, a scientist, a theologian or whatever – you had to come here. The next university established in England was the University of Manchester in 1824. In light of this knowledge, I really don’t think we appreciate the privilege of education as much as we should.

Beside the industrial and scientific research centres, beside the centuries old colleges, and bookshops, is the sprawl of the homeless and a deep feeling of divide. The poor struggle in this city of money; that is obvious. Restaurants and high end retail outlets proliferate. The picturesque is mostly behind pay-barriers and the influx of Asian money is palpable. Tt sponsors wings in museums. But it’s the prestige they salivate over: the prestige of Western education. They throng the byways with cameras dressed in curiously quintessential tourist garb – beige chinos, rugby shirts and ill-shaped fishing hats. I wondered whether Cambridge to the British is perhaps how Venice feels to Venetians. And I’m not just saying that because of the punting. 

What Cambridge is best known for amongst the locals of the county, however, is its the terrible road system. The A14 is gridlock and parking costs £30 a day. Trains and busses are a must and they rarely represent value for money. Luckily, the park and ride system  isn’t too bad at £3 per person (return) on the bus, or £8 for 5 people – but it’s still an irritant with trains from my local station costing £7  for a less than 30min journey. That’s £14 return – imagine that every day.

And Cambridge is messy. It has a wealth of history (and actual wealth – buying a house involves mortgaging your grandkids), a mash of touristy rubbish, places aimed at students on a budget, and others aimed at the rich kids shoehorned in from Eton. It’s a transient home to students, and is also plagued by a swathe of strangely dressed middle-class posers who worship the eco-warrior slash primary school teacher aesthetic. 

As soon as you jump off the park and ride bus, signs proudly boast that there are 8 museums within walking distance. Most notable of which is the Fitzwilliam Museum, followed by the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, The University Museum of Zoology and The Kettle’s Yard.

I love looking at the art in the Fitzwilliam – I could happily spend most of the day there – wandering the aisles. My rule for museums is always: take away three things. This usually means, remembering three weird items on display, and making sure I learn three things that will enrich my understanding of life. To take away any more is far too laborious.

Anyway, me and a friend decided to spontaneously visit Cambridge last week, hence this post. We are Peterborough natives and we were bored. So why not Cambridge? We walked around the old colleges, admired the architecture, watched the punting on the river Cams under the Mathematician’s bridge, and walked through the park towards the MillWorks where we ordered up one of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever had. After another amble around, I had my first Pho at Pho. And yes it’s a chain, but I still had a lovely meal andI tasted a lot of new thing. The noodle broth is served with bean sprouts, coriander, mint, culantro, lime, Thai basil, and a chilli shrimp paste. The idea being you luxuriate the herbs in the broth at different intervals to reveal different sides to the dish as you go along. I enjoyed this theatrical approach to eating. I even had a go at using the oversized ladle! Although, I reckon after that I’ll go back to the spoon. 

Then I went book browsing in one of the lushest book stores I’ve ever seen – floor upon floor of books, shelves to the ceiling – did I ever mention I loved books? I had a member of  staff hunting around for an obscure out of print book about Licoricia of Winchester (to no avail) and then covetously browsed books on Edward I and II – which may just be one of my favourite episodes in medieval history. I kind of messed up the shelves a little bit on account of being too short to put the books back on the top shelf and then I mused about writing a work of fiction based on the life of Edward I. I’m still quite interested in the idea – but realistically I don’t think I’m the right person at the right time to write it. Never the less, the thought left me somewhat buoyant.

As evening set in, the light turned golden and we decided that one last coffee was in order, so we stopped at Fitzbillies on Bridge Street. I ordered up a latte and a ‘Duke of Cambridge’ which isn’t a euphemism, but a type of delicious chocolate biscuit (favoured by the Duke himself, apparently). I don’t know if that’s true – but, to be honest, I don’t see anyone not loving that calorific chocolatey creation. I’m craving one now just thinking about it. Then we strolled a few meters up to the bus stop and made our way back to the other city in Cambridgeshire, the bigger, but completely un-famous, Peterborough.


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