Sport · Travel

Week 59: Oxford Real Tennis and St Alban’s Signal Box Trips

Workwise, my week was one of the most productive since Orientation. I did a lot of work getting my model implemented into the new code that I was using, which required a bit of maths to reaffirm that I knew exactly what I was doing. But as always, the exciting parts of my week happened away from my desk.

On Tuesday, I met up with Andre, who was a new scholar who couldn’t make Orientation for various reasons. He had now firmly arrived in Cambridge, and I wanted to reach out to make sure he was settling in. We met up for lunch at Darwin, and followed this up by heading over to the GSCR to collect his welcome pack. That evening, I went out to the Gates Pub Night at Selwyn College Bar. Turnout was down compared to the summer, but it was still good to catch up with people again.

On Wednesday evening, I headed up to Churchill College with Jacqueline. She was giving a short presentation on her work as part of CHUTalks, the Churchill seminar series. There was a relatively good turnout, about a score of people. The unfortunate twist was that for almost the entirety of her half hour long presentation, there was a fireworks display somewhere outside, that littered her talk with distracting bangs and pops.

Friday’s workday finished with a game of tennis and a quick shower at home to change into my formal attire. It was time for a long-overdue Darwin Formal. I hadn’t been to one since before the summer, and I was eager to get back. I had arranged to go with Jacqueline, Kevin and one of Kevin’s friends. We met at the college and headed in for pre-drinks. The set-up at Darwin had changed; no longer was alcohol included in the ticket price; instead it is now an optional extra and the kitchen charges have been dramatically reduced. We also had to check in now; something that didn’t happen before.

The dinner itself was a chicken entrée with a pork main; followed by a caramelised pear tart to finish. Most of the dinner conversation was spent on Kevin’s pet topic: film. Afterwards, we headed downstairs again for the post-dinner coffee, before Jacqueline and I had to head home. We didn’t stay long; almost immediately we were back out and heading for the ADC theatre. The Cambridge Opera Society were putting on a student production of Sāvitri, an short Opera by Gustav Holst. It only lasted thirty minutes, but Parvathi, a fellow Gates scholar, was one of the three singers; and Naomi, another Gates scholar, was conducting the small strings section. Hence, there were many Gates scholars in the audience too. The music was beautiful, but it was held quite late at night and my tiredness and weariness meant that I struggled somewhat to keep up with the story.

On Saturday, I left early for a trip to the Other Place. I had signed up to play Real Tennis for the Cambridge Seniors against the Oxford Seniors. Although this means that I’ve now played for Cambridge against Oxford, unfortunately it doesn’t count as a Varsity Game. I took the morning train out from Cambridge and down into London. The direct train from Cambridge to Oxford hasn’t run for 50 years and they are talking of bringing it back in another 20 or so. That means I had to transit between King’s Cross and Paddington. When I lived in Exeter, I would visit Paddington somewhat frequently, but since I’d been in Cambridge, I’d not been there at all.

After arriving in Oxford, I walked up the hill to Merton College, where the Oxford Real Tennis court is housed. I arrived and rang the doorbell; one of the Oxford players welcomed me and showed me to the spectator’s area. Oxford’s court is much older than Cambridge, having been built in and operated continuously since 1798. It is therefore one of the oldest courts still in use in the world. However, they only have one court compared to Cambridge’s two. Their old court meant that the dimensions were not standard, meaning it played quite differently to Cambridge’s courts. The court was both narrower and shorter, which made it both easier to reach balls and easier to overhit balls and have them bounce back off the back wall. The penthouses; sloped roofs that run around three sides of the court; were nearly a foot lower than Cambridge’s, and the tambour; an oblique protrusion from one of the walls; was shallower, meaning that the balls bounced in directions I wasn’t used to. Finally, the trench; the area under the net where balls collate, was much deeper, meaning you had to step into it to retrieve balls between points.

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I watched the first few games from the gallery, cheering on the Cambridge team throughout. We won a few and lost a few, before it was time to break for lunch. The Oxford team hosted us for curry in their dining hall, part of their extensive two stories of off-court facilities. After some of the players had had a little wine, we headed back out to the courts.

