Cambridge, England: Lost in Little Lanes

The view from the Tower at Great St. Mary's is spectacular. Look over at the University town from one side, and then switch to the other side for an aerial view of Parker's Piece. Rhea Cawsi Dhanbhoora photos.
The view from the Tower at Great St. Mary's is spectacular. Look over at the University town from one side, and then switch to the other side for an aerial view of Parker's Piece. Rhea Cawsi Dhanbhoora photos.

Cambridge England: Soaking Up the Same Lessons as Wordsworth

By Rhea Cawsi Dhanbhoora

Instead of punting down the River Cam, stroll by the banks and watch the ducks waddling out of the water over the sloping green behind Kings College.
Instead of punting down the River Cam, stroll by the banks and watch the ducks waddling out of the water over the sloping green behind Kings College.

I often sat on an uncomfortable chair at my dining table, pretending I was burning the midnight oil instead of carelessly chewing on the back of a pen. My fingers would linger over the keyboard, but my heart poured itself out onyellowed pages in old diaries, verse after verse. One day, I’d be walking through the same halls as Sylvia, bathing in the same morning light as Byron, soaking up the same lessons as Wordsworth — pretending to be your very own 21st century Aurobindo.

Of course, I’m not. But, if only for a day, even just walking through the medieval alleys and squeezing into the cozy streets of Cambridge, England— I could be one with them. Feel the same brick walls they did, tap my fingers along the railings, looking up at the same steeples that inspired them, boots crackling over the same blades of grass.

I had to swerve quickly, narrowly escaping tragedy as I teetered on my soiled suede boots to avoid dropping onto the hard concrete behind St. John’s college. I may have been a bit lost, winding through the twists and turns of the cold, wet streets, past black iron railings splattered with party posters.

Forget Google maps. Forget guided tours. Cambridge is the sort of place where you can get lost in the little lanes and go round and round under little bridges and walkways — but once you focus on breathing it all in — you won’t mind this at all.

Don't forget to look up when you're outside Trinity College to see the table leg resting between his palms in place of the customary sceptre Out in the Cold

It wasn’t the right time to visit, the beginning of March. It was cold, blustery with a spattering of rain. No sunny days out in the college capital for me. But, there was a certain charm to the awkward overcast skies, the sun peeking through so I had to switch between sunglasses and jacket.

As my hands turned pink with cold and my cheeks grew flushed with the wind, I realized that this was a scene straight out of the fairytale that had been in my mind all along.

Forget punting on the Cam and plopping down on green, green University lawns. The slight crunch of my boots on gravel, the slick screeching of bicycle tires on wet paver blocks-- it was all picture-perfect.

When I started off, I was pretty sure I was about to do some sort of walk, armed with a map that I couldn’t read (I had help, of course) and a historical guidebook that I was hiding from the rain more than actually flipping through — very old-school.

I could have passed off for the most seasoned traveller, but the masquerade didn’t last long, because I was soon riddled with a typically ‘alien’ stare as I wondered why I kept circling back around to Queen’s Road.

Ultimately however, it was this lazy wandering that helped me really see Cambridge — I was less focused on getting somewhere and more open to soaking up the sights and the sounds.

But, although the slight chill was a welcome respite from the 30+ degree weather I had flown in from, it was the air around Cambridge that was pulling me in, willing me to stay longer, walk slower, look around more.

Fuel first

Something about the crisp, cold air made me ravenous. Although it was customary to start walking immediately since we were dragging on time you have to (squeeze it all in before light fades), which in March means less time than usual), we found ourselves at a little teashop in the centre of the city, only a minute or two away from the tourist information center and the parking area.

The stairs at The Tower are narrow and winding - once you begin to climb up, you've made a commitment to reach the top, because there's no way to turn around!
The stairs at The Tower are narrow and winding - once you begin to climb up, you've made a commitment to reach the top, because there's no way to turn around!

Aunties is fairly famous, serves a good cup of coffee and some delicious baguettes, the little green sofas, lace tablecloth covered tables are an added attention It was all good enough to get us fuelled up and raring to go.

Walk this way

There was so little time, but so much to look up and gawk at — especially if every time you passed a college, you imagined yourself one day sauntering down the halls, just the right fit for every lecture and study hall.

Instead, we stood outside (okay, we almost walked in) a chapel service at one of the colleges, soaking up the cracks in the clouds, breathing in the freshly cut grass on the gorgeous lawns, as the soft melodies from the service everyone was inside that little room — silent enough for us to want to whisper, even though there was no need to. It seemed sacrilegious to disturb the sudden calm that was washing over the ground in waves.

