In the 1200s and without due process, the townspeople of Oxford executed two university students accused of killing a woman. Disgusted and fearful for their rights, some scholars walked seventy-six miles eastward into the fens, marshlands that would not be drained for five more centuries. There on the river Cam in 1209 they established Cambridge University, a modest academic center that would grow into a powerhouse educational institution of 31 colleges housing about 600 students each. Though the two universities are rivals, they will be forever linked by the shorthand term of “Oxbridge.”
Make no mistake: no one is joking about the marshland origins now. Cambridge is the wealthiest university in Britain and has such strong technology centers that it is often referred to as Silicon Fen.
As one of the two premier universities, Cambridge with its 114 libraries is also legally entitled to one free copy of every book printed in the country. Its libraries house over 8 million volumes!
Several of the older colleges border the river Cam with lovely greenspaces called the Backs. If you visit, you can inexpensively rent a small, flat-bottomed boat and see the Backs as you pole (“punt”) along the river down to the Mathematical Bridge (originally assembled without a single nail). Don’t be surprised if you see some young boy clinging to the pole mid-river because he held on after getting it stuck in the mud.
You also might want to tour Trinity College where Lord Byron kept a pet bear (to spite the administrators who refused to allow pet dogs). Just be sure to keep off of the courtyard grass. Only members of the college are allowed to walk on it, and there are college officials called Beadles who will tell you in no uncertain terms to remove your feet from their fescue.
If you are a Harry Potter fan, you will be please to stroll along the King’s Parade, stroll into shops selling elegant woolen scarves emblazoned with a college seal (just as it’s done at Hogwarts).
Let yourself be stunned by the shortlist of scholars associated with Cambridge:
Scientists Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing
Abolitionist William Wilberforce
Musician Ralph Vaughn Williams
Writers W. M. Thackery, E.M. Forster, A. A. Milne, Michael Crichton, John Donne,
Williams Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Actors Emma Thompson, John Cleese (Monty Python), Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey)
Finally, treat yourself to a spirit-nourishing experience. Close your day of touring by making your way into the King’s College Chapel just before 5 p.m. There you can listen to an evensong service of organ and voices that cannot help but move you. The music spirals up and rolls over the fanned stonework in the high ceiling of this elegant chapel, drawing you heavenward.
And at that moment, you will know that you have been in one of the special places of the mind and heart.
Next Time: Oxford and Its “Dreaming Spires”
Make yourself a note: This Christmas, tune in to hear the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carolson PBS or NPR.
Photo credits: Open source internet
Opening featured photo aerial view of Sissinghurst cottage: Nancy Parrish