… this lovely stretch of river. If you were to walk along this path and follow it around the bend, you’d see the railway cross the river on a big green-and-white painted steel bridge. If you were to leave the path just before you got to the bridge, turn right at the road, turn left just before you got to the level crossing, take the first right, and walk until you got to the first street light, you’d find yourself opposite the flat we lived in for almost six years.
It wasn’t meant to be that long. We hoped it was going to be the last place we rented before we bought somewhere, but I’m glad I didn’t know back in 2014 that it was going to take us that long to save up a deposit. That’s what comes of living in a place like Cambridge. That’s why we don’t live in Cambridge any more.
But six years of this wasn’t so bad. Six years of walking or cycling alongside this stretch of the Cam to get to the station or the shop or the pub or the church. Following the river upstream into the city, or downstream just for a walk.
I miss the river. I’m not that far away from it, really: the Cam flows into the Ouse, and the Ouse is about a half hour’s walk from where we are now. But it’s not there, the way it used to be. I’m glad I enjoyed it while I had it.
I am pleased to say that we are in fact up to date with the rent. But it is rather dispiriting to consider that, Cambridge property prices being what they are, we will probably be renting for some time yet. I believe that this was not – for a variety of reasons – something that Gwen Raverat had to deal with.
From a practice walk on Tuesday – this is what Cambridge looks like in the spring.
(Twelve miles, carrying 8.5kg. Nothing to speak of in the way of hills, unless you count the Castle Mound. I’ve obtained the items of kit that I wished I had last time – waterproof trousers, a silk sleeping bag liner – and have come to a decision about the rucksack question.)
I have always bought books in charity shops, and, so long as charity shops, books, or I continue to exist, I always will. There wasn’t much spare money around when I was growing up, and besides, I have a perverse liking for things that are out of print.
In terms of books, charity shops are good for:
things I have a vague idea that I’m collecting (for example, Blue Peter annuals, or John Buchans in the red Nelson edition, which is the only thing that fits on the second shelf of my big bookcase);
last year’s bestsellers;
Charity shops are not so good for:
things that have only just been published, though you occasionally get lucky;
rare or specific books, though you occasionally get lucky;
things you need within a tight timeframe, though you occasionally get lucky.
I spend less time in charity shops than I used to, mainly because there are none within walking distance of my office – at least, not if I want to get out and back and spend a reasonable amount of time actually in the shop all within my lunch break. However, there are always Saturdays. I’ve lived in Cambridge for getting on for three years now, and have explored a reasonable portion of the city in that time. There are two streets in particular that have an abundance of charity shops: Burleigh Street and Mill Road.
Charity shops fall into two broad categories. There are the carefully curated, and the undiscriminatingly chaotic.
The latter are, of course, by far the best for books. You never know what you’re going to find; you pick up things you’d never heard of because you are intrigued by the picture on the spine or because the title reminds you of something you were looking for six months ago. You never find what you’re actually looking for, but the chances are you’ll find something else worth reading.
In the carefully curated category, by contrast, you will find two stingy shelves of books, whose contents will be unremittingly boring, and suspiciously similar to those in every other carefully curated charity shop in the street. If you’re looking for last year’s bestseller, this is the place to go. If not, it won’t take you long to scan the shelves and decide there’s nothing to keep you there. (You will also find some inoffensive and deeply boring clothes, and the ones with an ‘Atmosphere’ label will probably cost a pound more than they were originally sold for in Primark.)
A more promising subset of ‘carefully curated’ is the specialist charity bookshop. There are two of these in Cambridge – the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street, and Books for Amnesty on Mill Road. The great advantage of these is the fact that the books are arranged in a coherent and logical fashion, and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can be in and out within three minutes.
However, the chances are that you’ll pay a similar price to those charged by specialist second-hand dealers. Which is good for the charity, of course… up to the point where you don’t buy the book because you didn’t want it that much. And of course, if you don’t know exactly what you want, the choice can be somewhat overwhelming.
