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Punting for beginners: householders’ guide to Cambridge

Cambridge, Wordsworth’s city of ‘turrets and pinnacles in answering files’, of scholars and spires and cobbled miles, of academic dreams and drinking teens, and poets and pubs and punting (flat-bottomed-boat-steering) teams, lured us into its beautiful, blue-stockinged embrace last month. We’d had a draining winter, with record snows in the UK bringing an extra dollop of winter blues, and the usual stresses and strains that come with parenting two rambunctious toddlers. So we hatched this plan of rejuvenating ourselves with a trip to this 2,000 year old, yet young and vibrant, city. We planned to drink deeply from its font of youth, to soak up its energetic vibe.

As it happened, we did find our youth there, in the back of our car. Not quite how you’d imagine either. There they were, our two toddlers strapped in safely and along for the journey. Of course, we hadn’t forgotten they were there, but as they’d unexpectedly dozed off, we’d allowed ourselves the luxury of daydreaming of a reckless weekend without responsibilities. A student weekend. A punting weekend. What we got wasn’t fast and furious but it was brushed by magic. The kind of experience you can only have with little ones untouched by cynicism, who know anything is possible and make you believe too.

Our Cambridge sojourn started with a gentle stroll down cobbled walks. Each walk led to a different, historic college. A ramble through the oldest one, Peterhouse (c. 1284), led us to Pembroke, a century younger but dripping atmosphere. And icicles on this cold, clammy day. Arriving in March, we had hoped for the perfect Spring break with flowers blooming and birds on the wing. We found instead, in the wild beauty of Pembroke, with its frost-laced shrubs and rain-shiny old stone walls, a scene straight out of Narnia. Is this what
C S Lewis saw when he taught at Magdalene ‘round the corner’?

A winding walk away is Trinity College, established by Henry VIII, just weeks before he died in 1547. There was something here for all of us, from the absolutely heavenly choral music in its beautiful 16th century chapel with life sized statues of alumni like Newton looking on, to the largest and most picturesque courtyard in Oxbridge for the kids to gambol in.

But it was Queen’s that touched our hearts. Not as grand or as beautiful as some of the others, there is a feminine aura about it that makes it more… welcoming. The clue’s in the name, of course, as it was set up by two English queens, Margaret of Anjou, the French ‘She-wolf, and the fairest of them all, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, progenitor of the Tudors. In their lifetime, they were at war over England, but in death, they are together forever at Queen’s. Yet it isn’t just its history that makes it a warmer, more likeable place. The gatekeepers, a pair of clucking, helpful women instead of the stony, bowler-hatted men we encountered elsewhere, reinforced the impression, as did the indulgent students who smilingly watched our children frolic on their lawns.

You can’t, of course, visit Cambridge without blowing by King’s College or St John’s. The former dwarfs the rest for sheer scale and Gothic splendour. Five Kings of England presided over its building and Salman Rushdie spent many an uncontroversial student year here. To St John’s with its glorious gateway goes the credit of having kicked off (literally, during a scuffle with Oxford undergraduates in 1829) the venerable tradition of the Oxbridge boat race. As evening descended, the contrast between the swinging single life and the wholesome family life became sharper. The householder has a single, staid drink instead of a binge, followed by a hearty meal at a child-friendly restaurant rather than a night on the prowl.  Then it’s tucking in time for the kiddies, while we sink exhausted on to the nearest available comfy surface and have a warming cuppa. Outside in student digs and nightclubs around town, Rave parties rage into the wee hours

Sunday morning dawned bright and early for us. Bright with frost on our windows and ankle-deep snow on the ground. We’d promised to go punting, and so, off we trudged to Magdalene for this most Oxbridgian of activities, with the crunch of snow underneath to remind us how completely uncomfortable it was going to be, but the children’s exhortations ensured we didn’t turn back.  

Described by Rupert Brooke thus, ‘The stream mysterious glides beneath, Green as a dream and deep as death…To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten, unforgettable, unforgotten.’ Our own punting experience turned out less idyllic, but every bit as memorable. It started off swimmingly with the kids snug in their tartan blankets, and their father, the keen amateur photographer clicking away, whilst I, happy to have a moment to sit back, watched the world glide by.

But then the kids spotted something of immense interest floating by, and as any serious Winnie-the-Pooh fan knows, short twigs swimming along together is a sure sign that somebody up there, on one of Cambridge’s many bridges, was having an impossibly good time with a game of Pooh Sticks. In no time, the blankets were off and they were hanging from the side of the boat (though in our vice-like grip), shouting ecstatically, ‘Pooh sticks, Mommy, pooh sticks!’ As the punt wobbled ever-so-slightly, an elderly, Winnie-oblivious German woman grew wobblier still, ‘Poo? Is there poo in ze water, hein?’ Our attempts to shush our excited children and reassure our Coprophobic fellow passenger came to naught as we were forced to disembark at Queen’s Mathematical Bridge to restore equilibrium to the Cam.

Feeling like the founding fathers of Cambridge, kicked out of Oxford for disturbing the peace, we were making our cold way up the bank when a woman with a regal air sailed towards us from the enveloping fog to offer the shivering children warm drinks and shawls. Startled by this gesture, it took us a moment to thank her and offer to pay, only to find she had vanished into the mists rushing in from the river. Not that surprising on such a pea-soupy day, but as we hastened to our hotel, our faith in humanity restored, I couldn’t help thinking, with my fanciful hat firmly jammed on, that our encounter had been with no ordinary mortal . Indeed, no mortal at all. Recalling the portraits in Queen’s College’s ancient hall, I was tickled by the idea that our Good Samaritan might have been Queen Elizabeth Woodville herself, bereaved mother of the princes in the tower, forever mourning her lost boys and anxious to help other little ones in distress.  Cambridge on an unexpectedly wintry March weekend may not have been at its glorious best but what a story our spirited little experience would make!

The author is a writer and illustrator. She now writes for The Guradian and other UK newspapers
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