The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986. It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012). They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.
During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995. I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.
Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings. But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986. There it was, in all of its splendor: Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.
I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading. But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.
My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters. But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.
Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel. Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.” Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.
When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.
We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.
Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre. We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric. Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.
But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week. On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour. We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River. Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge. The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two. The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.
Our next must-see site was King’s College. During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge. So we headed right for it. (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)
Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence. Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass. (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)
As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam. The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful. We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.
The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river. He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole. His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.
The boat wasn’t crowded. An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.
The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect. Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.
What’s punting like? Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam. Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)
An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity. Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past. According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.
But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986. Not at all. Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.
I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring. Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge. But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.