Oliver Cromwell’s Head

(Grand Tour Part 6 of 7)

Breakfast again at Trade: John ate eggs and chorizo for the second day in a row to the delight of the chef, while I branched out to just-right porridge.

I get anxious about trains, so we headed to King’s Cross early and stared at the board until our train arrived. Though lacking assigned seating and the speed of the French TGV trains, we still had an easy trip and arrived in Cambridge around 10:30am. First, we noticed all the bicycles, an army’s worth parked outside of the station. A twenty-minute walk took us through the typical college town drag (a bit like College Park, MD) and then we arrived in the beautiful, historic center with our rolling bags clacking loudly on the pavement.

John and I came to Cambridge for two reasons. First, on a group trip from my university seven years ago, we visited not only London, but also Oxford. Now it was time to see “the other place.” More importantly, however, we came to visit a friend — let’s call him Johnny Onassis — who now teaches at Cambridge University. J.O., one of the most enthusiastic, vibrant persons we’ve ever known, ensured that we had two fun, relaxing days.

Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

J.O. met us in the porter’s lodge of Sidney Sussex College. We walked around the grounds, the grass more uniform than Astro-Turf, and into the college chapel. Oliver Cromwell was an undergraduate here and a skull — presumed to be his, but with questionable authenticity — was secretly buried in the chapel in 1960 (Oliver Cromwell’s head has its own Wikipedia entry!). A little later John and I were able to check into our guest room on the first level of one of the college buildings. The classic dorm room had light colored wood furnishings, a small kitchen, and a handicap-accessible bathroom like something out of a hospital. The door put up a bit of a struggle, but otherwise we were quite content.

We walked around town and J.O. pointed out entrances to the other colleges, some of which we visited the next morning. He’d sent us lots of pictures of Cambridge over the past 1 1/2 years; we knew it was gorgeous, but actually being there took our breath away:


For lunch, J.O. took us to a pub called the Mill. He and John had fish and chips, while I had a beetroot burger. A local wheat beer called “Wayne’s Brain”? John and I had to try it.

Then, we walked, ice cream in hand, and passed through the modern part of campus with its industrial library and departmental buildings that look like architectural case studies until we arrived at the Classics Department’s gallery of plaster casts. Much fun to be had here! It was like visiting all my best friends in the same place.

Plaster cast gallery of the Classics Dept.

We walked along J.O.’s running route by the canal and all dreamed of buying a barge to house a new branch of the research institute where I work. Farther along, we encountered a small herd of cows. J.O. promised us livestock and he delivered!


Dancing with cows

The real party began now with J.O. inviting us to his flat for Champagne and Mediterranean snacks. It was a good chance to rest our feet and catch up on all the same people we know.

Photo by J.O. John doesn't like this picture because he's making a face. I want it preserved for all time because of my good hair day.
Photo by J.O. John doesn’t like this picture because he’s making a face. I want it preserved for all time because of my good hair day.

The highlight of the two days came next with the 41st Cambridge Beer Festival on Jesus Green (those English and their funny names. There’s a field called “Christ’s Pieces” too). J.O.’s friend Dr. Lazarus, dressed all in black with a handful of Starbursts, accompanied us to this low-key, super cool festival. Everyone gets a glass with admission and in one giant tent, there’s all the beer and cider one could ever dream of. John stuck mainly to the foreign beer booth and its dunkelbocks, but he ventured to try an English porter. I tried a cider called “Monk and Disorderly” (the same brewery had another called “Virgin on the Ridiculous”), a perry (pear cider), and a raspberry wheat beer: all exceptionally tasty. (I got 1/3 pints — it was the only way I could try what I wanted without getting trashed.) I love that English ciders come in a range of sweetness and I stuck to the drier side. John and I got donuts for the four of us to share. Truly, the day could not be more lovely. Everyone was sitting on the grass, hanging out, and drinking. People brought their dogs and their babies.

Fancy dessert -- coconut foam and mango!J.O., John, and I had good Italian dinner at d’Arry’s (smoked linguine, mushroom risotto, fish: interactive feature: pair the person with the plate) and an exciting dessert that looked like eggs, but was in fact coconut and mango. Then, the indefatigable J.O. took us to club for old people (i.e. anyone over 25) across from the club from young people. Amidst the buzzed couples making out, we found a table no one was sitting on to enjoy Old-Fashioneds and a Sauvignon Blanc. I was mildly scandalized by the number of people so obviously intent on a particular goal for the evening and well on their way to achieving it. Meanwhile, J.O. found my anthropological curiosity and American Puritanism surprising. I’d begun to feel, instinctively, that privacy in Cambridge might not be wholly possible. It seemed too easy to bump up against a student — purposely or not. Certainly everyone around us must be associated with the university. If not horny graduate students, who else could they be?

Much to my relief Cromwell’s headless ghost did not come by our room that night looking for its head.

The next morning J.O. met us for breakfast at Sticky Beak’s, where we found healthy options like yogurt with granola and fruit. J.O. turned us loose and off John and I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum. On the way, we stopped at the Saturday morning market in the rain to buy wasabi peanuts and to capture this photo:

Weiner dog at a hot dog stand

The Fitzwilliam Museum offered more than simple shelter from the rain. The Victorian temple to art delighted us with its wide-ranging collections:  we saw paintings by Blake, contemporary glass art, armor from around the world, Egyptian antiquities, and much more. We both enjoyed the British Art rooms which introduced us to artists like Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) whose work we hadn’t seen before and compelled us. John and I also liked the Edouard Vuillard paintings on display, including this one of a woman reading. And to John’s delight, we stumbled upon a drawing class for children in a fabulous gallery with red walls. We climbed the vertiginous stairs to the room’s upper gallery to look at the paintings just a few inches from our faces; it was thrilling and slightly terrifying up there on the narrow cat walk. John may shake his fist at the world, but I was a witness to the happiness he felt the sight of young people making art.

