Cambridge and American History

It was a spur of the moment discussion. Should we go to Cambridge for a quick weekend getaway? At only two hours away by train, it was a no-brainer. We made it to King’s Cross Station and traveled through a very green and wet English countryside to the rival city of Oxford.

Since it was a last minute decision, we didn’t make a full itinerary of the trip and decided to wander around like nomads, seeing what we could see in the intellectual city. From the station, our AirBnB was about 2 miles away, so we got to walk through the better part of the city center on the way, and what we realized was Cambridge is another small, English town with the same malls, fast-food joints, and chain stores that were in London. Aside from the college and the architecture, there wasn’t much else to see and do. It was a place to relax and take a deep breath.

The first thing we did was check out Cambridge Castle or Castle Mound. I was immediately intrigued by the name because I love history and castles, but this small hill on the north side of the city was just that: a grassy mound.

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It was originally built or founded after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century as a strategic stop between the south and north of England. After Edward I, the castle stones was reused in the building of the colleges. After several more years, the spot became a jail that later, again, was demolished in 1842. Now, it’s open to the public as a scenic overlook for the city.

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We climbed, we saw, we braced ourselves against the wind, and then we climbed down. There isn’t much to see there, but you’re still standing on history, which is humbling despite the nothingness that sits there.

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We ventured to the exact opposite side of town to see The North Pole Christmas Market in Parker’s Piece Park. I think we were expecting something akin to the Christmas Markets in Munich, but instead, it was a second-rate carnival with just a handful of stalls serving fried food. I don’t think I saw a single sign for mulled wine, but since it was mainly for kids, I can understand the logic. Nearly empty on a Sunday afternoon, “carnies” begged for our business to ride the copious rides, but we held strong and headed back into the center of the city.

We stumbled on a farmer’s market with tons of stalls in the center of the city and found some delicious treats. I have never heard of a “tiffin” before, but it was my lucky day since I saw it was gluten-free. I guess I’m going to make some at home and post the recipe this week. So, stay tuned this Foodie Friday for the recipe on this dense, chocolate, and winter-y delicacy.

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By way of the gorgeous University of Cambridge buildings, we saw The Corpus Clock in a window display. This famous clock sits outside the Trinity Library at the Corpus Christi College and was unveiled in 2008 by Professor Stephen Hawking. It’s a large 24-carat gold clock with no hands or numbers, but an LED display showing the time. On top of the golden disc is a metal grasshopper or locust representing the “eating of time.”

The sun was hidden behind the grey clouds and the trees were bare and brown, but we still made a point to walk through the Botanical Gardens on the south side of the city. For £5, you can meander through several pathways and large greenhouses surrounded by office buildings and townhomes.

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We took our time walking through the trees and around the lakes before the sun disappeared completely. It was a quiet corner in the city that normally doesn’t seem like it would be busy, but can be with all of the students and parents roaming the already-narrow sidewalks.

Walking out the west exit, we were half a mile from The Fitzwilliam Museum. By this point, we were exhausted from walking back and forth through the city about four times, so we didn’t spend much time in this gorgeous museum. But we did walk through the Following Hercules gallery where statues through the centuries were on display of the half-man, half-god, and also the Cradled in Caricature gallery featuring vintage political cartoons that were crude and colorful featuring the humor of British artists.

The next morning marked two separate anniversaries. The first was the 74th anniversary of the United States getting involved in WWII after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The second was Jeff and mine’s second year wedding anniversary. Bright and early, we made our way toward the American Cemetery in Cambridge. My mom had told me my great-great uncle, Robert C Smart, was memorialized on the Wall of the Missing, and I was determined to pay my respects.

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Hopping on the number 4 bus and sitting through traffic, we made it to the gorgeous cemetery on the north east side of town just as the sun was peaking through the clouds. The space is about 30 acres of nearly 4,000 headstones meticulously patterned across the green landscape. As we walked through the space, we saw a handful of headstones that were dedicated to unknown soldiers. But, it was when we walked to the massive wall of engraved names that we were humbled by all of the Americans who died on British soil and never found.

I located my great-great uncle among the thousands of other names. He was killed by colliding with an allied plane coming back to Ashfield from a German bombing mission. His plane went down over Texel, a small island off Holland. How did I find out all of this information? Inside the Visitor’s Center, I asked for a piece of paper to trace his name for my mom. Instead of giving me a piece of paper, the woman behind the desk accompanied me to the wall with two flags (one American, one British), and a bucket of sand brought to England from Omaha Beach. She painstakingly filled in each letter with the sand and brushed away the excess to have the name stand out against the white marble.

After I took my photos, she handed me a packet full of information about how he died and the details of his mission. I was floored. Because I was next of kin, they gave me the flags that sit on each gravestone on Memorial Day. It truly was an amazing place, and I felt like I had a small insight into the war that ravaged Europe.

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We walked around the grounds a little more and heard the ten o’clock chimes from the chapel. But what followed the chimes caught us by surprise. Using the same organ bells, “My Country Tis of Thee,” “Nearer My God To Thee,” and “America the Beautiful” played into the air. We were completely alone in the cemetery, so we got this private concert with the 3,812 souls buried in the ground.

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It was a truly humbling experience to see this with the flag standing half-mast and the sky just beginning to turn blue.

While there wasn’t much to do in Cambridge, we are certainly glad we made it to the small college town, even if just for a few hours. It was a lovely and British weekend getaway to celebrate two blissful years of marriage. The town was certainly not short of uniqueness and quirk.

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Have you been to Cambridge? How about Oxford? Which do you prefer? Favorite spots?

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