A year-long diary set in LONDON
Talking Location With Author Rory Clements – Cambridge
2nd February 2017
#TalkingLocationWith…. Author Rory Clements takes his readers to Cambridge
It’s easy to visit Cambridge. Take a bus or train, car or plane. The only problem you’ll find is elbowing your way through the hordes of tourists who pack the place these days.
Visiting 1930s Cambridge is not so simple, unless you have a time machine. And as I haven’t yet been able to find a cheap de Lorean on Amazon, I have to look for clues in the present and use my imagination.
My imagination is locked away in my head, I’m afraid, and I can’t claim to understand how it works, so let’s not discuss that.
The clues, however, are there for anyone to see – in the buildings themselves, in old black and white films easily accessible on YouTube, in the many photographs that have been taken over the years and in all the books written about the period.
Researching the Cambridge of eighty years ago has been a fascinating experience. For years my research centred on the late Elizabethan period for my John Shakespeare thrillers but now, for my new series, I was trying to understand a time and place which is still within living memory. A time when my own parents and their siblings were teenagers and would soon be fighting in a war in which one uncle would die in a submarine and another would be shot out of the sky while parachuting over Germany.
Though I was not alive in the thirties I was brought up by parents who had lived through it. So what was that time like and, more to the point, what was the university city of Cambridge like?
Well, we know it was a town of fierce political debate and the haunt of spies – Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt to name just four.
It was also horribly polluted, just like every other city. Smoke, smoke – and yet more smoke.
The town would have been soot-blackened from decades in which ten thousand hearths burned coal, sending their fumes into the air. The Thompson’s Lane Electric Power Station, right in the centre of town near Magdalene College, would have belched out smoke twenty-four hours a day. Fog would have mixed with smoke to form lung-clogging pea-soupers.
Even the stone walls of the great colleges would have been sooty and grim-visaged. The pavements would have been covered in ash and cigarette ends. So would the floors of trains and buses. Every room in every house would have been yellowed by the smoke of cigarettes and pipes.
Most of Cambridge has been cleaned up, but you’ll still see a few blackened buildings.
Then, as now, bicycles were the main way of getting about. One big downside was the gender imbalance. All the colleges except Newnham and Girton were male-only preserves.
Things were stricter. Undergraduates (almost exclusively male) had to wear gowns as they wandered the streets, they had to be back in college in the evening, and they could face the penalty of a fine or even be sent down for contravening the rules.
Nowadays the population of the city has doubled. You won’t see many gowns, very little smoke and as many female students as male.
If you haven’t been there before, you’re in for a treat. Here are some of the places I suggest you visit – all of which will give you a feel for the old as well as the new face of Cambridge:
1). Go punting. You must try punting on the River Cam on a summer’s day, even though it will cost you an arm and a leg. To see the Backs (the rear view of the great colleges) and the wonderful Bridge of Sighs and the Mathematical Bridge would inspire anyone. Punts for hire are easy to find at Magdalene Bridge and Mill Lane.
2). Visit one or two colleges. You will probably have to pay a small fee to enter the grounds, but you will be able to enter the chapels and wander the ancient courts where historical figures have strolled (think of Isaac Newton pacing the Great Court of Trinity College). You won’t, however, be allowed into the private rooms.
3). Have lunch at The Eagle in Bene’t Street. Enjoy a meal or a pint and soak up the atmosphere of a 17th century tavern that was the regular haunt of the men who worked at the Cavendish Laboratory – and split the atom – when it was still in Free School Lane. This is the pub where Francis Crick announced to lunchtime drinkers that he and James Watson had discovered ‘the secret of life’ – the structure of DNA.
4). Take in the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street. This is the biggest and best of the many museums that Cambridge boasts. Here you will see works by Holbein, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Turner, Constable and dozens of other fine artists. There are also statues and busts from the ancient world and a great deal more. There’s a lot to see – so set aside the best part of a day. Entrance is free.
5). Just wander. Take your time and explore the old narrow streets with marvellous names like Free School Lane, Petty Cury, All Saints Passage. Walk the open spaces of Christ’s Pieces, Parker’s Piece, Midsummer Common. Stroll along the banks of the Cam to nearby Grantchester. On the way, poke your head into Eltisley Avenue where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes lived in the 1950s.
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