The English Cambridge in Winter

THE familiar position of Great Britain on the map of the northern hemisphere naturally suggests the existence of alternating seasons. That the winter, however, can be any colder than the proverbial “ English summer,” or the English spring which Coleridge once spoke of as having “set in with its usual severity,” may seem incredible to most travelers. I am obliged to own that the existence of any essential difference in their relative inclemency was not fully made clear to me until the winter of 1890-91. Previous years had left it a n’cely balanced question, belonging to the domain of casuistry rather than to that of experience.

Cambridge and its colleges under the snow ! Not for an hour or two in the morning, but for whole days, and even weeks. Roofs, towers, and pinnacles, venerable fronts and gateways, pleasant courts of weather-worn brick and stone, the grass plots in the gardens and the smooth lawns of the beautiful and famous “ backs,” with all their leafless trees and shrubbery, several inches deep in feathery whiteness; the stout but rather dissipated and rowdy-looking figure of bluff King Hal, over the fine old gateway of Trinity, wearing a most reverend and snowy beard, and the gracious form of his grandmother, Lady Margaret, over the portal of St. John’s, arrayed in soft ermine. This, of course, is a somewhat different picture from the Cambridge of May term, — the Cambridge of smooth lawns, leafy groves, and fresh flowers, of boat races and festivities, of parental visitation, and of uncomfortable-looking youths in cap and gown doing university honors with proud fathers and mothers and pretty, awestruck young sisters.

My own first visit to this “ other failfount of learning ” was in the latter flowery if sometimes rather frigid season, and after enduring several months of metropolitan fog. As the train neared Cambridge and the level fen country, the landscape grew visibly flatter, and the inevitable comparison with Oxford presently suggested itself, — not a little to the disadvantage of the former town in the matter of natural surroundings, though less so as to the colleges themselves. Oxford, beautiful city, at first appears more venerable and much more dilapidated; the buildings more crumbled and blackened, with a larger number of statues without heads or noses, and of Gothic pinnacles and ornaments which appear to have melted and run down like wax candles. Cambridge at first seems comparatively modern ; the outskirts, indeed, and the new quarter west of the Cam resembling the later suburbs of London. More of the colleges, too, have new fronts, and there appears to be a greater variety of building materials employed, — many shades of light and dark stone, and much red brick pleasantly tempered by time, — while even the older colleges look in better outward repair. This impression of relative modernness, however, soon wears off. A little study of the curious and ancient corners in the courts of Trinity, Jesus, Peterhouse, Pembroke, and other colleges, and of the older churches and the many quaint and picturesque houses in the town itself, firmly establishes the conviction that there is little to choose between the rival universities in the matter either of beauty or of antiquity.

At Cambridge, also, as at Oxford, one discovers the young British “ barbarians all at play,” especially in the “ May week,” which, in a characteristic English fashion, for the last few years has come off in June. A stranger arriving in the place during this season of festivities finds it as near an earthly paradise as it is possible for a merely terrestrial university town to be. Neither pen nor pencil can express the full charm of these ancient, half - monastic buildings amid their immemorial groves and lawns, as they appear in the intervals of sunshine between the light, quick-passing showers of early summer. Flowers bloom everywhere, the fairest, freshest, most brilliant, one would think, that the English soil ever brought forth. They flourish on the borders of the velvety grass plots, in the secluded gardens of the Fellows, and in long boxes, covered with bark, fastened in the college windows, where they glow against the dark, time-blackened walls like clusters of many-hued stars. The effect which these hanging flower-beds produce upon the mind of a visitor — the gold and white of the marguerites and the flaming scarlet of the geraniums mingled with many finer shades of color — is curious, and not easily described. They flash on “the inward eye ” long after other impressions have grown dim, and suggest by a pleasing analogy the relation which the undergraduate himself bears to his venerable Alma Mater. The young Cantab, it is true, would probably resent the comparison, yet the resemblance is not merely fanciful. The flora of Cambridge is not more brilliant than is its fauna.

It is difficult to conceive of a more diversely costumed and picturesque creature than the modern undergraduate, especially during the May term, when perhaps he is in his highest state of plumage. First, of course, he must have the ordinary garments common to the world at large; then the always dignified and becoming cap and gown, whereof not the wearing only, but the manner of wearing, also, is prescribed, sundry placards at the different halls warning him that the practice of carrying the gown over the arm or around the neck is evasive of statutes and inimical to his welfare. At chapel, on Sundays and holydays, he must be draped in the flowing white surplice redolent of sanctity ; and if a boating man or a tennis player, he must possess a miscellaneous variety of light garments contrived principally for ease of movement, and distinguished by an airy coolness and a brightness of effect, of which the coat of many colors, or “ blazer ” (literally a blazer), is the most striking. Although, like the flowers in his window, he is himself an ephemeral, he forms with them an indispensable part of the university picture. A pleasant moving picture it is, — the same picture that Wordsworth saw when he first alighted at the “ famous Hoop,” over a hundred years ago : —

“ Gowns grave, or gaudy, doctors, students, streets,
Courts, cloisters, flocks of churches, gateways, towers.”

