Cambridge UK: 1989 and 1996

Reflections On Cambridge 1989

The Flat

Bill & Ellen's flat at 16 Beaufort Place looked out across the river Cam and into the Magdalene College gardens and came equipped with a proper British toast rack and electric tea kettle. Starting in the Spring the squeals and shouts of first time punters rolled up into our window. American creature comforts (a shower, a garbage disposal) in a Cambridge setting. Bill drove an Austin Maestro with right-hand drive. There was at least a full inch and a half clearance between the wing mirrors and the garage doorway. (Bill doesn't want to know how wide an older garage would be).

The Town

Bill's route to work takes him by Francis Crick's house on Portugal Place with its single (sic) helix over the door, past Heffer's (world's second best bookstore) on Trinity St., and along Kings Parade past Kings College Chapel--a joy to walk.

A wonderful medieval city with modern traffic. Bill watched once day while a bus driver found that he could not get through New Park Street because there were cars parked (illegally) on both sides. He did not blow his horn or curse. He simply got one of the passengers and together they bounced the car up on to the curb enough for the bus to pass. Ellen once found herself in a queue of over 20 people in Sainsbury's, our local grocery store. The Brit behind her said "This is just like the motorway." The lorry drivers from out of town find Cambridge hopeless and so Bill, who apparently looks like a native, is frequently stopped on his walk to work by driver's who are desperate to find a Cambridge address. Bill learns he can't have a newspaper if he stays at the office after 6:00 P.M. and Ellen develops a rule--never pass an open food store without picking up some milk.

Brit Culture

Bill counts a full 7 "thank yous" in the course of purchasing a single filled roll at Nadia's. Bill and Ellen learn English as a second language and master words such as "hob," twee," "dummy," "DIY," and "lollipop lady." Bill & Ellen watch a fascinating one hour show about the service area on the M-1 at Watford Gap. The vicar of St. Clement comes for a visit and says that the Church is going to the dogs what with the talk about lady vicars and all.

The Undergraduates

We enjoyed looking in on college life at this Cambridge. They are a lively bunch. We watched a human chess game at Queens' College with Clive Sinclair, of computer fame, as a black knight and Jeffrey Archer, the novelist, as a black bishop. We watched the "May Bumps" from Grassy Corner. The bumps are a form of intercollege rowing (designed for narrow rivers) in which the crews start several lengths apart and then try to bump the boat in front. We went with our children to sherry and formal supper at Sidney Sussex (the undergrads who showed us around claimed that they didn't know where in the garden Oliver Cromwell's head was buried). During Rag Week we watched "bird men" (crazy undergrads dressed as birds) jump off the Silver Street bridge into the Cam. We went to the Cambridge Union Society and listened to a discussion of KGB recruiting in Cambridge over the years. During the May Balls (which, by tradition, occur in June) we strolled the streets of Cambridge and watched the undergrads in formal dress queue in front of the college gates. We watched part of the Cambridge Open tiddlywinks championship at Queens' College.

The University

We listened to the master of St. Johns give a talk about his role in breaking the Ultra codes during WWII. We watched Cambridge play cricket at Fenner's Field (we stayed for about 2 hours which means we saw only 5 or 10% of that particular game). We were invited to the Senate House to watch Prince Philip give Stephen Hawking, the physicist, an honorary degree (few dry eyes in the house as Hawking's wheel chair moves jerkily to the front of the hall).


We heard Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Haydn's Creation in Trinity College. We heard Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the Corn Exchange. We listened to Mozart and Haydn in Christ College. We heard Handel's Israel in Egypt and Bach's St. Matthew's Passion in Kings College Chapel. We heard the Cambridge Taverner choir at Jesus College (Ellen's pick as the best of our sabbatical). Ellen went to evensong in Kings College Chapel so frequently that she got so she could recognize many of the choir members on sight.

Cambridge 'Good Guys'

In our travels in Europe we often picked some famous person that we liked and visited the places associated with that person. We did the same with Cambridge. We found the philosopher, Wittgenstein's rooms in Whewell's Court and his grave in St. Giles church yard. We found Darwin's rooms at Christ's College. We saw the North Cloister's of Trinity College where Newton is said to have measured the speed of sound. We found the Eagle, the pub where Watson and Crick, after a few pints, announced to the world that they had "found the secret of life."

Reflections On Cambridge 1996


Cambridge was its glorious self. There was an unforgettable walk along the Backs one snowy morning. The joy of walking into Heffers and finding a wanted scholarly book just sitting on the shelf. The voices of Kings College choir soaring to the vaulted ceiling of Kings College Chapel. Students in formal wear rushing down a medieval cobblestone street to some College affair. (On Bill's first visit to Cambridge (Summer, 1980), he described it to Ellen as The Platonic Form of a University that all other Universities were trying to match. It still looks that way to him--sorry about that Oxford and Harvard.)


Bill and Ellen lived in the quaint section of Cambridge known as Newnham. We were across the Cam from the colleges and a 12 min. walk to Bill's office at the APU. His walk took him across a footbridge over the Cam through Sheeps Green (which has no sheep, but in the Spring will have cows), Lammas Land, and Coe Fen. On many days he passed families of swans gliding along the Cam. Our flat was nestled between the Red Bull pub and the Hat and Feathers pub. Newnham has a butcher, greengrocer, baker, chemist, post office, and off-license grocery (run by the obligatory Indian couple). After several months Ellen eventually learned the European way of visiting her Newnham baker and butcher every day. The fish and chips truck came by on Mondays and Thursdays.

