Here’s the journal from Nice to Cambridge. I’m now only three weeks behind!
We were booked on the 7.34 Nice to Paris Gare de Lyon train on Monday morning. Our ultimate destination today was the Fairway Hotel in London’s Kings Cross. The first leg of the journey was nearly six hours. With only a few stops out of Nice, the train ran express to Paris. We traversed France from south to north at about 300 kilometres per hour. While everything immediately out of the window is just a blur, you still get a great view of the beautiful French countryside.
We arrived at Paris Gare de Lyon with two hours before our train to London was due to depart Paris Nord.
Heaps of time!
In France, announcements are made in French only, and signage is also only in French, so there is little that a non-French speaker can do but ask for help. We made for the information desk.
We needed area ‘D’, down two levels.
We got down and found we had to buy tickets at a machine. Here’s a tip – if you’re in a train station in France and don’t really know what to do, find someone who looks like a boss and who doesn’t speak English (this, I will admit, is a matter of chance). Paul approached the official, who quickly summoned a minion who stepped us through the ticket-buying process and pointed us in the direction of the platform.
Paris Nord is the international station, and it is pretty big. By now it was less than one hour to departure and we hadn’t even found where to go, let alone check in, and clear passport control and British border security.
There are no signs directing you from the metro to the international trains. All we could do was surmise where not to go by the train departure boards. Finally we saw a board for International trains (up two levels and some distance from where we had arrived). To confirm we checked with the first information counter we had seen and headed up to the next level.
London, that way!
The rest of the process was fairly straightforward, and after being all but ignored by the French passport control, and then explaining the purpose and duration of our UK visit to the nice young man at UK border security (and chatting about the rest of our trip), we joined the few hundred other people waiting for the London train with about 20 minutes to spare.
The train was delayed about 20 minutes, and various English people in the queue promptly started complaining about the French. For all their lack of signage and English announcements, the French had been remarkably friendly and helpful at every part of our trip (perhaps until the very last – the French passport control officer – but I’m prepared to let that one go through to the keeper).
When we finally boarded the train the first thing we noticed were announcements in French and then repeated in English. Interestingly, while we had been told at Paris Nord that the delay was due to cleaning the train, when we got under way the announcements were apologising for the delay due to a fatality on the high-speed train line. We rather macabrely wondered which part of the train they were needing to clean.
As we exited the ‘chunnel’ (which took about 23 minutes), the announcements changed to English first, followed by the French translation.
It felt a little weird to be surrounded by predominantly English speakers. At Monaco it took about 20 minutes to run through the grid positions as each row was announced in French, then English, then Italian, then German (at least I think that’s what the languages were – really should learn more languages, not too much need for Hindi in Europe!)
After putting our watches back an hour we arrived in London at about 5.15pm. Four hours to sunset, but no sun to be seen. It was raining and about 13oC, but our hotel was just across Euston Road so we didn’t have far to go.
We had chosen the budget Fairway Hotel B&B in Kings Cross. I had read reviews, and pre-warned about the lack of lifts, had asked for a ground floor room. Typically London, the Fairway is a small hotel with small rooms. I don’t think Paul and I will ever be in the demographic to afford a large hotel room in London.
We had relatively low expectations so the Fairway was a pleasant surprise. We had indeed been given a ground floor room, so no lugging our bags up or down stairs. The room was indeed small, but it was clean, the bed was comfy, tea and coffee were provided, and the wifi was a good speed. We needed no more for an overnighter.
After a full day of travel we desperately needed to stretch our legs. The weather wasn’t conducive to an outdoor stroll so we returned to St Pancras to find the Vodafone shop (closed due to the bank holiday, but we’d go again in the morning to get our UK SIMS), and Europcar, where tomorrow we would collect our wheels for the next six weeks.
St Pancras is huge. The station has been renovated and the old and new have been successfully integrated so that the station has retained its history and architecture while providing a modern terminus and shopping mall for commuters. We worked up our appetite walking the length and breadth of both levels of the international platforms and shopping centre.
Back on the street we did some further exploration for dinner. Further east along Euston Road we found just what we wanted, a noodle shop. By the time we finished dinner and had our after-dinner stroll it was 10pm and the sun had finally set.
All we needed now was a good hot shower and bed.
Breakfast was included with our room tariff so our first stop was the breakfast room. Once again, it was a pleasant surprise. A full continental and English breakfast were on offer. It was our first cooked brekkie on this holiday, and it would not be our last.
It was overcast, but not raining, when we left the hotel loaded with our bags. We still couldn’t get our SIMS (Vodafone’s systems were down) so we headed for Europcar to collect our car and hit the road.
That wasn’t quite as straightforward as expected. Apparently Europcar’s system at the St Pancras desk was also down so they were handling all their bookings further along Euston Road, and we had just missed the Europcar guy by a ‘millisecond’ according to a very helpful lady at one of the other hire company desks. She called them for us and within 15 minutes we were transported to the other office and were processing the paperwork on a diesel Peugot 2008 hatch. They had offered us a VW Passat but we declined, preferring something smaller.
Paperwork processed, car checked over for dents, scratches etc, luggage packed, we cranked up the GPS, plugged in Westminster College in Cambridge, and braved the London traffic. To be honest, school holidays were on and the traffic was apparently not as bad as it would otherwise have been. The GPS didn’t miss a beat and an hour and a half later we were in Cambridge.
The accommodation we had booked was student digs at Westminster College.
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.
Days 24, 25
Cambridge didn’t turn on its best weather for the three days we were there. It was overcast and drizzly for the duration of our stay, but that is why we brought wet weather gear with us.
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.