To adapt Dr Johnson, if you’re tired of Cambridge – assuming you can afford to be there – you’re tired of life. It now has officially one of the most expensive residential areas in the UK, as we’ve long known, but the technocrats living south of the river can’t find a quicker route north to the Science Park than to drive at walking speed or cycle. Even the Park and Ride buses on dedicated lanes can take half an hour over the three miles to the city centre.
We were not there for tourism, though the punts were busy, or Christmas shopping, but one or two specialist items and to look for the lesser-known Cambridge. All but one of the central museums are closed on Mondays so the old city was quiet. It was vacation too, and traffic was light. There was even free parking space on Herschel Road between two of the recently-built colleges, Robinson and Clare Hall. Across Grange Road is a path between the University Library and Trinity gardens that leads to the Backs and via Trinity Lane to the central market place, Peas Hill. (Hill is mostly an ironic term in the Fens, of course.)
Being avoided – if lucky – by cyclists there is time to appreciate the characteristic stone work of the older colleges, Trinity and Caius, with the slightly later and therefore more regular Clare. Between Christ’s College and the unlovely shopping centre beside the bus station a path leads into Christ’s Pieces, a first oasis before New Square – early nineteenth century so almost modern for Cambridge – then the Grafton Centre, built on the site of some Victorian terraces. These were where Town as opposed to Gown once lived, now largely displaced to Cherry Hinton and other one-time villages. Any that remain are probably now the homes of young academics, who can’t afford the millions for grander properties but have priced out the older population.
Parker’s Piece, the largest regular space in Cambridge, has its Christmas skating rink in common with many places, plus a fair ground, though nothing to compare with its Midsummer Common counterpart. That was the perhaps the biggest market in the country until plague closed it down. It revived and still offers goods for sale as well as the usual fairground activities, though only punts survive of the traders’ and farmers’ vessels that once brought produce.
A brisk walk back to the centre and there was time to visit the Sedgwick Museum of Geology, open though its neighbour, Archaeology and Anthropology, was closed. It is a child-centred delight, unusual for an academic resource. In a fairly small space it manages to display a number of fossil skeletons as well as examples of rocks, stone implements and a reconstruction of its Edwardian director’s office. There are puzzles and even coloured kite-like constructions to represent fossil creatures.
After a few minutes with the Museum’s tribute to its academic staff who’d served in the Great War it was time to meet for something to eat before the planned evening concert, but not before tracking down one of the curiosities that can be identified in a quiet moment in Cambridge.
Tressilian Nicholas, whom I remember crossing from his rooms at Magdalen to attend concerts at Kettle’s Yard, died aged 101 in 1989. His undergraduate college, Trinity, had a pebble inscribed with his initials placed just outside the Great Gate. Surprisingly, I wasn’t the first person to arrive there looking for it. A porter offered to help me, but for a while without success. “I usually find it first time,” he said, “but if I don’t I won’t.” So it was, until a female colleague arrived. Like him, she paced it out between two drains and from the centre of the gate. Then we spotted it. The photo is out of focus, unfortunately, but the initials TCN should be visible in what has to be – even for Cambridge – at the extreme end of subtle.
Then to the concert: West Road, designed by Leslie Martin and splendid in acoustic if modernist-stark in design. Over the years we’ve heard some outstanding and even way-out performances, but this was a mystery to dwarf trying to cross Cambridge faster then walking: Handel’s “Messiah” with the splendid Britten Sinfonia and Chorus and four sublime soloists. It was given rapt attention then a standing ovation by a knowledgeable audience. After that, even the journey home seemed brief if not, like the music, ecstatic.