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Sunday 9 August 2015

Cambridge Oddities

Cambridge is one of the few tourist hotspots that it actually makes sense to visit in August. There are crowds of tourists, of course, but that’s offset by the fact that there aren’t any undergraduates (and if you stay in your old college, you don’t have to share the lavatorial facilities with half a dozen barely housetrained students). That’s why I decided to spend a couple of nostalgic days there last week. Here is a quick rundown of some of the more unusual sights in the town:

One of the oldest buildings in Cambridge, dating from circa 1130, is the Round Church opposite St John’s College. Round churches are often associated with the Knights Templar (as with the Temple Church in London), but this one seems to have been built by a lesser known order, active at the same time, called the “Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre”.
As I mentioned a few months ago in Isaac Newton and me, I spent my undergraduate years at Trinity College – as did Newton himself. Standing outside his old rooms in Great Court is an apple tree, pictured below. There probably wasn’t an apple tree there in Newton’s time (it’s clear from his account of the falling apple that it took place at his home in Lincolnshire), but Newton did keep a small private garden on this plot of land. He also had a large wooden shed which he used as a laboratory for his alchemical experiments – it may have been here, or inside Great Court itself.

(For more about Newton and alchemy, see my book Isaac Newton: Pocket Giants).
Sometimes erroneously associated with Newton, but actually nothing to do with him, is the Mathematical Bridge at the back of Queens’ College. The present bridge is the third to occupy this site, all using same timber-framed design. The first was built in 1748; this one dates from 1905. The mathematical nature of the bridge lies in the ingenious way the wooden ribs are arranged so that “each member is in compression with little or no bending moment”.
Cambridge has seen more than its fair share of scientific discoveries, and even one of the pubs claims to have played a part in one of them! Outside the Eagle in Bene’t Street there is a plaque that reads:
DNA Double Helix 1953: “The Secret of Life”. For decades the Eagle was the local pub for scientists from the nearby Cavendish Laboratory. It was here on February 28th 1953 that Francis Crick and James Watson first announced their discovery of how DNA carries genetic information.
One of the newer oddities in Cambridge is the Corpus Clock, dating from 2008 and belonging to Corpus Christi College. It stands at the end of Bene’t Street right opposite King’s College, giving it one of the highest tourist footfalls in England. The clock is unusual for several reasons: it has circles of LEDs instead of hands, and it only tells the correct time every five minutes (the rest of the time it runs erratically fast or slow). It also has a monstrous, animated insect called a Chronophage squatting on top of it.
It was somewhere near Corpus Christi College, back in the 16th century, that a man named Thomas Hobson used to rent out horses from a large livery stable. Although he had dozens of horses, customers always had to take whichever horse he wanted to hire out next. This gave rise to the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” – still used today to mean “no choice at all”. In his old age, Hobson helped to set up a new water supply to the town, which became known as “Hobson’s Conduit”. Cambridge doesn’t seem to have a monument to Hobson’s Choice, but it does have one to Hobson’s Conduit – on the corner of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Street:
From a Fortean point of view, the Haunted Bookshop – tucked away in a narrow alley called St Edward’s Passage – sounds highly promising. I had visions of shelves packed with occult and paranormal books – or horror fiction, at the very least. Unfortunately, however, the stock turned out to be predominantly antiquarian children’s books. The name comes from the fact that the building (previously an alehouse) is supposed to have its own ghost in the form of an occasionally glimpsed “White Lady”.
Cambridge has numerous free museums, of which by far the largest is the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street. The quirkiest thing I spotted there was a pair of paintings by William Hogarth called Before and After, dating from 1731. At first sight they look innocuous enough – partly because the eye (my eye, anyhow) tends to be drawn to the girl rather than the bloke. But the latter is worth a second look in both pictures. In Before there is the distinct hint of a “bulge in his trousers” (I’m quoting from the official blurb), while in After “the man’s unbuttoned breeches reveal a tuft of pubic hair and his penis, chafed red from its exertions”. Sleazy stuff for the genteel 18th century!

Here’s Before...
... and After:

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