Going to Cambridge from Oxford is like going into the camp of the enemy. It’s also like an interminably long road trip—you take a train first from Oxford to London, then the Tube across London to another rail station, and finally a second high-speed train out to the rival university town. What should be a forty-five minute trip across-country turns into a two-and-a-half hour ordeal in which you feel you should get your passport stamped in recognition of your perseverance. It’s almost like they couldn’t be bothered with each other or something.
If Oxford’s university colour is blue, Cambridge’s is red—a fitting distinction given the rosy-flush of newly-cut sandstone blocks that make up the most of Cambridge’s buildings. By newly cut I mean I mean, of course, before 1800; the buildings in Oxford are generally much older and washed a cloudy and mottled blue-grey. At Cambridge the arches are smoothly rounded, the corners of buildings sharp, their tops square and blocky. At Oxford the sky is pierced by spires with more notches than an elaborate key, the stairs and corners worn to smoothness by many hands, the rooftops stacked on top of each other like gingerbread houses.
Cambridge is not without its charms, however, if you can consider big charming. The colleges are larger, the quads stretch further, the churches are hollower, and even the river gurgles by, dotted with veering punting boats, at twice the size.
The highlight of our trip was Evensong at King’s College, where the line to get in bordered one whole side of the massive quad and swung around half of another. Inside we passed under a towering wooden screen that spliced the last third of the chapel, its top crowned with the dark silhouettes of two trumpeteering angels, past the choir seats polished by the buttery light of their hooded lamps, and into wooden pews on the close side of the altar. Looking up, the supports of the ceiling fanned out in precisely-veined shells far far above us in the dim cavern. A full boys choir led the service, with the congregation inserting occasional scripted responses—the rumbling mass of voices always makes me want to say these in a British accent.
One of my favorite parts of Cambridge is the extensive parklands, called the Backs, that run up to the river opposite the colleges. Each college has its own bridge or two that cross the river from their campus into the park, but they seem very territorial about which section is theirs. Multiple times we found our way to the closest bridge barred by a polite fence or a discreet stream, and I caught myself wishing I could hop a boat just to get where I wanted to be. The wooden punts move quickly and are more than a little unsteady however, so this is probably not a good solution.
Do I sound snooty if I say that living in Oxford has led to a preference for its soft cool blue coziness over the hard towering reddish imposition of Cambridge? Am I biased? Maybe. Do I care? Not a bit.