We haven’t had much of a summer this year. A grey cold damp winter flowed seamlessly into an equally grey summer, albeit warmer, with only a few sunny days. Our recent trip to Norfolk had been damp and cold. Normally, we would book somewhere with guaranteed sunshine, but overseas travel has meant a confusing mass of rules and restrictions with countries randomly flopping from green to amber and back again.
“The weather looks better next week, we could go to Cambridge,” I said.
“Okay,” said Madam, “but I get to choose the hotel.”
I’ve always liked Cambridge. We even thought about living there for a while. Secretly, I was always hoping that being among all those smart people would boost my own IQ by a sort of geographical osmosis. And there’s a lot of awfully smart people who have worked in the city. There’s an unassuming building on a quiet backstreet, close to the centre of the city, called the Cavendish Laboratory. Well, technically it’s the original laboratory site as they moved to larger premises further out of town in 1974. This one department alone has been responsible for no less than thirty Nobel Prizes including those for discovery of the electron, neutron, and the structure of DNA. That’s more than most countries. Cambridge University as a whole has 121 Nobel Laureates, beaten only by Harvard University with 161. Cambridge has an income of a little over £2 billion a year, compared to Harvard’s over $40 billion.
“What time is our train?” asked Madam.
“What time is our taxi?”
“I figured I would book one for 10:40.”
“There might be roadworks.”
“What about queues at the ticket office?”
“Okay 10:30 then.”
“There might be a long queue. Remember that trip three years ago when we missed our train.”
“We can wait there just as easily as here.”
I booked a taxi for 10:20.
There weren’t any roadworks and there wasn’t a queue at the ticket office so we waited thirty minutes on the platform.
Our connecting train at Haywards Heath was cancelled, which meant that we would be 29 minutes late into Cambridge. This was bad news for Madam, but good news for me. Madam likes the shortest journey time, but I’m always hoping to get some money back from my ticket price. Trains are required to refund part of the ticket price with delays starting from 15 minutes. There’s another jump in refund if the delay is more than 30 minutes.
We caught the next Cambridge train which ground to a halt in one of the London stations.
“We are sorry for the delay in this train as we are waiting for a relief driver,” was the onboard announcement.
“Yes!” I called to Madam who was sitting four seats away, “a thirty minute delay!”
She didn’t look amused, but I’ll take £22 for thirty-six minutes of my time any day. It’s more than I can earn stacking shelves in a supermarket. It wasn’t a bad journey, apart from one annoying woman who chose to sit behind me and have a loud phone conversation two feet from my ear. She started with the speaker on and the whole carriage could hear both sides of the conversation. Why do some people think we want to hear every detail about their personal lives? Mercifully, she turned off the speaker after a few minutes, so we only had to listen to her shout into the phone for the next thirty minutes.
We took a taxi from the station to the hotel. Madam had picked one of the pricier four-star hotels in the city centre rather than our normal budget chain.
“Does our room have a view?” Madam asked the receptionist.
The receptionist seemed confused and looked at her computer. She poked a few keys then looked out of the window as though seeking inspiration.
“A view?” She queried. I was starting to suspect she was unfamiliar with the concept.
She looked at her computer again. After a long pause, she said “no” and handed us our key.
She was wrong. There was a view of a large building site right underneath our window. “We won’t be needing an alarm call in the morning,” said Madam.
I started to unpack, then realised there was only a small shelf and a tiny wardrobe to store clothes. No drawers apart from a small one containing stationery in the desk.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a superior room in a four-star hotel,” I asked Madam.
I had stared to mentally calculate how much it was costing per square foot when she said, “well, I think it’s a lovely room. It has air-conditioning.“ She turned the AC down to a setting just below brass monkey.
I shuffled sideways, my back to the wall, to get to my side of the bed in the hope there might be a bedside cabinet with a drawer. Nope. No drawers.
Madam turned on her bedside lamp. There was a slight pop as the bulb blew.
“We should find somewhere to eat,” I said.
