Cambridge is split. Split between chalk farmland and barren fen. Split between Roman heart and Saxon new town. Split between town and gown. And somehow crammed-in, too: dense, significant, yet hard to love.
Start with the fen, and of course it made the place: making this the northernmost easy landcrossing from east anglia to the midlands, and a key port to boot. Even today, far from the sea, the watermeadows are a metre deep in black liquid, the Camgranta thick and strong with icy water; ducks swoop towards their own reflections beneath a colossal moon.
Then to the Roman heart: it’s been ripped out. Or has it? The suburb north of the river, the original Grantchester, on its steep chalk hill. Small strips of houses running from the bridge, a real medieval suburb; Magdalen to one side. Almost inaccessible on the other (just make like a lecturer), School of Pythagoras, a rich merchant’s house of c1200: I have a pee beside a C12 attached column. To go to Oxbridge (or Durham) is to know architectural privelige. St Peter’s a heartbreaking country church, Samuel Palmer primitive, by the busy road. And then the proof of the pudding, the castle, on its Roman site, dominating the great wide bowl, almost an entire county. Here comes Norman. And he’s still here: the county council offices occupy the bailey.
The bridge is tiny. Into the Anglo-Saxon town. The two roads, Roman and later, come to join. The infilled markets between them. The half-blocked lanes and houses of yellow-grey brick. The density of churches. Great St Marys the classic Perp town church, grand and vapid. Holy Sepulchre the most intriguing thing: by the Jewry, by a hospital, at the joining point of the two roads, show-off cosmopolitan.
There may have been clerks, and advanced schools, developing here in the C12, as there were at Oxford and Northampton. But there is nothing certain before 1209; some kind of corporacy by the 1230s; yet no architecture existed until the late C13. The Old Schools are the centre of power. In the area between the A-S road and the river, concentrated in one area. Why here? Floodplain comparatively undeveloped still? Just happened to be land available? In any case it’s a fateful decision. The first academic colleges come in the late C13, and at first they circle the edge of the city, where there is land. But then they too start to take up sites along Trumpington. Peterhouse, suburban; Corpus Christi, less so. As they march up the W side of the town they gobble up parish churches: St Mary the Less is lost, its chancel rebuilt as a grand sober-Dec college chapel. St Bene’t with its Saxon tower is later appropriated, too. St Michael’s another exercise in the Dec college-chapelisation of (part of) someone’s parish church. In general Cambridge colleges suck up parish churches or construct small chapels: again, Oxford tends to greater grandeur early on; more senior patrons, too: those at Cambridge are much more varied. Anyway by the Black Death the area around the Old Schools must have already obviously been the centre of operations. The seventy years silence, and then comes the great C15 wave. Christ’s. Jesus, dissolving and appropriating the C12 St Radegund’s nunnery. Then Henry VI comes along, and a step-change occurs. King’s will plonk its footprint down right in the middle of this, next to the Old Schools, but to the S on top of some existing college and oh yes a city parish too and arterial road too. This area was presumably built up in a way that the area to the Old Schools ‘patch’ had not been in the late C13. Half of this is shunted to St Edward’s, creating a peculiar that would sow the seeds of Reformation. It will have a chapel that couldn’t be further than a new aisle on an old parish church; a chapel that’s virtually a cathedral. A chapel that still dominates and which until the C19 was by far the most ambitious building in town. A chapel that remains a unique amalgam of college chapel and Great Church. A chapel that, in spite of three master masons and various changes of mind is (mostly thanks to Henry VII) among the greatest buildings in Europe. And the Tudor court follow: St John’s, Trinity, and further out Christ’s, Magdalene; additions to several existing colleges. Everywhere copying King’s without matching it for sophistication (or in chapel terms, ambition). So King’s is not only the first monumentally-scaled fan vault (or that’s what the guide says; but surely Bath and Henry VII chapel where on the stocks by 1512. Sherborne of course is not a true fan vault), or the most vainglorious statement of academic-college architecture, in a city for which there was little precedent; it is also a turning point in the university as a place for top-rank architecture, an institution that *is* the whole western strip of the town serious: a kind of campus. I don’t think even Oxford was quite so emphatically zoned until the C17; was there any University building before the Divinity School, etc, there?. And the Old Schools still the centre of power today, private and unmarked right next to King’s gate.
A series of churches, a series of sketches of Cambridge people: the Locals, manning the bookshop in Great St Mary’s, chatting cynically about the world, suspicious, going out of their way to mask their helpfulness and kindness. These people are everywhere, keeping the university running, given petty power and glory-by-association; unlearning how to smile as they do so. Perhaps it’s the Fenland air, or too many Fellows. The Retired Academic, lonely in St Edward’s, starting up intriguing lines of conversation I don’t have time to follow through. The Junkies, huddled in a corner of St Bene’t, disintegrating in quiet chaos. The Fellow, leading the choir in St Radegund’s, his easy authority turning a bunch of 20-year olds in tight jeans into a spine chilling evocation of Gregorian bliss. It’s hard to disaggregate the reverse-snobbery and reaction against privilege; what’s left is, for all its failings, a combination of excellence and tradition cannot be copied unless one has a few centuries to spare in development; it is surely one of the high points – at both Ox and Bridge – of our culture.