The Backs

It is, in a wobbly sort of way, a spring-like period in Cambridge – some days have been unseasonably warm (although not today – the wind is in the north), with early signs of new growth: blossom on the trees, flowers poking through, birds getting excitable, humans getting frisky.


Photo: Peter Russell

The Backs, in particular, are in the grip of the New World (as John Donne calls the spring), the Backs being the extensive green spaces on the west bank of the Cam, running from Queens’ College up to St. John’s and Magdelene, via King’s, Clare, Trinity Hall and Trinity. It is from the Backs that you will get the most celebrated views of King’s College Chapel.

Photo: Alex Brown

Photo: Alex Brown

Originally an area of pasture, orchards and gardens, in the eighteenth century the land of west bank of the Cam opposite St. John’s was remodelled as a ‘wilderness’ area by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). Brown also made proposals for a similar development opposite King’s, but these were never implemented. In time some buildings appeared on the west back, the first of them New Court in St. John’s College.

Photo: Cmglee

Photo: Cmglee

As it stands, the backs are now host mostly to snowdrops and aconites, both just starting to come through. Now we just need the late snows to hold off.


Photo: Peewee Rustle


University and College

I am often asked by students at OISE where the University of Cambridge actually is, and I point them vaguely (in their mind’s eye) at the colleges. The university, I say, is everywhere.


But there is a bit more to it than that. Cambridge University is an ancient institution with a correspondingly complex, overgrown administrative structure. Broadly, the university is a collegiate university, where each college is a semi-autonomous scholarly community, and where the umbrella ‘university’ provides harmonising support networks (faculties, libraries, and laboratories, for instance). A student (but not necessarily a teaching officer) belongs both to the college and to the university, and will be taught in part in college (tutorials, known as supervisions; some classes) and in part in the university (lectures, seminars, some classes). The degrees are awarded by the university; but you make your application to a college. And so on.

Consequently, from the ground, the town is an almost unreadable hotch potch of University and College buildings. The University buildings – faculty buildings, faculty libraries, lecture theatres, etc. – are clustered in various ‘sites’, which roughly correspond to subject groupings.

For a good overview map, hit the picture below – university buildings are coloured blue, college buildings orange, and selected non-university/college buildings in pink.


Restaurant Visits

Two of our students, Kelly and Stephen, both of whom are interested in pursuing a career in catering, have been taken on a series of restaurant visits in and around Cambridge, where they were generously entertained by the staff and in the kitchens; and they now face the prospect of some kitchen experience in one of Cambridge’s Michelin-starred restaurants, having been told to present themselves in their chef’s whites at Alimentum this Thursday.

William_Orpen_Le_Chef_de_l'Hôtel_Chatham,_ParisThe first restaurant they visited, Sycamore House in Little Shelford, just outside Cambridge, lays claim to being the smallest restaurant in England. Its proprietor, Michael, has been in the catering trade for 47 years.

The second restaurant, which quite a few students will remember, was La Maison du Steak, fifty metres from the school. There Kelley and Stephen were shown around by Ling Ling (from Taiwan) who manages the front-of-house operation, and her husband Franck, from Alsace, who is the lead chef.



WP_20140220_017[1]Both visits were informative and very interesting, I hear, and we’d like to thank both restaurants for their generosity. Now for the matter of the kitchen experience. Watch this space…

Taxonomical delights of Cambridge

I ventured to school on my bicycle yesterday for the first time this year without my winter coat. Very daring, I know, but it was mild and sunny and felt like spring. And when it came on to rain a bit in the afternoon it felt like a mild early summer shower leaving a warm dampness in its wake, rather than a bitter reminder of your mortality.

It is too early to suppose it will last (although it looks as though we have another few days at least); and last year, it is worth remembering, it was extraordinarily cold and wet well into April. However, at some point this week I will go out at lunchtime to the Botanic Garden, where the orchid display in the hothouses is about to finish and the winter garden, while still impressive, has a vague, valedictory appeal.

Having said all that, I do not have much time for flowers, especially the large and demonstrative varieties, and there would consequently seem little chance of my visiting the exhibition of British botanical art at the Fitzwilliam Museum, on since the end of last month until the beginning of May. However, there is always the likelihood with botanical art that the merely aesthetic or (still worse) affective will give way to the taxonomical, and then it starts to get interesting, just as the systematic or chronological beds in the Botanic Garden are interesting, never merely pretty. Perhaps if the weather turns nasty again I will gravitate up there, in search not only of interest, but after all, of a reminder of fairer days just around the corner.


The Pepys Library

Samuel_Pepys… and we two come to Cambridge by eight o’clock in the morning.

