A place where fields of grass are off-limits for the sake of aesthetic upkeep may sound a bit too high-strung for fun. But there are sacrifices one has to make — like forgoing grass — when walking amid over 800 years’ worth of history.
Welcome to Cambridge. Not the one that saw 7 feet of snow this year, but where Henry VIII admired choirboys, a fruit allegedly assaulted Newton, Rosalind Franklin modeled DNA in spite of two drunk men, Stephen Hawking discovered the theory of everything, and Eddie Redmayne filmed a movie about it (after studying art history there). It’s overwhelming —intimidating, really — how every brick and tile in Cambridge is steeped with history and sheer impressiveness. In the month I spent there, it wasn’t rare to shut a door and feel sentimental about the famous people who may have held the same handle. The University was founded in 1209, and the town has grown and transformed with it. The centuries of intellectual and cultural history are both pervasive and palpable at every street corner: a chapel here, a statue there, a medieval archway a few steps over. You can touch it, breathe it, or even lean against it while you metabolize your Saturday night cider.
Yet while history is alive and well in Cambridge, the town doesn’t feel hindered by its age. It is, after all, a college town, and with every 18 year-old comes changes that have been infused into the townscape. The most obvious example is the Grand Arcade Shopping Centre, a massive complex complete with an atrium and a two-story Topshop, all concealed within an inconspicuous row of traditional 14 th - to 16 th -century buildings. Booming tourism has peppered the streets with boutiques and restaurants, student needs have brought about the late-night food truck called (rightfully) The Trailer of Life, and sizeable grocery stores and nightclubs are lodged right alongside the colleges.
Cambridge’s colleges are what most distinguish it from US schools. The 31 colleges, despite all being constituents of Cambridge, are quite distinct in reputation and culture. Among their differences, the one most visible to visitors is the architecture. While Pembroke College, where I stayed, is composed of small, enclosed courtyards (think The Secret Garden ), there are ones like the postcard-friendly King’s College, which resembles a miniature Buckingham Palace. Each gate opens up to a different era from the 8 centuries over which the colleges were built, making a physical tour of the town, in effect, a tour through time. The resulting diversity is magical, but organic in a way that EPCOT can never be.
For me, the most charming feature of the town is the River Cam, the namesake of Cambridge and the hub around which it flourished. The warmer months allow for “punting,” a trademark activity that involves rowing elongated canoes with long poles, which is majestic and meditative despite its touristy overtones. Beyond the physical beauty of the water, however, the Cam also functions as a cultural and social hub for the town. Some favorite spots are the Clare College botanical garden, the Trinity College row of willow trees, the Bridge of Sighs, modeled after the Venetian landmark, and the long stretch of pubs with traditional English menus and large patios with no open-container laws. The variety and constancy of activity makes the Cam gravitational — it pulls and tugs at passers-by to walk near it, read near it, eat near it, laugh near it.
There’s something distinct about living near a river, even a relatively small one. (Though if you’re looking for a bigger town on a bigger river, London is only an hour away by train.) In the glimmering space between stretches of land, there also seems to be a little more space to think. Or, even just for a few moments, to not think at all.
~Lin King '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler