A flying visit to Cambridge

We arrived in Cambridge in the early afternoon, later than we would have liked. In November, days are short so we’d have only a few hours of daylight to see the sights. We hadn’t planned the visit very carefully.

King's College in the background
King’s College in the background

We parked on Queen’s Road, a narrow, tree-lined street behind some of the colleges.

“We seem to be where the colleges are. Let’s go have a look.”

“Wait. I’m hungry. I thought we’d have lunch first and then go sightseeing.”

“I’m not hungry. Besides, I don’t know this place.”

“I don’t either but we can ask for directions!”- My stomach punctuated this statement with a loud roar.

In the end, we decided to carpe diem and visit King’s and Clare Colleges since we were parked just outside. We crossed some fields called The Backs towards the River Cam and crossed the Clare Bridge. A few visitors were admiring the autumnal colours and watching the punters glide past. Traffic on the river was pretty heavy. At the other side of the stone bridge, the eye wandered to the Scholar’s Gardens, quintessentially English.

A lull in the punter traffic on the River Cam
A lull in the punter traffic on the River Cam

Clare College was founded in 1326 by Lady Elizabeth de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I (or Edward Longshanks, the “baddie” from the film Braveheart. Hollywood does make for good references if not historical accuracy). Clare is the second oldest college in Cambridge.

The University of Cambridge, which celebrated its 800 anniversary in 2009, is a confederation of schools, faculties, departments and 31 colleges. Students live and attend lessons in each college. Professors teach to small groups in sessions called supervisions.

View of King's College chapel
View of King’s College chapel

Next to Clare is King’s College, which was founded in 1441 by a king, Henry VI, as its names clearly states. I felt the excitement of walking across the courts, past the porter’s lodge and trying to catch a glimpse (the porter caught me red-handed and just smiled,) of breathing in the long history of one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I think I even felt more intelligent just being there!

King’s College Chapel is an amazing example of late Gothic (or decorated) style. Its fan vaulted ceiling is exquisite, as are the medieval stained-glass windows. Somebody was practicing, or maybe tuning, the organ, which added to the atmosphere. Unfortunately for me, there were quite a lot of people for such a narrow chapel, so the experience was somewhat marred.

King's Parade outside King's College
King’s Parade outside King’s College

King’s College is a “green” institution in that they make every effort to improve environmental sustainability. Students can grow their own vegetables in allotments, for example. In the Back Lawn, Rare Breeds are kept to keep the grass short and thus provide growing conditions for wildflowers and herbs. Besides, their poo, ahem, manure, is a cozy environment for insects, part of the food chain also.

By then, we were hungry and thirsty, so we walked to King’s Parade, the main drag. Tea houses, tourist tat shops, churches and colleges compete for your attention. In the street, bikes compete with cars for right of way and parking space. Pedestrians need to be careful when crossing the street; you never know where a cyclist at top speed can come from.

The Cambridge University Press bookshop
The Cambridge University Press bookshop, the longest continuously operating bookshop in England, where books were first sold in the 1580s, according to that round blue sign above the door.

We browsed the stalls at Market Square: organic fruit and veg, crafts, imports, clothes and the delicious smell of freshly made crepes. Street performers entertained visitors.

The sun was setting and the time on the parking meter was running out. King’s College was closed so we couldn’t walk across to our car. We took a detour round the side along Trinity Street. We walked past the Cambridge University Press bookshop. I would have loved to spend a happy hour between the books but there was no time. The CUP logo reminded me of all the English as a foreign language classes I either took or taught back home.

Cows grazing in The Backs
Cows grazing in The Backs
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Ely, a lovely medieval town in Cambridgeshire

As we were getting closer, a few stragglers were scurrying towards the cathedral in the light fall rain. We made it just in time for the 10.30 sung Eucharist at Ely Cathedral. We didn’t plan on it but went with the flow and thought it would be something different to experience.

The magnificence of the nave, with its forest of Gothic columns that rise to the painted ceiling, took our breath away. A lady volunteer handed us a service book. It was Sunday, November 2, All Saints’ Day, according to the church liturgy.

Ely Cathedral, Ely, cambridgeshire
The amazing nave and painted ceiling.

The service was a sung Eucharist. The voices of the cathedral choir and the organ music reverberated in the nave and rose up the columns towards the ceiling and beyond. It brought home to me the notion of elevating a prayer. I understood what medieval architects were trying to achieve with their tall buildings and spires ascending to the heavens. I understood it with my head and not with my heart. I can only imagine how much more effective it must have been in an age when people were more vulnerable.

The lantern
The lantern

During the service, the sun came out briefly and shone through the stained glass windows. Its fleeting magic filled the interior with colour. A religious person might think it was a miracle. I took it as a gift from nature.

There were christenings immediately after the High Church service, so the apse and the crypt were closed to the public. We still were able to see the aisles and the Norman transept from the 11th century (the transverse part across the nave that forms the shape of a Latin cross so typical of medieval churches.) It took such a long time to build a cathedral in the Middle Ages that some parts date from different times and are built in different styles even. Ely is no exception.

Altar and choir
Altar and choir

We stopped to light a candle at the St. George chapel in memory of my husband’s father and grandfathers, who all served in the military. Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day were a few days away, so the chapel was flooded in candlelight and poppy wreaths.

In memory of family members
In memory of family members

Across the street, on the cathedral green, a flock of ducks was eating lunch under a tree. There is a cannon from the Crimea war on the green as well. A plaque remembers some local protestant martyrs who were burned on that same green during Mary Tudor’s reign. It is hard to picture such violent scenes in this tranquil place.

View from the top of the green
View from the top of the green

At the other end of the cathedral green is the Tourist Information Office, which doubles as Oliver Cromwell’s Museum. This house is his only residence, apart from Hampton Court Palace, still extant. I’m not too keen on Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England in the 17th century, because I do not like people who impose their beliefs with violence. And I did not like his museum either. There is not much to see and the admission costs 4 pounds. There are life size figures representing Cromwell and his family in different rooms. One of them is sitting at his desk in his study. It looked up when I came in. I nearly jumped out of my skin, I did not expect that!

Oliver!
Oliver!

We ended our visit to Ely with a delicious cream tea at The Almonry, a 13th century building along the High Street that belonged to the cathedral at one time. Nowadays, it houses offices, a restaurant and flats. The patio looks onto the cathedral gardens. The back of the cathedral is even more imposing than the front.

My cream tea
My cream tea

 

The back of Ely cathedral
The back of Ely cathedral
A lovely 16th century Tudor cottage
A lovely 16th century Tudor cottage

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If you want to know more about Ely Cathedral, click here.
How to get there:
By train from London King’s Cross, Norwich, Cambridge, Midlands and Stansted airport. The station is a ten minute walk from the cathedral.
By car, 20 minutes from Cambridge and 2 hours from London.