From a small corner of Cambridge, 6

We have at last ventured from our small corner of the city into centro storico on our morning walk: it was almost deserted. Here is a glimpse of Trinity and its Newtonian apple tree — without the dozens of tourists who are usually to be seen sitting along that low wall. Cambridge gets about eight million visitors a year, mostly on day trips (which is pretty absurd as there is really so little to see apart from King’s College Chapel, as most of the older colleges are closed to visitors most of the time). I imagine that very many residents would be pretty happy if that level of mass tourism doesn’t return here for years, if ever. But that’s just one more unknown about the post-virus world.

Meanwhile, no visit this week to Wigmore Hall on Tuesday to see the Pavel Haas, no driving off  today down to St. Mawes in Cornwall for the planned fortnight. Drat. But those are small things in the overall scheme; we are daily reckoning up our good fortune compared with so very many, and just keeping ourselves safe. And the preternaturally good spring weather has been mighty cheering and made those morning walks a delight. So on we go, into this new normal, whatever it turns out to be.

We can, of course, get books delivered here by post. But where’s the fun in that? One small everyday pleasure we really miss is getting to second-hand charity bookshops; we much enjoy the serendipity, the chance discoveries. The wonderfully well-run and well-stocked Oxfam bookshop in Walden is a particular favourite, and in normal times we drop in there perhaps twice a month. And when in Cornwall, there is a terrific bookshop at the National Trust house at Trelissick near St. Mawes. A couple of years ago, we happened to be there when someone came in to donate a paperback set of Helen Dunmore’s first ten novels (obviously brand new); I snapped them up within a minute, having by chance just finished and much admired one of her later novels, Exposure. I have been reading those earlier novels with great pleasure over the intervening months. And I’ve just finished Counting the Stars, Dunmore’s imagining of Catullus and his obsession with Clodia. I’m not sure that this is her most successful novel; and arguably her Catullus — for all his obsession — seems a mite too tame, lacking some of the fury and satiric energy that drives the poetry. But I can still recommend it for a spring evening read, far from Rome!

5 thoughts on “From a small corner of Cambridge, 6”

  1. I’m not quite sure how to understand your comment on the absurdity of tourists visiting Cambridge, especially since the reason — ‘there is really so little to see apart from King’s College Chapel’ — would apply even more to longer trips. It reminds me of someone I knew from Oregon who always tried to discourage any thought that it was a place to visit (“It rains all the time”, “everything rusts”, etc).

    Taking your comment as meant more seriously, I can imagine reasoning like this: Of course, there are some other things to see. You could visit the Fitzwilliam, for example. But if you have the time and money needed for trips, why go there? There are many much better museums to see even in the UK. And similarly, perhaps, for other things. There are better restaurants elsewhere, more interesting architecture, …

    It doesn’t convince me, though. I’ve been in Cambridge I think 4 times, over the years since the early 80s; I’ve always found it worthwhile; and I haven’t even been inside King’s College Chapel yet.

    It wasn’t day trips, but my visits weren’t very long either. I think the longest was 4 days. I’ve ‘cheated’ a bit, though, I suppose. Rather than being a pure tourist, I usually had local guides (former student, current student, various academics at a conference), and on the most recent trip, in 2018, I stayed in West Court at Jesus College and so could wander through quite a bit of the College’s outdoors parts. (Being with someone who knows how to manage a punt also helps.)

    However, I think the new-book bookshops in Cambridge are less interesting than they used to be. There seems to be a much less extensive range of books, at least in philosophy and maths. One of my visits was near Christmas, and when going in the dark to Heffers, it seemed an almost magical place. Something has changed, I think, that’s not just me getting older.

    1. Of course, there are wonderful aspects of Cambridge as a place to visit, apart from the Colleges (if you can get in them). The Fitz is terrific, for a start. But few of the day trippers make it there. The distinctive Commons with cows grazing a few hundred yards from the main shopping street are quite unvisited. And so it goes. My sense is that a lot of those day trippers are on whistle-stop tours of the UK, and visiting Cambridge for them is supposed visiting the old unversity buildings — but for some years now, these have mostly become closed to visitors. That’s the absurdity I had in mind.

      As for the new-book bookshops in Cambridge, the large Waterstones is pleasant and well run. But yes, I don’t think it is just old age which makes me agree that Heffers is not at all what it was — in many areas, at any rate, it has ceased to be a serious academic bookshop. And Waterstones does the non-academic stuff better.

      1. One of my favourite little Cambridge things is the peculiar gutters that run along Trumpington Street past (for instance) the Fitzwilliam. Eventually, wondering, I started asking, and it turned out they were part of something called Hobson’s Conduit.


        Thanks for mentioning Helen Dunmore, btw. I hadn’t heard of her (!), and some of her books look like ones I’ll want to read.

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