Cambridge: in the centre of history

One of my favourite things about the United Kingdom is its history. My brother studied history at university and is extremely knowledgeable about medieval battles and European castles dating back to the Dark Ages

A tour group floats by St. Joseph’s Bridge in Cambridge: the traditional punting boats offer guided tours

A tour group floats by St. Joseph’s Bridge in Cambridge: the traditional punting boats offer guided tours

One of my favourite things about the United Kingdom is its history.

My brother studied history at university and is extremely knowledgeable about medieval battles and European castles dating back to the Dark Ages. I can’t pretend to rival his knowledge, but I do love that sensation I get when I look up at beautiful buildings that have aged with the world and realize what a small role I play in the passing of time.

I recently took a day-trip to Cambridge. It’s about an hour by train from London, and it’s worth a visit whether the journey is that hour alone or a flight across the Atlantic. There are beautiful, historic buildings all over Britain — all over London, for that matter — but everything about Cambridge cries of culture and purpose.

There have been settlements in Cambridge prior to the Roman Empire, and its world-class university is the world’s oldest, with the only exception of Oxford. These two famous rival universities actually formed as branches of one another, with Oxford students fleeing hostile residents in Oxford to start a new university in Cambridge in the 13th century.

The town itself is quite small — in fact, it reminded me of my own university town, St. Andrews, in Scotland.

Cobbled streets, quaint boutique shops and market stalls, and loitering students and buskers add a jovial feel to the streets.

Then, tucked away behind the central square are the university buildings. Great looming landmarks made of marble or historic red brick that represent status and exclusivity.

Tourists cannot pass the gates of most of these residences, yet students meander in and out of the great thresholds with little notice of admiring onlookers.

Cambridge University operates a little differently even from the university experience with which I’m familiar. They’re in the top 10 of the world’s university league tables, yet the hierarchy is just beginning if you get into Cambridge.

Within the university there are colleges, and these colleges have a particular ranking amongst the others, so that one Cambridge student might not be considered equal in status to another.

Trinity College has a particular reputation in the university and a British sitcom about life as a student at Trinity proved a popular television hit last year in the UK.

There is a strict members-only policy for entrance into this college, so I had no opportunity to witness life on the inside. I can, however, attest to its appearance of importance, with huge columns, elegant facades and great temples standing high at all corners.

Still, my favourite building was St. John’s College with its off-white tones and Renaissance arches. The late afternoon sunlight bounced off its impressive exterior as I approached the college from the other side of the River Cam.

Traditional punting boats, on which tourists sat enjoying guided tours by the city’s students, painted a pretty image of people passing by this idyllic university backdrop.

I pictured myself pressing one of these wooden riverboats past the surrounding parks and under the town’s numerous romantic bridges.

The fantasy was quickly disrupted by the efforts of an American group who had hired their own punting boat and endeavoured to steer their own way through the campus. Their accents resounded with much less eloquence than the British tour guides as they wondered aloud about the architecture ahead and found themselves in compromising angles that blocked the tours from progressing.

I would leave the punting to the experts, I determined, but vowed to return another day to hear the tales of Cambridge from one of its impassioned students.

Life for students in Cambridge is not all parks and punting, however.

The workload of an average Cambridge student is reputably strenuous and, even though I was visiting during spring holidays, most of the cafes were packed with students buried beneath books and notepads.

Stress leaves and dropouts are not uncommon for students enrolled in one of Cambridge’s many vigorous programs, so enjoyment of the town’s majestic scenery seems to be reserved mainly for its visitors.

I must confess that I do love a weekend trip to Banff when I’m back in Alberta and I often long for a visit to the mountains with skis or hiking boots in hand, but I can’t deny that having all this history at a stone’s throw has made my sacrifices much more bearable.

Brittany Kennedy grew up in Red Deer and graduated from Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School. She attended university in Scotland and is now living and working in London, England.

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