My two favourite shops on Burleigh Street are Oxfam and the RSPCA. Oxfam has a vast range of all sorts of stuff over two floors. The books are helpfully arranged by category, and there are plenty of categories, and there is plenty of variety within those categories. The last thing I got in there was a book of poems by Luci Shaw, and the thing before that was A Murder Is Announced. It’s also, so my father informs me, good for Ordnance Survey maps.
The RSPCA doesn’t have such a wide selection, but what it does have is of good quality. I picked up the bulk of my Buchan collection there. The British Heart Foundation tends to have interesting books. Like all BHF shops, it’s crammed full of too much stuff, both second-hand and the hideous ‘new goods’, but it can be worth fighting your way to the back left-hand corner. I wouldn’t go out of my way to any of the others, and have resolved never to give books to the Scope shop, which sends them (so one assistant told me, at least) for pulping if they haven’t sold after only a fortnight on the shelf.
Mill Road has the Sally Ann, which is a spacious shop with a lot of stuff in it, and another Oxfam, this one affably scruffy. The YMCA is comparatively new. It has hardly any books, but I did get A Book of Escapes in there.
It is worth going beyond the railway bridge, if only for the RSPCA bookshop. This is less like a charity shop and more like something you’d find in Hay-on-Wye. Books everywhere, stacked on the top of shelves, on the floor. Penguins, Pelicans, Viragos, old hardbacks, old paperbacks… It’s wonderful.
I don’t recommend going round all the charity shops in one day. There are, after all, only so many books that can be loaded into a bike basket before the steering goes all skew-whiff.
I’ve mentioned before that I live very close to the Cam. What this means is that it’s very rare for me to cycle to the station, go out for a box of teabags, or just have a wander, without seeing a rowing boat or three on the river.
And where there are rowing boats, there are coaches. The rowing coaches cycle up and down the towpath with buoyancy aids slung over their handlebars and with their eyes on the river, yelling at the boats. Sometimes, when the boat has slowed and the blades of the oars are trailing in the water, when the coach has brought their bike to a standstill, I overhear what they tell their charges. I like to listen, because their instructions are often usefulclues.
Some seem pretty specific to the sport:
Here’s a trick that might be useful to you: imagine that you’re controlling the oar of the person in front.
I am usually very wary of the ‘pulled myself up by my bootstraps’ school of thought. I know damn well that I’m very fortunate, very blessed, that good things are showered upon me a long way out of proportion to my own deserving or hard work.
Having said that, I do feel that I’ve put a lot of work in this year, and I can trace most of the things with which I’m most pleased back to months or years of sustained effort. Everything I talked about yesterday, for a start. And plenty of more tangible achievements, too. For example: in September I wandered into a charity shop in Bury St Edmunds and bought a copy of Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Course. I’m up to page 36 now, and can play Drink to me only with thine eyes more or less accurately; I’m getting on far better with teaching myself than I’d have believed possible. And that’s partly because of hard work between September and here, and partly because of hard work going back to when I was 8 and started cello lessons.
And having said that, I can think of at least a few wonderful things that just happened. Discovering Rhiannon Giddens at Cambridge Folk Festival. An experience that I can perhaps best describe by saying that it was like finding out that a friend was a long-lost brother. There are the things I found by keeping my eyes open: the swing in the giant birdcage outside King’s Cross station, the swan giving her cygnets a ride down the Cam on her back. As recently as yesterday, walking home along the river bank, seeing a succession of anglers with their rods and their boxes and there, between two of them, a heron, watching and waiting for the fish, closer than I’d ever seen one before.
Sometimes it’s been a combination of the two: an exquisite confection of a blessing on top of the cake of effort. I’m thinking now of the first day of my birthday walk. I’d gone nineteen miles, crossed the county boundary from Berkshire into Hampshire. My rucksack wasn’t quite adjusted properly, and my knee was protesting ever louder, and I got lost in the world’s most confusing field, and… I’m going to write all this up properly, but let me just say for the moment that it was not a good day.
