Continuing from the last post, we left Reading, and headed to Cambridge – our HQ for this vacation.
We left Reading and reached Cambridge traveling by a combination of trains. We left for Paddington by the Great Western Railway, took the London Tube to reach King’s Cross, and then onwards to Cambridge by the Great Northern Railway. Wifi services were available in all the trains. As we had a lot of luggage – primarily mine, we took a cab home from the Cambridge railway station.
The above picture is a view of the Mathematical Bridge from the Queens’ College at Cambridge. This wooden footbridge – originally built in 1749 and rebuilt on two separate occasions – has been built to an unusually sophisticated engineering design arranging timbers.
Cambridge is exquisitely beautiful. I can say this with some degree of authority as Cambridge was our headquarters during this 3-week trip and we got a chance to explore the city many times over. I gather that the Cambridge City Council is quite well-funded. Cambridge being a heritage city and the Council being flush with funds, results in the city being extremely well maintained. I was to be appreciate this aspect more in the days to come.
As soon as we entered Sid & Prerana’s home, I was part of an Induction program set up by Sid to familiarise me with their home. There were several helpful do’s and don’ts. For instance, while drinking tap water is considered safe across the UK, Sid advised me against it as the water in their apartment complex is hard. Also, the hot version of the tap water was not to be consumed as chemicals are used to heat up the water.
Sid and Prerana live in a staff accommodation of the University of Cambridge at Eddington. With a U-Bus (University bus) stop, a well-stocked and reasonably large Sainsbury’s departmental store, and a string of cafes within walking distance, in my opinion, their home is in a strategic location. The streets around their apartment complex are named after famous scientists. Although the apartments are fully occupied, it is a quiet area. The only sound we get to hear is from the busy motorway. As the motorway is at quite a distance from the apartment complex, we get to hear only a constant hum – nothing disturbing!
As soon as we entered the home, we heard the smoke alarm device in the Living Room beep sharply. It meant that we had to change the 9-volt battery. The beep sounded more like a shriek – we could not have slept through the night. Anyway, Sid opened the device and kept it aside – we would get the battery changed first thing in the morning. The other ‘urgent’ task was to place the 1000-piece jigsaw (see below picture) of Cambridge that Sid & Prerana had so assiduously assembled over the last couple of months into a newly-arrived frame. That work went off smoothly.
Sid, being in the field of academics, is a master of his own time. Prerana, on the other hand, works a corporate role in an MNC, and like all MNC roles, is expected to log in a particular number of hours. Therefore, Sid was able to spend much more time with us while Prerana was available before and after office hours, during the breaks, and on the weekends. She had also taken a couple of days off during our stay there. As my wife, Jyothi, was also joining us after a week, both Sid and Prerana had planned the itinerary extremely well.
Given the availability of public transport in the UK in general (unlike in the US), visitors like us can move around independently without having to solely rely on our host’s availability to escort us everywhere. And, of course, the advantage of moving around in an English-speaking country is obvious to visitors like us.
The U-Bus runs on a set timetable but lately, some U-Bus services are being missed. A uniformed driver operates the swivel glass doors of the bus allowing people to get into and out of the bus. Most buses have a digital display board with voice support that alerts the passengers of the next stop. If passengers need to disembark, they need to press a Stop button installed inside the bus at convenient spots that alert the driver of the stop request.
All kinds of people take the bus. Many appear to be students – after all, Cambridge has a large student population all the time. I could also see senior citizens, some differently-abled people on wheelchairs and of course, many mothers taking the bus with their infants (in prams) and toddlers. What I loved about the bus experience is the unhurried way in which people gather at the bus stop, form queues, and disembark from the bus. No pushing or jostling, and no loud exchange of words…
Walk the talk!
Walking to work and cycling to work are very popular options. Most areas have a cycling track and in Sid’s Induction program, some of these elements were also included – how to identify a cycle track and stay clear of it while walking.
For both Jyothi & me, Cambridge turned out to be a Mecca of Walks. In the initial part of our Cambridge stay, we accompanied Sid everywhere. Whether he was going to the gym for his yoga or to Sainsbury’s, we followed him like a shadow. Later, as we explored the city, all of us walked at least 10 km every day. A few weeks before leaving Bangalore, as Sid had done before our visit to Edinburgh and Sydney, he had cautioned us of these long walks. Both Jyothi & I had built our stamina accordingly going regularly around our neighbourhood 23-acre Alahalli Lake. This regular activity seemed to have greatly helped.
My writing comes from deep observation
To me, as a writer, observation is everything. I can spend hours – if not days – at a bus stop, railway station, or an airport. I love sitting on a bench in the market area and just watch the world passing by. In this entire trip, I loved these opportunities. Cambridge is a melting pot of global culture. I got to see people of many nationalities and cultures. For a keen observer, there was so much at Cambridge. For instance, just sitting on a bench at the Market Square can offer so many perspectives. It is easy to tell tourists from residents. Tourists – like me – find everything interesting and stop abruptly on their tracks to spot something or to take a picture. Residents walk about their business without getting affected by interesting sights, sounds, and smells. They seem to have ‘normalized’ everything.
Cambridge’s Market Area is a combination of permanent structures like shops, the Lion Yard Mall & the Grand Arcade Mall – joined together – and a squarish area of temporary tent-like structures where most vendors hawk food and some sell trinkets. Many a time, we carried food from a vendor and sat on one of the wooden benches overlooking the tent-like structures. Sometimes, we could find performers like guitarists playing something – most of them looked like students to me.
And of course, I saw dogs.
Dogs is a big thing here. Of course, I always knew they were family. I think I saw the largest collection of breeds here. And they were everywhere – on the streets, in parks, in cafes, and in the malls. Many of the cafes had placed pet water bowls at the entrance. I have seen that most dog owners are happy to strike a conversation with complete strangers if it is about their dog. Almost all the dogs are very well behaved even when they are seen in close proximity of other dogs. Just on one occasion across these three weeks, I spotted one dog in the pocket city of Ely, take a swipe at its peer leaving both owners visibly shocked. I am sure, he would be headed to a counselling session shortly – I mean the dog, not the owner!
Wherever we went, we spotted innumerable cafes with open-air seating. There were so many of them that I often wondered if all of them could prosper.
Maybe not all the cafe owners expected their cafes to do well financially. Sounds counterintuitive? Well, this thought came to me as I know of an acquaintance in the UK who was a voracious reader of books and loved meeting people. Post retirement, he set up a bookstore in the UK. When I last spoke with him, he told me that the bookstore was not profitable but it catered to his passion of being amidst books and amongst people for the most part of the day, every day. In his view, the financial aspect – of not being profitable – was a small price to pay to pursue his life’s passion. One never knows people’s motivations in setting up such small businesses.
Coming up in the next post: more about life in and around Cambridge…