Travel · Weekends

Week 38: A Truly English Summer

This was the week that summer finally started to arrive in Cambridge, if only meekly. I took full advantage of the warming weather, late sun and lack of Orientation Committee meeting to go for an hour-long bike ride around the streets of Cambridge on Monday evening. Likewise, Tuesday brought with it a beautiful evening, but this time, I went out to the ADC theatre to see the International Footlights comedy show; a selection of skit comedies by up-and-coming comedians based in Cambridge, at the start of their international tour. Informally, the tickets were bought through the Gates social officers, so there was an overwhelming number of people around to catch up with.

I got home on Wednesday afternoon after a rough day’s work feeling very exhausted and tired, though through happenstance I found myself with an impromptu invitation to join Annalise, Jacqueline and Krittika who were out at the Plough (a pub) watching the bumps. With the knowledge that the women’s bumps were about to be underway, I found myself going from lying in bed half asleep to on my bike sprinting across the city in a matter of seconds. I didn’t know where the Plough was, but I somehow gathered it’d be on the southern side of the river. I raced across the grass of Jesus Green, and managed to see the end of the women’s bumps as I was riding past.

For those unfamiliar with Cambridge rowing events, bumps are a series of traditional annual rowing races held in the Cam. As the Cam is nowhere near wide enough nor straight enough for a traditional Olympic-style rowing race, the college boats line up a boat length or so apart and race up the river. If you catch the boat in front of you, you are said to have ‘bumped’ them and both boats pull over to the side of the river, and the two teams will switch starting positions on the next race. There are a series of races in the Lent term, and again in the Easter term, leading up to May week (confusingly, in June). This typically means some exciting racing as teams try to just stay ahead of a quickly encroaching boat.

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I found the three girls sitting by the river and joined them, happily dipping my feet into the river. There was much discussion over the rules and tactics of the races, though at one point Krittika and Annalise both went to get food. The length of the service line meant that the entire men’s bumps race went by before they could return. We stayed around a while longer, until everyone seemed to be leaving, so we left too and rode our bikes back into town as a group; Krittika and Annalise peeling off one by one to go to their respective houses.

After another day lacking productivity on Thursday, I went around to visit Danny in the evening. Joanna was away on field work, meaning it was just he and their two cats. I used the opportunity with him to play some video games, which lasted well into the late evening. We left open the option for Joanna to play with us remotely, but she insisted that she was needed elsewhere (by a different video game). It went down as a relaxing evening where I didn’t have to think too much about any work or the like. At the end of the night, Danny entrusted me with a spare set of house keys and the responsibility of feeding their cats twice a day over the coming weekend, as he would briefly be joining Joanna on her fieldwork.

Friday turned out to be an even worse day work wise, so Jacqueline suggested heading out to watch the latest round of bumps. We didn’t go quite so far as the Plough, instead settling down at the side of the river in Ditton Meadows to watch the boats go past. Being quite so far down has the disadvantage that you see less boats, as more are likely to have bumped, but the river is straighter, so you see the boats for longer. This was followed by the dutiful feeding of the cats and a later messing about with musical instruments.

By the time the weekend rolled around, the weather was peaking up into the high twenties, even touching thirty degrees. Although trifling by Australian standards, in England it amounted to extremely warm weather. Hence, it was time to take advantage of what little warmth I would get this summer and take a trip to the seaside. I had highlighted to Jacqueline that this was something worth doing, and so, after feeding the cats that morning, we found ourselves in a train racing across the Norfolk countryside.

We stopped briefly in Norwich to change trains onto a small, two-car wagon which took us towards the coast. However, I had done some research and had decided to detour on an adventure. We were on one of two trains a day that stop at the tiny Berney Arms railway station, reputably one of the most isolated railway stations in Great Britain and the second-last stop before the seaside. We had to specifically request to the conductor of the train that we wished to stop, else it would have gone straight through. When we did pull up, the platform was only large enough for the front door of the front carriage. However, we weren’t the only ones getting off; a cyclist had arranged to meet a friend on this train at the station.

Once the train sped away, we found ourselves on an isolated platform in the middle of a field. There was no road, no marked footpath; just the raised platform, a few signs and some bike racks. We had to walk 600 yards through the middle of a field to reach the nearest discernable civilisation, an old heritage Dutch-style windmill that stood by the river Yare. Along the river, there were numerous boats moored up, with friendly Norfolkers going about their business. There claimed to be a pub and a café with signs indicating it was open, but no sign of life inside. By this point, we had explored the entirety of Berney Arms, and set of on our 5 mile hike to the seaside at Great Yarmouth.