I was due to play in a doubles fixture with Charles against Stephen and Ron from Oxford. Stephen was quite new to the game and hit the ball quite hard; whereas Ron was experienced but couldn’t run very fast. We played best of three sets, and neither pairing pulled away more than a game’s lead until the very end. I served well, but some of my ground strokes were rubbish. There was plenty of support from the Cambridge players in the galleries. Most of the games featured one pair going ahead and getting a 40-0 or 40-15 lead, before the other pair pulled it back to deuce. We won the first set 6-5, but lost the second 5-6. Finally, Charles and I managed to break away in the final set to win 6-4 (the set started at 3-3). For a game that should have taken less than an hour, we ended up being on court for well over 90 minutes.

Finally, it was time to head back to Cambridge. It had fallen dark, so it was a relatively uninteresting train journey back to Cambridge via London Marylebone and King’s Cross; even if the train announcements at one of the stations was done in Arabic and Mandarin for some reason.

Jacqueline had been talking about Sunday for months. She had arranged a trip out of Cambridge that she didn’t want to tell me about until now. We headed for the train station, but I had no idea where we were going beyond that. We bought tickets to Hatfield; I was still fairly clueless. However, it would be 50 minutes until the next train, so we spent our time grabbing lunch from a café on Mill Road.

Soon, we were on the train with our bikes. I managed to figure out that we would be riding to St Alban’s, which is a large town just south of Luton Airport. There was an old rail trail that linked Hatfield and St Alban’s, making it relatively straightforward to cycle between the two. The problem was that it was very cold and windy, and with Jacqueline feeling a little under-the-weather, we went slower than we otherwise might have.

It was a decent 7 mile ride between the two towns. We pulled up at St Alban’s City Railway Station, and Jacqueline revealed what she had brought us to. There was a heritage signal box alongside the railway that opened to the public once a month for three hours on a Sunday afternoon. Signal boxes used to be very frequent up and down the country, until they were gradually replaced by electronic systems. Some still exist in some remote areas though. The one at St Alban’s had been decommissioned in 1980, but was preserved as a Grade II listed building.

We showed up at the entrance gates, and were met by a very enthusiastic gentleman who showed us around the small garden surrounding the signal box. In it, they had placed a number of modern and historic signals, and he proceeded to explain how each of them operated. First, he showed us some modern signals, which are usually placed a mile apart. They have four aspects (lights) and show red, yellow, double yellow or green. Next, he took us to some old fashioned semaphore signals that had been preserved from various places in Britain. The signals had been rigged up to a number of signalling levers, which we were encouraged to pull. He explained how most signals were interlocked, meaning that the levers could only be pulled and released in a certain order so as to ensure safe running of trains.

As he took us around to the front of the signal box itself, he showed us some Victorian-era No Trespassing signs, which were lengthy and wordy public notices rather than useful pieces of design. Once inside the signal box, he handed over to another volunteer. On the ground floor of the signal box was a range of signal-related memorabilia: telegraph bells, switchboards and tokens that were all used for signalmen to run the railway throughout the country. When we wandered up to the top floor of the box; where all of the levers were; there was another enthusiastic gentleman who walked though a demonstration of the logical orderings of signal level pulls that would be required for a train to arrive at St Alban’s, pick up passengers, and leave again.

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After our thoroughly positive experience with the signal box, we left in search of a little food, which we found at a nearby bakery. We then had to ride back to Hatfield before the sun set. It was another cold ride, but soon enough, we were back on the train to Cambridge.

A quick stop by home, and we were off again. This time, our destination was Kevin’s place, where he had invited a number of people over for dinner. Jacqueline and I were joined by Edyth, Amarynth, Erica, and Amarynth’s friend Emma. Kevin had made curry; which was delicious by any standard. In addition to the usual dinner party socialising, Kevin wanted for us to watch Moana, which was a film he was now focusing on for his research. So after dinner, and a bit of dessert, we sat around the television and watched the film. There’s something special about a lot of the Disney and Pixar films that makes them incredibly watchable by both children and adults, and none of us were disappointed.

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