I was hot, cross, exhausted and in pain by the time I reached my accommodation for the night, The Chapel at Little London. I can’t begin to put into words the welcome I received there. I knew that my hostess was going to cook me a meal; I didn’t realise that it would be three delicious courses. I can’t explain to someone who hasn’t done a long distance walk how wonderful it is to have somebody take your clothes away and wash them for you. I needn’t, perhaps, say how very comforting is a capacious sofa and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or how blissful it is to lay down one’s exhausted body between cool white sheets.
And this, perhaps, typifies all the treasure of 2015: I’d walked nineteen miles, and I deserved that stay; but I know all the same that I was so very fortunate for it to have happened to me the way it did. Things can be even better than we imagine.
In the latest round of the never-ending quest to sort my head out, I have been going through old diaries, and I found this, from about eighteen months ago:
Cambridge is cold and windy, and beautiful in the winter light, and a little bit aloof.
That was when I was living in Guildford and going up to Cambridge once or twice a month to see Tony, and wondering whether I would ever actually be able to live there. I found the city terribly intimidating: it’s so old, and so full of terrifyingly clever people. In all fairness, I was intimidated by Guildford when I first moved there: so full of terrifyingly rich people.
I’ve been in Cambridge a year now, and we are beginning to become acquainted. There are some parts – my cycle ride to and from the station; the section of the Cam from the Green Dragon in Chesterton up to Baits Bite Lock – that I pass through daily or weekly. I can find my way around the city centre without a map now. I’ve been doing lots of walking – I always explore a new place on foot, if I can. But there’s still an awful lot that I haven’t discovered. There’s probably a lot that I’ll never discover.
One of the loveliest things has been discovering Cambridge with other people. One of them has known Cambridge longer than I’ve been alive, and dragged me off to Fitzbillies for the best Chelsea bun in the world. One grew up in Cambridge – and gave me a long list of pleasant places to eat and wander in. One had never visited before – and we downloaded a walk from the internet and found all the colleges. My father came to stay and went for a drink in the Mitre – where, he casually mentioned, his grandfather had almost certainly drunk before him. That made it better.
I like Cambridge. I like the cherry blossom and the pale yellow stone and the rowers. I like the way that everybody cycles and how ridiculously easy it is to get to London. I like the college arms that line the staircase in Boots. I like the Te Deum windows in Great St Mary’s. I like the Renoirs in the Fitzwilliam and the Chelsea buns in Fitzbillies. I like the charity shops on Burleigh Street.
There are probably all sorts of other things I like, but I haven’t got round to them yet. No matter. There’s plenty of time.
I’ve been living in Cambridge for just on a year now. Here are some things I’ve discovered:
1. The wind. People do tell you about the wind, to be fair; it’s just that one can’t comprehend the sheer sideways chilling force of it until one’s been there. ‘Cambridge winds are lazy,’ says my friend Helen. ‘They can’t be bothered going around you. They just go through you.’ I understand that this has been a relatively mild winter; nonetheless, I got caught out last week and had to wait half an hour on the platform at Cambridge station without gloves. Following liberal daily applications of hand cream, my skin is just about returning to normal.
2. You start caring about the Boat Race. This was not a good year to start caring about the Boat Race. Thank goodness for University Challenge, that’s all I can say.
3. You forget all about hills. Hills? What are they again?
4. You get very good at dodging bicycles, tourists with selfie sticks, and people trying to sell you punt trips.
5. You begin to believe that every conceivable object can be transported on a bicycle. Not just the obvious things like kegs of beer or small children. I myself have brought home on the back or the front of my bike a) an orchid in a pot; b) a daylight lamp; c) a herb planter. And I know someone who used to carry a folding bike on his cargo bike, so that he could meet his partner at the station and they could cycle back together. Now that’s love.
