A short break in Cambridge

It was interesting to see the article in the Observer this morning about Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, as we’d just returned home after a short break of a couple of days in the city where we’d visited the exhibition.

We travelled down on the train last Wednesday and for a while during the journey thought we might not get there. The country was being battered with strong winds for the first few days of the New Year and the train to London was running 30 minutes late due to problems with the power lines in Cumbria when it finally arrived at Wigan. We lost some more time during the journey due to the weather conditions and then when we reached Rugby, less than an hour from London, the train ground to a halt. After a short while there was an announcement over the intercom telling us why we’d stopped. We were told that there had been a fatality on the line ahead of us at Leighton Buzzard and we were likely to be stuck for some time. I had visions of being stranded for three or four hours – no trains were moving either north or south on the main line. Some passengers even made the decision to abandon their journey and head back north via Birmingham taking a local service that wasn’t affected by the incident. However, we got moving after only an hour as the train was diverted onto a slower line so it could get past the location where the incident occurred. We finally arrived in London Euston two hours late.

There was chaos at the station as train movements on the West Coast main line had been badly disrupted. But there was no point being annoyed. It wasn’t the fault of the train operators and it has to be said the effect on travellers was a minor inconvenience compared that on the family of the person who was killed./p pA short walk took us to Kings Cross were we caught an express train to Cambridge – only 45 minutes journey.

We stopped in quite a fancy Boutique hotel – the “Hotel du Vin”, which was very conveniently located almost opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. It wasn’t cheap, but accommodation in the city centre is generally expensive. There are plenty of places to eat and drink with restaurants, cafes and pubs which serve food.

We’d originally hoped to visit a museum or college during Thursday afternoon but our late arrival around 4 o’clock meant it was getting close to closing time. So after checking into our hotel we decided on taking a walk around the town. Being January it went dark before 5 o’clock and it seemed like it was really late as we explored the town.

I’d been to Cambridge before a few times when I was working away and staying in Letchworth which is only a relatively short drive or train journey from the city, but this was the first time I’d been able to spend more than a few hours there.

Having spent a few days in Oxford last June, it was interesting to be able to compare the two University towns. Cambridge is the smaller of the two and was more intimate. It felt more medieval – all the streets in the city centre were narrow and winding and were largely traffic free making it easy to explore – the main hazard was the bicycles which appeared silently and many of the cyclists didn’t seem to give way to pedestrians. We even saw a collision between two cyclist – an elderly man and a younger woman – and the man got a little abusive toward the woman, blaming her for the accident – an example of two wheeled road rage.

As with Oxford the town is dominated by the Colleges. There are 31 of them, most of them with a long history. Each College is an independent institution with its own property and income, and some of them are extremely wealthy. The Colleges appoint their own staff and are responsible for selecting students with teaching shared between the Colleges and University departments./p pThe town centre with its market square and main shopping streets, is surrounded by the colleges which are closed in behind their walls. In most cases it’s only possible to peer inside through a small gate, when it’s open, to get a glimpse of the privileged world inside.

The exception is Kings College where the massive Chapel and main college building dominate Kings Parade, one of the main thoroughfares in the town centre.

Most of the colleges open to the public for several hours most days for a modest entry fee (in some cases entry is free) although there is only limited access to the grounds and buildings.

The architecture is impressive in a range of styles – gothic and neo-classical and a large number of buildings from the Tudor period in the older colleges such as St John’s, Trinity and Queens. There aren’t many Tudor style buildings in the north of England so I was particularly keen to have a look at these. Many of the colleges have buildings from a number of periods, constructed as they expanded and “modernised”

One of the most picturesque parts of the town is “the Backs” – a section of the River Cam between the Magdalene Street bridge in the north and the Silver Street bridge in the south where several Colleges#160; back on to the river. The banks are owned by the colleges and access is restricted. It would be pleasant to walk along the river here. Access to some sections can be gained during college visits but a full promenade along the Backs isn’t possible. However visitors can take a trip along the river on a punt – either by hiring one (for the brave only!) or by buying a ticket for one of the “a “chauffeured tours“.

We were lucky with the weather. After the wild conditions earlier in the week we woke on Friday morning to a clear blue sky (although it clouded over later during the afternoon). It was relatively mild for the time of the year too with very little wind. So it made for good sightseeing conditions.

Being early January there were very few students around. Cambridge undergraduates have a long Christmas break finishing early December and not returning until late January. I was surprised at the number of tourists. Despite being out of season there were a few around besides ourselves, but despite this the town was fairly quiet making it pleasant to wander around the streets and colleges. The galleries we visited were another matter. The “Vermeer’s women” exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum was absolutely packed.

There was plenty for us to see during our short visit. We visited a number of colleges, the Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle’s Yard. I’d have liked to have looked at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science and the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute, but time didn’t allow. I guess we’ll have to add Cambridge to the list of places we’d like to re-visit.

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