My first visit to Cambridge was inspired by seeing a film partly set in the city. It’s called ‘x&y’, which features a teenager with autism who enters the International Mathematical Olympiad. It is also partly set in Taiwan but getting there is much harder. When I saw it, I was thinking about taking a trip in the autumn. I had booked flights to go to London and decided to link it all together, staying in Cambridge and going to London as well. Cambridge was an unknown. It looked nice in the film and that was enough to take me there. On Monday, I made sure I pointed out to my dad one of the key locations in the film, a Chinese restaurant where Nathan and his mum have a heart-to-heart conversation. It isn’t In Bruges, which inspired countless weekend breaks to Belgium but it was good enough for me.
If I’ve been somewhere before, I tend to be able to find my way around again. I bought an A-Z for Cambridge but it was surplus to requirements, as my (mostly) photographic memory was more than sufficient to guide us around. It is a very walkable place, flat and with only a few key routes through the city centre. We were staying just across the river from Jesus Green, reached from the city by Portugal Place, a pleasant side street that felt more in place in a village, with bikes tethered to each railing. It was amazing how quickly Cambridge and its streets became familiar, the best thing about a small city.
On Wednesday, we took in the Fitzwilliam and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, finishing with a brief visit to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science. The Sedgwick was mind-blowing in the best way, enough of an insight into geology to make us feel thoroughly ignorant. (Studying geology in some way has been on my to-do list for years but hasn’t happened yet.) It was also very old-fashioned with wooden display cases and type-written captions in some.
The Fitzwilliam was the main event. When I was last there in October, I felt it to be the best museum I had been in all year. It stands tonight, despite strong competition from the Science Museum. The Fitzwilliam combines art and antiquity in a magnificent way. On Tuesday night, we were watching the local news that featured the latest temporary exhibition at the Fitzwilliam, about ancient Egypt. I thought it would be chargeable, given the exhibition included mummies and the results of research using CT scans. Remarkably, though, it was free, for an exhibition that even in Edinburgh would have attracted a £10 entry free. Ancient Egypt doesn’t interest me that much, if I’m honest, but it was an excellent exhibition and worth seeing. There was also an exhibition of prints by Turner, Goya and Cornelius, which was excellent. One of the Turners depicted Norham Castle, not so far across the border from Dunbar, randomly.
My favourite bit of the Fitzwilliam is comprised of three rooms upstairs, in the art collection. The French art room in particular is stunning, housing paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Pissarro, Monet and Alfred Sisley. I made sure I spent the most time there, even going back before I left. Each of the walls had some absolute treasures, including a Monet of some red limestone cliffs that reminded me of Dunbar, as well as a Camille Pissarro study of a larger work that is not so many miles from here at Kelvingrove. Alfred Sisley’s paintings of French villages were beautiful. I just sat for ages before going next door to another favourite showing a young girl lying in reeds, reading, which is by Eduoard Vuillard.
Not so far away is a grand room painted in red with a mezzanine level. Above that was a magnificent ceiling. Words can’t do it justice. Below are some photographs. I walked around the mezzanine level three times, looking at the paintings at eye level first before next turning to the level just above me then finally to the ceiling. Sometimes it’s worth spending the extra time to take in the details.
Downstairs were the museum collections, which were largely classical. I particularly appreciated the display of Greek vases. Only last week in my OU course, I was studying Greek vases, with both black and red finishing so appreciated the revision. There’s always another dimension to any museum visit, in my experience. The Assyrian collections and those from Sudan expanded my comprehension ever so slightly again, reminding me, rightfully, that there is a world far beyond Europe and the Atlantic.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, nearby on Downing Street, only added to this. It manages to wonderfully combine a display of the archaeology of Cambridge downstairs and the upstairs collections of totem poles, canoes and objects from Papua New Guinea, the Inuit, Norway and many other places besides. The section upstairs was excellent, magnificently old-fashioned, though the modern section about archaeology (if that makes sense) was similarly good, showing objects arranged in layers in a museum case, shown behind a drawn-on map of Cambridge.
After this, we went to the Sedgwick and then had a last walk before home. The best thing about being in any place, and also the hardest, is leaving and not wanting to. I have been in many places in this country which I left quite cheerfully. Others I leave only reluctantly, wishing I could stay longer, sometimes for mere minutes, sometimes hours. Cambridge is a place to spend days, perhaps longer. I don’t imagine myself living there but that’s fine. You can appreciate a place without living there and giving all of yourself to it. There are magnificent museums and places to walk. It is special and for me, it all started with a film. I will be there again, absolutely. It might be a brief visit, maybe longer, but I will be there, walking the remembered walks like not too many days have passed.