Joshua Windsor: Out and About at Cambridge University

Punters on the River Cam, enjoying the weather in late September.

Punters on the River Cam, enjoying the weather in late September.

Honors history and classical studies student Joshua Windsor is spending the 2012-2013 year studying abroad as a Libby Finch scholar at Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England.

January 22, 2013

Cambridge is a beautiful place. In the morning, when I walk to lectures at the Faculty of History, I leave my room (which is over The Eagle – Watson’s and Crick’s favorite pub), hasten westward through the gates of King’s College, continue past the magnificent Chapel, and onward over the River Cam and through the College Backs. The lawns, meticulously kept and forbidden to the feet of ‘junior members’, glisten with dew, as do the fields which constitute the Backs, and on which are kept the fine white cattle of Corpus Christi College. The trees have now shed their red and golden leaves, and the sodden mass of them carpet the path along the river. It is cold and wet at this time of year, and none but the hardy head onto the river; but in the spring there will be punters a-plenty on the gentle Cam. It is a splendid walk to class.

A nice view of the campus towers from my window.

A nice view of the campus towers from my window.

There is a pleasant alchemy here of gentle natural beauty and the vibrant heritage of generations past. That unassuming natural beauty – Cambridge must be one of the few places where humans have improved upon nature – I have described above. But, if anything, the material remains of that ‘vibrant heritage’ are just as affecting.

Concentrated along King’s Parade and Trumpington Street is one of the world’s great collections of architecture, a fact appreciated by the ever-present tourists that flock here in numbers second only to London. Across from King’s College Chapel, which is the preeminent example of Perpendicular Gothic, is Great St. Mary’s Church.

A bit further down the road are the courts of St. John’s College and the iconic Round Church. Further south there is the grand façade of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and spanning the river are the beautiful Bridge of Sighs and the Mathematical Bridge. Much humbler, but of greater antiquity, is the church of St. Bene’t, right outside my window. Its foundations are just shy of a thousand years old, laid when Canute was king.

For the historically-minded, or for those that simply have a soft spot for old things, Cambridge is an intense thrill. Indeed, the persistence of the past here is nearly palpable. The college at which I’ve matriculated, The College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary, was founded in 1352, and its Old Court, the oldest in Oxbridge, is still very much in use.

Here the Old Court is covered in snow, a pleasant sight in January.

Here the Old Court is covered in snow, a pleasant sight in January.

A few weeks ago a thick, soupy fog moved in – ‘on little cat feet’, Sandburg would say – and obscured even the modest spires of the New Court. For a few hours the college seemed an island of timelessness, as if it had forgotten to change centuries with the rest of the world.

That impression is in some ways confirmed by the survival of tradition; the customs seem almost as fixed as the foundations of St. Bene’t’s.  A Latin grace is still used at formal meals; academic gowns are still worn at formal occasions; the names of the original founders are still read out at the annual Commemoration Service. It is not affectation, but an ironic affection among the young; among the aged the irony is muted by memory. As many English (and Scottish and Welsh) students have told me, the university is a ‘throwback’ – a throwback which they enjoy immensely. And which, I might add, I too enjoy immensely.

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