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Best Not To Leave It So Long

June 28, 2017

Punts and punters on the River Cam.

“We would come back again, but it would never be the same… There would never again be a ‘first time’”. – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Those were the words I inscribed into the front flyleaf of the journal I was to keep of my own ‘first time’ abroad.  Those words and that book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, had whetted my appetite to travel, and when I was given the opportunity to spend a college semester abroad, I brought my copy of Hearts along with me to Europe.

I was a year younger than Cornelia and Emily when I spent the summer and fall semester of my senior year studying in England, first in Cambridge and then later in Oxford.  So it seemed fitting that I should pay a visit to my old stomping grounds in Cambridge, where my whole “first time” had begun.

It had been at least a quarter of a century since I had last been in Cambridge, so I took my time on the walk from the train station to the center of town to really take in where I was, and hopefully connect to this place which held so many joyful memories for me.

As I got close to the city centre, I unexpectedly came upon a massive 21st century shopping mall called the Grand Arcade.  There was no telling what it had swallowed up when that behemoth had been wedged into the cozy streets of Cambridge.  Yes, yes, time marches on and you can’t stop progress and all that, but this was not a welcome discovery for me, nor a happy beginning to my stroll down memory lane.

I walked from there over to the entrance to King’s College, one of Cambridge University’s most revered colleges.  It had been here that I had stood almost 30 years ago, frozen in wonder as a man with dark hair and glasses came through the college’s gate in his motorized chair, followed by a small entourage.  It was the summer of 1988, when ‘A Brief History of Time’ was taking the scientific world and the bestseller lists by storm.

And there I was, face to face with the book’s author, Stephen Hawking. 

He and his posse were past me within an instant, and I could only stand and stare after them, marveling in disbelief that I had just crossed paths with the most brilliant mind on the entire planet.

But had it been right here?  Or had this happened at the other entrance to the college, the one facing the Queen’s Road?  It had been such a profound moment, a treasured memory, and yet it had slipped a little from my grasp.  How could I have let my recall become fuzzy like that?

From there I wove through a small, winding street to the tucked-away entrance to Clare College, where my study abroad program had been held.  I passed through the main quad, where we had come for classes and meals in the buttery (the college cafeteria), to the Clare College bridge, arguably the prettiest bridge along the Backs (the name given to the area along the River Cam where a number of colleges back up to the water).  The view from the bridge is the stuff of picture postcards – the exquisite gardens, punters on the river, the sublime King’s College Chapel overlooking a meadow filled with lazy, grazing cows.

For a while I watched the punts pass beneath the bridge, going up and down the river.  Some of my happiest memories of Cambridge were of punting alongside the colleges with my fellow Stephens women, and I delighted in watching nervous, intrepid souls attempt to steer their little boats.  But not all of the punts were small.  Outnumbering the traditional punts were supersized versions of the boats that seated four across.  They were filled with as many tourists as could cram in, and these “puntoons” took up most of the space on the crowded waterway.

Disheartened by this sight, I directed my attention to seeing if I could still locate a secret I knew about the bridge.  It was as I remembered.  That buoyed my faltering spirits.  And then I took a moment to stand in the spot where I had been kissed by a cricket player named Andrew on one of those lovely summer evenings in 1988.  Speaking as a rabid anglophile, I feel compelled to say that it is very satisfying to have been kissed by a cricket player on the Clare College bridge.

I continued on across the Queen’s Road and walked down the drive to Thirkell Court, the residence hall where our group of nine Stephens women had stayed that summer.

Things had changed there, too.

The Henry Moore sculpture that had resided in the courtyard was nowhere to be seen.  Inside, the hallways which were once lit only by the natural light coming through the windows and a smattering of single bulbs, now appeared to be perpetually under interrogation, almost glowing from the white glare of oversized fluorescents in the ceiling.  Upstairs, the bathroom’s subway tiles and swimming pool-sized cast iron tub had been replaced by a pair of shower units with an unfortunate tile design that never had been nor ever will be fashionable.

