I’d only been in Cambridge a day and it didn’t even occur to me at the time that this was a fairly unusual question to be asked on a Saturday morning.
Bravely, and because I am a bloke, I shunned Google Maps’ infinite wisdom and decided to ‘follow my nose’. Twenty minutes was plenty of time to leave for the journey anyway.
Two hours later I admitted to myself that my chances of reaching my destination were as over as the match was. But in those two hours I’d walked through allotments, a mile-long riverside mudpath, a private field, several cobbled streets, about ten cul-de-sacs, two deserted schools and the A603. It was when I was in the heart of the behemothic Cambridge University Press grounds that I conceded defeat and started to trudge back.
It took this combination of pig-headedness and total loss of direction to teach me that Cambridge extends beyond its colleges. I’ve been to the city several times and if I’m honest, I spent 90% of my time skipping gaily over bridges and through sunny courtyards, daydreaming I was clever enough to actually study there.
The fact is that the centre of Cambridge is simply stunning. Above the hordes of bicycles and punts and geese and snazzy smoothie bars and prehistoric professors stand some of the most treasured architectural wonders in Britain.
King’s College is probably the postcard favourite. Once you’ve walked through the neo-gothic gatehouse you are left exposed in an enormous courtyard. Robert Walpole once gazed down from his bedroom window at this courtyard, as did E.M. Forster, Salmon Rushdie and Stephen Poliakoff. Presumably they weren’t allowed to walk on the grass either.
Behind the faded impasse of the stone walls lie generous gardens stretching to the brink of the River Cam. Garden parties are regularly held and soon the grounds will be teeming with post-exam students dizzy on Pimms as they celebrate the ‘King’s Affair’, their offering to the extravagant May Ball season. My friend tells me that in comparison to other colleges, King’s is “skint”. I don’t believe him.
Collegiate life does indeed infiltrate almost every aspect of Cambridge and this is in no way a bad thing. The University’s 800 year-old-history, huge endowment funds and maniacally intelligent atmosphere give Cambridge its impressive edge – at times there is an overspill into pomposity and snobbery, but on the whole a healthy hunger for success pervades.
Yet beyond the heady mix of intellectual fantasy and genuine brilliance which saturates the centre is a city like any other. Cambridge has a homelessness problem. Cambridge has a drugs problem. Cambridge’s police force is struggling with imposing financial cuts. Ditto in its health services.
Contrary to popular belief, Cambridge is not a magical empire where learning abounds on every glittered street corner. It’s population do not all possess Nobel Prizes.
That said, its university does boast more Nobel laureates than any other academic institution in the world. Huge swathes of the city are as romantic as anywhere in London or Paris. It is a remarkable and beautiful city that deserves even more tourism than it already enjoys.
I just wish one of its residents knew where the damn lacrosse was being played.