Cambridge is cold and blustery and you may feel more of a chill at the top of the Tower, but don't forget to take a few panoramic shots of the view below! We walked right past Round Church, only just scanning it from the outside, but we made our way into Great St. Mary’s The University Church, and the first thing we did there was sign up for the climb up to the 35 metre-high tower.

The church is steeped in centuries of history. It was almost eerie to be standing in a space that had seen footfalls of the stately Elizabeth I and the unfortunate Oliver Cromwell.

Being behind-the-scenes in the bell room is fascinating and although we were excited about being there five minutes before the bells rang, the resounding sound of them clanging against each other didn’t leave my ears for hours afterwards — so it may not have been such a fantastic thing after all. I’d seen the Big Ben, so when you’re suddenly standing right at the inspiration of it all (the chimes are copied) it’s a whole different experience.

Visiting the 15th century church takes a while — we missed out on a few other things because of it, but I’ve seen a lot of churches on my travels and this was definitely worth it. From the movable pulpit (you have to see it to really understand how it pulls out over the rails) to Henry VII’s hearse cloth, the impressive, high altar and the icing on the cake — The Tower.

Winding Steps

Narrow, steep, winding steps (around 123-127 steps — I didn't count to verify after the first ten of course), which we were told were around 114 feet in all, to the top; this was a space where I was glad for my petite stature. Climbing up seems like a task, but it’s the way down that had me clutching onto the rope rails at the side — the never-ending spiral can make you quite dizzy! Of course if you are claustrophobic, the tiny spaces up to the top are not a great idea - there’s really no way you can stop halfway or even turn around to go back down once you begin the climb!

You can see almost the entire city of Cambridge from The Tower. And, it’s a spectacular view. Surveying the tops of the universities and buildings that looked so impressive from down below, now just specks on what looked like a painted map — clean, green and breathtakingly well planned.

A quick walk through the market behind the church is a must too, but don't waste too much time here if you’re only there for a day. The colourful, striped tops covering the stalls are actually much prettier to look at from an aerial view when you're at the Tower. I was a little lost for a while, seeing people weave in and out of the shops, children rush through towards their parents (or away from them!)…

While we only saw Parker’s Piece from a distance, it was a great sight, especially when we learnt the basis for the rules of football as we know them today were formed here way back in the 1800s.

The octocentenary of the city of Cambridge was created in 2001 and is a spectacular site on the pavement opposite Great St. Mary's.
The octocentenary of the city of Cambridge was created in 2001 and is a spectacular site on the pavement opposite Great St. Mary's.

Colleges calling
Of course, we didn’t see the 31 colleges (that’s right. 31!), we made our way to quite a few, satisfied at the end of the day to have done it all, historical information and all, without a guide.

Peterhouse was one of the colleges I was looking forward to least. It was the smallest, it wasn’t really a must-see and I hadn’t already prepared myself for it. But as soon as I stepped inside I found myself eating my words. Small things definitely come in the most attractive packages. Old lampposts lined the gravel-stone paths, the stained glass windows in the chapel let the soft melody of an evening service spill out ever so quietly and the cream and beige walls looked anything but 13th century.

Pembroke, another little gem, may have looked slightly worse for wear, but the brick-colored structure and pointed tower windows and steeples took me back to the image of a 14th century painting.

We couldn’t make our way to Queen’s College fast enough (remember to time yourself - I was lost in too many little flowers, hanging lanterns and stained glass patterns!), but we peeked in through cracks in the gate and over the tops in typical desperate tourist fashion to see if we could catch a glimpse of the iconic Mathematical Bridge (built without any nails!)

And, while we only got a glimpse of Corpus Christi from the outside, the tall steeples and impressive structure were characteristic of what I already knew of Cambridge.

The lawns, green spaces and bare branches outside almost every college add an old-world charm to the University town. Clare, while once on my list of must-sees, was actually my least favorite — but did stop to admire the pretty entrance, clock and all.

Sundials on Gonville

I’d done enough research to instantly recognize the sundials on the top of Gonville and Caius, an age-old structure with the most charming little gate, on my way back through the lanes. Of course, in better weather there would have been a row of flowers blooming along each side. I’d have to settle for little buds.

Walking along the winding paths, crunching over gravel to get from the gate to the tree-lined avenue — sandy-red brick walls and high, imposing facades were enough to take my breath away here. The new parts (and you can almost make out what has been restructed in all the colleges here) are far less impressive, but still a pretty site.

Of course, Trinity was far more predictable. The court was well laid out, the lawns well-manicured and the view of Wren library a treat. The green vines winding up the walls lent it an air of natural wonder, but it was as ‘college’ as you could get. It did however, lead us to the beautiful grounds.

