A Return Ticket from London to Cambridge

The first thing I notice about London is the speed: everything and everyone is moving about at such a pace, and in so many different directions all at once. Stepping off the train arriving from sleepy Canterbury, I was immediately swept up into a stream of life not my own. One must choose a direction and keep pace, or risk being battered about on all sides, a single leaf caught in the cross-currents of many hurried winds.

The River Cam – Photo by Becca Tarnas
The River Cam – Photo by Becca Tarnas

The complex interactive network of the London Underground is actually surprisingly easy to handle, and puts all of our local Bay Area public transportation to deep shame (I’ve had this feeling repeatedly on this trip, with each new train journey wishing we had the same kind of sophisticated system in the States). I found my way to the Bakerloo line and was deposited before long at the quiet station of Warwick Avenue, where I emerged into the slanting golden light of a warm London evening. Walking past elegant blocks of brick and white plaster apartment buildings, with ornate iron railings outlining the front steps, I came without much trouble to the flat of a dear friend and his family, where I was welcomed with open arms.

The River Cam – Photo by Becca Tarnas
The River Cam – Photo by Becca Tarnas

I spent a tremendously peaceful evening there, meeting for the first time my friend’s wonderful two-and-a half-year-old daughter, and getting to hear all about her life in her own excited little voice. When morning came we had an active round of monkeys jumping on the living room guest bed—the broken monkeys miraculously healing and coming back to bounce in ever-decreasing numbers once more.

Come mid-morning I set out from the flat, making my way on the tube to King’s Cross station to get my ticket up to Cambridge for the day to visit my professor Jake Sherman. Ticket in hand I quickly realized I would be leaving from Platform 10 at King’s Cross—just a quarter of a station from the legendary departure point of the Hogwarts Express. Try as I might the wall wouldn’t give. But I knew it was already September 28, a full four weeks after the entryway had closed. Besides, I had another train to catch to an equally magnificent institution of learning.

Jake met me right at the station in Cambridge, and we set off toward the heart of the town at a brisk pace. The closer to the center we came the older the buildings appeared, more ornate and closer together. Our exploration began at Emmanuel College, where Jake is currently teaching in the post of University Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion. The scale of Emmanuel, or Emma College as Jake called it, felt like it would make a good academic home. Some of the magnificent colleges I was to see later, such as Clare or King’s, were almost overwhelming in their grandeur. But there was something about Emma that felt just right.

Stepping into the college chapel, Jake showed me the many figures who adorned the stained glass, from Origen and Johannes Scotus Eriugena, to Benjamin Whichcote and John Smith the Cambridge Platonists, and John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University in the States. The gardens outside seemed a Romantic paradise, with winding paths and a pond inhabited by ducks and coy, swimming among the tall reeds and flowers.

King's College Chapel – Photo by Becca Tarnas
King’s College Chapel – Photo by Becca Tarnas

From Emmanuel our tour went seemingly zigzagging in many directions, from one ancient and beautiful building to the next. We saw the oldest church in Cambridge, and not too far away another that was perfectly round, built by one of the Knights Templar in reflection of the houses of worship in Jerusalem. The Cam River, for which the town and university are named, winds its way past these ancient buildings, spanned by many beautiful bridges in the course of its meanderings. We crossed several, passing from one college to the next. Perhaps the most striking is the Bridge of Sighs, built in reflection of the same bridge in Venice.

As we walked Jake shared with me the history and traditions of the colleges we saw, or famous individuals who once studied there. Cambridge is so rich with history and genius that it is almost too much to dedicate more than a plaque to the luminary who emerged however many centuries ago from its tutelage. Almost any other town or institution would have a museum or building dedicated to its famous students, but here they are passing names, murmured in connection to one of the great colleges that has stood as a place of learning for centuries.

