It’s such a beautiful day, Gentle Reader, that I am wondering if you’d walk with me for a time. I’ll take you on a guided tour of some of the sites around and about Sidney Sussex College. Are you game? You are? Lovely! Grab your walking stick and your old slouch hat and we’ll be on our way.
So here we are on Sidney Street looking south I think. Just to our left, as we’ve exited through the Gate of Sidney Sussex College, you’ll see a fine old book store.
If you turn around, you’ll get a charming view of the Sidney Sussex Chapel Clock and Bell Tower.
Seen enough? Okay, let’s walk just a few feet and turn right onto Green Street. Look, there’s Bill’s Restaurant where Dennis Ryan and I ate three meals during our week in Cambridge and then had dessert and Bellinis on the last night of our stay. Bill’s is a happening place—always busy, always friendly. Bill, or one of his minions most likely, makes a very good hamburger.
Take care on these cobblestone streets, Gentle Reader. They are ancient and uneven and can pose a problem to those of us of an age who walk on tender knees. We’ll just walk down Green Street a bit longer and then turn left onto Trinity Street.
We turn onto Trinity Street just at the corner of Trinity College’s Great Court. We will amble on for a bit. Trinity Street becomes King’s Parade as we pass by King’s College and its magnificent Chapel. Then it become Trumpington Street. A little confusing perhaps, but this is England after all.
There’s the Senate House on our right. It’s an early 18th Century Building of neo-classical design. It was where the University’s Council of the Senate met. The Senate House is now mainly used for the degree ceremonies of the University of Cambridge. It is also the building upon the roof of which Cambridge students once hoisted, overnight and unseen, a derelict Austin 7 automobile from which they had removed the engine and transmission. If you read the blog post Boys Will Be Boys, you know all about that. That’s one of the buildings of Gonville and Caius College in back of the Senate House. Alum of G&C are termed “Caians.” Among the notable alums are John Venn whose Venn Diagrams you have undoubtedly come across, and Francis Crick of double helix fame, whose path we will cross a little later on in our stroll. Steven Hawking is also a Caian.
Now we are on King’s Parade which, I am sure you have noted, is dominated by King’s College and King’s College Chapel.
That’s the Senate House on the far right. Remember? We just walked past it. King’s College was founded in 1441 by Henry VI. The Chapel is maybe the most iconic Cambridge building. There are eight Nobel laureates who were either students or fellows of King’s. A notable alum is Alan Turing of Bletchly Park fame. Bletchley Park, you’ll recall, Bletchley Park was the home of British code breakers during World War II. It housed the Government Code and Cypher School, which successfully decrypted the secret communications of the Axis Powers and broke the German Enigma code. Yes, they did that by stealing an enigma machine, but let’s let bygones be bygones shall we? Other notable alums are John Maynard Keynes, Salman Rushdie, E. M. Forster, and, perhaps most important of all, Sir John Harrington. What’s that you say? You haven’t heard of Sir John Harrington? But he makes your life better each day, several times a day I suspect. Sir John was the inventor of the flush toilet!
Getting a wee tired are you? Let’s walk just a bit more and then we’ll stop for refreshment. We’ve come to Bene’t Street where King’s Parade (formerly Trinity Street) becomes Trumpington Street. I want to show you the Corpus Clock on the facade of the Taylor Library of Corpus Christie College. Here it is. What do you think?