However, even the college had always fascinated me and the gatehouse is impressive. Look up and you’re staring at an imposing Henry VIII, who’s sordid relationship tales are some of the most famous in history. Of course, he’s not there to remind us of his 8 wives, more so because he’s the founder of the college. I had to tiptoe and peer really closely, but I felt a smile unwittingly turn up at the corners of my mouth when I saw the table leg in place of the sceptre in his right hand, planted there (as far as the stories I’ve heard seem to tell) by a window cleaner several decades ago.

I walked past my favorite little alleys in Trinity Street and then Trinity Lane again, stopping to survey quirky shops like Sweaty Betty.

Tudor Architecture

St John’s didn’t throw up any surprises either, but the Tudor architecture meant I was staring, spellbound for a good many minutes. It looks more like a palace than a college, what with its yellow-grey tone, grand entrance and shrubbery lined, arched windows that open out onto grand green grounds.

The engraved arches were what stood out most for Magdalene (home to the famous Pepys Library), but Christ’s College, on the other hand, reminded me of a pretty English college. Spring flowers were starting to come up, winding their way over the sides right up to the windows, and Mulberry trees that swayed gently in a spring breeze.

Water off a duck’s back

Walking past the Senate House Passage (every turn you take through the lanes — remember to look up to see the gorgeous gates) and through Trinity Lane led us to King’s College, adorned with the lawns and banks that people usually take punting tours from.

To go punting on the River Cam is on every tourist guide, and every must-see list — but I was going to skip it. The weather wasn't right and the price was definitely not pocket-friendly. You have to pay an admittance fee and slip in through King’s College to sit by the bank and picnic in true storybook style, but if you walk all around to the back of the town, you can weave in through the back gates and walk over the bridge, staring down at the water and watching the flat-bottomed boats float down the river, or see ducks waddling out onto the sloping lawns.

If you have more time to spend in the city, remember to step into the Baron of Beef for some delicious steak
If you have more time to spend in the city, remember to step into the Baron of Beef for some delicious steak

Walk through to the back of King's College, over the bridge (stop here for a gorgeous shot of the Cam) and through to the green lawns outside the college (but you can’t really do this usually, unless you’re a student) was enough of a glimpse into the iconic college life that had always seemed so incredibly appealing to me. There were no rose-tinted glasses here, I’m still sold.

We found a little strip that we were allowed to walk through, and spent a little time admiring a peek of color from some flowers lining the path -- unusual though they were for the wooded area and time of year.

Just outside Kings College Chapel is Kings Parade, and although I realised a little too late (yes, unfortunately I had my pesky tourist moment there) that you weren’t supposed to walk on the grass there (read the signs. Always, always read the signs) the path leading around is a pretty walk.

Of course we had to saunter across Magdalene Bridge too, although this is one of the busier areas in Cambridge and we were quickly scooting back over to the more foot-friendly college lanes.

By the time we were at Emmanuel College, the sun was beginning to set and little drops of rain were coming down again. While not unusually impressive otherwise, the golden glow of the setting sun behind the rich pointed top was a spectacular site.

Late to the party

We walked a long walk to see all the colleges, through a cold drizzle and a few roundabouts so by the time we’d made it to Fitzwilliam Museum, it was well past closing, and even begging our way in wasn’t going to work.

So instead, we loitered around outside in typical tourist fashion, reading what we could from their outdoor displays and staring up into the imposing stare of the two pairs of lions at the entrance.

The idea of walking into Wren Library (designed by Christopher Wren of course) and picking up an old Shakespearean folio was tempting, but even I wasn’t tiny enough to slip in there unnoticed. So I made do with a view from the outside, staring up at the gorgeous exterior across Nevile’s Court.

We rested a while, winding through the shaded cloisters to step out of the rain, finally making our way back around through the lanes, to Great St. Mary’s, which seemed to be our landmark for everything when we were about to get a little lost. We stood for a while, admiring the octocentenary of the city of Cambridge (created in 2001) before heading out.

I’d go back in a heartbeat, of course. And, while we may not have had the time or the appetite for it this time (what with the meal at Aunties and a fair bit of junk food around town), I’m going to go back to visit the Baron of Beef — its green and gold signage was very inviting, to say the least.

Rhea Cawsi Dhanbhoora edits and handles three supplements for a daily newspaper in Mumbai, and has also had a book of poems published. She’s contributed to several literary magazines, written for a short film newsletter, fashion features, a travel website and health portals, as well as edited and reviewed book manuscripts. She loves to travel, write, read and soak up new cultures and experiences and one day hopes to be able to get more poetry out into the world.

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