To the Falcon, in the Petty Cury, where we found my father and brother very well. After dressing myself, about ten o’clock, my father, brother, and I to Mr. Widdrington, at Christ’s College, who received us very civilly, and caused my brother to be admitted, while my father, he, and I, sat talking. After that done, we take leave. My father and brother went to visit some friends, Pepys’s, scholars in Cambridge, while I went to Magdalene College, to Mr. Hill, with whom I found Mr. Zanchy, Burton, and Hollins, and was exceeding civilly received by them…

Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 25th February 1660

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a navel administrator and President of the Royal Society, but is chiefly known these days for his diaries, which cover roughly a decade from 1660 onward, and record the minutiae of his daily activities, including gripes about his health (he suffered from bladder stones, and was operated on for them), records of his extra-marital amours (almost daily), the fate of the cheese he buried during the Great Fire of London (a Parmazan), records of notable events, and anything else you care to mention, all written up in Shelton’s shorthand.

Pepys_diary_shorthandPepys was, among other things, a committed bibliophile, and he amassed during his life a library of over 3,000 volumes, including rare incunabulae, medieval manuscripts, his own diaries of course, and much else. Before his death he made arrangements for the entire collection to be bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge, his own college, along with the bookcases (glass-fronted bookcases were his invention – he was a man of many odd talents) and detailed instructions to house the library (catalogued in strict size order, No.1 being the smallest). It can still be seen at Magdalene College in its original state, in, appropriately enough, the Pepys Building.


Pepys Library in the 1890s

Details of visiting hours are here. More photographs of the library are here. You can read the diaries, not in Shelton’s shorthand, here.

Big Sky

Cambridge is not exactly Montana, but the landscape around the city, especially to the north, is flat and vast with a low horizon, and the sky opens up accordingly. The town itself is also contourless; any low eminence – the Hill’s Road Bridge below the school, the Castle Mound, the Mill Road railway bridge – offers surprising wide vistas, and a potentially colossal sky.

landscape-with-a-double-rainbow-1812Good for rainbows, then, and cycling back from the school yesterday afternoon in a heavy shower I saw a spectacular double rainbow with one foot of the complete inner arc planted in the rail tracks and the other somewhere around Coldham’s Common. From the top of Mill Road Railway Bridge you could see it in its entirety, and the inner arc was so complete that at its edges it started to bleed back into a reprise of the spectrum.

People were standing all along Mill Road with their mouths open and their smartphones raised in adoration. It was an understandable impulse, one which the (relatively) local painter John Constable would have shared. Constable was obsessed with big skies, low Dutch horizons, and rainbows, the latter appearing not so much like the alien systemisation, both of colour and form, which they are, but as absorbed natural phenomena, of a piece with the mixed and watery airs of his East Anglian (and in the case below, Hamstead) skies.

Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow 1836 by John Constable 1776-1837


“The long-and-short work of the quoins is eminently characteristic.” Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire

I posted yesterday on the Corpus Clock, located on the corner of Bene’t Street, and mentioned in passing that the church of St. Bene’t’s (a contraction of Benedict) was the St_Benets_exterioroldest standing building in Cambridge (and also the oldest Church in the county). It also used to be the chapel of Corpus Christi College but predates not only the college but also the University by several centuries, and, indeed, the Conquest by several decades.

As with all old buildings of any importance, not all of it is uniformly dated – the building has been added to and damaged and altered over the years – so that only the bell-tower remains of the original Anglo-Saxon structure, and even there, the bell slits are a later addition (1586). You would know it as Anglo-Saxon, however, by its unmistakeable use of long-and-short quoins – quoins being the corner stones of the wall, arranged in alternations of vertical and horizontal.


The next oldest church in the city centre has very little to do with quoins, being the Round Church, or more properly Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dating from the first half of the twelfth century (1130) and one of only four medieval round churches still existing.

It is modelled (in shape) after the rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and indeed all round churches, such as the Temple in London, are associated with the various orders set up to defend Jerusalem and the Holy Sepuchre during and between the various crusades. The Round Church in Cambridge seems similarly to have been set up by a group of Austin Friars going by the name of the ‘fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre’, and functioned as a wayfarer’s chapel set at the point where the old Roman Via Devana, running from Colchester to Chester, exited the city.

The Round Church was heavily restored during the nineteenth century after partial collapse, so that not much remains of the original structure – the characteristic doorway (with its colonnettes and crennellated voussoirs, as I read in Pevsner), is almost entirely new stone, as are the windows. But in its general form and details of its interior are authentic and worth a visit, in spite of the fact that there is not a quoin in sight.