There are a lot of places to go in and around Cambridge, but to me it will always especially be our house. I got to live in my own room upstairs, in a bed with blue sheets and a brown bedspread and a radiator over which I could throw my clothes so they would be warm in the morning, and best of all, a trapdoor in the ceiling. Every night and for years afterward I used to lie in bed and dream up all kinds of fantastical things that could be up there
. Eventually, my mother changed the sheets on the bed to pink sheets with a rose and cream patterned bedspread. It looked like a bed a princess would sleep in, as far as I was concerned. I couldn't believe it was for me. I was actually a little scared to sleep in it, in case there was some mistake and my mother was going to come screaming in, demanding to know how I could ever think that was for me.
But since 198 Sturton Street doesn't have much charm for anyone else, I'll try to pass on some of the Real Places(tm) we visited.
The Park By Our House
There were these bushes that could be a forest, and a wooden play structure with a slide and once I jumped off and I thought I was going to break my legs but....
What? Okay, fine.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
The Fitzwilliam Museum is part of the University of Cambridge. Admission is free, or according to their website, mostly free. They do charge for some activities.
When you are eight, this place is huge. It has a lot of its own collections of Impressionist and Romantic European paintings, sculpture, and antiquities from Ancient Greece and Rome. It also often has special exhibitions. My memories of them are vague and dreamy, like the Impressionist paintings there; all the evidence I have of this part of our visit is a postcard of Degas' ballerinas (Danseuses aux jupes violettes, bras levés, even though their jupes look ballet-pink to me) and one of Renoir's misty green landscapes (Le Coup de Vent).
Nowadays, the museum has many family-friendly everyday activities, including:
Free Lunchtime Gallery Talks at 1.15 pm on Wednesdays during the University of Cambridge full term;
Music in Gallery III on most Saturday mornings;
Evening concerts everal times a year;
Occasional family events and children's workshops.
University of Cambridge
My dad had some kind of six-week sabbatical there, so I often ended up wandering around when we met him there. Much of it is lost in the fog of memory but I do remember King's College and Trinity College -- at least their names!
Both of them have very cool music programs, famous choirs and regular (often free) performances. I remember visiting the King's College Chapel, which has really gorgeous huge stained glass windows and fabulous pointy-lacy gothic architecture. Apparently, it costs the College £1,000 a day to keep the Chapel open for services, but it is worth it.
The Castle at Castle Rising
That's what my mom called it on a little note next to pictures of the castle. "The Castle at Castle Rising (King's Lynn)." This is in Norfolk, but it must be close enough to Cambridge to drive with two cranky children and a baby in the car.
The castle was the biggest building in the whole country when it was built. Of course, that was around 1140 c.e. It is still really big, big stone walls and a big stone fence around which are big stone ruins. The castle itself houses one of my clearest memories of going to England: learning that people used to wipe their butts with their hands. Although I won't say that I learned this from a very reliable source, since I think my dad was the one explaining how it could work. It sure did stick in my head though.
The best part were the ruiny bits, which were on a big grassy hill where we could climb around on them and pretend to be on a balance beam or a tightrope, and then jump off and pretend we could fly. There's a little picture of me and my brother racing down the hill from there with my jacket flying out behind me like wings. It's like giving kids big expensive presents: sure there's a castle right over there, but we like the cardboard box better. It has more scope for the imagination.
Another "day trip" from Cambridge.
When you are eight, this place is huge. When we were visiting, there was an installation from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum showing how people dressed and lived in 19th century England, at least very very rich people in castles. It was called "A Royal Weekend Party, 1898." We got to go on tour through the castle, peeking at fabulous scenes in rooms blocked by velvet ropes.
We saw something like it at the Museum of Costume at Bath, whole rooms behind glass with Quaker brides in grey satin wedding dresses, crowded street scenes, and very rich people posing for photographs in a conservatory. I remember being totally fascinated by all the elaborate dresses, all the ribbons and lace and patterned fabric and hoop skirts and all the layers. I spent most of my time in fourth grade doodling different 19th century dresses in the margins of my notebook, each more elaborate than the last.
Warwick Castle is really cool all by itself too. It has giant rooms with fancy wallpaper and chandeliers and furniture to look at, and peacocks you can feed, and equally fancy gardens with shrubbery shaped like characters from The Wind in the Willows in a runaway car made of privet.
