In all my time in academia I've never been to Oxbridge - no meetings, conferences, or work-related visits - so I've never had the opportunity to see the dreamy spires of Oxford, or punt down the Cam. This is even more surprising given that I've lived in the South East (reasonably close to both) for the majority of my life, and have had friends go to both universities, and never even went as a tourist (I think on a family holiday or two we may have driven past Oxford, but never stopped there). Well I decided I should rectify this during my current impromptu holiday and yesterday took a trip to Cambridge. From my parents house it's a very easy trip (again, why have I not done it before!) - just a quick drive across to Hatfield (using the parents as a free taxi service) and then on an hour-long train journey direct to Cambridge.
You go to some places and they are quite different from how you'd imagined them. Cambridge definitely isn't one of them - it's exactly as you, or at least I, imagined in. On arriving I wandered round the Fitzwilliam Museum grounds, before going into the first College I came across - Peterhouse. I was very impressed by the college buildings and especially the grounds and beautifully maintained and manicured gardens behind it, but later saw that it was actually rather small and understated compared to some of the others (in fact it's the "oldest and smallest" of the colleges). Soon after I found my way to the Cam, where I saw my first punts although no one was out on them at this time.
For lunch I met up with a friend who works at the Centre for Atmospheric Science and we went to a very nice vegetarian cafe called the Rainbow Cafe (recommended by none other than Gillian McKeith!). Unfortunately, given that it was a lovely day weather-wise, the cafe was in a basement and had no natural light. After lunch we went into the King's College Chapel - staff and their guests can get in free, but otherwise there's a charge. The Chapel is probably one of the most recognisable buildings in Cambridge and I think must have been used in many a TV or film based in Cambridge. It's not what you might think of as a chapel, i.e. a quite small church, as it's massive and probably as big as many cathedrals. Inside there's some great stained glass windows and masonry, in particular the many greyhound and dragons on the coat of arms above each arch.
After King's I decided to do what I normally do at any university and seek out the Astronomy group - in this case the Institute of Astronomy (IoA). This required about a half hour walk out to West Cambridge and unfortunately away from the nicest parts of the city. After about 25 mins of walking I hit the Cavendish Labs, where the Department of Physics and some astrophysics groups live, along with other labs. There were some quite nice new buildings, but in reality the whole place looked and felt like an out of town science park rather than part of a historic university. A short walk further and up across Madingley Road got me to the IoA, which again was a bit underwhelming, but still good to notch off on my list of astronomy department I've been to (last month when I was in LA I had a snoop around the new astrophysics building at Caltech, which I was very impressed by, but I decided against just wandering into the IoA - at least at Caltech I had the excuse that I knew people working in the building, but I no longer know anyone in the IoA).
From the IoA I wandered through the grounds of one of the newest colleges - Churchill - which contained sports pitches, grass and clay tennis courts, and a cricket oval! Heading back towards the centre of town I accidentally found myself going passed the quite funky new (opened in 2005) Maths buildings. I then walked round the outside of two of the largest and most impressive colleges, Trinity and St Johns (although pretty much from the being at the maths buildings I'd been walking past the massive area of Trinity and St John's property and ground). Both these colleges (like most) charge for the public to enter them, and although there were several points were I could probably have got into both unchallenged (if I couldn't pass myself off as an academic then I'd probably look enough like a student) I decided not to risk it. Out the back of these colleges there were some great bridges across the Cam and there were now quite a lot of people out on the punts.
After all this exertion I went for a pint in the Eagle Pub, which I thought I recognised the name of, and was later told by my friend that it's where Crick and Watson announced their discovery of the DNA double helix. I then saw a few more of the colleges (and the Corpus Clock, or Chronophage) and had a wander around the Fen area before meeting up with my friend again for another couple of drinks.
The visit did make me wonder what it would have been like if I'd applied (and got into) Cambridge for my undergraduate degree or PhD. It does look like it would be a fantastic place to study, but I'm not sure if I'd have felt that after three or four years there. It's got a rather unique, fairy-taleish, bygone era, feel to it (as I said before, it's kind of like you imagine it) that you just don't get at other universities. That makes it great to visit, but may become too much after a while. Maybe someday I'll get to spend a bit more time there and find out, or maybe I'll give Oxford a try.