The Flat

When we arrived in Jan. there was no central heat or hot water. We managed to get the central heat cut back on by the first night, but it was three days before we had hot water. This did not disturb us as much as it would most Americans since on our last sabbatical it took three days to get the central heat turned on! (We think this is all part of a plan used to toughen up us Colonials for UK indoor temperatures.) The flat had no heat in one of the bedrooms, but a heated towel rack in the bathroom. The bathroom scales measured weight in stones (14 lbs. to the stone). The clothes washer could do two sheets at a time, but the dryer could only handle one.

Culture Shock

Given that we lived in England only seven years ago one would think we could slip right back into Brit life. While it was considerably smoother this time we did need some relearning. When the rental TV man set up our TV and showed me how to get channels 1-4, I made the mistake of asking how I got the other channels (wrong ). Ellen kept forgetting to take her own bags with her when she went shopping. Ellen was very pleased when she found "press 'n' seal" bags at the big Sainsbury supermarket (baggies hadn't been invented over here on our last sabbatical). Her face did drop when she opened the box to find they were plastic bags with some sticky tape on them (they actually work reasonably well). The TV did not changed. One night BBC 2 spent most of the night showing the snooker finals--the sheep dog trials will be televised later in the year (hint, most of Brit TV is NOT sent to the US to be shown on PBS). A weather forecast for "bitterly cold" or "Siberian cold" meant that it was going to drop down to freezing.

Brit Culture

A Brit lady told Ellen that in places in the University where there are lots of Americans they have trouble keeping the servers since they feel the Americans are insulting them by not being polite. However, Ellen found it hard to say: "thank you" as she hands her purchase to the clerk, "thank you" as the clerk takes it, "thank you" as she hands her money, "thank you" as the clerk hands back the item. She is also found it hard to say "sorry" to an individual who steps on your foot or almost knocks you over.

Bill found it hard to queue in the discussion period after an academic talk (proper behavior is for an individual who wants to ask a question to catch the eye of the chair who then keeps a mental or written list and calls on each person in turn) Most American academics don't realize this and impolitely jump the queue. While the Brit approach may be orderly and helps the less aggressive folk get a word in, it does have the result that the questions and comments don't follow one another and jump from topic to topic in an erratic way.

We retained much of our English English. A few new lexical items: Older folks here are called OAPs (which stands for Old Age Pensioners). We have realized why fanny packs are called "bum bags" ("fanny" is an obscene term in English English). Bill liked the sign he saw in a store: "Thank you for your custom."

Culture Theory?

Bill developed several theories about Brit culture that serve to explain many surface differences between England and the US. For example Brits believe that one should heat only the smallest volume of space possible. Thus a sweater during the day and thick duvet at night are optimum solutions. It also explains why in the University Library it is common to see people sitting with their coats and scarves on reading and taking notes. If you are going to go all out and heat a larger space then the thing to do is to keep the heat low and heat only one room (that explains why most rooms have doors between them).

Another general principle is that in England people will use their time to save money, where in the US we have an underlying ethos that one should use money to save time. This, at least partly, accounts for the lack of microwaves, dishwashers, garbage disposals, etc., and why it takes me 10 (sic) steps to get icecubes from our refrigerator. It also accounts for the lack of fast food in the UK.

The University

The major administrative body announced that "the Council have considered the remarks made by Dr. Horton and Mr. Bell, who criticized the proposed use of black fur in the hood for the new degree as an unacceptable innovation..." At Cambridge an undergraduate's entire class standing is determined by a set of exams (tripos) given at the end of their third year. In a report on last year's Philosophy Tripos it was noted that "good handwriting helps candidates , bad handwriting counts against them, not just because the University regulations say so,..." (Clearly with Bill's handwriting there would have been no university honors for him!). One day when Bill was visiting Trinity College he watched a faculty member deviate off the straight path to his goal to walk on the wet grass (presumably because ONLY Fellows of Trinity are allowed to walk on the grass!)


There was much music. The Cambridge Taverner Choir singing Taverner in Jesus College Chapel, sung Eucharist with orchestra at St. Johns Chapel (she cried), evensong at Kings College Chapel (going out live on the BBC). Bill also has vivid memories of the time they came in late to the CUMS's performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and ended up sitting about 15 feet from the drums.


A talk by the chemist H. Kroto who described how he worked out the structure of Buckminsterfullerene ("buckyballs"). A lecture on cosmology by the physicist Frank Close. A lecture on the structure of infant dinosaurs found in dinosaur eggs. A lecture and demonstration of the math of card shuffling by the Harvard mathematician, Persi Diaconis. A talk on false analogy in art history, by the art historian, Ernst Gombrich. Probably the high point of the season was a talk by Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles on his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem (Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking was also in the audience).

Random Observations

We greatly enjoyed the visit of the Chuck and Alice Corbett, a couple Bill has known since high school. A very memorable part of this visit involved punting on the Cam. However, due to a solemn four-way vow of silence no additional information about this event will be forthcoming. Bill met a man who owns two Nobel prizes (both his father and grandfather had won them). Ellen saw a cow fall into the Cam. A notice Bill saw in Queens' College: "No smoking in hall with the exception of after the loyal toast at matriculation dinner."

Cambridge 'Good Guys'

Bill found the original floor plans of the Old Cavendish Laboratories, New School Lane, Cambridge (Nature, June 25, 1874) and thus was able locate the original building. He thinks this building is probably the world's most impressive scientific landmark. It was designed by the physicist, James Maxwell, to be the first specially designed physics lab in the world. In this lab J. J. Thompson discovered the electron, James Chadwick discovered the neutron, and Watson & Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA. The building now houses the Social and Political Sciences, but the past still lives--Bill was able to find the original lecture hall that Maxwell lectured in and there were health notices on the bulletin board about that fact 42 kg of mercury had recently been discovered under the floor boards!

Back to Bill's Personal Page
Last updated January 30, 2000 by EFB