Stepping in the same river

It’s always nice to start with a classical allusion, it sets a level of intellectual rigour that the rest of the post will entirely fail to sustain.  Today’s title is “borrowed” from Heraclitus though I don’t think he was specifically referencing the River Cam…

My allusion is very much to the river that flows through Cambridge and provides the root of its name as, for this past weekend, I returned to my old stomping ground for 36 hours of fun.  I feel that I either do leisure really well or very badly: depending on how you view leisure.  As this post will go on to demonstrate – at tedious length – I fitted a frankly ridiculous number of activities into my brief sojourn.  This meant I had a great time but did leave me a tad drained on Monday and my weekend could not really be classed as relaxing: not for me lying insensate by pool or shore for a week or two under a blazing sun.  If I have travelled, then I will attempt to maximise the “benefit” obtained from the cost of my journeying and night(s) away from home by doing as much as physically possible (and sometimes more).

It has been rather more than a year since I was last in Cambridge and I had been searching for a weekend when I was not otherwise committed to activities in Southampton.  As a bonus, this last weekend also played host to the city’s Jazz and Literary Festivals – which may have acted as something of a metaphorical china shop to my cultural bull.

The journey north seemed rather long.  A rail strike for the segment to London meant my train was attempting (and failing) to carry the passengers of three normal services – but with no additional coaches.  I then discovered that since leaving Cambridge the rail service from Kings Cross has effectively halved in frequency, so there is now only one fast train an hour (and the two slow trains are cunningly timed to be entirely useless).  So, a fair wait for a train and once again passengers were standing all the way.  It was like living in the north, albeit with much newer rolling stock!  As the train drew into Cambridge, I noted that Addenbrooke’s has continued to grow since my last visit and the fields I used to cycle across – home to buntings, yellowhammers and stoats – have almost completely vanished under new buildings.  Around the station itself, the city is unrecognisable – swamped in new “development” – but once you escape its immediate vicinity, and nostalgia for the relative beauty of the old Focus DIY store, more familiar sights return.

My first stop, it being lunchtime, was at Dulcedo: a new Patisserie which had been recommended to me.  A dangerous first stop in many ways and I was only saved from blowing the whole year’s patisserie budget by my limited carrying capacity.  They provide one of the finest sandwiches I have ever consumed – the toasted sourdough bread was particularly heavenly – and a very fine hot chocolate (in addition to more traditional patisserie).  Thus fortified, I snuck round the Backs to avoid the city centre en route to check out the refurbished Kettle’s Yard Gallery.  This housed an interesting exhibition of very varied works by Richard Poussette-Dart and was a lovely calming interlude in the helter-skelter of my day.

However, soon I needed to nip the short distance to my digs for the weekend.  In an unexpected development, I was spending the night with (and indeed at) Jesus: and what an excellent host he was!  I was staying at the newly revamped West Court of Jesus College which was, by a country mile, the finest student accommodation it has ever been my pleasure to stay in.  I could quite happily move in and just stay, though sadly while it was an economic option for staying in Cambridge for the night my budget would not permit more permanent residency.

Sadly, there wasn’t time to linger as I had a gig looming on the horizon.  Jesus is much more handily positioned than I had expected and I made it to my gig in plenty of time, despite an unplanned excursion on the way.  Taking a back route (the joys of local knowledge) I spotted an unexpected dome through a narrow window.  Investigating a little further, I found this was the ceiling of the banking hall of the city centre Lloyd’s Bank.  I must have walked and cycled past this building hundreds of times but had never noticed what a stunning interior it has (and the outside isn’t too shabby): inherited from its earlier life as Fosters Bank.  It is the work of the same architects who created the Natural History Museum in London and while on a smaller scale is very much the equal of its bigger brother.

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After gawping at this temple of mammon, I was back to matters more sacred with a pair of jazz gigs in St Andrew’s Baptist Church: one of the few city centre churches in which I had never previously seen live music.  Two very good and different jazz acts in the form of the Daphna Sadeh Quartet and Bahla meant the rest of my afternoon flew by in fine style: the one common theme being a vague hint of the middle-east.  By the time the music finished, I had less than an hour to get across time to my next gig and try and fit in some dinner.  Pre-visit research had thrown up Calverley’s Brewery as an option that was – more-or-less – on my way.  It is not the easiest place to find even when you know the street it is on really well and have very good directions – but it was well worth it.  An excellent pint of home brewed beer consumed in the brewery and a truly excellent pizza from the Pizza Mondo van parked nearby (the providers of the food van do rotate from week-to-week).  I’m not sure if it was the location or the occasion but despite being slightly hurried it was one of my best ever suppers. I am a man of simple tastes in many ways and a fairly cheap date: should any reader wish to chance their arm.

