Oxford vs. Cambridge. The eternal debate has been going on for centuries now in England. The two institutions are referred to together as Oxbridge. Now, last weekend we decided to take a leisurely stroll through them. There was no pressure to explore since we have done that more than a few times. This was a couple of days of walking into various illustrious colleges and daydreaming, downing ale, chomping on fish and chips, browsing bookshops and buying travel posters.
Both universities are heavyweights in the world of academia. I tend to think of them as brothers, pre-eminent personalities, vying with each other for a more elevated presence in the same frame.
Oxford is the older of the two, with education in it dating back to the 11th century and its oldest colleges are 13th century buildings. The honey-hued buildings made of sandstone and its many spires always get me. The quiet courtyards, the ivy-covered college towers, the student entering her room in a tower with great pride to show her mother her digs, walks along the river and punting and then Blackwell’s with its vast collection of books on sale and its posters…Amidst all of this is my favourite tea-room in the city. A cafe with a duck-egg blue facade and the gilded letters, ‘The Grand Cafe’, writ on it. The famous English diarist Samuel Pepys had noted that it was the location for the oldest coffee house in England. A Jewish entrepreneur by the name of Jacob had established it in the 1650s. Here are a few lines from ‘The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, Antiquary of Oxford 1632-1695″: “This year  Jacob the Jew opened a coffey house at the Angel in the parish of S. Peter, in the East Oxon; and there it was by some, who delighted in noveltie, drank. When he left Oxon, he sold it in Old Southampton buildings in Holborne neare London, and was living in 1671.” The cafe shut shop and in its place came in an inn, then a hotel, followed by a grocer’s, a co-op and a post office till it finally gave way to The Grand Cafe in the 90s. Inside you find high ceilings, mirrors and more gilded elements and teas that will make you happy that you stopped there for a break.
The city itself is big, which means there is enough to keep you engrossed through the day, and once night falls, Oxford is quite the boisterous party hangout. It is a fun experience too – walking the streets at night, drunk friends thrown into the mixture, and chowing down takeaways at mobile vans.
Cambridge upon River Cam is the smaller of the two cities, with the ambience of a market town, and is comparatively quiet. It is said that scholars who were fleeing the hostilities of the townspeople of Oxford arrived in Cambridge and founded it in the early 1200s. The university I had visited when I arrived in UK for the first time was Cambridge. The son of a relative had studied there and the proud father took my parents, an aunt and me to the town. It was a trip for a few firsts, one of which included trying a pasty and then wondering if I would be able to walk after because, really, a pasty can pack a starchy punch.
I returned with my husband to explore it and did more climbing and walking than I had the first time. We went up very narrow and winding stairs of a church to get a spectacular view of the city, when we received prudent advise from an elderly couple, “Remember to breathe”. I suddenly noticed that I had stopped taking a breath in my scampering attempt to be done with those ghastly winding stairs. But when you get a look at the city from the top of the church, it gives you rationale for a bucket of wheezes.
In Cambridge, the buildings are disparate because they were made from various kinds of stones but I savoured the sight of the lawns at Corpus Christi college, the red facade of St. John’s College which if you enter is the way to the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge and the Round Church. The last is one of the four round churches in England. The other I see everyday, the clock and its spire that is from our apartment window, is the round church of Northampton.
It was a cold and windy day and we could not think of winding it up better than with Chinese dumplings in its market square. We were in a square that had been a market since the time of the Saxons. I wonder if anyone in those medieval times had such a delicious and cheap meal as we had standing there while a gaggle of school kids sat with their mum and dug into their plates of dumplings, piping up with the occasional “it’s too spicy” grouse.
To round off my few shots of Cambridge, I shall put forth a quote by Bertrand Russell.“Against my will, in the course of my travels, the belief that everything worth knowing was known at Cambridge gradually wore off. In this respect my travels were very useful to me.”
The featured photo of this post starts with this beauty – the neo-classical building called the Radcliffe Camera.
I shall leave you with these vintage tin signs for the two university cities. Just because I love collecting tin signs and because they get the feel of each city in quite an apt way. Just to humour the rivalry between the two that goes back to the 1200s, which do you like the sound of more?