For years I’ve harbored a desire to visit Cambridge England. Finally for a peculiar reason having little to do with intent I’d get the chance. Of all things, rental car logistics dictated a visit to Cambridge. Sometimes things just work out.
Cambridge is more or less synonymous with Cambridge University. The university in Cambridge was established in 1209; it is the second oldest university in England behind only Oxford. With Oxford, Cambridge University influenced many colleges that came later, particularly the private English-speaking schools. Did you know that John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University, attended Cambridge? The influence of the grand English universities has woven its way into the customs of modern academic life around the world.
The history of science is rich Cambridge. Sir Francis Bacon furthered the Scientific Method, the philosophy behind scientific discovery. Sir Issac Newton, Charles Darwin, Watson and Crick, Lord Rutherford, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Stephen Hawking, Lord Kelvin, Paul Dirac, and many other influential scientists have passed through Cambridge’s halls. John Maynard Keynes whose ideas influence the world economies today was a Cambridge alumnus.
The university has impacted and continues to impact in areas beyond science. Fifteen British Prime Ministers, 25 Heads of Government, and three signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Cambridge educated. And if you weren’t impressed by all this then it now time for something completely different, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame attended Cambridge. Even the modern music group Radiohead has roots in the university.
I think I’ve made the point: A lot important people, most of them dead and decomposing, have passed through Cambridge’s halls. Perhaps this is reason enough to visit, but there is more. Cambridge is an architecturally interesting place. Unlike modern universities Cambridge is not a single large connected campus. It is a collection of 31 separate colleges supported by an infrastructure of common academic buildings.
It is the colleges that make the town of Cambridge interesting. Founded as integral parts of the university, the colleges are self-governing institutions with their own endowments and property; they individually accept students. The colleges even have their own extensive wine cellars locked deep within the bowels of their buildings. All students and most academics are attached to a particular college. The colleges provide housing, welfare, social functions, undergraduate teaching, and, on occasion, good wine. Historically endowed by rich patrons, Cambridge’s colleges are showpieces of money and power.
With a short amount of time the walking tour of Cambridge offered by the tourist office was expedient. An advantage of the tour is that it insured that we could enter certain colleges that are on occasion closed to visitors. Thus for two plus hours our guide took us around the streets of Cambridge relaying the town and university’s history. Our route took us into Queens’ College, over the Mathematical Bridge, and ultimately ended in King’s College.
The most interesting portion of the tour, a visit to King’s College Chapel, was saved for last. When I think of a chapel I think of something that fits this definition:
“A small building for Christian worship, typically one attached to an institution or private house.”
King’s College Chapel meets this definition except for one thing. It is definitely not small. We have seen many cathedrals far less grand.
The Chapel at King’s College is an exceptionally fine example of late Gothic English architecture. Most remarkable is the well-restored ornate interior. Carved stonework supports large stained glass windows letting colored light filter into the main vault. Eighty feet above the chapel’s floor is its fan vault ceiling. Constructed early in the 16th Century by master mason John Wastell it remains as the world’s largest fan vault. The ceiling along with the stained glass windows is the chapel’s most notable design element.
In the center of King’s College Chapel’s nave sits an elaborate carved dark wood choir capped with the gold plated tubes of the pipe organ. Taken together the innards of King’s College Chapel stands as one of the most spectacular church interiors that we have seen. By itself seeing the inside of this one church justifies a visit to Cambridge.
After we left the chapel we made a quick stop to view the scientific instruments on display at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. The Whipple Museum is next to the historic site of the famous Cavendish Laboratory, a place where countless discoveries were made that revolutionized science.
Our visit to the museum left us with just a little more time so we stopped in nearby for a pint, actually two half pints, at the Eagle Pub. We sat inside the public house sipping a beer and a cider in the place that Watson and Crick, who were working at Cavendish Labs at the time, announced their solution of the structure of DNA. Over the drinks Becky and I racked our brains; we could not come up with a similarly significant scientific discovery to announce. When we finished our beverages we quietly slinked out of the pub hoping that no one would ask what discovery we had to reveal. Maybe next time we will be better prepared.
The hour was getting late and it was best to move on to what we had been subconsciously avoiding. Our rental car with a steering wheel confusingly placed on the right side waited not far away. A pleasant day in Cambridge would soon be replaced by the dread and terror of driving on the wrong side of the road. For us driving a car with a right-handed driver’s wheel at night through the narrow roads of the English countryside was something to survive and not to enjoy.