Sunday, August 26, 2012


25 August, Saturday

Demetrios says that, having lived 7 years in Cambridge, he gets to missing it every once in a while.  So, although we went there two years ago, we came back again. 

Of course we made the same mistake as last time, coming on the August Bank Holiday weekend, every highway and hotel crowded.  Next year we shall take careful note of all bank holidays. 

This year at least we are better drivers than before and we do have maps this trip.  Things are improving.  Gradually, as you shall hear.

We also had the sense this time to book our hotel in advance; we got a good deal on the Arundel House Hotel, right on the River Cam and less than a 10-minute walk to the town center.  It's fully modern but with traditional, cozy decor and unusually comfortable beds.  You sink in, yet get good support under all the softness.  We can certainly  recommend this hotel! 

We came first to Clare College, where I asked the portress to explain to me how the various colleges related to the University.  Turns out each college is an independent unit, both academically and administratively.  Their subjects overlap, and each is in competition with the others for the best faculty, students, etc., etc.  ("The richest is Trinity College," she said, "by far.  I know because I worked there twenty years.")  There is no actual entity called "Cambridge University"; it's just a name for all the colleges collectively.

We had a good look at Magdalen College; see a host of images here.  It's medieval and gorgeous.  We struck up a great conversation with the porter, and he ended up giving us an insider's tour.  We got to see a room I suppose I'd call the faculty lounge, but a place where the fellows can meet and relax by the fire and chat over their tea.  It was built by the monks who founded and built the college.  The contruction inside is of timber, with hardened clay in between the posts.  The monks appear to have taken sticks to the wet clay and drawn simple designs in it.  Simple designs, but repeated over and over again with a tiling effect, they give the overall impression of being very complex. 

The most interesting part of the room is the old garderobe, in the leaflet called a pissoir .  It's a recess in the wall that hangs out over the River Cam, and it had a hole such that whatever was put into it dropped into the River and was carried away.  (The hole has since been closed up with masonry.)

On the porter's recommendation, we went into the Pepys Library.  Samuel Pepys (pronouned "Peeps", in case you have forgotten, high school having been quite long ago) donated his library to the college.  It contains all his books and only his, he having forbidden any others to be added.  They are stored in bookcases he himself designed, and an interesting thing about them is that they were among the first to store books upright.  Before that, books were usually stored lying flat.  These were among the first uses of glass in book storage.

For aesthetical reasons, Pepys wanted his books arranged according to height, so the books on any given shelf were of similar height, instead of being arranged by subject.  This of course meant books on any given subject might be scattered among several cases, which in turn necessitated a careful catalogue.  Pepys was a pioneer in the cataloging of books.

And what books!  They are bound in tooled leather, tooled in gilt, of course.  Pepys was the embodiment of the man of encyclopedic knowledge, interested in virtually everything.  There is a compendium of all the cargoes aboard the Spanish Armada.  There are fantastic illuminated manuscripts. There is a book containing a signature of Sir Francis Drake on the fly leaf.  And my own favorite, a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica!  Looks whose imprimatur is on it.  And of course there are his famous diaries, the ones you studied excerpts from in school.

In the chapel of Magdalene College, there are several copies of the Book of Common Prayer (a rarity in iteself) laid out in the choir, and their publications dates, as we found out by opening them, were all inthe early 1700s!

After lunch, we walked around and Demetrios had a wonderful time finding a shop where he once bought a tie, a pub where he once had a drink, a book shop from which he had once bought a book.  "It's sort of healing, in a way," he said.  

In the big bookstore, Demetrios asked about a book he'd been wanting for years.  The man with the computer at the information desk said it was out of print and thus impossible to get.  We had a look, though, at the books being sold in the open-air market, and wonder of wonders, there was the very book, staring up at us!

While we were standing in the bookseller's tented stall, quite suddenly we had the hardest rain I've ever seen except for the time we were in a tornado - or were very close to the tornado, at any rate.  I've never seen any such rain in England, complete with lightning, thunder, and hail bigger than peas.  We remembered what the weather man had advised the night before on the television:  "If we approach the weekend realistically rather than optimistically, we shall not be disappointed."  !!!

However, what they say here is true:  if you don't like the weather, wait half an hour.  So we did and the beautiful day, so violently interrupted, resumed.   We watched some people punting in the river, exactly as gondoliers do in Venice.

When we were tired from walking, we switched to driving.  We drove out to the Air Force base at Lakenheath.  Demetrios used to practice neurology (his other specialty) in the hospital there.  It's an American base, although ostensibly still English.  Instead of being called AFB Lakenheath, it's RAF Lakenheath.  It's about a half-hour's drive from Cambridge. 

Of course they didn't let us in.   There was another case of needing to be realistic instead of optimistic.  We're living in the post-9/11 world.  But it was worth a try.  We didn't see any of the fighter jets, either.  We heard several of them taking off.

We ate supper at a pub Demetrios remembered, near the base, the Olde Bull Inn.  It has since become a very posh and place.  Despite its price, the food has nothing special to recommend it, although there wasn't anything wrong with it, either.  There was a wedding party in progress.  The little ring bearer, who immediately ran up to inspect me, was wearing a fancy shirt and shiny vest above his nappies and bare feet.  The bridesmaids were lovely in their rose gowns.  The bride was a large woman with dark hair worn up.  She was wrapped in layers upon layers upon layers of white, enough to have accomodated her plus a Volkswagen without anyone even noticing, and sporting a stylish tattoo on her shoulder.  She came up to the bar and, leaning on it with one elbow and placing the other hand on her hip, began loudly conversing with some of the other patrons standing nearby.  We never saw the groom.

Coming back to Cambridge, we became confused and, well, let's just say that in the very long process of finding our way, we met a perfectly lovely English couple who live in Hong Kong but, like us, summer here.  Together with the owner of a Chinese restaurant (long story), they helped us with directions and thanks to them we arrived safely back at our hotel.  I think we owe the Chinaman to patronize his restaurant while we are here.  (Theoretically we can find it by simply following his map in reverse.)  Such kind people, all, and they were free with their sympathy, too, along with their help.


Matushka Anna said...

This sounds like such fun!!

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