It’s over. An epoch in my life has concluded, as Anne Shirley might say, and, admittedly, I am feeling a lot of things.
So, the good news is, I did what I came for, and then some. I got my PhD at Cambridge… yeah, essentially, I got my owl and went to Hogwarts. I lived in a medieval village. I got to spend more time in London (we lived there for 6 months in 2011, before). I made amazing friends, and we developed all sorts of fun routines and rituals, from the tea parties and writing groups to our Saturday Morning kaffeeklatsch. Sure, we were all mostly busy with working, but that didn’t stop us from having themed group meals (Midwest American church potluck! Literary foods! Bake-offs!), and, on many memorable occasions, way too much wine or whiskey.
But I didn’t really want to come back to America, especially not now, not with everything going on. This isn’t the country I left five years ago. The bad news is, just as I completed a lifetime milestone, our country told us that everything we value, all the work we do, is worthless. Useless. I’ve been told countless times in the last year by “patriotic Americans” that I should just kill myself because I am an educator/a feminist/a scholar/an activist. So while I’m trying to find things to be happy about with being in Boston again, I’ve been experiencing a lot of anxiety, depression, and fear overall.
I suspect I’ll be channeling a lot of that into writing projects, too.
So leaving was bittersweet, and I know I’m going to be homesick for “England, where my heart lies” for a long time. But my memories are to your benefit, because you get a list of Favorite Things! Other than just the “in general” about the buildings and the rivers and the parks and gardens, here are the best things about London and Cambridge:
Museums with free admission
It makes such a difference to know you can just pop into a museum for an hour or two, instead of having to cough up twenty bucks and fretting that you haven’t gotten your money’s worth at the end of the day. And the museums in London are amazing. Ever since my husband and I had what we jokingly call our Art Epiphany when we honeymooned in London twenty years ago, going to art museums, together or on our own, has been a regular part of life. Several of my favorite spots include the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, the Victorian and Edwardian rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, the whole Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate. But my hands-down favorite in London, and one of my favorite museums ever is…
I love this place. I love the exhibits. I love the long hallway displaying ironwork: gates, keys and locks, fireplace screens. I love the glasswares, and the Renaissance windows, and the clothing. I love the history of this place, the Great Exhibition feeling with all its complicated implications. But my favorite spot here is the hidden movie theatre on the top floor. I’ll go up there and hide out, sometimes with a notebook, and watch the old films and documentary pieces for ages, cozy and peaceful.
Fuck you, ‘Murrica. Although I’m sure my fat ass will be better off without my Cadbury-a-day habit….
Persephone Books, 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street
A beautiful little bookshop and publisher committed to reprinting “neglected” works by women writers of the early twentieth century. The quality of these books on every level is top-notch.
The Ritz Hotel, London
This has been my own little secret. I mean, the afternoon tea here is nice and all. But did you know that (if properly attired per their dress code) you can just… go into the sitting area in the Ritz lobby, and order tea, too? Often, when I’m spending a day in London, I’ll start off here with a pot of hot chocolate and the absolutely divine cinnamon shortbread. An hour or so of quiet writing time and people watching is heaven.
I love historic houses anyway, but this is a favorite. Yes, Sir John Soanes is also amazing, and I recommend that, too. But I like Leighton House’s proximity to Holland Park, and its… accessibility, I guess. The feel of an artist’s lived everyday home experiences. The light.
Plus the fountain. And, oh, okay, I admit it, plus the fact that the videos for “Golden Brown” by The Stranglers and “Gold” by Spandau Ballet were filmed here!
It all started with one serendipitous lunch coupon. Ta da! I found myself hooked on Wagamama… or, specifically, their pork belly and panko apple steamed buns. (My record in one meal is six.) This became a post-writing group weekly lunch spot.
*Rumor has it there are now US locations, including a couple in Boston. Do I dare…?
Sure, it’s one of the most historic places in the western world. You’ve got the architecture. Royalty. Damage from bombs during the Blitz, if you know where to look outside. I’ve been known to wander around here with Henry Purcell and Ralph Vaughan Williams music blasting in my ears.
