A Weekend in Cambridge

The beginning of July brought with it not just Independence Day, but also the retirement party of Tim Clutton-Brock, legendary Cambridge University animal behaviorist and Fellow of the Royal Society. Sasha was invited to the three-day-long celebration because he used to be part of Tim’s Large Animal Research Group (LARG), and I went along for the ride–literally, given that we had to drive about 6 hours to reach Cambridge from Cornwall.

To make this long car journey more bearable, I proposed a side trip to the St. James Churchyard in Bramley, Hampshire.

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What a beautiful day to…stroll through a graveyard.

That may not sound like the most likely or exciting of destinations, but it is one that has topped my list since I read the autobiography of physicist Lise Meitner earlier this year.  I am ashamed to say that I’d never even heard of Meitner–to whom Einstein referred as the “Mother of the Atomic Bomb”–until I stumbled across a reference to her in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales, which recounts the “curious lives of the elements.” Intrigued, I tracked down Ruth Lewin Sime’s definitive Meitner biography, which recounts the impressive, frustrating, humbling, and inspiring story of Meitner’s life. When I learned that Meitner’s grave was not far off the main route between Falmouth and London, I knew that I’d have to make a pilgrimage there some day.

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Britain is so often cold and rainy–but never on the day when you are pacing around and around a graveyard trying to find one specific headstone among many. Then, it is both sunny and meltingly hot, and you appreciate every patch of shade you can find.

Finding one particular gravestone amongst a sea of them is actually not all that easy. Although I was able to use the Find a Grave website to track down the churchyard and town in which Meitner was laid to rest, the entry on her grave didn’t really describe any landscape features near her headstone, or provide any other tips on how to pick Meitner’s grave out of the hundreds dotted in the grass around the church. Further, officials at St. James obviously don’t think that Meitner is famous enough to deserve a mention on their churchyard notice boards, so they did not post any helpful map or description guiding visitors to her final resting place.

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Some of the many gravestones that are not Lise Meitner’s

When we first entered the graveyard, it looked quite small, leading us to believe that a simple stroll would quickly get us to our destination. However, we soon noticed that all the headstones near the entrance were much older than Meitner’s should be (she died in 1968). We soon found a little footpath that entered into a whole other field of graves…and then another…and then another. We wandered within and among these several times, sweating profusely under the unusually bright and potent sun. As desperately as I wanted to stand at Meitner’s final resting spot and be in the presence of such greatness, I was just about ready to call it quits when Sasha finally found what we were looking for:

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I swear that wasn’t there the first few times I walked down that path.
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The inscription was chosen by Meitner’s nephew, with whom she was very close–not just as a friend but also a colleague. His words recognize her efforts to forgive the atrocities committed by the Nazis and foster a healing attitude throughout Europe after WWII.

I had originally envisioned myself having some sort of moment at the gravestone and then taking a portrait to commemorate the visit. Sadly, the heat and the difficulty of finding the headstone sapped my excitement, leaving me without the energy to whip up much ceremonial spirit.

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What facial expression does one make in a photo taken at a grave? I was striving for “serious but not depressed.”
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A selfie with a gravestone may not be entirely appropriate, but it must still be preferable to a selfie with an open casket–which I have actually seen posted online.

From Bramley, we made our way to a private home that was both B&B and horse farm, where we spent a single night before making our way to Cambridge in time for Sasha to join in the retirement festivities from midday onwards. Our accommodations for the weekend were in Cambridge University’s Magdalene College (pronounced “MAWD-lin”, for no reason I can discern). Although the setting had the benefit of making me feel like a character in a Harry Potter book, our room was not particularly luxurious, and we did not have an en suite bathroom. However, we had an entire wing of the floor all to ourselves, and our window gave us quite a nice view of the courtyard:

Magdalene College courtyard
Unfortunately, the clock tower contained bells that rang not just on the hour, but also every quarter hour, dawn til dusk. Not great when you’re trying to take a mid-afternoon nap.

Magdelene is bordered on one side by the River Cam, along which you can go punting (boating in a flat-bottomed craft), if you are so inclined:

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The grassy lawn and brick buildings to the left belong to Magdalene College
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Further down the waterside path, looking back towards the bridge from which the previous photo was taken

Or, if you are like me, you could stay on dry land and simply go for a long walk on the riverside path that runs past Jesus Green, Midsummer Common (where people still can, and do, graze their livestock if they so choose), the many boathouses associated with the local rowing clubs, and innumerable other green spaces for recreational activities. If you take this route, you will pass many photogenic willow trees:

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…and you may also attract the attention of some feathered friends who hope that you have got a few bread crumbs to throw their way:

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The swans were moving so fast, I couldn’t get a single photo that wasn’t blurry.

