01 June 2007

Rising Damp

I was initially planning to call this brief journal entry on my weekend in Cambridge and Ely something like 'The Bridge on the River Cam' - nothing too inventive, but enough to provide a flavour of the place. Instead, I had no choice but to reflect the overwhelmingly dominant feature of the weekend: the rain. This was not just some passing late spring shower or two. No - it rained and rained and rained. It kept going for at least 48 hours. Even on my last day there, when I woke up and looked out the window, I briefly thought it had stopped. But instead of raining, it was spitting. And this spitting was soon replaced with proper rain, just to reinforce the theme. But am I a defeatist, able to be battered down by a vista of permanent lachrymosity? Have I not put up with everything Wellington had to throw at me for seven whole years? Several of which were spent in Karori, where it's even worse than average? Too right I have.

It was a bank holiday weekend, and as luck would have it, I also had a spare day from work, making it a splendid four-day affair. Staying in London for Saturday so as to take in the performance of Called To Account, I took the train up to Cambridge from Liverpool Street station on Sunday. The train eased out through East London brick valleys punctuated with gasometers and barbed-wire ringed electricity substations, and was soon knifing its way through the countryside, rattling and squeaking on its old suspension. It overtook huge banks of slate-grey rainclouds too - an ominous portent.

The YHA is located only a few hundred metres from the railway station, so I checked in right away and dropped my backpack to explore the town. Like Canterbury, which I visited a month or so ago, I've visited Cambridge before - ten years ago - but I remember very little of it, fresh as I was into the world of backpacking in 1997. Now that I'm a hardened old lag, I knew to head straight for the closest, dryest, cheapest attraction. This is the Fitzwilliam Museum, a splendid archaeological collection located in an imposing neo-classical structure slightly to the south of the centre of town. Highlights for me included the collection of Egyptian grave-goods in remarkable condition, like the wicker pot-lid that had been preserved in the bone-dry desert climate for a full five thousand years. And from a later period, there was an example of the impressive innovative spirit of the Roman Army - a well-preserved multi-tool eating utensil from the 3rd century AD, featuring a folding spoon, fork and knife, with not one but two fold-out toothpicks.

Upstairs in the art collections there was an entertaining collection of English and French caricatures from the Revolutionary period in the 1790s, which provided an appealing contrast between the English and French attitudes to the Terror and cross-Channel relations. The English, led by the devastating wit of the leading satirist, Gillray, at first lampooned the French peasant rabble, then grew increasingly strident in their depictions of fearsome sans culottes and toothless revolutionary harridans. The French, on the other hand, enjoyed poking fun at peculiar English habits, such as the foolish passtime of walking carrying gigantic umbrellas, and the curious habit of Englishmen to spend their after-dinner time getting rolling drunk, while English women spent their time sitting together without saying a word. (No Frankish prolixity here)

As luck would have it, St John's College was holding a screening of the English cop comedy film Hot Fuzz, so that evening I was able to saunter through the grand porticos and ivy-fringed quadrangles of the college, crossing the little Cam by the college's own replica (1831) of Venice's Bridge of Sighs. The modern theatre inside the college boasted its own guardian black cat who asked me politely to open a door that proved to be locked. I got a miffed catty stare for my efforts. The film itself was reasonably entertaining, but the jokes didn't live up to the quality of those in its predecessor, Shaun of the Dead.

Taking advantage of the fulsome breakfast available in the YHA basement, I fortified myself for a damp day, and donned an extra layer of clothes. Setting off for a wander along The Backs, the fields to the west of the Cam, I quickly encountered pelting rain that rendered most sightseeing largely pointless. It also helped to get me a little bit lost, as I was reluctant to get my map soaked through repeated open-air consultation. No matter - after half an hour of trudging I ended up back in the town centre's market square. Cyclists darted from every direction, and bikes were padlocked to any stationary object, often two or three deep. Almost no-one wears cycle helmets, preferring the rain in their hair, although two dem fain gels from Queens College did sport matching chandelier earrings to augment their cycling tracksuits.

The many colleges dominate the town, and from a tourist's perspective most are pay-to-enter or don't permit visitors at all. But plenty can be seen from the street, including the famous carved statue of Henry VIII that used to hold the sceptre of office, but who now grasps an ordinary table-leg, the original sceptre having been stolen many years ago. Traces of medieval architecture remain too - the famous Round Church (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) was built by the Knights Templar in 1130 to honour its namesake in Jerusalem. Everywhere there are shops selling Cambridge University regalia and touristwear (see below). One exception is the boutique on the corner of Trinity Street and Trinity Lane (yes, both lead to Trinity College) - the shop is called Sweaty Betty, which amused me for some reason.



To thaw myself out around lunchtime I ventured into a Starbucks and consumed a warm liquid with a taste strangely reminiscent of - but not remotely like - coffee. After that revivification, I plodded out to another college building in which the Museum of Classical Archaeology was located. The museum only contains sculpture casts: no originals. And yet it was an intriguing place, with dozens of statues and friezes crowded here and there. The copies were of the highest quality, particularly the massive Zeus, Athena and Hercules statues (pic, pic). And it was easy to see, as the curators point out, how the decidedly average Venus di Milo was more of a triumph for savvy French promotion than for classical sculpture. (Insert your own 'armless' joke here)

After lunch I wandered back to the train station and took a local service 15 or 20 minutes north to the small town of Ely, to visit its impressive cathedral. En route, I managed to warm my left trouser leg on the carriage heater, so at least half of my jeans were reasonably dry. Aside from its impressive vintage, work having been started on it originally in 1080, Ely Cathedral also benefits from a superb location, perched atop a gentle ridge and garlanded by pretty English meadowland. Its superb nave is bracketed by Norman arches (pic), and enjoys a rich array of exterior light. Off to one side, the Prior's Door is ringed with 12th-century stone carvings, but along the walls of the nave itself there are comparatively few of the memorial tablets and statues that cluster in the much wealthier Canterbury Cathedral. Its elegant presbytery (pic) was built in the 13th century to house the remains of St Ethedreda, the Saxon princess who founded a monastery on the site in 673. And lurking in Bishop Alcock's Chapel in the eastern extremity of the cathedral, I spotted a prime example of 17th-century vandalism - the scrawl of James Pepall (pic), who made his mark in 1667.

Returning to the Ely train station, pausing only to ponder a child's cryptic artwork in a house's window (see below) and steer clear of the feral ducks outside the local supermarket, I headed back to Cambridge. That evening I chatted to some of my hostel roommates, who turned out to be three lads from Washington who worked in the defence sector, over for a conference in Blighty. When I told them I had recently worked in that area, they probably thought I was a spy, although most decent spies would probably shun my earplugs and eye-mask overnight ensemble.



On my last morning in town I did yet more walking in the rain, ensuring that my lasting souvenir of my visit to Cambridge will be sore feet. Then I headed back to London for some much-needed rest and recuperation!
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