I made it to the Mumford Theatre for my next gig with almost 4 minutes in hand, though a part of me can’t help feeling that I could gave fitted something else into those wasted minutes…  This was to see Phronesis who had provided the spur to visit Cambridge last weekend after I spotted their name in the Jazz Festival Programme.  I have seen them before as part of Marius Neset’s band but never on their own.  They are an odd looking trio: Ivo (piano) always seems to be wearing a very fine shirt but rendering it dishevelled, Jesper (bass) could easily find a part (probably as a killer) in any Scandi-Noir drama and has the look of an etiolated Willem Dafoe while Anton (drums) had the look of a psychotic mid-ranking SS Officer which his extraordinary facial expressions while playing and chosen wardrobe did little to dispel (bar his rather exciting socks).  Despite appearances they are all lovely, and I can speak personally to the charm of Anton as, at the Mumford, the talent are forced to queue up with the audience and pay if they want an interval drink – the queue took pity on the chap and bought him a beer.  Clearly being a musician is not all huge riders, blue M&Ms and baskets of fresh kittens!  Phronesis were everything I might have hoped for musically, including a lovely line in dry wit from Jesper.  I’m looking forward to seeing them again next spring when they visit Turner Sims with the Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra.

I fancied a pint as part of my comedown from such an exciting day and so stopped off at the St Radegund on my way back to my room.  This is technically a sports bar, but the sport is rowing and it has never had the vibe of a sports bar when I’ve visited.  For the first time in many years (many many years, many many many years), I was able to enjoy a pint of local cask ale in a decent pub for the princely sum of £2.

After a splendid night’s sleep in my double-bed (a first in student digs), Jesus offered me a truly first rate breakfast (loaves were on offer but no fishes) to prepare myself from the day ahead.  As a resident, I was able to wander the grounds of the college and found myself loitering for quite a while outside the chapel listening to the choir practising for the service to come: this is a very fine way to ease into a Sunday, though quite hard to replicate at home…

I had a proper wander along the Cam, catching it just before the punts start to convey convoys of Chinese in their ongoing attempt to film Cambridge from every conceivable angle and at every possible time of day and year.  I think they may be building a replica at home: though surely they must have the footage to support such a project by now.  I then made my way to Fitzbillies for the obligatory Chelsea bun and to meet a friend to catch up on gossip from the local music scene.  We then wandered to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see an exhibition of works inspired (some quite loosely I would suggest) by the work of Virginia Woolf as well as to catch up with some old favourites.  It was then a matter of nipping over the road to the Old Library at Pembroke College to catch a little Shostakovich and Beethoven thanks to the university’s instrumental award holders.  The library may not have the visual amenity on offer in Gallery 3 of the Museum, where these gigs are normally held, but the seating is so much more comfortable: I didn’t leave crippled!

It was then a quick stroll up Downing Street to my one visit to the Literary Festival to see Dan Snow talk about history: both his own and that in his new book.  This was in the Babbage Lecture theatre – which I remember as a rather shabby affair in quite the shabbiest quad in Cambridge.  Things had changed since my last visit: the quad is now much tidier and home to the new David Attenborough Building and the new Zoology Museum – including glass pavilion housing a whale skeleton – and the lecture theatre is really rather swanky.

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Only a flying visit, but I had a whale of a time!

It was then but a short stroll back to the river to visit The Mill, a pub I never visited while a local, to meet up with a friend from Southampton who has moved to Cambridge to take up the noble profession of an artisanal baker (perhaps other friends could consider career changes that would benefit me: does anyone fancy becoming a cheesemaker, brewer or patissier(e)?).  While baker is a fine career choice – the previous days’ sourdough toast came from his bakery (if not hands) – it does involve rather early mornings which I fear would put me off.  He brought a gift of a freshly baked loaf, made with 50% khorasan flour (so hints of the classical world), which I can report is delicious both fresh and toasted.  I now feel I need to be more adventurous with my own baking (and toasting) …

It was such a joy catching up with a friend over a number of good pints and, after a while, we repaired next door for my final jazz gig of the weekend at the University Centre Wine Bar.  This venue was much nicer than I’d imagined and the beer continued to flow: the Sam Smith’s Apricot Ale proved particularly moreish.  Music was provided the the Lydian Collective who were very good indeed – and like all the very diverse range of acts I’d seen at the Jazz Festival, basically new to me.   All the gigs were good value, but this final two hour gig for only £5 was perhaps the highlight of the weekend (against a very strong field).  I had wondered why I’d never made it to the Jazz Festival when I lived locally, but discovered at the Phronesis gig that it had only been going four years: they literally waited for me to leave town before launching.

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The Lydian Collective in a surprisingly good venue for jazz

With a bit of a wait for my train back to London, there was time to fit in a final Cambridge pint at the Flying Pig.  However, this was not to be my final pint of the evening as I discovered some friends playing a folk session at a pub right next to Waterloo station (thank you social media, sometimes you help a chap be properly social) which helped fill the wait for my very slow train home (but who wouldn’t want to visit Staines in the dark).

I had as much fun as I believe any middle-aged man could possibly have in a weekend (and without breaking any laws!) while re-acquainting myself with the city which was my home for several years.  I was reminded why I love Cambridge and am determined to return more regularly in future: the Jazz Festival is definitely going in my calendar for 2019.  However, it did take a day or two to recover from quite so many activities and then to commit the weekend to quite so much print to bore the wider public, so I may need to ration my visits a little…

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