I am not actually sure how far you can keep walking, because I stopped once I reached the Cambridge City Council Swift Tower at Logan’s Meadow Nature Reserve, about 45 minutes’ stroll from Magdalene College:

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Amazing to think that I took this photo at 9:30 PM, at which time the sky was still light and the swifts were still swooping around above the field.

The installation is meant to act as both a piece of living art–including not just the tower but also the movements and sounds of the birds themselves–and a functional structure that improves biodiversity by attracting the swifts and encouraging them to hunt insects over the fields. Pretty cool–though I’m getting ahead of myself because I didn’t actually stroll along the Cam until Saturday night, while Sasha was attending the “members-only” formal banquet at the College.

On the night of our arrival, we partook in an informal dinner at a local curry house, then were treated to an unexpected 4th of July fireworks show as we walked past Parker’s Piece on our way back to the College at the end of the evening.

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Yes, it was a bit weird to see an Independence Day celebration in Britain. Evidently Cambridge has quite a large expat contingent, and the show was probably put on by/for them.

During the daytime, I availed myself of Cambridge’s retail scene while Sasha was off being intellectual. I am a little embarrassed to acknowledge the ferocity with which I shopped while in Cambridge; however, I think it is the norm for anyone living in Cornwall to shop like a maniac when presented with the diversity of shops that one can only find “up-country”. My main goal was to find a dress to wear to an upcoming job interview; I also had a small list of basics–boring things like jean shorts and a black cardigan–that I’ve had trouble locating nearer to home. To my surprise, I found the dress right away, but needed more time to tick off the rest of my list. I shopped not only on Friday afternoon, but also most of Saturday–when I made sure to add pillows to my list so that Sasha and I could sleep more comfortably for the rest of our stay in Magdalene. Cambridge University may be posh, but it sure does skimp on bedding.

The funny thing about Cambridge (the city, rather than the university) is that it contains such a jumble of styles. You wander past familiar modern facades, such as those belonging to Boots, Sainsbury’s, The Gap, and so on, and then encounter venerable old university buildings right next door or just across the street:

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St. John’s College, University of Cambridge

There are also quiet little residential side streets with cozy-looking townhouses covered in a velvety-looking coatings of ivy:

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I know that ivy is terrible for structural integrity, but it is also very picturesque.

Another thing I saw in several different places around town was bunting made of tiny knitted sweaters:

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How adorable is that?!

This was actually my third visit to Cambridge, though only the second during which I had a chance to explore the city. The initial visit was one I made with my parents the summer after I graduated from high school.  The one strong memory I have from that trip is strolling through Market Square with my parents. I made several passes through the same area during this trip, too, and discovered this interesting statue at one corner:

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So, this shows a cat on a hat, and some mice running around the brim, and…a carrot? and a cherry tomato? and a kidney bean?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to photograph the piece until Sunday evening, by which point some overzealous reveler had vomited on its base and on the sidewalk just in front of the piece. Way to keep it classy, Cambridge!

That said, we did actually have a relatively classy final afternoon–though it wasn’t in the city itself but at Tim Clutton-Brock’s beautiful country estate about 30 minutes outside of town. He and his wife were brave enough to invite all the LARG folks and their families over for a garden party to mark the end of his celebration. They hired a service to bring in a pig roast; the meat was carved off the spitted animal right in front of us. I thought the event might be a bit chaotic because of the sheer number of people involved, but actually it was relatively tame because so many of the guests were struggling with hangovers from the previous evening’s festivities.

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I wasn’t sure what sort of outfit is normally worn to a garden party at a country estate; I opted to go too big rather than too small. Also, sometimes a girl just wants to wear a petticoat.

I only knew a handful of people at the party, but I did end up making the acquaintance of a few more–including famous Cambridge University professor Peter Grubb, who (and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible) was like a character straight out of the pages of a Victorian adventure novel. I, of course, had no idea at the time how well-known and respected he is, and only later discovered how very privileged I was to have held an extended conversation with him.

We checked out bright and early on the morning of our departure–not just because we had to vacate the room by 9:30 AM, but also because we needed to retrieve our car and get out of the city in advance of Tour de France activities. Prior to this trip, I had no idea that the Tour now includes three legs in Britain (Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, Cambridge to London), in recognition of the fact that cycling has such a huge fan base here in the UK. Luckily, the Magdalene College parking garage was not located on one of the many streets that had been closed in advance of the race; if it had been, we’d have been stuck in town until dinner time. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen, since our previous evening’s dinner was the crowning glory of the trip, and it would have been hard to top that experience.

But that is a topic that deserves its own post.