One of my favorite pictures in my photo album when I was little was from this Abbey. It's just a postcard that says "A selection of Crosses" on the back, and that's what it is. But what a selection of crosses! They are all bejeweled and filigreed and fancy and maybe even chryselephantine. One is engraved or carved on a huge amethyst hanging from a gold chain. Two of them are made from bright green emeralds - those were always my brother's favorites because that's his birthstone. We used to spend hours looking at this picture (and at the real things, when we were there) talking about which ones were our favorites and pretending we could pick one to keep. I think I liked the great big purple one the most.
There are other things to do there of course - there are big pretty gardens to explore, and a restaurant which offers high tea. I think we had some there, and it was really good. Anything with cream and jam and scones is always really good. I never really understood why people complained about British food. It was all cream-topped things and different candy and biscuits I'd never ever gotten to try before and sandwiches I liked and lemon ices!
Really Ely is a little outside of Cambridge, a tiny little market town. I got a fuzzy mouse doll there, wearing a little dress and puffy hat and glasses and reading a book. The book even had a tiny short story written in it, mouse-sized.
The Cathedral has a really big tower, the West Tower. The bottom part was built in the 12th century and the top third of it was added on two hundred years later. It is 66 meters tall which is the same as 215 feet. Their website says that "Beneath the West Tower, the pattern in the floor forms a unicursal maze or labyrinth. ('unicursal' is a grand word. A correct description is 'one way path') The distance from the entrance of the labyrinth to its centre equals the height of the Tower."
When we visited they were fixing stuff in the tower so we couldn't take a tour of that part, but we got to see the repairs and stuff like the Nave and the Octagon. The Octagon is a part in the middle that collapsed in 1322 and got rebuilt as an eight-sided tower with a big crown on the top. It has really pretty stained glass in it. The Nave is a huge long hallway with a really fancy tall ceiling that is supposed to be painted with pictures of Christian stories, but I never noticed that. All I remember was how giant and cool and echoey the big stone room was.
The Cambridge Library
Yes, I know, but this place is important! It's where I probably spent more time than anywhere else except my bedroom! And most of my time in my bedroom was spent reading books from this library.
I was only a kid, and a new library member at that, so I could only check out four books at a time. This drove me insane, since I was used to taking home giant paper grocery bags of books from the Davis library. I spent a lot of time begging my little brother and my mother to check out books for me on their cards. My mother finally appeased me by promising we could go there every other day if I needed to (which I did).
I still have my library card, taped inside the very front cover of my picture album from this trip. It was seriously the best thing ever. I got to dive into a whole library full of books that I'd never even heard of, and books that I couldn't get where I lived by British authors I already loved.
- The Railway Children by E. Nesbit: I loved other stuff she'd written but I had never read this one before. It was even better in a way because there was no magic so I just got to read about the adventures that real people had. I read this so often that there's even a picture of me in the garden with it.
- Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll: Of course I had read this a million times already, but at this library they had so many different versions! I saw different illustrators with different ideas of what Alice looked like, and versions shortened a ton of different ways depending on what the author thought kids were willing to put up with, and longer ones that had other material by Lewis Carroll included in them.... The mind boggled.
- The Treasure Hunt, by Meriol Trevor: A bunch of kids get sent on a treasure hunt to keep them out of the hair of the archaeologist studying in their house. He writes them clues to figure out and everything. Then they find real treasure!
- Further Adventures of The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett: I still haven't found this book again over on this side of the puddle, but apparently the San Francisco public library has a copy. My home library had the original "Family From One End Street" book, though, and over the years after our visit I almost memorized it. I checked it out again last year or so, in Berkeley, and got to revisit all the Pooh-Like Capitalizations of particular Words, and the cake with silver ball decorations, and the time they played pirates and the time Kate accidentally ironed and shrank a customer's silk slip, and... it's almost as good as going back to visit myself.
Places to go and people to see:
Trinity College Choir: http://www.tcms.org.uk/
King's College Chapel: http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/chapel/
Half-day and other excursions from Cambridge: http://www.bell-centres.com/locations/cambridge/social/excursions/halfday.html
Anglesey Abbey: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/angleseyabbey/
Ely Cathedral: http://www.cathedral.ely.anglican.org
Castle Rising at King's Lynn: http://www.castles-abbeys.co.uk/Castle-Rising-Castle.html
The Family From One End Street: http://books.guardian.co.uk/top10s/top10/0,6109,153169,00.html and http://worldcatlibraries.org/wcpa/ow/8904c9dde2df75de.html