“Okay, but not Wetherspoons,” she replied, “definitely not Wetherspoons.”
Madam did something on her phone and found one that was acceptable. Something to do with the number of reviews and stars.
The restaurant host met us at the door and said, “You have to use contactless! We only do contactless now!”
We must have looked old and still only used cash or something. “Not a problem,” said Madam.
The host showed us to a table then added that we had to use our phones to order, which involved downloading their app. Their Wi-Fi wasn’t working properly and that took ages to download. I pressed open and it sat there spinning a little disc of their logo. I sat and watched it for several minutes. I finally shut it down and started again. Eventually, after several attempts, it presented me with a big button that said ‘Order.’ Finally, I thought. I pressed Order. You have to register! it told me. I was starting to get a little tense. I dutifully filled in my name and email, date of birth, phone number, blood type, sexual orientation and a few other details which I don’t recollect. I was hungry and had spent four hours on an uncomfortable train listening to loud phone conversations from an annoying passenger two feet from my ear. I may have been becoming a little intemperate by this point.
I pressed submit.
‘You need to agree to receive marketing emails!’ it insisted.
I ticked a box, agreeing to receive spam emails for the rest of my natural life and possibly into my third or fourth reincarnation.
I pressed submit again.
‘Now you need to enter an access code!” it breezily informed me.
Call me curmudgeonly if you like, but I used to design user interfaces for a living. Rule one was to make it easy for your customer to make a purchase. Tick a box and press the big green Order button. You do all the heavy lifting behind the scenes. You don’t leave your customer watching a spinning disc for five minutes, then make them jump through more hoops to place an order. Ninety-five percent of them will go elsewhere, which is precisely what we did. We went to Wetherspoons.
The hotel restaurant was empty when we went down to breakfast a little after 7:30. We were shown to a table in a bow window overlooking Parker’s Piece, a large open green area. A paper menu on our table listed the items available.
“There’s no baked beans on the menu,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s a baked beans sort of place,” Madam replied.
Indeed, it was not. The menu was full of items like mashed avocado, smoked salmon, seasonal fruit salad lightly honeyed with spices, Femme de Peupliers yogurt, granola with fruit compote and sweet potato waffle with apricots.
They were, however, happy to conjure up a couple of vegetarian sausages and fried eggs for me. The eggs had a light sprinkling of spring onions. I guess the chef just couldn’t control himself.
“Mmm, these croissants are amazing! The best I’ve ever tasted!” said Madam, “and the pain au chocolat is just as good!”
I had to agree that the breakfast was above the normal hotel standard, even without beans.
A man walked past the window, drinking his breakfast apéritif from a quarter bottle of whisky.
During the Covid restrictions all of the Cambridge museums require advance timed bookings, so I had reserved tickets for both the Fitzwilliam and the Archaeology and Anthropology museums last week. We spent several happy hours looking round every exhibit in both museums. Numbers of people at one time were limited, so it was relatively empty, which made everything easier to see and appreciate. Click on the link at the top of the blog for a few pictures.
We headed out towards the market, which I had remembered as one of the highlights of our last visit here four years ago. Unfortunately, it was a pale shadow of its former self. There were lots of empty pitches, those that were open were mostly food stall that didn’t seem to be doing a lot of business. Four years ago, it was thriving. It reminded me of Norwich market, which seems to have suffered a similar fate. I don’t know if it’s Covid related or just changing fashion, but I was sad to see it in decline.
Madam was looking at her phone for a dinner restaurant. “What sort of food do you want,” she asked.
We had been walking all day and my feet were aching, so I just said, “somewhere close. The closer the better. But not Wetherspoons.”
“Is 213 feet too far?” she asked.
The Tiffin Truck Indian restaurant was just across the road and was excellent.
After dinner, we adjourned to the hotel bar for cocktails. I think that’s what you are supposed to do in posh hotels. The bar has a unique list of their own cocktails named after significant Cambridge residents. The Beetle Collector (Charles Darwin), Sir Jack’s Bat (Jack Hobbs), The Secret of Life (Watson and Crick) and The Sixth Man (The Cambridge Spy Ring) among several others. I had one with Vodka, Persian rose, black pepper infused honey, lemon, and pomegranate molasses and a few other ingredients. Madam had something pink with several inches of foam on top.