But I’m a pretentious literary asshole, so I’m all about Poets Corner. When I was reviewing for lit. exams years ago, I used to treat myself to visits to Poets Corner (and other London literary environs) after finishing relevant sections: Chaucer, Spenser, Dryden, Browning, Tennyson… I’d scowl at their gravesites and memorials and mutter things about the patriarchal canon and standardized testing and the lack of Aphra Behn. But it made things relevant and relatable and real.
There are also the bells. And the bells from Big Ben, across the way, at Houses of Parliament/Palace of Westminster, which is one of my favorite buildings in the whole world. And then you get Westminster Bridge and all that Wordsworth and Turner stuff. This is just an amazing, historic corner of the city. Of the world.
Tea at Fortnum’s in the Diamond Jubilee Room
The fact that I am both pretentious and a glutton should not be news. My best London friend and I had a years’ long quest to try as many of the various teas — from traditional to obscure — around town as we could. And in the end, we kept returning here. (Also, if you are a tourist, skip Harrods and Harvey Nick’s shopping, and come to Fortnum and Mason instead.)
We’ve been coming here so long that we pre-date the Diamond Jubilee Room, and, in all this time, the service and quality have been consistent. Only once, several years back, did we have a “meh” experience, which was quickly rectified. We average a three-hour stay whenever we do tea here. Why? The two important things to know is 1) you have your choice between sweet or savoury tea — and we strategize by each of us ordering one and sharing, because 2) it is all you can effing eat, my darlings! AND THEY GIVE YOU THE LEFTOVERS AND SLICES OF CAKE TO TAKE HOME AFTER! Also, the rarebit is one of the best things in the world… next to the potted Stilton. So yeah, hit the food hall on your way out.
Paul A. Young, 143 Wardour Street Soho; 33 Camden Passage, Islington
Have I established my reputation yet? Good. Because when I tell you these are the best brownies in the world, you know I mean it.
Blind Pig, 58 Poland St, Soho
What does every “best of” list need? A secret-ish speakeasy! This has become a regular, albeit expensive, place to take visiting scholars in my field, because what do pretentious academics need? CHILDREN’S LIT-THEMED COCKTAILS! So, the down side is these drinks are ten quid a pop. The up side is, well, everything else. Not only are the drinks fantastic, but the staff is wonderful, the space is lovely (and usually not crowded), and the menu is a work of art when you see it in person. The Blind Pig is upstairs from the Social Eating House, and if you go in and ask, they’ll point you to it. Or you can open that unmarked door with the brass, blindfolded pig on it….
So, technically, this is not in City Centre, Cambridge proper. But over the centuries Grantchester Village, meadows, and the Orchard, are intrinsically linked with the University and college life. First, there’s the punting; it’s a beautiful journey down the River Cam to Grantchester, and while I never participated in the May Balls (because I am poor and old), sunrise punts post-party are a thing. I HAVE done sunset punts when all the bats come out, though, and that is also evocative. But it’s also a lovely two-mile walk from town, and when the weather is good, this is a wonderful outing. Tea and scones in the Orchard are surprisingly good quality, and, although you’ll have to duck the bees, lounging in chairs under the trees with friends to discuss essay edits or student supervisions is ideal. Or an idyll.
But the best, best, best Grantchester experience ever was a few weeks ago, when my friends surprised me with a massive British themed picnic in the Meadows, where we ate cheese, sang songs, and I lost count after my ninth cup of Pimms…. It was the most Cambridgey thing ever!
Also, there’s this.
Grantchester-related, even, since you’ll often pass them on walks, but the Cambridge cows are totally one of my favoritest things. See, when the school was founded centuries ago, part of the established rules and land-rentals and buildings and all that involved stipulations that cattle could still be grazed on commons, and that areas would be permanently set aside for cow-grazing. No fences. No ropes. No, the herd of cows just wander along wherever in designated areas. If they feel like taking a nap in the middle of that bike path, they do. They’re also a many-hundreds-of-years traditional “fuck you” to the super-elite richie-rich people who thought the ideas of cows and common land for grazing offensive and sought to banish them more than once. I’ll admit, it is a delightfully incongruous sight to have a herd of placid don’t-give-a-fuck cows calmly munching grass and waving away flies on the lawns in the looming shadows of King’s and Trinity Colleges.