To come from a conference on Re-Enchanting the Academy straight into Cambridge, and to be able to see it through Jake’s eyes, someone who has participated in its traditions and lineage, I was able to recognize the enchantment of the academy that is still inherent to a place like Cambridge. The rituals and traditions run so deep and have been passed on from matriculating class to matriculating class for centuries. Often they are deeply embodied, ritualized traditions. Part of re-enchanting the academy may be awakening to the enchantment already present and acknowledging how much it plays a role in the learning that takes place within the academic walls.

King's College Chapel – Photo by Becca Tarnas
King’s College – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Certainly the college that impressed me the most was King’s, especially its magnificent chapel. Entering inside I felt a state of awe descend upon me. The foundation of the chapel was laid by King Henry VI in 1441, but it took a century to complete under the subsequent patronage of Richard III and Henry VII. While the Choir design is much simpler, according to Henry VI’s wishes, the Ante-chapel where we entered is alive with ornate carvings, depicting Tudor roses, dragons and dogs, and forests of curling leaves. It would take weeks to observe all the details carved directly into the stone. The ceiling however, outshines all the rest. It is a soaring fan-vault ceiling, the largest of its kind in the world. The pillars of the chapel ascend like tree trunks into the air, their fanning branches meeting each other across the ceiling, creating an intricate web that gives one the sense of walking through a forest of living stone.

Come late afternoon we took our leave of Cambridge and, walking for a short while by the Cam, turned down a track that traversed the green fields outside the town. It was magic hour, the waning light coming forth in rose and golds, casting the rich green of the fields into a soft vermillion glow. We passed fields of cows and grouse, under arching tunnels of trees, along leafy hedgerows dividing the landscape. There was little to indicate the century I was in, and visions from Blake, Wordsworth, and Austen all came to mind. At last we entered the little village of Grantchester, and passing the six-hundred-year-old Green Man pub where we would later have dinner, arrived at Byron’s Mews, the cottage that was once Byron’s stable, next door to Byron’s Lodge where he allegedly housed his various mistresses. I’d stepped into the most idyllic English picture, entering a garden where I met two beautiful children picking apples from one of the many orchard trees.

Following dinner, drinks, pencil drawings and conversation, my time in Cambridge had all too quickly come to a close. I sat on the train back to London feeling blessed and exhausted, struggling to stay awake wrapped in my warm coat. Of course I have struggled that my dissertation advisor is all the way over in England as I complete the last few years of my degree, but now seeing where he is situated I cannot help but feel he is in the right place. Cambridge is certainly the most beautiful university I have ever seen. Yet for me personally, I also felt something missing. I had a feeling whatever it was I might find in Oxford. But that’s another journey, one to take place the following day.

Byron's Mews – Photo by Becca Tarnas
Byron’s Mews – Photo by Becca Tarnas

2 Replies to “A Return Ticket from London to Cambridge”

  1. Oxford I suppose will leave you in awe as much. Maybe not the town centre, since it is a little bit modern, maybe for my tastes, but there are indeed many possibilities in the countyside. I had the luck to spend some time there with a local family. Apart from the absolute trust they gave me, the place was completely filled with natural and historical roots. Colleges are of course a must, but walking around you find little precious places who contain many old books. Speaking of Tolkien, I was lucky enough to find a copy of the trilogy in one of those bookshops.
    Once there you’ll probably feel what he felt too. Good luck and keep up your good work.

  2. It is an unexpectedly satisfying experience as a parent, or close relative, to embark on the travels of your child through reading their writings and viewing what scenes captured their hearts enough to be recorded as photographs as they explore new realms furthering the unfolding of their world made significant by these explorations. Children, especially those we have raised daily in love and hope, at times even expectation in anticipation of what lies before them in their future, afford to us, as parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers or grandfathers, an awareness gained remotely from their journeys, receiving their fresh insights as we pick them up from the splendidly written page of their public journals. It is made all the more rich being transported by the music of Aram Khachaturian and Amilcare Ponchielli playing in the background.

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