“They say the sky is the same everywhere […] But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, li-ghter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?”
Of all the cities I’ve visited, Cambridge is still one of my favourites, and a place very close to my heart. Its colleges, its trees, going punting in river Cam, the orchards, the sheep, the libraries, the bikes, the markets— Cambridge is just as soothing as it is inspiring for any fellow lover of literature or art. Its streets and alleyways are poetic in themselves; bricks and chimneys on one side, monumental gothic structures on the other.
Cambridge is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the University of Cambridge was founded in 1209. The University includes 31 colleges with different buildings all over the city: King’s College, Queen’s College, St. John’s College, Trinity College and Clare College among them.
The city is both vibrant and mysterious, full of life and yet strangely whimsical. It seems to go back in time a century every morning, with its traditional cafés and shops, its stone streets, old willows and wooden bridges—and then to come back to the present at night, its main streets filled with music and laughter, kebab places, international students everywhere. Some people say Cambridge is very similar to Oxford, both very old university towns, both undoubtedly pretty — but I think there are some things you can only see and feel in Cambridge.
Having been before in many cities that became books, I was amazed to see in Cambridge a book made into a city. Although perhaps it was just a city that made me feel I was in a book. Thomas Hardy said about Cambridge, “What institution is more majestic than Trinity College? […] There are towers and battlements and statues, and beside these things there are cloisters and gardens and bridges”. And certainly, towers, turrets, battlements and green extensions of grass compose the landscape surrounding river Cam. The cobbled streets almost always shine under the rain, and the yellow reflections of the street lamps and the chapels baths almost every building in its glow, even in the mist.
The heart of the city seems to be King’s College Chapel, gathering all the light around itself. A few blocks away, buried in bikes tied to every surface, there is The Eagle, the famous pub where Crick and Watson discovered the DNA structure in 1953. The whole city guardes important memories for knowledge and science; it was here where Stephen Hawking studied, worked and wrote his most important theories on relativity and the cosmos. And it is not hard to imagine it, with the amount of unkempt students that wander about the pubs, or that spend hours in Costa with no more company than a laptop and a pile of papers.
Cambridge is a good place to look around. People watching here turns almost always into a contemplative experience. The people, the tea rooms with fogged windows that cast an eerie glow on the street, the yellowish grey of the buildings, brick by brick, only interrupted by the sudden green of the trees and the grass. Every few streets there is a park, wide extensions of grass maintained in a perfect balance between neglect and artifice, or some shrubbery with eternally damp little flowers, trees that seem older than the colleges.
The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, being the fourth oldest university in the world. In its many colleges studied some of the most brilliant minds, like Newton, Darwin, Hausman, Keynes, Stern, Thackeray, E.M. Forster, Nabokob, Malcolm Lowrt, Sylvia Plath and Terry Eagleton. Many times, specially when punting, I wondered about what it must feel like to study in a university like this— are there any vestiges, any aura or atmosphere, around places where art has happened, where so much poetry has been written? There must be. However, the whole city seemed submerged in this kind of atmosphere for me, a timeless bubble where people were safe to contemplate and write and learn.
Not far from the centre, 20 or 30 minutes by bike, there is a place called The Orchard. It is a little cabin with outside seating where they bake the best scones in England. There, it is said, between apple trees and tall grass, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster sat to write. And it is hard to think of a better place to write, although Cambridge is full of them: riverside cafés, underground coffee shops, little tea rooms in every corner, giant trees perfect for reclining, comfortable benches in front of beautiful buildings, semi deserted pubs with thick wooden tables and huge chimneys.
Much of the time I spent in Cambridge, I spent in places like that. The rest of the time I was probably around Market Square. Old Market Square, where dozens of stands appeared every morning; fish, fruits, baked potatoes, kebabs and, above all, second-hand books. Two big stands had my attention, offering treasures buried beneath hundreds of best-sellers and paperbacks of all kinds. This is where my Agatha Christie collection started. Before, I had read Sparkling Cyanide and so the first book I bought in Cambridge was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where I met Hercule Poirot. Later I bought At Bertrams Hotel, where I found the best detective of all times, Miss Marple. Almost every week I would buy a paperback for one pound, which resulted in tremendous difficulties when going back to Mexico.
Apart from my Christies, in Market Square I found a beautiful edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass from 1971. A beautiful brown book with golden letters on its back and yellow pages. Later I also found a sixties edition of The Italian, a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, basically unknown now but very famous in its time, a red book with its title almost unintelligible. Radcliffe is one of the authors mention in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, one of the books I read before arriving in Cambridge. Some weeks after finding The Italian among piles of old Grisham’s novels, I decided to look for The Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel which Austen’s heroine reads. I spent many months hunting for it among second-hands books, and I finally found it in Waterstones, a new Penguin edition, around a thousand pages long in tiny letters. This literary founding only increased my love for both the city and literature, so much I decided to get my degree on literature. Some other loves were also found, among them afternoon tea with lemon and milk, Chelsea buns and cycling.
Because Cambridge is a city to cycle. The place where I lived was about two miles away from King’s Parade, where I went almost every day, so a bike seemed to me the best transport. The city centre is completely covered in parked bikes and the number of cyclist is by far bigger than that of the car drivers, two facts that make me think of Cambridge with nostalgia now that I live in Mexico City. And having a bike there was a good idea… until November, where I started reconsidering after falling a couple of times due to the frozen streets. But my budget would not allow other types of transport, so reconsideration didn’t last long. I have always thought one can get used to anything, from two pairs of socks (the second over my jeans to avoid trapping in the wheels), to carrying a chain and lock and remembering where among that vast sea of bikes I had parked mine.
Still now I remember what it felt like to ride a bike from Parkers Piece to Hills Road, then through Cherry Hinton Road and Coleridge Road… even when much time passed until I knew who Coleridge was and how important his poetry would be for me. Much time passed, too, until I had to say goodbye to that grey bike that kept me company and whose little front basket carried my books so many times.
Have you been to Cambridge?
What do you think of it?