A visit to Cambridge

We had arranged to meet an acquaintance from the WELL, "ellisaw" (Ellis Weinberger, and his wife, Mary), in Cambridge at 11:30. I also needed to pick up my passport from the British Rail Police. The idea, therefore, was to leave Sevenoaks close to 10. And that we did. John took us at reasonable highway speeds right up the M25, and then north on M11, then a skip to the right at the second Cambridge exit.

I had been to Oxford several years ago, so this trip seemed an appropriate balance. It was also inevitable--had my hosts not been inclined to drive to Cambridge, or had Ellis been unavailable, I would still have been forced to make the trip if only for the sake of the passport. The portents were much better. John and Rosemary were much more excited over going to Cambridge than my original suggestion, Canterbury. "It's really not a spiritual place, any more," lamented Rosemary. "It's just a tourist place." John SassoonJohn agreed. Cambridge, on the other hand, made everyone happy. And when I failed to find Ellis at work, Rosemary managed to find his home number despite the fact that he and Mary had just moved a week or so prior.

As I started out to say, we had intended to arrive earlier so that I could check with the railway police. If they were there, we could probably park at the railway station and would need to return only at our convenience. Instead, we were a trifle late. Rosemary popped out of the car near the meeting point, and John and I made what turned out to be a somewhat futile spin to the RR police station, parked the car, and hiked off across the green to catch up with the others. Rosemary, Ellis, and Mary, were already firm friends by the time we arrived. Ellis led us off to a local coffee house which claimed the best coffee in Cambridge. After a while, we decided to move so that we could explore the colleges and perhaps I could look over some of the manuscripts in Ellis' charge, he being newly appointed an archivist to the Genizah.

Outside was a minor drizzle. We found ourselves at the entrance to Clare (?) College where we discovered that visitors were now to be charged a couple of pounds each for the privilege of passing through. Ellis pulled rank as a member of the college (or some such), and we trooped through without lightening our pockets. As we walked, though, I could understand why some fee might be appropriate. There were stunning gardens off to the side, and the buildings were wonderful--old stone buildings with complex gargoyles and moldings such as are never seen in the United States (but of which I expect to see much on the Continent). The rain was now slightly more insistant, but it didn't seem hard enough to worry about. We paused for a few minutes on top of the bridge crossing the Thames, watching punts from the bridgewatching the punters pass by. At this point, they were generally covering themselves with umbrellas or with boat cushions, while the sacrificial punter, usually the male person attempting to demonstrate the silliness of the species, standing at the rear in nominal control of the boat.

As we approached King's Chapel, the rain frequently came down with more force. At one point, as we stood at the porter's door avoiding the downpoar I noted that there were a wealth of local choruses and symphonic groups attached to the college which had recorded CDs. Against my better nature, I avoided a purchase.

King's chapel was very nice on the outside, but it cost BS 2.50 to enter. I thought that this was outrageous, but John insisted that Mary and I go inside. "Well," I complained, "if you really think I should...."

Inside was an entirely different matter. The grace of the interior was beyond my experience. This was something that took 100 years to build. Just imagining how it would be to keep working on something like this for 100 years is staggering. Imagine being the son or grandson of a stonecarver who had started work on such a structure, and whose occupation you had inherited. Of all the grubby, underpaid, exploitative work available in the Middle Ages, surely this was one occupation most likely to give the exploitees a sense of spiritual meaning that is exempt from most lives, even today.

Surrounding the cathedral are amazing stained glass panels. These, by themselves, along with the grace of the rest of the room, would be extraordinary. But the cathedral is so designed such that your eyes inevitably turn heavenward and behold the most amazing, light, airy moldings and patterns along the roof. I am told that many of the churches that I will see later on are more impressive, but this is the first one, and the one that I saw when I had nothing against which to compare it.

Mary and I spent most of the rest of the hour reading a history of the chapel, along with scenes and information about the people, their faith, and their times. Truly fascinating. We were probably both a bit disappointed when Ellis arrived to rescue us. We had to hurry and have lunch and finish it in time for me to make it back to the railway station at 3pm, the one time at which we were assured someone would be staffing the station.

Along the way we hear buskers playing the bagpipes, and English folk songs, and of course, as we pass through a shopping mall, there is the inevitable string quartet. We end up walking long enough, and talking so intensely, that the only recourse is to walk back to the car park, get in the car, pick up my passport, and wind up at yet another traditional English pub where most of us have a delicious curry thing, a "mushroom balti" for lunch, and kind of a neat thing to contemplate on the menu of the typical British pub and the changes in consciousness that it might symbolize (or not, if the cuisine is related to the raj, and not to the scores of Indians and Pakistanis now in Britain). Rosemary claims that the traditional vegetable thingie was properly unsatisfying, so I feel that things are less abnormal than might have been. To go with the balti, we guys had a pint of IPA (India Pale Ale), the same brand that I had sampled two nights prior with the AWL gang in Harlow. It seems to be the default lager here. It is so superior to American Budweiser and that ilk, that my opinion of British drinking sense can only be high.

In short, a good time is had by all, and we are too tired to pop into the city for Shakespeare or even Oscar Wilde. Rosemary and John (and myself) are really pleased to have met Ellis and Mary. I think that John, especially, is pleased to have someone who shares his interest in antiquities. John has an intensely sharp mind and a subtle, quiet, self-deprecating sense of humor that is a pleasure to watch in action.

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[on] to An afternoon in Kent

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