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We were following the Wherryman’s trail, a wherry being a local type of boat used in the rivers of Norfolk. This trail took us along the top of the dyke protecting the farmland from the river. The problem was that the cows do not graze upon the dyke, and hence the grass reached up to our chests, and their were thistles abound to avoid. At first, this didn’t seem a problem, but as we passed by a pumping station we noticed that Jacqueline’s legs had started to rash from the grass seeds. This was rather unfortunate; there didn’t really appear to be any alternative than walking through the long grass as there weren’t any more services from the railway station. We had to plough on to Great Yarmouth, taking the route with less grass where we could, but to no avail. By the time we finally reached the town, the first place we came across was an Asda with a pharmacy inside to get some steroids and antihistamines for the now quite bad rash.

It was now mid-afternoon, and high time to get to the beach. We walked through town, stopping by the Great Yarmouth market to get some lunch (chips and gravy, because we wanted as stereotypical an British seaside experience as possible. We made our way to the sand via the main shopping street in the city, and soon enough found ourselves overlooking the North Sea. I had picked up some £2 flip-flops and a hot dog (unfortunately nobody was selling Chiko rolls or Dim Sims) and so we sat down on the beach to eat our lunch. The beach itself was broad and pebbly, especially compared to the smooth sand of Adelaidean beaches (but apparently not Vancouverite beaches). After lunch, we endeavoured to at least get a little bit went, so dove into the cold water. For the warmth of the day, the sea was not nearly as warm as it ought to have been. It took some minutes to acclimatise, and even then we didn’t stay in for very long. Instead, we resigned to doing as most of the locals seemed to be doing: lying about on their beach towels.

It was approaching the late afternoon, so before everything shut up for the evening, we went for a walk down the parade along the seafront. Over the mile we walked, the surroundings perfectly exemplified the feeling of a British seaside resort; on one side of the street were seemingly dozens of mini-golf courses, on the other were casinos, circuses and other entertainment venues, dressed up in an attempt to be Vegas-y, but nothing could hide the heritage British buildings behind them.

Soon enough, we arrived at the Pleasure Beach, an old amusement park with the host of stereotypical amusement park rides: haunted houses, dodgem cars and log fumes. But of particular interest was the 1930s era wooden roller coaster that was still in operation. We only had time for a single go. We piled into the front of the car, with barely any of the typical fool-proof safety bars seen on modern rides. As usual, the ride took us high above the beach, before rushing back down to the ground at a great (for 1930s) speed. One thing of note, was that the wooden roller coaster didn’t have any automatic brakes, instead a driver would sit at the back of the car and pull on a brake lever to slow us down. The ride certainly had a lot of character, especially compared to the metal-and-plastic sets one gets these days. It was great fun to be riding around the wooden pillars on the wooden track.

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We walked back up the strip, stopping briefly for a bit of ice cream, and found ourselves some dinner at a local pizza joint. Problem was, we ordered far too much, and ended up with surplus to take home. By now we were extremely tired, and all too happy to load onto the train to take us home. One final amusement: the train line both to and from Great Yarmouth was operated almost entirely by old-fashioned mechanical semaphore signals, with a workman in a signal box pulling on levers to raise or lower the signal. It was an amazing anachronism that the modern trains were still operating on 19th century technology so close to London, where trains are almost fully automated.

A trip back to Cambridge later, and having fed the cats again, we made our way out to the ADC theatre for Callie’s stand-up comedy show. Though we arrived together, there were plenty of other Gatesians milling about to chat to and catch up with before the show, and, notably, surprised to discover Annalise standing on the door stewarding and checking tickets.

The show was opened by a brief stand-up routine by Cansu centered around the theme of political correctness, before Callie came out to deliver her near hour-long routine on the pitfalls of getting old (relatively speaking). I figured most of the audience knew Callie personally, and so were engaged in a lively and tit-for-tat manner for much of the night. This seemed to calm her nerves a bit, and ended up telling some hilarious and amusing life stories and life lessons, much to the enjoyment of the crowd.

By contrast, Sunday was a relatively quiet day. In addition to the now regular feeding of the cats, I met with Paul and Jacqueline for one of Paul’s last few Sunday Brunches in Cambridge. This is a sad fact due to the fact that Paul’s MPhil has now come to an end, and he has handed in all of the required work, and after a trip around the UK with family, will be heading back to the US. One of the sad facts about Gates is that a lot of the friends you make who are MPhils tend to leave after just a year. In any case, the weather put on a nice show, which carried on until the Gates Council meeting that afternoon, held outside in the King’s fellow’s garden. The day ended with an attempt at homemade moussaka.

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