"In my head I have always had a fairly clear idea of what constitutes ‘central Cambridge’"Lois Wright

Something has been lost from this place, I reflect, as I stand just in front of the Corpus Clock, looking away from it towards King’s Chapel. Three years at Cambridge, I think, and I should be in as good a position as anyone to understand this city; not in the freshers’ sense of knowing the demeanour one should adopt in order to blag one’s way into Trinity late at night, nor that of knowing which shops stay open on a Sunday evening, but rather on some more profound level. The nature of this I suspect I am unable to – and thus do not attempt to – put into words.

If anything, I feel even more distant from any such truth than I had been at matriculation. Whereas then there remained at least the possibility of discovery, now after all of the undergraduate experience the shopfronts and colleges seem essentially hollow constructions, ships in an obscure sea which could not transport any deep secret at all. Yes, there is a fresh alienation now – it being my fourth year, it is though the play has finished, the audience departed, as I and a few scattered souls remain on the stage, at last perversely free to look upon the set-designs without interference and realising that the whole time they had been nought but cardboard and paste.

Melodramatic, I know – perhaps, belatedly rising, it is just that old student unease, that feeling that one has little to do with the city itself, all now promoted, in the absence of anything else, to a general sense of disquiet. But the basis is quite true: even now I still feel more like an overstaying tourist than an inhabitant. I have lived in the University, but I have hardly lived in the city at all.

“I had walked up King’s Parade and onward up Trinity Lane countless times, and yet I was almost always in a rush”

But how to deal with this? How to interpret a world suddenly realised to be almost wholly foreign? Desiring a grand and concrete project to give a measure of progress, the idea arrives, a little shapeless but as formed as it ever shall be: I should return to places that I had known only fleetingly, experience those which I had been ever putting off, and look sceptically at those that were once familiar, as if by distancing myself from my usual thoughts I could find some clearer view on things as they are.

In my head I have always had a fairly clear idea of what constitutes ‘central Cambridge’: there is a fairly natural, if slightly lopsided, triangle with sides stretching down from the Round Church along Trinity Lane and Sidney Street, connected across by Downing Street in the south. Of course, this is conceived more out of geographical convenience than reality – such a definition must at least encompass the colleges along its outer sides, and there is merit in pushing the western boundary out to Queens’ Road – but I needed a starting point, a baseline reference, and it seemed that this was what my mind had settled on of its own accord.

For if I was going to ‘explore’ Cambridge, whatever that loaded term meant in practice, I needed somewhere from which to start, an area which I had dealt with, to which I could return, perhaps look upon a little differently, but ultimately with which I was so acquainted that I could never feel entirely disoriented. This, then, is one benefit of Cambridge; because one can enclose so many important memories within half a square mile, an emotional communion with almost every yard of pavement, every hall and courtyard, can seem almost unavoidable. The density of memories, as it were, is so great that one is constantly being presented with past selves – wincing at the sight, perhaps, but always with the air of comfortable recognition.


Mountain View

Making a place your home

But what did this mean in practice? I had walked up King’s Parade and onward up Trinity Lane countless times, and yet I was almost always in a rush, always had something on my mind, such that I doubt I had ever walked this street with the simple aim of walking. And, in doing so, the depth of my memories surprised me – the low wall outside King’s alone spirited up preparations for a May Ball, consoling a friend over results, even the first time I had visited the city as a teenager. Each of these memories kicked off cascades of images that I had barely brought to mind since their formation. It was a horrible entanglement of selves – most of which I would prefer to forget, some of which I would do much to regain – and all this from a single unremarkable structure. There sprang so many selves, each for now beyond comprehension, that to go further afield, to try to dial out the noise of the past except for a single emanating source, seemed the only way to progress.

Cambridge, no doubt, changes all of us, but it is difficult to pinpoint the mechanisms; memory has but little fidelity, and even in cascades like these one has only an image, perhaps the ghost of an emotion, by which to work. These are dark and shifting archives: as we change, complex emotions, lost personalities of earlier times become incomprehensible to us today. The wall I look at now, for instance, is covered with associations, is experienced through a quite different personality, and thus is in a very real sense not the same one I looked at years ago.

Yes, Cambridge changes us, and we, via our minds, change Cambridge. It is easy to lose one’s way. But among all of this contradiction, there is at least the shadow of a hope: by understanding ourselves we might begin to understand Cambridge, and by understanding Cambridge we might begin to understand ourselves. It is abstracted so far at this stage, of course, that this bare precept might seem to say nothing at all. But then the practice might inform the theory, and there is really nothing to lose in the trying… In any case, it was time to walk.

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