"With its meandering walkways, towering medieval architecture, and relentless academic expectations, the intensity of Cambridge ingrains itself, for good and for bad, in the fibres of your being"Bertie Broomfield

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have often reflected on the importance of place. The unwanted solitude of isolation has caused me to pay more attention to my physical surroundings, and I’ve realised the extent to which place defines and frames my life. ‘Place’ is a word assuming a new significance as communities push back against an increasingly globalised culture. With the proliferation of online media and the instability of our modern culture, place has become a refuge of relative constancy, and continues to inspire passionate identities even in a disorientating, digitised world. One identity that is deeply linked to place – even if we didn’t quite know it before – is that of Cambridge students and alumni. The Covid-induced experience of dislocation from Cambridge has encouraged me to reflect on the importance of place as a crucial tenet of the university experience.

With its meandering walkways, towering medieval architecture, and relentless academic expectations, the intensity of Cambridge ingrains itself, for good and for bad, in the fibres of your being. Such that, to invoke an old adage, you can take the student out of Cambridge, but… you know the rest. With another online term and many students physically absent from Cambridge, what is it that sticks with us? Which places, which moments, will we reach for in times of reminiscence?

“When I first tasted the Cambridge buzz, that intangible excitement of my first open day, I made assumptions about which places in the city would shape my experience, just in case I got in.”

Naturally my imagination wandered through the emblematic imagery of Cambridge. I’ll admit that my seventeen-year-old self was enticed by such romantic fancies as the idea of morning runs along the backs, through the epic mist, or drinking coffee in a King’s Parade café reading Stewart Lee’s column in The Observer. I even watched a promotional video for MML and imagined that its protagonist – who walks, book-in-hand, around the most quintessential parts of the city – was a realistic representation of what my life would be like once I arrived. I was a quixotic teenager, except, instead of chivalric tales, it was episodes of University Challenge that inspired my illusion, and, instead of the expansive plains of the Mancha, it was the dusty libraries and centuries–old alleyways of Cambridge that would stage my intellectual adventures. This is perhaps an excessively ornate description of my teenage excitement, but it encapsulates the power and lure that the University of Cambridge wields in the public imagination. As well as pretentious and delusional, though, I was wrong.


Mountain View

My memories are made of this city

That is not to say that Cambridge has been a disappointment – far from it. Now in my fourth year, I remain a believer in many of the proposed virtues of a Cambridge education. The city has indeed provided me and my peers with places and moments that will fuel the nostalgia bank for decades to come, just not in the way I expected.

When I arrived at Cambridge, imposter syndrome in overdrive, any illusions I had previously held about the grandiose places that would mould my experience soon disintegrated into irrelevance. Instead, I realised that the best way to calm the Freshers’ Week apprehension is to find likeminded people and befriend them. It turns out that at university, as in life, ‘place’ is in fact secondary to ‘people’. Of course, it’s comforting to know that you’re at one of the best universities in the world. Of course, cycling to a supervision at Trinity College is a nice perk to the experience. However, when I look back at my best memories, what matters most is the people.

“Moments with people inform the places that I remember, not vice versa. As a result, it’s the inconspicuous, unassuming places that remain in my memory.”

For example, I remember my first-year college kitchen, the site of endless late nights, in which some of the most important friendships of my life were formed. I remember the backstage of Fitzpatrick Hall at Queens’, where my fellow cast members and I rehearsed and performed a play in Spanish, one of the most enjoyable experiences of my time here. I remember the park near Aldi, where friends and I messed around, fully suited up post–formal, on the empty twilit playground, and an outdoor passage in the maze of the Anthropology Department, where one of my best mates and I sheltered with our takeaway pints of beer under the warmth of a generator, the night before the November lockdown. These are just my personal examples, but we all have them, and it is only through reminiscing in lockdown that I have truly understood the primacy of people over place.

We all hope to be back at Cambridge in the Easter Term, and this article is in part a product of my yearning to be resituated in the place that produced my memories of student life. But I will bet that not one reader looks forward to returning to the place more than they long to be reunited with its people. The grand old buildings and courtyards of Cambridge are well-documented, and they belong to all. But the less obvious places – the college kitchen, the quiet park – and the moments and people by which we remember them, are what belongs, personally, privately, uniquely, to each one of us. And that’s what makes them special.