When we stay in our normal budget chain, they are invariably playing the same CD in the bar. I believe it is called ‘Songs Guaranteed to Give you a Headache – Volume II.’ By the time the last track was ending and they were queuing Volume III, I would realise that I was losing brain cells at an alarming rate. I could hear them popping one by one. Not wishing to hasten dementia any earlier than necessary, we would go back to our room early and stare at the wall. I’m pleased to say the music here was much better. John Lennon, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac, so we were happy to spend much of the evening sitting in the bar. I might have ordered another cocktail if they hadn’t been over £10 each with a 12.5% service charge.
As we left the bar, we noticed a print in the hotel foyer. It was a picture of 15,000 people eating dinner on nearby Parker’s Piece in honour of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. Nothing strange about that apart from the fact your dinner would be cold by the time they had served the other 14,999, except that the print also showed 25,000 people watching. It seems that eating dinner was a spectator sport in Victorian times. Does anybody else find this odd?
Despite my earlier misgivings about the lack of storage space in the room, the hotel grew on me and I would stay there again. It was in a fantastic location – everywhere we wanted to go was within walking distance. The hotel staff were all pleasant, maybe a bit too much sir or madam and asking if everything is okay but I suppose some guests like that sort of thing. Certainly, every request we made was met with a positive and friendly response. In many other hotels, a request for another towel or an extra pillow are ignored or met with some excuse. Here they were delivered to our room in minutes.
“We should go punting,” said Madam the next morning.
I had a vision of wielding a long metal pole on a wobbly boat and probably ending up overbalancing and treading water until I could be rescued. I wondered if the RNLI stretched to river rescues.
“Ummm…” was all I could muster.
“There’s a tour,” said Madam, “somebody does all the work, we just sit and watch the scenery.”
I was happy to agree to that option.
We walked down to the Quayside on the river. There were half a dozen young men with clipboards all trying to sell us a tour from competing providers. We selected one at random and listened to his pitch. He claimed to have gone to the same university as me which was either a big coincidence or part of his sales patter. “how much?” I asked, interrupting his flow.
“£60 but you get a two seats for that!”
I must have hesitated as he immediately said, “For you, I can do £50 if you book now! I can match any price!”
Madam did something with her phone and held it up. “It’s only £35 online,” she said.
His shoulders slumped. “Did I really say I would match any other price?” he asked.
“So, £35 for both of us, then?” I said.
I’ve no idea what his commission was, but I suspect we weren’t his best sale of the day.
We had the whole of the front section of the boat to ourselves, while the other four passengers were squashed into the rear section. It was a nice trip, about forty-five minutes, along the river and under low bridges. You get to see the back of several colleges as their gardens back onto the river. We were all secretly hoping the young punter at the back of the boat would lose his balance and fall in. Or maybe just lose his pole, and we would all have to paddle with our hands but, apart from a slight stumble, he steered us without incident.
After the punt tour, we had a look round a few shops and headed to lunch at a Japanese noodle place we had seen yesterday. Madam placed our order on a big touch sensitive screen at the entrance, and we were each handed a bowl of noodles in a sauce and a pair of chopsticks. I’ve always thought of the Japanese as a clever race, so can anyone tell me why they haven’t come up with anything better than two thin sticks for eating noodles? I thought I knew how to use chopsticks. I can pick up a single grain of rice. But noodles? Wet noodles are long and thin and slippery. I made several attempts, coming within inches of my mouth before the noodles would slip back into the bowl, splashing several adjacent tables.
I was about to give up and ask for a knife and fork and a bib, possibly two bibs and maybe a towel for my lap, when I noticed a young Japanese couple eating at an adjacent table. I watched surreptitiously. Now they really knew how to use chopsticks. The secret, I learned, is to put your face close to the bowl, guide a noodle end into your mouth and suck. I felt, and probably looked like, a dog eating from a bowl, but I finished my lunch with only splattered glasses. And sauce in my hair, as I discovered later. My shirt needed a wash anyway.