Awesome! Yes, I agree. Big too. That gold disk at which you stare (blink your eyes now) is nearly five feet in diameter. Let me tell you a little about it. The face is 24-carat-gold-plated stainless steel. There are no hands or numerals as you can observe. The hours, minutes, and seconds are displayed by the opening and closing of those slits you see on the face. They are backlit with blue LEDs. That peculiar looking insect on the top that looks like a grasshopper is called a Chronophage, “time eater.” Let’s watch it for a time….You see how the Chronophage moves its mouth appearing to eat the seconds as they pass. Did you notice that the beast blinks its eyes? It likes what it eats, I think. By the way, Cambridge Students call the Chronophage Rosalind. No, I don’t know why. Can you read that Latin inscription below the clock? Mundus transit et concupiscentia eius. Your Latin’s a little rusty you say? It’s from the Vulgate John 2:17 and translates (thanks to Mrs. Nina Carlson, my high school Latin teacher) as, “The world passeth away and the lust thereof.” Yes, I agree, more’s the pity. Just a few more words about the clock and then our little tour is almost complete. The clock is accurate about once every five minutes by design. The irregularity, according to the clock’s inventor, John C. Taylor, reflects life’s irregularity. Except for a motor that winds the clock’s mechanism and provides electricity to the LEDs, the clock is entirely mechanical. The clock was conceived and funded by John C. Taylor, a wealthy inventor and fellow of Corpus Christie College. Taylor donated £million to the project which took two years and 200 people to complete. It was dedicated on September 19, 2008 and unveiled by Stephen Hawking. Expectations are that the clock can run for 200 years. Speaking of time, perhaps we’d best move on if you’re ready.
We don’t have far to go. In fact, if you turn around, you’ll see we are on Bene’t Street. See the sign above the Chop House’s Window?
Are you oriented after gazing at the Corpus clock for so long? That’s King’s College off to the left. No, let’s not eat at the Chop House. I’ve got a better place in mind and it’s just down Bene’t Street. There’s but one more stop before we eat. Here it is on our right, St. Bene’t Church, the oldest building in Cambridge. Those in the know figure it was built around 1020 AD, well before the Norman Invasion in 1066.
Bene’t is a contraction of Benedict. Bene’t is an Anglo-Norman name. Benedict is the Latin form. The church is affiliated with Corpus Christie College for which it served as the chapel until 1579. The tower was probably built around 1020, but the bell-openings are a “modern” addition, having been added in 1586 or there about. The bell tower contains six bells, five of which were cast in the 16th or 17th centuries. The bells still ring, but it’s best not to ask for whom they toll.
Turn around. There’s our final stop on today’s tour. Right across the street. It’s the famous Eagle Pub.
It’s really a very large place and probably the oldest pub in Cambridge opening in 1667. It sits on land donated to Corpus Christie College in 1525. The College still owns the land and is the Eagle Pub’s landlord. As an aside, the various Colleges that comprise Cambridge University (there are 31 colleges) own about 70% of the land in Cambridge. The Eagle is famous for at least two things: the RAF bar and Francis Crick and James Watson. I might add the bangers and mash as well. But you see we are entering the Eagle through the RAF Bar. Look up.
During WWII, the Eagle Pub was frequented by Royal Air Force airmen who would put a chair on a table, or sit on a chum’s shoulder and burn their names and unit designations into the ceiling with candles or cigarette lighters, or otherwise affixed the graffiti with lipstick or charcoal. When the Americans came to England in 1942, they carried on the tradition. Over time, the graffiti became covered with nicotine and other deposits. A pub regular got permission to clean the ceiling to reveal what was written underneath.
But wait, there’s more. In the early 1950’s, the Cavendish Labs were located on Free School Lane just around the corner from St Bene’t Church. The Eagle was a popular lunch spot for the scientists and staff working at the lab. Among those who lunched at the Eagle were Francis Crick and James Watson, credited with unraveling the DNA code. Crick and Watson are reported to have eaten lunch at the Eagle six days a week. On February 28, 1953, Francis Crick announced to all that he and Watson had “discovered the secret of life.” Those gathered at the Pub shrugged their collective shoulders and waited for Crick and Watson to stand everyone to a round. Whether that happened I don’t know, but Crick and Watson are memorialized with a plaque.
Well that’s the tour for today. Let me stand you to a pint or two of ale, Gentle Reader, and I highly recommend the bangers and mash.
Doesn’t get much better than this does it? Sort of reminds me, as we sit here quaffing a brew or two in the historic Eagle, across from the ancient St Bene’t, enjoying our bangers and mash, of Shakespeare writing in Richard III:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.