10 Things I Learned at Cambridge

Last weekend was the Alumni Festival, when Cambridge was invaded by hordes of people who look ancient (and probably think the same about the other alumni). Three days of talks, tours, and socialising helped fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. One thing I do remember: the beds in my own college are less than hospitable, so DH and I stayed in Churchill College instead. It’s where the Churchill Archives live, though they can’t be seen at weekends.

So here are 10 things I learned.

1 Founded in 1583, Cambridge University Press is the oldest publisher in the world (though Oxford, it pains me to say, is larger). Here are its headquarters.

The Pitt Building

The Pitt Building

2 Newnham College’s gardens are no longer a hidden beauty now that scores of alumni toured them at the weekend. They were even allowed – shock, horror – to walk on the grass.  

Part of Newnham College gardens

Part of Newnham College gardens

3 You can be a leading light in immunology, pioneer a vaccine for HPV, and still score zero out of 10 for tact. Here’s what the Vice Chancellor Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said to a gathering of alumni on Friday evening:

The quality of students has never been better.

4  There are too many sundials in Cambridge for me to count. If you happen to know the total number, please leave a comment! Meanwhile this is one of my favourites. Or rather two of them.

Sundials on St Botlph's Church

Sundials on St Botolph’s Church

5  There are now parking charges on Sunday, so bicycles are needed more than ever.

bikes against a wall

Bikes against a wall in Trinity Lane

6  It’s possible for a plant to have no leaves. An ephedra stem just has scales. If you’re wondering, the drug ephedrine comes from ephedra. This is one of the plants in the Botanic Gardens.

Ephedra major subsp procera

Ephedra major subsp procera

7  Thanks to the Whipple Museum, I can now tell the difference between a reflecting telescope and a refracting telescope. But I’m damned if I’d know how to use one.

Esquire Bedells can be female too. The role goes back to the 13th century but these days you don’t need a Y chromosome to carry a mace, perform ceremonial duties, or give a cracking tour of the Senate House. Here is an Esquire Bedell with one of her colleagues.

Senior Esquire Bedell Nicola Hardy & Pro-Proctor Tim Milner

Senior Esquire Bedell Nicola Hardy & Pro-Proctor Tim Milner

9  Because I couldn’t attend every event, I still don’t know:

Standing beneath the Tree of Knowledge aka Atlantic cedar

Standing beneath the Tree of Knowledge aka Atlantic cedar

How to strip and rebuild a single-cylinder engine.

Why cats make you sneeze.

Why we can walk, but robots can’t (yet).

What black holes are for.

Whether science can make a cyclist go faster.

What makes your brain efficient.

Why life is so complicated.

But maybe I’ll find out next year.

10  No matter how long it’s been since student days, you never forget how to drop curry on your lap like an undergraduate on a Saturday night.  I’ll spare you that photo.