Don't Walk on the Grass

Trip Start Sep 07, 2010
Trip End Aug 21, 2011

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Saturday, March 26, 2011

One of my fellow classmates, Fran, attended the world renowned Cambridge University for her undergraduate degree before coming to LSHTM, so she offered to take me on a personal tour of the town, campus, and colleges with VIP access to everything.

The town of Cambridge itself is "small" by UK standards with about 130,000 people. The colleges that make up the university are scattered throughout the town seamlessly.  Colleges at Cambridge are a bit unique and they are mostly a place where students socialize, eat, and sleep (and also attend church).  The college that you are allocated into in no way reflects the degree you have chosen, and when you apply to Cambridge University you apply to a specific college itself rather than the university.  In addition, the university existed before the colleges that now make up the university, and, according to Fran, the schedule of classes are generally remained the same for centuries.  When new classes are created, they simple add them on at the end, meaning that weekend classes are highly likely for you if you attend Cambridge.  However, there is no actual University in itself because the colleges are the university.

Arriving in Cambridge in a bit of a let down at first due to the unfortunate position of the train station which just happens to be located in a rough part of the town.  However, it doesn't take long before you’re walking amongst the 15th and 16th century colleges.  The first college we went to was St. Catherine’s College (where Fran attended) founded in 1473.  As with most of the older colleges that comprise Cambridge, the front gates open to a grassy courtyard surrounded on three sides by one of the college’s oldest buildings.  Stretching out from the sides of this building were more recent additions (though still centuries old).  That being said, a “popular” trend among the colleges is an ugly new set of dormitories dating from the 1960’s wedged between the beautiful old buildings that were originally built for the college.  A lot of these newer buildings are hidden behind the older ones and are almost exclusively reserved for 1st year students.

It is probably best to mention now that the grass in the colleges is strictly forbidden from being walked on.  The grass is spotless and immaculate with perfect lines from the mower running across it which makes it quite inviting; however, expect trouble if you do walk on it.  It is only acceptable for students to walk on the grass on graduation day, and, as a matter of fact, some students were graduating the day I went to visit.  These lucky students rushed out onto the cushion of long forbidden grass with glee while their parents and relatives look on in envy.

Near St. Catz College is a new structure that is part of Corpus Christi College, called the Corpus Clock.  This complicated and expensive item ticks away behind a class screen at street level, counting down the passage of time in a rather unique way.  The description and meaning behind the clock is a bit extensive and open to interpretation, but basically the clock itself lights the time with futuristic blue lines while a creepy looking metal insect perched on top eats up the seconds as they pass.  The clock is the brainchild of John C. Taylor who refers to this creature as the Chronophage (so, time eating).  Furthermore, the clock is only accurate once every five minutes to reflect the irregularity of life.  This means that the seconds seem to slow and then suddenly speed up.  Check out the video below to see the clock in action.

King’s College, founded in 1441 by King Henry VI, was our next top and is probably the most well known college in Cambridge.  Notably, King’s College has a very large chapel associated with it built in gorgeous Gothic English architectural style.  Behind the college is an area known as the Backs, known as this because this area runs along the backs of several colleges.  Through the Backs runs the River Cam where people love to go “punting” which is essentially drifting down the river using a large pole to push off the riverbed and steer.  This is apparently much more complicated than it sounds, and Fran and I witnessed many people who decided to punt themselves along the river going in circles and running aground.  Most people pay for professional punters to relaxingly guide them up and down the river.

Queen’s College is a bit famous because of a little bridge known as Mathematical Bridge.  The story behind the bridge is that Isaac Newton (notable Cambridge alum) constructed it without the use of any bolts or hinges, the bridge supporting itself.  The bridge has these items today because the student’s, in their curiosity, dismantled the bridge to understand how the bridge worked and were unable to successfully put it back together.  In reality, however, the original bridge was built after Newton died (and designed by someone else entirely) and always had bolts and hinges on it.  That fact doesn’t stop the rumor from spreading though because as we stood on the bridge, we heard a punting tour guide telling the exact untrue story to the tourists.

After touring many of the oldest colleges in Cambridge, I wanted to head a bit out of town to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, one of two in England memorializing WWII.  It was a good trek out to the cemetery but well worth the walk.  Almost 4,000 men are buried at the site alongside the names of just over 5,000 missing servicemen carved into the Wall of the Missing.  There is also a small chapel lined with the state seals and mosaics of angels, and a memorial depicting the strategic aerial and sea assault upon the shores of Northwest Europe.

Overall, Cambridge the town and university collectively are a spectacular little place that has allowed for many of England’s contributions to the world of science, philosophy, and art.  All of the colleges are beautiful (except maybe some of the new ones built farther out of city center in the late 1900’s), and the town itself is wall-to-wall shops and cafes.  Cambridge is definitely a gem among English towns and worth a good visit.

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