November 20, 2004

Off to Cambridge

I discovered a while back that there's no good way to get to Cambridge from the West Midlands by train or bus — it's not really very far, but since all the transit routes seem to go out and back from London, it would take hours. Thankfully, the International Office had arranged a day trip for us foreign students, and so last Saturday, at the bus stop on Victoria Avenue, Kerry and I stumbled out into a cold but brilliantly clear morning. Blinking in the sunlight, we wound our way through town, and found ourselves on Kings Parade, struck by the white Georgian splendor of Senate House, and the green courtyard lawns spread out behind the arches and gates of various colleges.

We went into the famous King's College Chapel, and were mesmerized by what we saw — the grace and intricacy of the fan-vaulted ceiling, and the flood of colored light pouring through the 16th-century stained glass. It's not huge, but it's as splendid and inspiring as anyplace we've been. We lingered for a long time just looking up and around.

We stopped for a quick lunch at a sandwich place, and stepped back out only to find the shadows now lengthening. We hurried down Regent Street to find a place Kerry had wanted us to see — the small museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute, which was hosting a unique display of items from Sir Robert Shackleton's Antarctic voyages. We saw pages from Shackleton's diary from the expedition on board the Endurance, written in 1915 while the trapped ship was being crushed in the pack ice. We also saw the pocket watch and chronometer he used on his open-boat journey across the sea, with two crewmen, to South Georgia Island, where they found help (after crossing the uncharted width of the mountainous island). We decided to stop complaining about the brisk day outside.

We then doubled back toward King's College and its ancient collegiate neighbors, crossing over the River Cam and approaching the college from "the Backs," just in time to snap a few more pictures in the dying afternoon light. It's a lovely scene along the Backs, with peaceful lawns and lush gardens, and punters steering tourists in small boats under the bridges. If Oxford had impressed me as being like an academic Valhalla, this was the Elysian Fields.

Trying not to look too much like slack-jawed gawkers, we strolled through the stately courtyards of Clare and Trinity Colleges. We pulled out the digital camera a few more times, but the results were increasingly dubious. (Happily, the upper floors of the Trinity College tower weren't being vaporized while I stood by. It's just the magic of accidental SFX.)

We ended up at St. John's College, becoming lost in a maze of gloomy courtyards. Then we emerged back onto the river, and crossed over Cambridge's own version of the "Bridge of Sighs." Kerry found us a decent vantage point nearby.

Kerry stayed to hear part of an orchestral concert rehearsal at the chapel at St. John's, while I made a quick trip back down Kings Parade to see the Cambridge University Press bookshop (a distinguished-looking inventory, but no bargain books) and a much-too-quick visit to the galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which will occupy us for several days whenever we can come back. But with night falling over this fine university town, we had to rejoin our fellow international students on the bus. We did at least treat ourselves to some delicious crepes from a stand on Sidney Street before saying farewell.

I can't resist telling you about our tour bus: The dashboard, and the rest of the area around the driver's compartment and above the toilet, were all decked out in plastic Christmas regalia. There was plenty of holly, some candy canes, and a small reindeer herd. Our driver explained to us all that he had spent the previous day driving a party of OAP's (old age pensioners) on a holiday tour. He hoped we didn't mind the decorations — they were there for "the old dears." We smiled, and heard no objections.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Waw…

    20 Nov 2004, 02:18

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