A Town by a River

Kings College Chapel

Some time back when I was teaching in South Houston I mentioned to my students that Duke University would be an excellent choice for college. A young man laughed hilariously and corrected me as though he thought I was showing great ignorance, “Mrs. Burnett, Duke isn’t a college! It’s a basketball team!”

Of course I was stunned by his lack of knowledge, but I suppose that each of us sometimes demonstrates ignorance about certain things. I got my own comeuppance when visiting the town of Cambridge, England. For most of my life I had thought that the place known as Cambridge was just the land where a prestigious university stood, rather than a center of work and home for regular people. I had little idea that there was a Cam river across which a bridge was built that may have given the place its name. It wasn’t until I was watching Granchester on PBS that I realized how little I actually knew about the city of Cambridge, England.

On the second day of our great road trip adventures we headed to Cambridge. It’s quaintness and the friendliness of its citizens struck us almost immediately as we attempted to operate a parking meter. A kindly meter man approached and showed us how we might get a refund on the money we had already put into the machine. Instead he suggested that we go closer to the center of town where we would have unlimited time to park without having to worry about feeding the meter again and again. It ends up that he was originally from Poland but had chosen Cambridge as his home many years earlier when he had become a huge fan of the place and a source of great information.

With his advice in mind we set out in search of the city center noting the rolling green parks, the quaint homes, and the general neatness of Cambridge. As we walked down the main street we had a real sense of the people who lived and worked there, as well as the pride they had for their town. Soon we were in the heart of the university itself with its many colleges and buildings dating from medieval times. The architecture was striking, but we wanted more than anything to see Kings College with its chapel built during the reign of Henry VII with its distinctive architecture known as Tudor Vertical.

We had first heard about this remarkable creation from the Rice University professor who lead our class on the Tudor kings and queens this past spring. He had shown us images of the kinds of cathedrals that were typical during the time and then flashed a photo of the Kings College Chapel with a comment that the people who first saw it must have been awed by the light afforded by the long tall windows. Somehow we knew from that moment that we would have to see the place with our own eyes.

For the time being, however, we were hungry because it was long past lunchtime so we found a place that offered a wonderful luncheon menu at a remarkable price. I suppose that we are more accustomed to living in the fourth largest city in the United States than in a small town like Cambridge. We assumed that everything would be open at least until dark but soon learned how wrong we were when we attempted to gain entry to the Kings College Chapel. Our way was blocked by a woman who insisted that it was closed to tourists for the remainder of the afternoon to prepare for Evensong at 5:00. Not to be deterred from seeing this wonder, I inquired as to whether or not we might be allowed to participate in Evensong and to my delight learned that it was open to the public.

We spent the next couple of hours wandering through quaint shops, perusing the open market stalls, sampling fudge, and walking along the Cam River. Guides were using long poles to move boats along the tree lined water as people lounged on pillows while enjoying the view. We saw the Mathematics Bridge, a marvel of both art and science as well as many other chapels and interesting buildings. By five we were first in line for Evensong and waited expectantly for our chance to enter Kings College Chapel.

In the interim we met a wonderful man who explained that many of the places were closed to the public that week because students were busy taking exams. He also mentioned that if we wanted to just view the chapel without participating in the full Evensong gathering we would be able to sit in the back and leave quietly whenever we were done.

Kings College

Soon we were witnessing the magnificent chapel that was even more awe inspiring in person than in pictures. We had been cautioned not to take photographs and to respect the prayerful intent of the occasion but we nonetheless snuck a shot or two without bringing notice to our infractions.

The ceremony itself was outstanding. The choir was composed of students and the inclusion of female voices added a resonance to the singing that head been missing in the music of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a quite lovely experience that provided a moment to meditate on both the constancy of tradition and the inevitable changes of life.

I thought of the incredible people who had lived and worked at Cambridge University, giants like Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. I wondered at the history of the college and the town itself. I felt a sense of ease and peace, closing my eyes to feel the flow of the river that had seen so much genius and so many instances of humanity. Once again the voices of history entered my head and blended with the sonorousness of the choir. It was glorious.

It was dark by the time we had returned to London. We were much calmer about my brother Pat’s driving and we felt quite content. We had walked in the shadow of giants and now also knew that Cambridge was more than we had ever thought it to be. In life there are both constants and variables and we had seen them both.

Punting on the Cam