Clare Bridge and King's Bridge (in the background) over the River Cam, taken from Garret Hostel Lane Bride (Trinity Hall Bridge). Photo courtesy of James F., Wikimedia Commons.
Cambridge University started with a murder.
In 1209, an Oxford student shot a townswoman with an arrow. He maintained it was an accident; townspeople claimed it was intentional. Rioting exploded, and scholars fled. The exact story's been told many ways. 800 years is a long time for legend and history to grow together.
One, or two, or three innocent men were hanged for the woman's death; depends which 13th century historian you prefer. One historian, Roger of Wendover, claims that "3000" clerks left Oxford in the wake of the vigilante justice, three times the number now believed to have populated the university in the first place.
Some of them settled by the river Cam and got on with the teaching and learning. The resulting Cambridge University has grown to encompass 31 colleges sharing dozens of departments. It sprawls over the city, with shops and houses crammed in between the University's medieval stone, Victorian brick, and recent concrete and glass. Massive gatehouses and elegant towers loom over the grocery store and coffee shops.
The river curves through the city, its surface crowded with “punts,” flat, narrow boats propelled by pushing a pole against the shallow bottom. The guides are trained to give commentary about the riverside colleges, and the most experienced ones have a standard patter. I've heard the stories many times: that Hitler wanted St. John's college for his British headquarters, because of its perfect symmetry; that a Harry Potter quidditch scene was filmed in front of a certain ivy-covered wall; that the unfinished sphere on Clare Bridge was the revenge of an unpaid architect; that the wooden Mathematical Bridge was once held together by pure geometry, but was disassembled as a student prank and no one could figure out how to get it back together without resorting to the nuts and bolts that now secure it. None of these stories are true, but they've become a legendary narrative, repeated over and over, passed from one punter to the next.
"None of these stories are true, but they've become a legendary narrative, repeated over and over, passed from one punter
to the next."
Unpicking legend from true history is part of the fun of Cambridge. Just this week I visited Milton's mulberry tree in Christ's College's garden. Always on the alert for inside information, I asked one of the gardeners if students are able to access the gardens after they're locked. He cheerfully speculated about many possible routes for sneaking in and out, and showed me the cramped hideyholes where someone could avoid being noticed at closing time. He volunteered that it's quite easy to climb over the fence into the stone swimming pool that's supposed to be reserved for college Fellows. In fact, he confided, years ago one Fellow killed another over a woman, using the hook meant to hold up the flood gate that drained the pool.
I looked it up when I got home. It never really happened; it was the plot of a Cambridge-set ghost story novella from 1918.
I started my own novel, The Whole World, with an American narrator so I could gawk at Cambridge through her. But I also wanted to show the real Cambridge as I was getting to know it, and incorporated other voices, more local ones, too.
Set in the present day, The Whole World is the story of a popular graduate student who goes missing, and the terrible things that happen between those left behind. Maybe one day a punt chauffeur gliding past Magdalene College will tell of my missing student, and the domino crash of crime and trouble caused by his disappearance. Cambridge is a wonderful place to make up stories.
The Whole World by Emily Winslow
Delacorte Press, May 2010, $25.00