Back in Cambridge

My second visit to Cambridge last weekend was in fact an excuse to meet with a friend whom I had not seen for 2 years, because of Covid of course. I convinced her to fly from Dublin to Stansted, and on Friday after work I took a train to Cambridge, then a bus Citi1 towards our Airbnb. I checked in, had a quick cup of coffee and jumped on a bus back to the station. As I was watching the crowds spilling out left right and centre I could not help but think how miserable it all looked during the lockdowns. At 9 pm I hopped on a train to Stansted to meet Dublinia who, despite having flown to this airport before, could not remember how to get around. Neither could I! Amazing what a two year ban on travelling can do to a human being… As D. appeared in the Arrivals, I exclaimed ‘take off the mask!’ which she did, reluctantly – it kind of made her feel like a criminal 😉 Ireland is still ‘enjoying’ the longest lockdown in Europe, despite almost everyone being fully vaccinated. The airport was quiet, except for large number of Chinese people wearing surgical masks. We spent the next half an hour chatting and laughing on an almost empty train. We have stayed in touch since our last holiday together and exchanged countless messages on Messenger and Whatsapp, we had video chats and what not, but it was fantastic to see each other face to face at last.

It was an exceptionally warm evening but we missed the bus so we took a taxi instead. Cambridge railway station is way out of town and our Airbnb was a few minutes walk from Jesus Green, and after such a long day we could not face a 40 min walk. As I had checked in first, I sent D. some warning pictures. The Airbnb was described as a large room in a town house, with ensuite and a kitchenette. It turned out that the kitchenette was merely a sink and a kettle, plus a cupboard with a few glasses and plates. No microwave, toaster or mini fridge, and obviously no hot plate. Everyting was old and tired. There was a kitchen downstairs, evidently shared with the house owner. The smart TV was tiny and not really that smart. We were promised a double bed and a sofa bed for me, but upon arrival I discovered that the sofa bed was not made up and I had to rearrange the furniture to move it and to make my bed. The bedding was in a container underneath, and it seemed like it had not been changed since the last time someone used it. I slept under a blanket because the room was extremely hot even with both windows wide open day and night. It was also very noisy, with continouos heavy traffic right outside. This of course could not be helped, the house was situated close to the city centre and we were just unlucky to get a bedroom overlooking a busy road. However, the whole place was in a dire need of refurbushment and deep cleaning. We had one tiny towel each, and the included shampoo and shower gel turned out to be cheap products from a discount supermarket 😉 The bathroom ceiling was covered in mould, and the fan looked like it had 20 years worth of dust on it. The host was very polite and helpful and the room it was reasonably priced for such a good location, however it was a let down…It this day and age there is no excuse for such poor quality accommodation, no matter how cheap. UK is sadly known for its low housing standards which extends to hospitality too (some B&Bs still advertise ‘colour TV’ as something of a luxury), but things are slowly getting better, especially when hosts are younger, well travelled people accustomed to getting value for money and understanding customer expectations. That said, we spent little time in there and despite a friendly offer from our host who encouraged us to book directly with him next time, we will not be coming back. We would love to go back to Cambridge again though. I certainly will since it’s only an hour away.

I was a bit worried about the weather and I did not want D. to be less then VERY impressed, and of course rain could have ruined it for her, but Saturday was warm and overcast, and Sunday was lovely and hot. We had booked Walking and Punting Tour https://www.airbnb.co.uk/experiences/1633206 – overall great experience, minus the initial difficulty locating the tour guide outside the King’s College and the wrong time for punting they gave us – we ended up waiting for an hour, drinking some pink fizz from plastic glasses by the river 😉 Claire, our guide, originally from Wolverhampton, a Cambridge alumni herself, in love with the city, showed us all the important bits and added some colourful ghost stories. I particularly liked Eagle or RAF Bar as it is now known and I insisted that we come back next morning, which we did only to find out they served no breakfast or brunch, opened at 11 but didn’t really serve any food until 12:30…D. lost interest, and I had a pint of cider and then we left.

Almost every college displayed a sign ‘visitors not allowed’, and we did not book the King’s College in advance, and by the time we were done punting it was closed anyway. It’s one of the reasons we want to go back. Still, we climbed the tower of Great St Mary’s church and the views were splendid. There is so much greenery around Cambridge and hardly an ugly building in sight. We loved the old churches, sat in quiet graveyards and went inside and lit some candles – I even wrote a little wish on a piece of paper in St Bene’t’s Church, apparently every week they pray for whatever people ask for. If they manage to get me what I want I’ll send them a donation by Paypal 🙂

Punting was a very relaxing experience, though we had to do without the fizz – we drank it while sitting and waiting on the green near The Anchor Pub, where, as we were told repeatedly, Pink Floyd played their first gig. Our punter was a young lad with a great sense of humor. For some reason I tend to think of tour guides as very boring, dry and humourless people. This must be some kind of school days trauma. I appreciate a good deal of historical facts but I want an anecdote or a joke too, or even some personal input from guides and the above tour provided it all. I knew little of Cambridge before and the biggest surprise I’d say was learning that the university ownes virtually everything within the city centre and the city as such is very much dominated by the uni. Great from student’s perspective, but how about the city dwellers not associated with the university life ?

Last but not least, food. Last time I went there on my own I tried Brazillian chickpea stew from one of the market stalls and it was rather bland. I had a coffee and D. had ice cream for second breakfast 😉 at Benets Cafe, both were ok and we enjoyed people watching, even though it was still fairly quiet on King’s Parade. After punting, I got my bearings completely wrong and failed to locate Quayside (we went there on Sunday and found nothing of interest, a few chain restaurants), so we ate at The Anchor. We were sat next to a very loud group of Americans (?) and the pub, just like every other pub in the UK now, was understaffed but we enjoyed our meals and above all, the view. It was rather funny watching people’s clumsy attempts at punting; one man actually lost his stick by the bridge!

On Sunday, after we were told at Eagle to come back in an hour, only to be told the kitchen wasn’t open yet, I begged the powers that be for a table for two on King’s Parade and we got just that, at The Copper Kettle. D. had her beloved lentil soup, I ordered a Turkish brunch. It looked like this:

Let’s just say, I’ve had much better Med breakfasts, but this is what £10 gets you on the main tourist street in Cambridge…

Although Sunday was sunnier and hotter, I actually prefered Saturday for sightseeing, especially in the evening, when the historic centre got pleasantly peaceful. On Sunday D. came up with an ingenious idea and we booked luggage storage in the camera shop on King’s Parade. Really handy, and only £5 until until 4 pm. Walking for hours with our heavy backpacks would have been a nightmare.

We parted our ways on Sunday afternoon. D. enjoyed herself, loved ‘the vibe’ and, dare we say, European feel of the city of Cambridge and promised to come back. I’ll defitely visit as many times as I can, while I am still living away from home, in the south.

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