The next leg of our journey was three nights in Cambridge.
Until the mid-19th century both Cambridge and Oxford were made up of a group of colleges with a small central university administration. Now, the Faculties and Departments organise teaching and research.
Cambridge University had its inception in 1209 when groups of scholars fleeing brawling and disputes between townspeople and scholars (the town and gown) in Oxford came to the trading post of Cambridge to study.
The teaching in those days was by scholars and took the form of reading and explaining texts with examination being oral disputations.
By 1226 the scholars had set up an organisation represented by a Chancellor, and had arranged courses of study, taught by masters who had themselves passed through the course. Initially most of the scholars were clerks or clergymen and expecting careers in the church or in civil service as diplomats, judges etc. In the earliest days the university had no premises of its own; it relied on churches etc for its public ceremonies, and lectures, disputations and lodgings were found in private houses.
Over the years the collegiate system developed. Peterhouse, the oldest college, was founded in1284. There are now 31 colleges that provide most of the student accommodation, and for undergraduates, they are responsible for student admissions and organising tuition through supervisions and small group teaching sessions. The colleges are self-governed charities with their own internal procedures.
Westminster College, where we were staying, was built in 1899 by the Presbyterian Church of England to replace their existing college in London. This is a theological college with approximately 50 students. It is undergoing significant restoration and renovations, but the accommodation rooms are complete.
To say we were pleasantly surprised by our accommodation is probably an understatement, and if this is the same quality as the student digs, the QAC in Gatton in the early ‘80s has got nothing on Westminster College. Our bedroom was large, naturally with a desk; there was an ensuite toilet and bathroom and walk-in wardrobe; and the kitchen was modern and had everything we needed. The laundry room was just down the corridor and breakfast was served in the dining room at the other end of our floor. We really couldn’t have asked for more, everything was within easy reach.
From Westminster College it is less than one kilometre into the centre of the old part of Cambridge where the colleges are located. This part of the city is abuzz with pedestrians, cyclists, restricted traffic, and double-decker buses negotiating the narrow streets. It was exam period so most of the college grounds were closed to visitors, but just walking around Cambridge and peering through open gates and doorways can give a pretty good insight into student life and the history of the city.
The highlight of the visit for Paul was spending all of Tuesday at the Duxford Air Museum. For me, it was visiting the Wren Library at Trinity College.
The library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was completed in 1695. It apparently has 55,000 titles pre-dating the 1820s including 1,250 medieval manuscripts. The library is a long rectangular hall with the books arranged down either side. You can’t touch the books (understandably) but there are some treasures in glass display cases that you can view. These include the oldest manuscript in the library, which is an 8th century ‘Epistles of St Paul’; Sir Isaac Newton’s personal 1st edition copy of ‘Principia Mathematica’ which contains his annotations for the 2nd edition, as well as his notebook; an early edition of Shakespeare’s work; Eadwines ‘Canterbury Salter’ from the 12th century; and the 1st edition of A.A. Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ which is displayed alongside Milne’s handwritten manuscript, both open to the same page.
The library is a working library and there were researchers in there during our visit. Some of the alcoves contain historical artefacts – furniture, lamps etc. Marble busts of philosophers and notable Trinity men add to the imperiousness of the space; it is at odds with other alcoves that are virtually overflowing with tables of books, old computer monitors and keyboards, and other paraphernalia. Rigid formality meets chaos and mess.
Cambridge got its name from the river Cam around which it has grown. The river is integral to the Cambridge life with many of the colleges backing on to the river with pretty gardens and grassed spaces call the ‘Backs’. The river is crossed by a couple of traffic and a number of pedestrian bridges. Each afford a great view of the low flat boats that are punted along by long poles; nowadays this is primarily a tourist venture. Further downstream, below the lock, are motorised ‘narrow’ boats used for river tours, but mostly as accommodation. We passed one that was the home of an elderly man and his dog.
This part of Cambridge isn’t just steeped in history. The preponderance of cycling students; the tweed, boaters and bowler hats; the sausage van man; the formality of gowned students making their way to whichever ceremony or ritual they are attending that evening; the paved roads; and the magnificent historical buildings and monuments make old Cambridge appear as though it is caught in a terribly English time warp.