We met a tour guide from London Walks at Kings Cross rail station and traveled to Cambridge to visit this medieval town and the university that has been a respected institution since 1280. After a 45 minute ride we were picked up by a bus. When the Cambridge rail station was first built the college did not want the students to be distracted by the possibility of day tripping into London, so they placed the station way out of town. Along the way we stopped briefly to step onto American soil at the cemetery where many of our soldiers were buried during WWII rather than being sent home in coffins. A wall alongside the headstones lists the names of the MIA including Joseph P. Kennedy and Glenn Miller.
The British university system is very different from ours. The university builds the lecture buildings and laboratories, but students apply for admission to various colleges on campus. Once admitted they can study anything at any college with the assistance of an expert in their field who meets with them in very small groups. They can skip the lectures, but have to attend the college seminars if they want to earn a degree. The college has dorms, dining halls and chapels. Since many of these buildings were built over 800 years ago they are historically significant, but not necessarily all that comfortable for a student who wants a hot shower nearby and a spot to plug in all his electrical devices. After Henry VIII confiscated huge tracts of land from the Catholic Church he endowed it to the university and it remains one of the wealthiest institutions in Britain as a result. Most of the colleges were for men only and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into modern coed times. Ironically some of the colleges were begun and endowed by women who could never attend them. Until the 60's students had to wear black robes (that look like the ones we graduate in) at all times so everyone who saw them would know that they were students. Many of the colleges have their main buildings arranged on a courtyard with putting-green quality grass in the middle. Younger students (and tourists) must always walk around the edges, never on the grass. Students are not allowed to bring cars on campus; even Prince Charles rode a bike followed by a security agent on a bike. As we walked we were always in danger of being run over by a two wheeler whizzing by.
Hearing about all the learning and accomplishments at Cambridge was as important as seeing the amazing old buildings on campus. We spent a lot of time in the chapel at Kings College, an enormous building with elaborate stone filigree on the arched ceiling that looked like lace. It took over a century to build and has the largest fan vault in the world and some of the finest medieval stained glass. Light streamed in from huge stained glass windows that illustrated stories from the Old Testament in the top panels and the New Testament below. If you looked carefully you could also see lots of symbols referring to the Tudors, the folks that paid many of the bills. During WWII all the glass was removed for safe keeping and put back up again.
There were many modern buildings as well on the perimeters of the campus. These days some are built in partnership with major corporations. Microsoft built the computer building for example, and trains future employees there. Watson & Crick figured out how DNA is structured on campus. Darwin attended Cambridge and left many of the animal samples he gathered on his voyage on the Beagle on campus. Newton was an early student and professor. We saw an apple tree with branches grafted on from the tree that dropped the apocryphal apple on his head that led him to deduce gravity. Alan Turing worked on campus during WWII to build the enigma machine that enabled the military to translate the encrypted message the Nazi's were sending from Berlin to their commanders bringing the war to a more rapid end. Stephen Hawking is a notable graduate. There is a huge rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge; Oxford is an even older institution, We were not allowed to say "Oxford;" instead we had to say "the other place."
After hours of walking and talking it felt good to go punting on the Cam River that flows through campus. These boats are poled through the shallow water by professionals in our case or you can rent a boat and try to get around on your own. Seeing the campus from water level and sailing under all the bridges that each college has built over the Cam was so picturesque.