They’re all registered and monitored and you can check in with them via college websites by name. Two are “William” and “Catherine,” btw.
Benet’s for writing, 21 King’s Parade
It’s not great for coffee. It’s not great for pastries. They’re overpriced. The downstairs is chaotic, especially at the height of tourist season. But because of its location right smack on King’s Parade, across from King’s College Chapel, the upstairs tables by the windows when you can grab ‘em have the best views! So if you want to settle in for a morning of writing (and can tolerate a middling cup of coffee for a few hours), this is an evocative spot to do so.
Sea Tree, 188 Mill Rd.
No matter where we live, my husband and I happily quest for local “best of” things. And in England, the search for the best fish and chips is a serious deal. When in London, we hit many of the famous ones, the historic ones. We went to pubs. We went to chippies.
When we moved to Cambridge, we discovered the best fish and chips ever was at a local just down the main road. (No, not the famous pub by the river, either.) Getting takeaway fish and chips became a weekly tradition during the years we lived there. They have a very limited menu, and it’s all seafood. Small and focused. Perfect. You can request skin-off, which makes me happy, and the chips are almost like double-fried frites, they’re so crisp. (There have been a couple times the chips have been too soggy, and we noticed it depended on what potatoes they were using. Yes, they’ll put that info on the chalkboard.)
St. John’s campus
This is one of my favorite campus spots in Cambridge. Most of the campuses are closed unless you’re a student, and many of the colleges are open only to students of that college. John’s is one of the few that you can usually cross through most times of the year (although I believe there is a charge for non-students).
The whole St. John’s campus is wonderful, with different styles of architecture mashing up together in each of its courts. But this long walk down cool stone passageways, crossing the river via the replica of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, into a stunning “Oh, THIS is what Gothic Revival was reviving” space is breathtaking. This was my go-to spot to take visitors, because IT IS FUCKING HOGWARTS, OKAY?
Afternoon Tease, 13 King St
I debated about including this. Tourist guides send people to the more obvious Fitzbillies or Stickybeaks, and places in the centre of town, like Harriet’s Tea Room or the local Patisserie Valerie are usually packed during peak hours. Many locals prefer Hot Numbers. Espresso Library is good. But.
But. But. But.
Afternoon Tease has been my secret. My refuge. My home-away-from-home. This is one of the most “my place” my places ever. It was our department’s spot.
Yeah, we’re regulars. This place is our Cheers, and I am totally their Norm. We know the owner. We know most of the baristas by name, and they know our drinks before we order them. We have the menu memorized. We have our table, our regular times and days, and rituals. We’ve been coming here since the day they opened.
But it is also about the food and coffee. This is some of the best coffee in Cambridge. Also, British cakes can be… kinda dry and flavorless. Not here. Part of the reason why we’ve been coming here since the day they opened is because the owner used to sell her cakes locally, and we’d pounce on them at other places, so when she announced she was opening her own shop, WE WERE THERE. No matter what I’ve gotten, from the chocolate Guinness cake with cream cheese icing to the ginger biscuit cake to the seasonal pumpkin chocolate chip bundt that we’d actually special-order ahead of time, every single one has been perfection. One of the happiest days here was when the owner gave us a bowl of the extra cream cheese icing and a bunch of spoons. The rest of the food, from weekday soups to weekend brunches, is always amazing, with fresh ingredients and local contributors. Hell, the owner’s mum makes the jams!
So yeah. Historical sites. Art. Gourmet food. Even cows.
But Afternoon Tease is the place I’m going to miss the most.
Happy roaming (and eating), darlings, and do let me know if you try any of these places and what your experiences are!