I spend two days visiting Cambridge, the famous university town. Cambridge is one of the oldest surviving academic institutions in the world, and all modern universities can trace their roots to here. I am joined in Cambridge by my friend Pingtao, the same guy who treated me to Chinese hotpot while I was in Shanghai.
Punting on the River Cam
Every tourist destination has an iconic activity, and in Cambridge, that activity is boating on the River Cam. Not just any boat ride, mind you. To do it in proper Cambridge fashion, one must take a punt.
Now, call me ignorant, but I had never heard of this particular type of boating before. I know you can kayak down the Ottawa River. I know about the gondolas in Venice. I know about paddlewheel boats on the Mississippi. But what is a punt?
A punt is a long and narrow flat-bottomed boat with square ends, a sort of hybrid between a barge and a canoe. One propels oneself by standing on a platform on the back and pushing off the bottom of the river using a long pole. The word “punt” is fun to use. Examples of its proper usage as a noun are: “Climb in that there punt,” or, ”I’ll bring ten cases of beer to Sir Terrance’s party in the punt.” But that’s not all! Punting is also an action. Proper usage of “punt” as a verb could be, for example, “That dreadful incident with Lord Wimblemere gave poor mother quite a fright, so I took her out for a punt to restore her constitution. What impropriety!” or, “Alex lost his balance and fell in the river while punting.”
Pingtao, Alan and I elect to rent our own 4-person punt, a runt of a punt, rather than hire a professional punter to take us punting in a large 12-person punt. My lack of training, experience, balance, or natural physical ability is a personal punt affront to the professional punters, particularly given the preponderance of non-professional punters perambulating past the parks and peristyles on this particular day.
Pingtao, Alan, and I each take a turn maneuvering the punt along the Cam. It’s a relaxing and gentlemanly way to spend the afternoon. I can imagine Horace and Bernice, my old English couple friends from the cargo ship, bird-watching binoculars in hand, hunting for bunting while punting.
We pole past the back lawns of several famous Cambridge colleges, including Trinity and King’s. It’s difficult to keep the punt pointed in one direction, and we often collide with other boats. Nobody seems to mind much though, and everyone just laughs—this same scene has repeated itself on fair weekends for hundreds of years.
It’s Pimms o’clock
After an exhausting 90 minutes of punting, we decide to seek refreshment. Like in London, it’s OK to buy a beer in a pub and then take it outside, so we each buy a Pimms and Lemonade and head for the lawn. As we stroll along the riverbank, I notice a punt full of students drifting on the river. It’s decked out with a patio umbrella and a Styrofoam box full of bottles. A cardboard sign advertises beer and Pimms for sale. It’s a makeshift floating pub!
After a few minutes of strolling, we find ourselves in a surprisingly rural setting. Knarled old trees drape their arms over the Cam, and cows chew the cud in a field nearby. The ground is damp and loamy. I get the impression that nothing much has changed here in a long time.
Final exams are taking place this month, so it’s not permitted to explore the various academic colleges in the interest of preserving peace for the students. King’s College Chapel is open to the public, though, so Pingtao and I decide to attend the Evensong service. It’s a pageant of high Anglican ritual, with a level of ceremony similar to a Catholic service. Not being well versed in Christian services myself, I find it confusing to follow, but thankfully the church provides laminated cards outlining what is happening, so even the most ignorant pagan can follow along. Most of the service is conducted in song; the chaplain drones question, and the Choir of King’s College chants a response. Sometimes (and this is what the audience is here for), their voices rise in a heavenly crescendo and the choir sings a longer song, filling the vaults with rapturous harmony.
More impressive than the Evensong ceremony is the King’s College Chapel itself. The chapel is enormous, rivaling the size of a cathedral. The complex ribbed vaulting, built using the most cutting-edge architectural techniques of the day, is still wondrous to behold, 500 years after its construction. The stained glass windows are nothing short of magnificent. Along each wall are seats reserved for fellows of the college and other important people. We sit in folding chairs to one side.
After we leave the chapel, I marvel at the history and significance of it all. Great forces of religion, monarchy, and education all converge in this one spot. I am convinced that institutions such as Cambridge are among the most significant achievements in humanity. I wonder what it will be like in another 500 years?
Don’t mess with tradition
Pingtao and I rent a room for the night in an old manor house about 40 minutes walk from the center of the university. The house is constructed of brick, and it sprawls across a mangled floor plan reflecting centuries of additions and modifications. Chimneys sprout from the moss-stained roof like toadstools, and vines climb up the side. There are two staircases and, purportedly, a secret passage. The rooms are cluttered with a wide variety of historical and academic detritus, and every room has a bookcase filled with literature and paperwork according to no particular organizational scheme. On every surface there are stacks of academic papers, many with hand-written notes in red pen scrawled on their covers. The furniture is incongruous: in one corner might be an elegant Louis XVI roll top secretary desk, and in the other, an IKEA futon bed. The flooring is different in every room: hardwood, tile, wall-to-wall carpeting, Persian rugs, Moroccan kilims.
Our host is an eccentric older lady who looks like she might have emerged from one of the dusty paintings that hang on the house’s papered walls. Her husband teaches at Cambridge, and the house reflects the mindset of an aloof professor. When we arrive, our host kindly offers us a cup of tea before showing us our room. “I hope you don’t mind if I don’t use a teapot,” she says as she alternates dunking the teabag in two mugs, dripping tea on the counter. Apparently teapots are considered posh in England, and are therefore avoided by everyday folk, or those who wish to appear so.
The next morning our host surprises us with a home-cooked breakfast. “How would you like your eggs?” she asks. Before I can answer, she interjects: “I don’t do soft-boiled. Or poached. Is fried OK? I’ll do fried.” She talks continuously for the next 10 minutes, not waiting for, or interested in, a response from us. “You must try the marmalade. It’s famous, and from here, you know? It’s by Royal Warrant. Aren’t you going to eat cereal? Would you like some coffee or tea? I don’t know how to make coffee, so don’t ask. Oh, you work at a seed laboratory, do you? Marvelous things, seeds. You just missed the botanical garden seed swap. Did you go to the Fitzwilliam Museum? You really must…” and so on.
Pingtao and I manage to extract ourselves from breakfast, say goodbye to our host, and then walk to (why not?) the Fitzwilliam Museum.
For our final few hours in Cambridge, we explore two of Cambridge’s major collections: the botanical sort planted in the botanical gardens, and the historical stuff on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
The botanical gardens are extensive and relaxing, but not particularly interesting to a non-specialist. The best part is the series of greenhouses that showcase living collections from different biospheres. Within a few minutes, it’s possible to visit the desert, a remote Pacific island, a tropical rainforest, and an alpine meadow.
The Fitzwilliam Museum, on the other hand, I fall in love with. It showcases Cambridge’s vast collection of art and historical artifacts. One room is filled with medieval weapons and suits of armor. In another is a display of great works of art, including some on-loan bronzes attributed to Michelangelo. One room has a collection of works by Degas, although they’re displayed with so little ceremony that they are easy to miss.
In one magnificent room upstairs normally used to display British paintings, a woman gives a free recital…on the harp. After playing a short piece on the smaller of two harps, she chuckles haughtily and asks whether the audience was amused by her droll choice of playing the piece on the small harp, when the larger harp would have been the obvious choice. The audience titters knowingly. I realize then that the highbrow world of Cambridge is beyond my comprehension. Pingtao and I go our separate ways, he back to his seed laboratory in Norwich, and I back to London.