Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Impressions of Cambridge

Punting. A great cliché of the great historic universities, but well worth experiencing. In any normal city, the historic buildings and gardens lining a river would be called “the Riverfront”. Naturally, with Cambridge’s usual flair for logic – a city where porters do not carry your luggage, and “bedmakers” do not necessarily make your bed - these are “the Backs”. The best way to see them is from a punt, which I managed on a free college punting tour last week.

Despite a spattering of rain, a cold wind and an iron-clad certainty that even as a seated passenger I would surely end up in the water, it was amazing: simply the only way to appreciate some of the prettiest views of Cambridge, and the sheer grandeur of some of the larger colleges.

And the ducks. (Note: no hands overboard, please, they will expect them to be full of food and bite.) The guy from college actually doing the punting had rescued some abandoned ducklings the previous year. Most grew up and flew off, but one has chosen to stay. He was speculating about luring a drake home to be its mate. Ah, the wisdom of theology students.

Colleges. King’s is vast, imposing, a little more Gothic than it should be and right next door to Trinity Hall. Encroaching, even. Erected to salve Henry VIII’s conscience about being pretty damn rude to the Pope in the sixteenth century, it’s exterior was last cleaned sometime in the early nineteenth, evidently well-before the end of wood-fired heating in Cambridge. King’s was also erected as part of Hank 8’s campaign to found numerous colleges and grab land from poor little Trinity Hall, which lost land to both Kings on one side and Trinity College on the other.

King’s forecourt looks like the vast outline of a half-finished cathedral, complete with exterior walls filled with “cut out” stained glass windows, with all the bars and none of the glass. This is apparently much what it is: the vast “chapel” was meant to be even vaster, but someone ran out of money. One occasionally sees Kings’ students, breaking into the sunlight with something of the mystified air of Titus Groan on realising a world existed beyond Gormenghast.

Down and out in Cambridge. I live out on Mill Road, one of the busy thoroughfares (ie it runs in a straight line and is wide enough for tow lanes of traffic and parking on both sides, so it is perpetually choked with people attempting to avoid the narrow side-streets) and local traders seem very concerned with drunks loitering around making people feel threatened.

It’s sure as Hell not Newtown, but it is a bit weird to see people by noon with larger cans sitting in front of the old Bath House getting slowly wasted. The big plus is that they’ve well and truly cleared out by the late evening, so walking home alone after 10 feels safer than just after dusk.

Still, the worst I’ve gotten is hassled for change. (“No look, we’re not winding you up we just need a pound to get into this club, right?” Uh, wrong. I may be new, but I’m pretty confident there’s no clubbing just off Mill Road, only terrace housing.)

There’s also a lot of the homeless - and begging, some of it relatively aggressive, some of it mopingly forlorn – in the city centre. The tourist population acts as something of a magnet, and the area is pretty well divided among various big issue vendors.

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