I went for a week at Spring Break to visit my sister in England and indulge in a little “recherche du temps perdu” from my childhood and adolescence in Cambridge. The Cambridge of my youth was not the “dreaming spires” of Ruskin’s Oxford, nor was it the solid, confident stonework of the great cathedrals and abbeys of England. Rather, it was a small, often winter-damp, fen-land market town, sitting squat and unprepossessing on the edge of the fens–that area of crow–black, peat rich soil in the East of England, drained by the Dutch over 100 years ago, but still liable to floods–where the pale sky meets the dark earth. I loved its narrow streets, cobbled courtyards, creeper clad towers, smoky coffee shops, and students on bicycles with college scarves wrapped around their necks against the insidious damp from the fens, racing to lectures or tutorials. This modest town just happened to have a rather famous university straggling along the banks of the River Cam as it meandered sluggishly through.
It has been just three years since I was there (home, in a very profound sense), but in that time, Cambridge has become a boomtown: silicon fen! Now from atop the Gog Magog Hills to the north of the town, the landscape of Cambridge is changing almost daily, with ubiquitous cranes poking up across the skyline, shiny apartments, (gasp- apartment blocks in Cambridge!), and a new 70 acre Cambridge Bio-Medical Campus next to Addenbrooke’s Hospital. With drug giant Astra Zeneca about to build a new 33 million pound global research HQ here, this new campus is now the biggest medical research facility of its kind in the world. Even our modest little airport has renamed itself Cambridge International with daily flights to Paris and Geneva. Back in the 16th century, university students were forbidden–on pain of a fine–from visiting the hills under which Gog and Magog are said to slumber, for fear of disturbing the mythological giants, but now there is talk of a bus tunnel or underground commuter railway being built beneath these chalk hills to ease commuting pressures.
So it seems to me that there are now two Englands: one of London, Cambridge, and the South East, and the other of the midlands and North. Outside of the economic bubble of the South East, unemployment is still high, people live from pay check to pay check, and young people grow increasingly dis-spirited and wonder about moving South, although there is scant need there for unskilled workers. Cambridge workers, for example, are rated the most highly skilled in the country with average earnings higher than anywhere else. Unemployment is a low 3% with more than a quarter of the locals working in in knowledge –intensive industries.
I did go back to the Eagle Pub for lunch, a favorite haunt from my past, and was relieved to find not too much has changed. The outside courtyard is smaller and spruced up, but the inside remains with the smoky ceiling with burnt-in names of generations of students, the same dark, intimate interior, and similar menu. Beans and pie are still a favorite! I was pleased to see that one plaque is still there, commemorating the place where in 1953 Francis Crick burst in to declare that he and James Watson had discovered the secret of life, and that scientists had cracked gene sequencing. So perhaps not so very much has changed in Cambridge after all. It has led the way for a long time. It is just doing it with a very different look.