Tempting as it was to spend the rest of our lives in the museum, we decided to explore Cambridge’s living museums: the historic colleges themselves. Cambridge turned out to be the perfect complement to our Loire explorations; buildings such as King’s College Chapel, which we went to next, are contemporaries of the region’s chateaux. Time for a quick slideshow:

King's College Chapel
The jaw-dropping “fan vaulting” of King’s College Chapel. The building was completed in only three years between 1512-1515 (brochure).
King's College Chapel
No ordinary choir stalls
Trinity College
Trinity College. Alumni include Lord Byron and Isaac Newton
Bridge of Sighs, St. John's College
The bridge of sighs at St. John’s College

Our lunch date with J.O. approaching, I took a short break back at the room, while John went to a shop across the street from Sidney Sussex College to buy a Harris Tweed vest. I didn’t think it possible, but the vest makes him even more handsome.

John's vest

We had a good lunch at Pizza Express in the 19th century Pitt Club clubhouse (think Jeeves and Wooster). Afterwards, J.O. walked with us to Castle Mound for view of town (a few churches in the way, but nevermind) and we did a touch of shopping. I bought two music books: The Novello Music Hall Songbook and Great Songs of the Twenties. John bought a Cuban cigar from a Floridian in Cambridge!

The three of us tried a new classic pairing: sparkling Vouvray and wasabi peanuts in the temperamental afternoon weather. Then we all went our separate ways for quiet time. Earlier, in one of Sidney Sussex’s covered outdoor hallways, we’d all noticed a young man on a stationary bike training for serious riding; his physique could compete with the best of the Greek plaster casts. He’d disappeared by now, so I went and sat in the covered hallway to look at my new books and enjoy the air. As the rain grew heavier, a family playing croquet gave up and eventually I went inside myself.

By 8pm, we all felt rested and met for drinks at the Eagle, an old pub with WWII-era graffiti on the ceiling and where Crick announced his and Watson’s double helix discovery. We had reservations for a late dinner at celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s “Italian.” Fancy meringue dessert at Jamie Oliver's ItalianI love the old bank building that the restaurant is in. Our appetizers — arancini and “mushroom with magic bread”, my notes say — were awesome (I remember deliciousness, but not details). I couldn’t decide which luscious vegetarian plate to order until the waiter let me down gently with the news that the menu was new and two of my contenders were unavailable. I had one last option: gnudi. These nutmeg-scented ricotta balls were tasty, but rather, um, bare. John and J.O. leaned in their heads to look at the four nestled balls before turning to their pastas, one with crab and one with “meat” (my notes are really failing me now). We all got dessert and my elaborate strawberry meringue made up for the aptly named gnudi. John and J.O. too hit it big with their epic brownie and tiramisu. Meanwhile, we watched the wait staff pile up dishes precariously on the bar just a few feet from us. When John asked what was going on, they were excited that someone asked, let alone noticed. We learned that the dishwashing machine is very slow. The interaction made one of the waitresses break into a smile; before her austere, angular face fit for German Expressionism intrigued all of us, but when she smiled, she became even more pretty and didn’t seem nearly as serious as she had looked.

Eager to make the night last as long as possible, we went to the cool River Bar overlooking the canal. I knew to take it slow with a peach fuzz, but the two Johns kept on with a sazerac and a custom drink for J.O., who knew only that he wanted something with Grey Goose vodka. The bartender cooked up a delicious orange-scented drink for him, which we called, what else!, the Johnny Onassis.

Like our friend Ioanna, J.O. has an admirable stamina for evenings out with friends. I could have gone to sleep right then, but off we went to the Maypole. Though a student bar, it’s one of the few things open late. We sat in the pub’s quiet upstairs room, empty except for a young couple. John took an immediate dislike to the boy based on his prattish outfit and J.O. felt sorry for the girl, who wasn’t English, but was infatuated with a jerk who didn’t deserve her. I was too busy enjoying my half-pint and wondering why my left eye was being so irritable and a little red. As the couple became entwined across the room, we studiously looked away and entertained ourselves by trying on John’s hat and taking pictures. Finally, a large group of French students came upstairs and the awkwardness dissipated. The couple went off into the night. We all hoped there wouldn’t be babies. [06/25 – My mom thought this was a mean thing to say. By this, I meant: we hoped they would be responsible and live with no regrets.]

We three said our goodnights as well and made plans to meet at Patisserie Valerie for a full English breakfast. My salty vegetarian sausage, a rare fake meat treat, made me happy. With J.O.’s news that he would be in the U.S. on a lecture tour in the coming academic year, we rejoiced that we’d being seeing him again soon and could reciprocate his hospitality in our own city!

With matching flowers
In the morning before breakfast: me and matching flowers

A bank holiday weekend meant that the Sunday morning train to London was crammed full. I sat on the floor with a few other girls and got super nauseated, while John stood for the 50 minutes. I got a great view of a man’s swinging socks, foreshadowing to our next two nights in Soho.

Socks on the Cambridge to London train