“Catz” on the Cam

My second foray into unexplored territory allowed me to penetrate a bit of the Oxbridge mystique. I headed out of the city to Cambridge yesterday, an early morning wake-up that put me in the middle of the rush hour crush on the Waterloo & City line, a downtown relief line for people who live south of the Thames (Toronto City Council, are you listening?).

Rush hour madness

Luckily, I left home early, because the train on which I’d booked a seat was cancelled, but I arrived in time to catch the earlier train. The route took us through countryside that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Norfolk County: hay bales drying in the sun and fields glinting green with soybeans. There were also the obligatory cows, horses and sheep munching away on breakfast.

Once in Cambridge, I made my way to my lodging for the night: St. Catharine’s College (familiarly known as Catz, established in the 16th century)!

St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge

Yes, during the summer, the university’s legendary colleges rent out rooms to visitors, so my B&B was a single room at the college with access to the facilities, including breakfast in the dining hall. Since residences and many college buildings are strictly off limits to anyone other than students, staff and profs, I felt privileged to get this behind-the-scenes glimpse of British university life. I checked my bag at the porter’s desk, since it was too early for a formal check-in, and headed off to see the city.

During my university days, I visited Oxford and remember being disappointed by how urban it was. Cambridge is smaller and has a different vibe altogether. Although it was flooded with tourists and summer students, it felt more like a town – albeit one with great architecture – than a city.

I arrived in time for the opening of the renowned Wren Library at Trinity College, which only admits visitors for two hours each day. My route there took me along the backs – the green fields and gardens bordering the River Cam that belong to well-situated colleges. The Cam was full of punters – an English novel come to life. Granted, most of this crowd was tourists, not students, but it made for an interesting picture.

Punting on the River Cam

The Wren Library, designed by the exalted architect, Christopher Wren, is a long, classical hall with columns, decorated mouldings and exquisite wooden bookcases carved with the coats of arms of many of the patrons whose money funded the library back in the 1700s and topped with busts of famous British thinkers and literati (e.g., Bacon, Milton) on one side and renowned Greeks and Romans (e.g., Socrates, Cicero) on the other.

wren-interior-with-busts-visible (2)
Wren Library, courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge

This architectural treasure holds other treasures, including a Shakespeare First Folio and Newton’s Principia Mathematica. I chatted with a young visitor from Buenos Aires who had come there specifically to see one of the original volumes of Newton’s masterpiece.

Later that afternoon, I toured the downtown area, King’s College and its backs with one of Britain’s registered Blue Badge tour guides, who really know their subjects. King’s College came into being thanks to Edward VII and his son, Henry VIII. In fact, Henry had the altar screen carved with his initials and those of Anne Boleyn, his queen, but by the time it was finished, she had already been beheaded at his behest.

Kings College Chapel, Cambridge

The monstrously large chapel is full of Flemish stained glass dating back to the 16th century and it is home to a choir that is renowned throughout England. Alas, they are on summer break, so no Evensong concert for me!

It was chilly and rainy last evening, and I was glad to be toasty warm in the Catz residence, working away on some assignments. Today, the sun reappeared and made walking through town to my seminar much more enjoyable. There was even a full English breakfast available in the dining hall, but I passed on the beans, eggs and toast. Bacon and tomatoes work well for me!

Dining hall at Catz

Then, it was off to a day with the British Quilt Research Group to learn about researching the provenance of old quilts. It was great fun to meet other quilters and learn more about quilting as a discipline. Great people, great subject – and learning something new in Cambridge seemed very appropriate.

Examining a quilt from the Museum of Cambridge collection

Now, it’s back to London on an express train, so I’ll be sleeping in my flat, rather than a dorm, and I’ll have to make my own breakfast tomorrow. Tough life, eh?


Author: WordSmithTO

Elaine Smith is the principal of WordSmithTO, a Toronto-based freelance writing, editing, social media and public relations company.

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