They were insignificant changes, really, but they all made me feel disconnected and a bit sad, and I was ready to get out of there.  Adding insult to injury, I couldn’t find the building’s “secret passageway” – i.e. the after-hours way to get in and out once the gates to the courtyard were locked for the night.  How could this be lost to me, after all of the times I’d traipsed through there?  Ah, misspent youth…

Frustrated by this, I left through the front door and headed back across the Queen’s Road to the footpath that ran along the Backs.

I made my way along the path, pausing at Trinity College and Newton’s Mathematical Bridge.  Spanning the River Cam, this 18th century wooden structure had been designed by Sir Isaac Newton, and was constructed without using nails or bolts.  Somewhere along the line – one of our professors had explained to us – a group of scholars had disassembled the bridge in order to understand Newton’s design, and then found that they could not put it back together, and had to resort to using nails and bolts to reassemble it.  What an idiotic thing for them to have done.  Such a waste and a shame.

Except none of it is true.  And here’s the kicker:  I didn’t know that the Newton story was an urban legend until just now, this very moment, writing this post, when I was double-checking the college on Wikipedia. At least this one illusion hadn’t been shattered for me right there in Cambridge that day.

I crossed to the other side of the Silver Street bridge, passing a large group of tourists waiting in line for their turn on the river.  I went down the ancient set of steps from the bridge to the landing where a number of proper punts floated idly next to the crowded boarding area for the puntoons.

It was here at this landing by The Anchor pub that we had docked that day almost thirty years, on our first outing in a punt.  Having been given a 90-second tutorial in how to move and steer the boat by one of our professors, a few of us had taken on the challenge and quickly succeeded in learning at least the rudimentary points of punting.  Figuring that the occasion called for some celebratory wine, Sally, Deborah and I waited in the boat while Jennifer and Stephanie went to The Anchor to score a couple of bottles.  Ten minutes later they returned with not only the wine, but some cute English boys as well, who joined us in the punt.  Our one-hour excursion turned into five hours on the river, filled with flirting, riotous laughter, and a few of us ending up with dates for that evening.  Tourists take note:  That is how you go punting.

After grabbing a few photos of the boats, I went back up and over the bridge to The Anchor itself where, mercifully, I found that the place had hardly changed at all.

This stop was to be the big finish to my day, where I would raise a glass to times past, and to all of those with whom I had shared my youthful adventures.  And what better way to toast on a warm, sunny day, than with the quintessential English summer drink, Pimms and lemonade?  I had been introduced to that marvelous concoction right here in this very establishment, by that cricket player from the Clare College bridge.

I took my drink out to the platform area overlooking the river and silently toasted to old friends and glorious memories, then took a sip of my Pimms.  After the discouraging morning I had just experienced, it was only fitting, really, that the drink tasted watered down and flavorless, and not as I had remembered it.  Appropriately symbolic of the day I was having.

It had been a rougher landing than I had expected, here in Cambridge.  Clearly, the long stretch of time between my visits had caused small, gradual changes to appear large and drastic.  Or maybe my memories had gone awry.  I left The Anchor feeling as flat as my drink had been.  It was time to return to London.

Back on the train, I reflected on the day, trying to work out if I had gotten any of… well, whatever it was I had come for.  Why had it been easier to connect to Cornelia’s and Emily’s past than to my own?  And then in a moment of clarity, I remembered the postscript I had written for my first journey abroad.

In 1988, on the back flyleaf of that journal of mine, I had inscribed, “I would come back again, but it would never be the same.  There would never again be a first time”.  Those prophetic words had come back around to me today, and were ringing in my ears.  There was no surprise nor sting in them, but nevertheless I had been blindsided.  I had gone to Cambridge anticipating a day of happy nostalgia, only to find myself standing precisely in the moment where that postscript of mine had become reality, a fact, completely and utterly true.

Below: The Clare College Bridge and Gardens; Punting beneath Trinity College’s Mathematical Bridge.

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