Wednesday 13 August, 11:10 a.m., Cambridge Bus Stop
Something so satisfying about a cold coke (with real sugar) and a slow stroll off the train after the chaos and bustle of two days in London and failed train ticket reservations this morning. Simple pleasures.
Snarfed breakfast with friends before setting out, missed our train in the most dramatic way possible, and finally arrived in Cambridge 41 pounds poorer at 11:00 a.m. We ate a good pub lunch after reserving a punt tour, then Milano hot chocolate and a visit to King’s College. The tourism that’s overtaken it was a little disturbing and my patience with rich Asian teenagers snapping photos on their iPhones of every plaque and exhibit wore very thin. Kilby entertained us with her undying flare for the sacrilegious. Punting the Cam was a blast. Idyllic. Weather was delicious and getting a backdoor view into all the colleges was memorable. I would do it again – 25 pounds and all – in a heartbeat. Cambridge is a lovely town and we’re staying at the elegant, spacious Ashley Hotel. We’ll venture out for dinner shortly and enjoy the evening with Paul and Kilby. This day is the perfect foil to the week’s work and I feel so thankful.
Our week of work in London included one night off from singing Evensong: Wednesday. If we’d known how busy the week would’ve kept us we might’ve stayed in London to finally “see” it, but it’s a good thing we didn’t. Getting out of its bustle was just what we needed. Having settled into the leisure pace of our first week, we were ready to be “just us” again, and to walk some slightly-less-crowded streets. So we abandoned London, heading for Liverpool Street Station. We built in “plenty” of extra time but arrived to find our credit card did not pull up our train reservation. We dashed for the ticket office and they, too, could not locate it by any means. Very well, Eurail owed us big time, then.
We missed our train but decided to just jump at the chance to get on the next one instead of trying to use public WIFI and a spotty computer battery to contact the company that, in the United States, was still fast asleep anyway. So we paid cash for tickets that we’d already had, only these, bought the day of travel, were more than twice the cost. With only a couple minutes to complete this process, Mike stood in line at the ticket desk and I stood at the turn-stile entrance to the train platform with our bags. We were ready to jump. I craned my neck and strained my eyes, trying to spot him coming toward me in the crowd. I muttered and stressed and stood on tip-toes. Then the train departed. Now more than upset (upset happened when our first reservation was MIA) I returned to the ticket desk, sure I’d find him. He wasn’t there. We attempted to call each other on our emergency phones. Mine seemed to be out of minutes. Now I was upset – and worried. Then I saw him, running toward me, looking dumbfounded and a little pissed. “Where WERE you!?!?!?” He asked. “Where were YOU!!!!” I yelled. “I was standing there watching the train leave!” We yelled at the same time. Sure enough, we’d been standing, on opposite sides of the train, waiting for each other. The tickets were in his hand. We sorted ourselves out and calmed ourselves down and sat for the next train. They were at about half-hour intervals. In the meantime we also returned to the ticket counter and obtained a receipt for our hastily-bought tickets, intending to sort it out with the company that sold them to us initially. We still need to sort that out in the next week, but we are hoping we will be 41 pounds richer at the end of the drama.
So we were finally on a train to Cambridge and gradually growing less out of sorts. We stopped at every tiny village station and the ride took almost 1h45 instead of the original fare’s 1h10. But it was a pretty trip, and we both caught up on a little sleep, too. Arriving in Cambridge, our pace and our pulse began to slow. We boarded a big red double decker bus bound for City Center and the driver let us off with instructions on how to find our destination. At the door of our hotel we met Paul & Kilby, my sister and English brother-in-law, themselves just arrived after checking in at the nearby sister hotel. We left our bags and set out to check us in and see the town.
It was a perfect day, then. Slow, peaceful, so very calm. Indulgent. Fun. We enjoyed a hearty pub lunch on an outdoor patio – a delightful setting on a beautiful 70-degree day. From there we passed the intriguing market on our way to Kilby’s guilty pleasure of the moment: Cafe Nero, where she was bound for coffee. She bought us one of her favorite indulgences, a Milano hot chocolate, which is basically thick chocolate soup. After that we made our way to King’s College, a decision Paul had finally settled for us: we’re only here once and we need to do it right. So we paid the rather high entry into the college and wandered the chapel and grounds for awhile, stopping to watch some tourists punting the Cam quite unsuccessfully. There was a lot of hilarity on this day (Have you met my sister?), and this was probably the funniest moment of all, watching the complete muddle of boats.
Upon our arrival in the center of Cambridge earlier we’d been accosted by one salesman after another, alumni dressed as pretentiously as you could imagine, trying to sell punting tours. We came to an agreement that we were not going to punt our own boat and haggled a slightly-less-outrageous price for the affair – 50 pounds for the 4 of us for an hour. With our reservation for 3:00, that had left us time to browse the city, eat, see King’s, and pause for a few moments in St. Mary’s Church across from the college. Now we joined our tour guide and eight others and set off for the river bank behind Queen’s College. The excursion was completely delightful, led by an affable, funny guy who gave us more than your average dry, over-informed tour guide spiel. At one hilarious moment he pretended to bang his head as we went under a bridge, eliciting gasps of horror from a passing boat of tourists. Apparently a pretty standard prank. The tour of the town from the river was perfect. No walking, no entry fees, and a peek into the back yard of all the colleges, with a bit of entertaining info about their rivalries and extravagances. If you’re ever in Cambridge, Punt the Cam! (And don’t be ashamed to hire a Punter. You’ll probably save yourself the embarrassment of some obnoxious cohort of onlookers laughing at your misfortune. Not that we were those people…)
The trip finished, we made the long walk back to our hotel and rested awhile in our adjacent rooms. The hotel, The Ashley House, was right near the river in a large old stone house, quintessentially British. It reminded me of the four-dwelling structure my family lived in for a year when I was a child. We had a huge room with a king-sized bed, a a spacious bathroom, and a generous bay window. My sister’s room was even larger, chosen with the possibility in mind of bringing their baby daughter if they couldn’t leave her. We abandoned plans for an outdoor picnic in the end, dissuaded by the breezy, chilly air and the impending sunset. Instead, we drove to Tesco and, with Kilby’s gourmet preferences and neurotic obsession with cheese to lead our way, selected for ourselves all sorts of delicacies. We brought them back to the hotel – a large loaf of bread, enormous cheeses, grapes, antipasti, wine, beer, and for dessert blueberries with an English fancy: cream unsweetened and whipped almost to butter, like the richest, thickest, mildest yogurt you ever ate. Mousse, but not chocolate.
We spread our picnic on a small table and assembled our rooms’ chairs, sitting in their room by the window and talking late into the night. It’s hard to explain just how much I treasure these double-date discussions, the four of us, or how miserably I will miss them when they abandon their temporary home in Chicago and settle for good in England where they’ve been spending summers. Never do I let my hair down more thoroughly and never with a better effect. Those conversations are good, rich, wise, hilarious, often shockingly irreverent (again, have you met my sister?), and always cathartic.
So we ended our day in Cambridge feeling, by comparison with our typical pace, like under-achievers (and again, have you met my sister? her pace is so very… sane). We had rested, and that for us is always an achievement. My memories of Cambridge, the halfway point of our three weeks, are among my sweetest of the whole trip.