The Magic of Cambridge

2 04 2006

How shall I start and how shall I even begin to describe the magic of Cambridge! Beautiful at every step and every breath! I felt I was walking in a town of some perfection. Green lawns, quiet courtyards, proportioned buildings, open spaces, graceful bridges, the winding River Cam, all steeped in a culture of learning, wisdom, tradition and history – this is the image of Cambridge that delighted me.

A mix of architectural styles in a single courtyard

A mix of architectural styles in a single courtyard

The term had just ended. The lanes, courtyards and colleges were quiet. Once in a while I came across a student on his way home, wheeling his suitcase, thick books under the arms and a general relief on the face that always follows the end of any examination. Where students used to cycle, tourists roamed in disintegrated crowds. Where students use to walk with minds busy with theories, formulae, poetry and experiments, a strange isolation filled the void. In this quietness, the buildings, many centuries old, calmly stood, noting the passage of time and the graduation of yet another batch of students. The buildings stood with an ancient imperceptible wisdom, gathering and refining in its stones the learning of the ages.

The climbers at Christ's College

The climbers at Christ's College

College after college welcomed to enchant me. The surprise in Cambridge is the manner in which these colleges are unnoticeably tucked among a network of narrow streets. Walking along Regent Street one suddenly comes to a gate. Entering, one finds a passage leading to Downing College. Further down, along St Andrew’s Street, a greater experience awaits at Emmanuel College. With its impressive courtyard leading to a spacious garden of pools with waders, it is an enclave of peace in the heart of town centre. Then one comes to Christ’s College with an impressive doorway, one courtyard leading to another and walls covered with clinging climbers. In this manner I visited Downing College, Emmanuel College, Christ’s College, St John’s College, Clare College and Queen’s College, all in one day.

There are some aspects of the architecture of these buildings that I would like to touch upon. I am no expert in this discipline and I comment as a lay person. One thing common amongst most colleges is the presence of a hall, spacious and long. This is the main area of communal gathering, often where meals are taken together in affirmation of a common routine that students and teachers follow. Then we have another common feature in the chapel. Most colleges have started from a Christian tradition and chapels are just as important as libraries or study rooms. These days with students coming from all over the world from different religious faiths and backgrounds, one wonders the significance of these chapels. Do they stand in isolation and ignored or do they serve to unite different faiths? Real unification can only be possible under a secular banner that emphasises no single faith and allows each one to prosper in its own way. Finally, the most striking feature of these colleges is the quadrangle, commonly called a court. This may well be an influence of medieval cloisters that we find in cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries. A court is enclosed on all four sides by buildings from various periods and for various purposes. Sometimes one may view the chapel on one side, the hall on another, the library on another and living quarters on the fourth side. The different styles become points of study and comparison. A paved walkway circumscribes the green lawn that covers the open space of the court. But what is the grand scheme of this layout? Is it a place where scholars may congregate and congress? Is it an open space where ideas may flow freely, theories expounded and arguments defended? Is it a place that does more for social cohesiveness, strengthening of the college spirit than for pedantic pursuits? Do these buildings, by opening inwards and looking at each other, somehow and someway improve the concentration of wavering minds? Whatever the reasons may be, a court is a closed space that isolates one from what’s outside it. Yet for its closed view, the space that it creates reflects an open outlook. The mind is not restricted.

The West Front of King's College Chapel

The West Front of King's College Chapel

All these, with their architectural glories, fade in comparison to the crowning jewel of Cambridge, King’s College Chapel. I have not seen it on the inside because I was already overwhelmed by what I saw on the outside. A proper visit to this college was therefore put off to a later visit. For today, I contented myself with admiring the grand scale of imagination and execution it presents to every visitor. I walked in its courtyards a number of times, looked up in awe at the towering facades, admired the ordered perspective of buttresses and pinnacles, counted the windows and their arches, and lingered through a glowing sunset and a striking silhouette.

East Front of King's College Chapel

East Front of King's College Chapel

What is so beautiful and awesome about King’s College Chapel? In Canterbury Cathedral, the stunning perspectives are all on the inside and I recall none on the outside. At King’s College Chapel, if the exterior is so stunning one wonders what is to be expected within. If there were to exist degrees of perfection, here we witness the pinnacle of perfection of Perpendicular style. Most of the edifice is taken up by windows. I deliberated without success if the west facade was better than the east. Both are marvellous. On the west, the window is placed above a doorway. The doorway is by no means mean and small but under the window it diminishes to miniature proportions. The view of the west facade across the green lawn adds to the perception of height. It is the chapel’s privilege, or perhaps ours, to stand without interruption of view. On the east, there is no door. The window is perhaps larger, it certainly looks larger, and therefore it’s the best representation of Perpendicular style. By this style, the Chapel is “opened” with its large windows which by necessity pass the burden to buttresses about four feet thick. The effect of these windows is always striking when seen from the inside. Here we see it on the outside. The effect is such that we hardly notice the buildings that surround the Chapel. Clare College disappears. The other buildings of King’s College do not appear to exist. The only building that stands is the one that outstands.

