A Trip To See Friends & Family – Cambridge, UK
I’m baaaaaack! It’s been a crazy two weeks of near-constant travel (and not a moment to blog, sorry), but gosh have I experienced a lot and now I’m here to share it all.
When I left you I was on the brink of departure and a crazy 1200 km drive to my first stop in the UK. I was going to visit family and attend a University reunion in Cambridge then shoot off for my own folly, a 10-day exploration of the coast of Wales. The first took me down the road of memories long forgotten, bringing back all the feels and thoughts of my youth. The second took me for a wild ride down skin-puckering narrow roads to raw and gorgeous natural beauty, Neolithic burial chambers, stunning medieval castles and a coastline to die for.
Honestly, it was an incredible trip.
In the midst of all this the Queen’s funeral happened, and the English queued like only they can do. It was actually fascinating to experience it all right there and see how the country rallied around the event. An historic moment, no matter which way you look at it.
But all that is then and we are here now, at the beginning of the story and with a tale (or several) to tell. So, let’s get started shall we?
The Crazy Drive North
I don’t know what possessed me to think that driving across the entirety of France in one day was a good idea, but there you go.
The whole thing went pretty much as expected.
It was ~900km of long, mind-numbingly boring, brain-deadingly monotonous and exhausting road. I listened to endless podcasts, catching up on the entirety of This American Life and Hidden Brain, took multiple rest stops and downed no less than 4 double espressos in an attempt to keep my mind and reflexes sharp. The minimum necessary IMO.
The coffees were over-priced and none of the toilets had toilet seats (whyyyyyy?) but at least the French Autoroutes are good quality roads, and there’s always somewhere decent and convenient to stop. I’ve give them that.
Around 11 hours, EUR 40 of road tolls (and EUR 120 of diesel) later I arrived at the coast just in time to see the sun set over the white chalk cliffs of Dieppe. The town is actually really pretty, but frankly I was way too exhausted to enjoy it. So I schlepped my bags to my booking.com apartment only to discover I needed to schlep them up 4 flights of inhumanely narrow steps to a super-teeny apartment with a death-trap ladder to get to the upstairs bed. Not only that but there was no bed linen (??), just a bare mattress and duvet.
Who does this in a post-COVID world, and what was I thinking when I booked this listing??
I console myself with wine and cheese that I bought at the supermarket, spend a restless night in full clothing lying on my travel towel (not going to let my skin touch any of that iffy bare mattress), get up at the break of dawn to hunt down a morning espresso and arrive as the very first car at the ferry port.
I love you France, but right now I’m most definitely ready to leave you for a while.
An Easy Ferry Ride
The last time I took a ferry across the English Channel was a hovercraft sometime in the 80’s. I remember it as being rather loud and quite exciting, especially as the boat inflated and started to float over the sea. Plus it went so fast, the whole trip seemed to be over almost as soon as it started.
That particular option doesn’t actually exist anymore, and TBH it took me a while to figure out how I was going to cross this time around.
For those not in the know, there are actually tons of ways you can get from France to UK across the Channel. At its narrowest point in the East (Calais-Dover) you can cross over by either ferry or train (via the underground tunnel) the latter of which only takes around 35 minutes. Super fast and easy. As you go West along the coast however, the distance widens and several different ferry operators offer crossings some of which can take up to 9 hours on a super-slow overnight ferry. Oh, and if you’re bringing a dog only a few of those have dog-friendly cabins!
As if that’s not confusing enough, when I priced out all the options there were massive differences from £150 to £450 round trip, all to get from France to UK and back. Whaaaaat?
Thankfully I found a handy, dandy website to compare the different operators and routes: https://www.directferries.com/ and thanks to that I was able to narrow down my trip to the most inexpensive (and most direct distance-wise from our house), a DFDS ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven right around the middle of both coasts. It was perfect for my solo crossing and would have worked for the camping car too (even the dog, although Polly would have had to stay in LMB for the duration of the trip). Sold!
In the end it was an easy 4 hour ferry ride in a dated, but perfectly spacious ferry. There were extra checks each side (since Brexit, for passport and customs controls) and the food on board was over-priced and looked pretty average (I didn’t partake), but otherwise it was a really seamless and fairly enjoyable crossing.
“Middle of the road on the right, Nina, clockwise on the roundabouts”
I repeat this like a meditation mantra coming off the ferry. It’s a rather mind-bending thing to get on a ferry on one side of the road and then drive off on the other side, the “wrong way” as us Europeans (and most of the world) would put it, without any kind of mental prep. And although I did pass my driving license in the UK many, many, many years ago those memory banks have long since been wiped. On top of that you’ve got to switch from km and km/hr to miles and miles/hr and preferably before you actually start driving on the road.
Crap, where’s that setting on the car again???
Despite my nerves, I can’t hep but feel overjoyed. The sun is shining, it’s green everywhere and I couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to start my UK trip. I’m already thinking about food too. I’ve definitely got to have fish and chips, I really want a cream tea, I’d love a curry, no doubt a fully cooked breakfast (or two), and I must fit in some classic-cloyingly-sweet cakes too. My diet is going out the window for the near future, but it’s going to be soooo worth it.
Along the way I turn on BBC radio, my new and constant companion for the next two weeks. The Queen is now lying-in-state and I learn that the queue to view her coffin is 4 miles long and takes 9 hours to get through. The whole concept seems crazy to me, but I can’t help but admire the English sense of duty and loyalty, and their astonishing ability to stand patiently in an orderly line.
None of this would pass muster in France, I think.