I’ve been doing a lot of walking these last few days. This is partly because my bike has been in for a service (now reclaimed, complete with a new front mech shifter that actually works!), and partly because I’m planning to walk St James’ Way from Reading to Winchester in July, and I need to get some practice in.
I’ve walked from home to the station; I’ve walked from the station to home. I’ve walked as far round Regent’s Park as I could get in my lunch hour. I’ve walked from town to the station after I’d dropped my bike off, and from home to town to pick it up again.
I’ve been walking. I’ve been cycling. I spent twenty-five agonising minutes on a bus that was progressing down Station Road five metres at a time. I would almost swear that I could feel my blood pressure rising the longer I sat there. Stepping onto that bus, I’d relinquished control and surrendered to the rush hour. Cars are meant to give you control, but of course they don’t. There were plenty of cars stuck in that queue along with me.
I wanted my bike back. That was the reason I’d got on that bus in the first place: I had twenty minutes to get to the repair shop before it closed. I knew that I couldn’t make it on foot. I thought there was just a chance on the bus…
No. Twenty-five minutes of jerking, teeth-grinding, stop-starting creepy-crawling down Station Road and Hills Road. I ran from the bus station, but I didn’t have a hope of making it before the shop shut, and I knew it.
On the bright side, I had an excellent excuse to buy an ice cream and walk home, and it was a glorious evening in which to walk alongside the Cam, over Jesus Green and Midsummer Common, with the college rowing teams hauling themselves down the river and the trees very green with their new leaves.
I love walking. I love the freedom, the chance to turn aside and look properly at things that catch my eye, to go another way entirely. I love the gentle ache in my legs, reminding me that I’ve been out and seen things. I’m less keen on the blister; that’s from wearing the wrong shoes.
I’m so glad I don’t have to sit in that queue every day. I’m so glad I don’t drive. I’m so glad I don’t need to drive. I’m grateful that I’m well enough to walk long distances. I’m thankful for my own pig-headedness and determination that allowed me to relearn how to cycle in my late twenties. I’m glad that I’ve lived in towns and cities with good public transport links.
(And I do like a bus ride. But not in rush hour. Never again in rush hour. Not when I’ve got somewhere to be.)
‘Oh, I’m so lucky!’ my mother exclaims, whenever she remembers where she lives.
Standing on her garden wall, you see Ventnor falling away below you in higgledy-piggledy terraces down to the sea, and the Channel stretching out. France is over there. Thataway.
I don’t have the English Channel, but I have taken to thinking the same way about the river Cam. I live three minutes away from this. I am still overwhelmed by the fact that I am lucky enough to live here, and I’ve been doing it for nearly a year so.
There’s something about living near water, I think. There’s the huge, calming vastness of the sea. The river doesn’t quite do that, but it’s full of life and activity. The ducks, the rowers, the houseboats, the swans – there’s always something going on, always something to look at, and you have to go out very late at night if you want to be sure of not meeting anybody.
The days draw out, and even on work days I leave home in daylight and I return in daylight, and I cycle to the shops, or I walk to the pub, or I sit by the river and eat an ice cream, and I watch the ducks flying downriver and the boats hauling upriver and the swans nibbling at the grass from the bank, and the trains pelting over the bridge, and I think, ‘Oh, I’m so lucky.’
I love living near water. One worries, vaguely, about flooding and cliff falls, but they haven’t happened yet. I’ve always lived either near water or within earshot of a railway, or, as now, both. The one time we did flood we were way out in the country, and that was the river Teme remembering its prehistoric course and coming straight through our cellar. It was all right: we lost the freezer, and that was about it.
I love the trains, too, but in a slightly different way. Water is huge and full of activity; the trains are contained. Human creations, orderly, predictable, going where they’re meant to go. They make me feel safe. Even in the awful bedsit, the worst place I ever lived, I heard the trains rattling past at night, down in the cutting underneath my window, and I could think, ‘I can get away. If it gets too bad, I can get away.’