The following morning we spent 90 minutes in the Zoology Museum where they have an astonishing large display of preserved and stuffed animals. Everything from fleas to elephants. I learned a lot but being old I don’t remember much except that flamingos eat with their heads upside down and that sloths and manatees are the only mammals not to have seven vertebrae in their neck. I’m waiting to inject these facts into conversation sometime soon in order to impress people.
“Hey, did you see the football match yesterday?”
No, but I do know that flamingos eat with their heads upside down. And here’s an interesting fact about sloths…”
I think it will go down well at parties.
Cambridge is endowed with several large parks and green open spaces, variously called Pieces, Greens or Commons. We plotted a route through Parker’s Piece, Christ’s Pieces, Midsummer Common and Jesus Green, then along river and back through the city. It looked a long way on the map but it was a lovely walk and only took a couple of hours including a sit down by the river. That’s one of the beauties of Cambridge, it’s an eminently walkable city. Nothing is very far away and there are lots of pedestrian and green areas.
We booked at the Eagle pub for dinner which bills itself as the most famous pub in Cambridge. Its primary claim to fame is that, in 1953, pub regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced to the world – or at least to their mates in the pub – that they had discovered the double helix structure of DNA. There’s a plaque in one of the back rooms marking the spot of their announcement should you find yourself that way. Crick and Watson were deservedly awarded the Nobel prize in 1962.
It’s a pleasant pub consisting of several wood panelled rooms which give it a cozy and convivial atmosphere. Due to Covid it was table only service. Normally you have to fight your way to the bar through the crowds then back to your table spilling your drinks on your shoes as you go. Now somebody bring them to your table and only their shoes get wet. The waiter did splash some beer on the table so that we didn’t miss out on any of the experience. We both had their vegetarian burger which was excellent.
The fire alarm sounded at 4am. It was loud. Correction, it was very loud. We were both fast asleep, but probably equalled the world record for achieving a standing position from a deep slumber. It stopped after a thirty seconds, so I just ignored it and lay down again. All through the hotel I could hear doors opening and shutting as people stuck their heads out sniffing for smoke. Two minutes later was the sound of toilets flushing. A few more minutes passed before we could hear the sirens of ambulances ferrying heart attack victims to hospital. I made up that last bit, but my heart was beating its own crescendo against my chest wall, and it took me a long time to get back to sleep.
“Did you see any impressionist paintings?” I asked Madam over breakfast.
“No, did you?”
Did you see any post-impressionist paintings?”
“No, did you?”
Did you see the hall with all the statues?”
“No, did you?”
We realised that we had somehow missed an entire section of the Fitzwilliam museum earlier in the week, so we were waiting on the doorstep when it opened at 10:00am. We were told that several galleries were closed on different days due to staff shortages, including the one with impressionist paintings on our previous visit. Employees were being pinged by the Covid test and trace app and told to isolate at home for ten days. The whole country has been plagued by what the press are calling a ‘Pingdemic.’ and there are demands for its sensitivity to be reduced. Over one and a half million people were pinged last week alone.
We all have this app on our mobile phones which we use to scan a QR code whenever we enter a building. It also uses Bluetooth to contact other nearby users. It is supposed to tell us when we have been in contact with somebody who later tests positive for Covid. I don’t know what the criteria are for a positive match. I don’t know anybody who does. There’s some debate as to whether anybody, bar the developers, know. It’s something to do with distance and time and quite possibly the phase of the moon and your star sign. As far as anybody can say it uses the same criteria for a couple in an intimate embrace as for two people, both wearing masks and separated by a screen.
Anyway, we spent another two hours in the museum including the gallery we missed last time and also their special exhibition ‘The Human Touch’ and, so far, we remain ping free. It really is a wonderful museum. You should go there immediately.