That afternoon I make it to my brothers place just outside of Newmarket, aka the birthplace of thoroughbred horse racing. The races here are not quite as well-known as say Royal Ascot, but this is where the real work happens; the breeding, the training, equine medicine and research, and horse-related stuff is simply everywhere you look here. My brothers family has a cozy little house here, and I enjoy that evening and the next day with all of them, just hanging out and visiting the surrounding fields. I even get to pet a few horses 🙂
It’s been an awesome start to my trip.
On To Cambridge, UK
Another beautiful day.
BBC Radio informs me the queue to see the Queen is now 5 miles long and takes 14 hours to get through. Apparently officials asked folks to stop coming, but no one listened so they’ve relented and said they will cap the queue when it reaches 10 miles (10 miles!!!!!!).
I can’t even compute…
I drive to Cambridge, my old stomping grounds and park at Girton College where I used to study back in the day. Everything feels so very strange and unfamiliar. It’s odd to park a car (never owned one here), feels eerie to walk through the front door (it’s all changed) and seems so very out-of-body when I finally check-in to one of the students room in the brand-new (certainly never existed in my day) wing.
The next few hours are like a movie as I walk around the vast 65-acre grounds.
There are blips of memories, snapshots that pop-up in my mind, but they all seem blurred by the passage of time. Why is that?? I’ve dreamt of this place so vividly so many times since I left, so perhaps the imaginary has blended into the real and I can no longer tell them apart? Or maybe it’s just the time-warp of my middle-aged body walking through my twenty-something past, like a quantum paradox come to life? Either way, it’s such a weird feeling and I feel like more a ghost than a person, a wisp of specter that used to haunt these halls.
As I walk around however, the scents and feels slowly come back to me.
The eating hall….ah yes, I remember that. The chapel….hmmm, yeah never went but I always knew it was there. The dorm rooms….oh yeah, this was where my room was! Then the library….as I enter I’m overcome by the musty smell of old leather books and bindings and when I walk upstairs to the study area it finally all comes rushing back. This I remember, this I know. I spend at least an hour here just sitting and absorbing all the memories, observing the old oak roof, daydreaming through the high, ornate arched glass windows, and reliving the hours I studied here.
I remember it now, I remember what it felt like. I’m not a stranger anymore.
Still, 30 years….
It’s a long time….
It’s Such A Special Place
The next two days are a blur of fun and joyful reunions with both my old friends and my alma mater.
The dinner party was a blast, and the friendships that existed all those years ago came together as quickly as water and wine, as if yesterday was the last time we spoke. But perhaps the most overwhelming feeling I had those two days was of awe and gratefulness, and those I didn’t actually expect.
For this to make sense, we need a little history.
Cambridge University is something rather special. It was founded in 1209, it’s the third oldest surviving University in the world and it is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious, even today. Famous names abound; Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, John Maynard Keynes, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing and so many more. All heavy hitters in their fields and they all studied here, as did 121 Noble Prize winners. Quite the list of genius brains.
It’s also not just one building, but many. There are 31 colleges that make up the University, each with their own unique history and distinctions, plus there are 150 academic departments. As a student you live, eat and study/get tutored in your specific college, but you attend lectures (and do lab work) in the various departments all over town. So although you mix during class, your “home” is your specific college.
Fun fact: Each college has its own library, but there is also a central University one which is mind-bogglingly enormous and holds over 9 million books (there are 14 million books in Cambridge overall). I spent more hours there than I can count.
My particular college was Girton and in my very biased view it’s even more special than most. Established in 1869 it was UK’s first residential institution offering university-level education for women. It was a bold and pioneering place, and they didn’t have an easy time of it either. They were forced to build it 2 miles out of town so as not to “distract” the apparently-much-easily-swayed young University men, and although they followed all the same teachings and had just as much of the brains they weren’t granted official college status by Cambridge until 1948.
Grit and perseverance, something you still feel there today even though it’s all been co-ed for many years now. I think that’s also why Girtonians have such a strong and particular bond.
I say all this not to boast, but to try and convey the feelings of awe that I had when I revisited here. I can’t quite believe I was part of this place, and I don’t think I really, truly grasped how special it was when I was studying here.
That afternoon I take the bus the 2 miles into town (no bicycle these days), walk around the various colleges enjoying their grandeur, and even sneak into a few through back-doors that I remember from the “old days”, getting views that tourists never see. When I get back to Girton I sigh with relief as I’m enveloped by the peace and quiet of the place, the very feeling of comfort I had all those years ago.
How lucky I was to be part of this!
My Final Morning In Cambridge
This morning BBC radio announces the queue to see the Queen is now 24 hours long and is apparently at its max. Those waiting in line remain “unperturbed”. Wow….
I came here for a University Reunion, and although I haven’t really written about that it’s the core of what bought everything together this week. We had a fine night last night, all us old middle-aged students, chatting, re-connecting, and drinking just a little too much. I don’t have any pictures because…well…I just had too much fun.
This last morning we all get together for a final breakfast, a fully cooked one (sausage, bacon, eggs, beans, toast….checklist food item #1 done) and we do something we could never even have imagined 30 years ago. We set-up a Whatsapp group, a way to keep in touch without picking up a dial-phone. Imagine that??
I hug all my friends and with a little lump in my throat I set off on my solo adventure.
It was so good to revisit the past like this and I’m so glad I came, but now I am ready for an unknown future and the making of some new memories. Wales ready or not, here I come….
Visiting Cambridge: If you ever come here, there’s a few things I recommend. Take a punting trip down the river Cam (it’s the only way you can see some of the most famous bridges), see the Fitzwilliam Museum (it’s incredible), take a tour of one of the colleges (King’s College is a popular one) and drive out to Girton to see the best of it all :))