Street leading to King's College

Street leading to King's College

In Cambridge one does not mention the word “Oxford”. One refers to “the other place”, as if it were some mean contemptible outcast of a civilised world. It is also impossible these days to visit Cambridge or Oxford without someone at some point asking you the inevitable question, “Which do you like better?” One could get away with almost any answer but it would be foolish to answer a more dangerous question, “Which one is better?” In all earnest, comparison is difficult. Both have their individual beauties. The buildings are at the centre of any image these towns create. As such, any comparison must start with them. In Oxford the buildings are primarily of stone, a warm Oxfordshire stone that echoes those of the Cotswolds. In Cambridge, the stones, where they have been used, are less welcoming; and in Cambridge colleges are mostly made of bricks. One of the best walks in Oxford is the small lane passing New College that suddenly comes to the Bridge of Sighs with the view of Sheldonian Theatre in the background. Trinity Lane in Cambridge comes close but does not quite match it. Radcliffe Camera has no equal in Cambridge only because it’s different. King’s College Chapel has no equal either. The bridge at St John’s College is the best “medieval” bridge I have seen. Here it may be rightly said that the River Cam adds more to the beauty of Cambridge than the River Cherwell does to Oxford. Therefore it is only proper that the coat of arms for Cambridge, displayed at the town’s Guildhall, is a bridge over a river. No comparison is complete without a mention of the luminaries that these universities have produced. If Oxford can boast of Walter Raleigh, John Wycliffe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edmund Halley, J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord Curzon, Cambridge can boast of Francis Bacon, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Jawaharlal Nehru. But I am ill qualified to make any further comparisons. The truth is that I have seen both university towns with different perspectives. In Cambridge I have visited many colleges and spent considerable time in each of them. In Oxford, I visited few and the image of Oxford I have gathered is from street views by admiring external facades and peering through ornate iron gates. I visited Oxford early on in my travels when I was still getting used to the weight of the pound and reluctant to part with it.

It is an acknowledged fact that education is big business these days. This takes a whole new meaning at Oxford and Cambridge. Today I have spent a lot of money just for entries into college grounds and buildings. I rather like Emmanuel College. Entry was free. The same is to be said of Christ’s College. But in both these colleges I could not enter the buildings or the rooms. St John’s College charged £2.50. It was well worth the fee. They also gave a brief guide of the buildings. Each court here had its unique interest. I do not know what students study at St John’s College but they could certainly study bricklaying and excel in it to artistic perfection. The unplastered walls baring their bricks make a beautiful sight. The view of New Court is second only to King’s College Chapel. Queen’s College charged £1.50 which included a beautifully prepared guide. The Old Court, The Hall and The Cloister Court with its exposed timber frames were all admirable. Clare College was the worst. It charged £2.20. This fee included a guide that talked more about rules and regulations for visitors than about the college. King’s College Chapel, which I have reserved for another visit, will force me to spend £7 which would include an audio guide. The best part of these seven worthy pounds is the impudent claim that the ticket also allows entry to the Gift Shop. Now that is something!

Cycles chained against railings

Cycles chained against railing

It takes a closer look to find that Cambridge is not perfection. The narrow streets make driving difficult and dangerous as pedestrians and cyclists freely use them. Cyclists are almost a nightmare, speeding along as if the roads were reserved for them alone. When tourists come in their drones it takes great effort to find the usual peace of Cambridge. For this reason alone one would hesitate to go into King’s College Chapel. It is also disappointing to see tourists come to Cambridge, take their pictures or videos, buy gifts as proofs of their visit, and return to their towns and countries without the benefit of an experience or an awakening of the soul. In perpetuation of such revelry the town is going to host a Beer Festival from 24th to 29th May. The venue: Jesus Green. Even if Jesus were to approve of it there is little doubt that venerable Moses wouldn’t. And now they are noisily building what is to be called “the Grand Arcade”. The towering metal cranes spoil the age-crafted beauty of Cambridge and we are to put up with them till 2008. And what will this arcade contain? Shops, more shops and cycle-parking spaces.

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