Thursday 17 May 2012

The Rivals

Be prepared to be disappointed as you leave the railway station. It has none of the old-world charm one expects of the seventh-oldest university town. It looks like any other modern small town and you almost want to retrace your steps. DON'T! You do want to see what brought Sir Issac Newton & Stephen Hawkins together; what made Sir J.C. Bose give stiff competition to Einstein; what gave Sir Ian Wilmut the gumption to clone a mammal with Dolly the Sheep. What was Charles Babbage doing there in 1800s & was the webcam actually invented there? What binds Christopher Marlowe & Salman Rushdie? Or all the famous Johns - Donne, Dryden, Milton? What inspired the poet in Thomas Gray & Andrew Marvell or the mathematician in Srinivasa Ramanujan? Or, where did Rajiv & Sonia Gandhi first meet?
                                                                                                                                                                                  Cambridge is the answer. The second oldest English speaking university in the world, Cambridge University, in the town of river Cam, was formed when a group of scholars broke off from Oxford, after a dispute with the townsfolk. So while Oxbridge, as they are nicknamed, share common traditions & practices, they remain arch-rivals over the centuries. And the old-world feel? Well, keep walking into the town & let the archaic in you marvel at the wonders of a town that so beautifully blends the old with the new.  
                                                                                                                        Ask for a map at the railway counter & be equipped as you step into Cambridge.The information centre sells maps while the railway counter hands it for free. Take your pick. If you love walking on a bright day, start your walking tour. If not, the Sightseeing buses will take you past strategic points & you are free to de-board wherever you want to spend more time.  
                                                                                                                      You pass the war memorial(right), the pub(below left), the Polar Museum (below far right) and gradually start spotting old structures. Cambridge was formed in 1209 so you know how old is old! The interesting structure of the Varsity's delivery centre (below right) catches our attention & we walk on with the sun on our back & shades on our eyes.
Not before we stop to click the pristine white of the Open University(below) or the grandiosity of the English Martyr's Catholic Church(below far right).

The road to Immortality promises the heaven and you turn your steps into the imposing Fitzwilliam Museum(below).
The perfectly manicured lawns & the abstract sculptures in the courtyard, the ornate ceiling & the mind-boggling collection inside leaves you speechless. Admission is free & one can spend a full day in the museum alone!

With just one day at one's disposal, that may not be a practical idea. So keep walking, traveller. You will come by some amazing architecture & then there's no looking back. Also, the favourite haunt of all tourists will beckon you into its watery lap. An invitation you cannot turn down. Punting. One of the biggest attractions of Cambridge. You can take a self hired punt, a flat-bottomed boat, and row along the river Cam or take one where the chauffeur is also the knowledgeable guide and regales you with infotainment on the 45 mins journey along the colleges of Cambridge. The former if you are adept at rowing; the latter if you want to be taken for a royal ride!

The 12-seater chauffeur-driven punts take you along the Backs of the grand Colleges. Sit back & admire their majestic meadows & gardens, smile at the anecdotes & feed the ducks if you like. Whatever you do, keep your hands inside the punt at all times. There are too many amateurs on the self-hire punts & every five minutes you have someone hit the side of yours!
                                                                                                 Go to Cambridge when the sun is bright(April/May-August/Sep) to be able to enjoy punting. And though it sounds a bit too touristy, you don't want to come away without doing it! Wave to the willows as you row on.

Amidst anecdotes of how Prince Charles was turned down admission till the Queen dropped in a word at Trinity College; how Rajiv Gandhi met Sonia in the same varsity  restaurant where she worked as a waitress to make ends meet while learning English at a language school in Cambridge; the prestigious Manmohan Singh Scholarship for Indian students in St.John's College for doctoral studies in various fields and the idea behind it; the progressive move of Clare College in being one of the first male colleges to admit female undergrads; how the medieval magnificence of the King's College chapel has struck visitors over centuries; why the head of the Queen's College is called President & not Principal (in Cambridge you never ask Why, you ask Since when! Since 1448); and rowing under the eight bridges of Cam, with a story for each, you complete your trip from Magdalene Bridge to Silver Street bridge.

That done, turn your attention to the interiors. Nibble at your chilli potato, soak in the experience & walk on. Each college has its own grandeur & its own story. Most have admission fee for visitors & visiting hours/months. Check timings before you travel- colleges remain closed to visitors when exams are on. 
The Queen's College courtyard(below left) with its bell on top is distinctive from the Corpus Christi campus(below centre) with its designer lawn! A recent attraction in Cambridge is the Corpus Christi College clock(below right), with a big locust on top whose eyes move, at the corner of King's Parade and Benet Street.


If the sublimity of the St. Botolph's Parish Church(below left), the opulence of King's College(below centre & right), the serenity of the Great St Mary's Church(far down) did not dazzle you enough, start climbing the 123 steps of the Bell Tower that gives an excellent view of the city on a clear day. For an entry fee to the top, the St. Mary's Bell Tower provides a bird's-eye view of Cambridgeshire that no amount of walking possibly can. If you can brave the narrow staircase, don't miss this! 

                                                                                                                                                As we make our ascent, the small windows puts distances in perspective.The bells on the way up to the top & the ropes to pull them by fascinates as you huff past them. The ropes, almost nooses, gives the creeps till you reach the next landing that reveals the bells. If you calculate your timings, you may be lucky to see the gongs go (every 15 mins). Everybody else just hears it!
The view from the top is breathtaking. There is a quietness about this climb that is paradisaical. The height that you have manged to conquer humbles you. You look down to see the various colleges paying obeisance to someone Higher up. The Art & Craft market looks colourful but you do not hear the din from that distance, the college courtyards stand majestically with their reserve & dignity intact, you are merely an observer in life's little drama....   

The tower closes at Come down to Mother Earth, click some stunted trees & the uni's famous cycle stands; the rich flora that the city has to offer; trace your way back to the railway station, linger awhile at the lush playground and leave your mental math for the train. 


88 Nobel laureates compared to Oxford's 79, top ranking in the last two years compared to Oxford's older repute, 31 colleges to Oxford's 38, the Silicon-fen city to keep pace with the techno advanced world vs the staidness of Oxford; about 40 Heads of Governments to Oxford's over 56. 
                                                    It's not a dilemma of to be or not to be 
                                                It is a tougher choice between the O & the C....