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a sight more interesting in its kind than that which the winding, narrow thoroughfares of this ancient academic city present on a fine evening in June, particularly on Saturday, the Cambridge market day. A continuous stream of townsmen, gownsmen, and sturdy country folk, with the usual proportion of womankind, passes and repasses, with quick, echoing tread, many of them walking in the middle of the clean asphalt streets. The shops are lighted up brilliantly, as in most provincial towns, though twilight at this season lasts nearly all night. In either of the main arteries of travel, — Trumpington Street, with its clear rivulets flowing at either curb, which becomes King’s Parade, Trinity Street, and St. John’s before uniting with the other, Regent Street, St. Andrew’s, Sidney Street, etc., — and in the narrow crossway, the Petty Cury, one meets this tide at the full. The undergraduate is necessarily conspicuous, walking alone, or two and two, or three or four abreast, the toga virilis lightly depending from his shoulders, sometimes in the last stage of dilapidation, and streaming from his person in tags and ribbons. Mostly he is slight, good looking, youthful, and beardless, or perhaps with an incipient mustache ; seldom very ruddy, but at the worst of a healthy paleness. Naturally, it is among the lightly clad groups striding in from the boats or the cricket fields that one sees the best specimens of physique. These, indeed, are often admirable, though hardly so striking in appearance as is commonly supposed ; yet if any one doubts the virility of these young Englishmen, a short walk or row with one of them will quickly convince him of his error. One very pleasant feature of the streets is the decorum usually prevailing among the students, in former times (and in some quarters of the world even now) an unruly and turbulent element of the community. They walk together, conversing almost inaudibly in the dulcet “ Cambridge tone,” which “ men ” from all parts of the island are said to contract soon after “ coming up.” Singing, loud talking, or shouting among them is rarely heard out of doors, though sounds of a mildly Bacchanalian type sometimes issue from college or lodging-house windows. This creditable street behavior is doubtless due to “ Cambridge tone ” as much as to vigilant proctorizing ; yet even in the cricket field and among the boating crews (except the musical “ Well rowed! ” at the races) the undergraduate is rarely vociferous. The English still take their sports “ sadly,” and on the whole silently.

My purpose, however, being to present a picture of this historic seat of learning as it appeared during a protracted species of English “ blizzard, " a very much milder affair than the genuine American visitation of that name, I must not expand the tempting topic of May term and its festivities. That these are not of a Saturnalian character need hardly be said. A published list of the “ May term festivities for 1891 ” begins with a service in King’s College chapel, followed by the Church Missionary Society’s “Sale of Work,” and Congregation at the Senate House, none of which diversions is necessarily of a disorderly kind. Music holds a prominent place among the entertainments ; and English music, especially vocal music, is good. In the different college chapels, particularly those of King’s, Trinity, and St. John’s, there are choral services of a high order, and a number of admirable concerts are given in the Guildhall and elsewhere by university and college musical societies. The list includes, moreover, “ university sermons ” and theatrical performances, with of course an abundance of cricket matches, lawn tennis and garden parties, pastoral plays, and several balls, with a large horticultural show; the aquatic events being the often-described boat races and procession at the college “ backs,” and a swimming race on the Granta; the enumeration concluding with the admission to B. A. degrees at the Senate House. As most of these dissipations would seem to be directly opposed to the legitimate pursuits of the cloister, one cannot wonder at the regretful admission of an old university man, that “ it requires an iron will to do any reading at Cambridge ; ” but any want of application during the Easter term may be atoned for in the Long Vacation, during which period of quiet and comparative solitude grass, by a slightly exaggerated figure, is said to grow in the Cambridge streets.

With this term, indeed, her glory begins to wane. The dewy freshness of her flowers and lawns, the wealth of spring blossoms in her orchards and gardens, and the finely graduated colors in her groves and arbors give place to the tamer uniformity of midsummer; leaves begin to fall rather early, and the brooks, canals, and other small waterways of the neighborhood — and even the classical Cam — gather a disagreeably suggestive scum, called by the irreverent mint sauce. " Cambridge, it is true, can never be otherwise than beautiful; but during this portion of summer, while she is exchanging her spring for her autumn garments, it is hardly more than courtesy to absent one’s self for a time, if only for the pleasure of returning in October, when the process maybe regarded as complete. October, indeed, is here a busy and an interesting month. The “ men ” are “ coming up ” for [Michaelmas term, the prospective freshmen for “ Little - go ” and matriculation ; while the scattered instructors and college functionaries are returning to their duties. Chapels begin to fill, and the streets and sombre courts are again brightened with flitting figures in cap and gown, and with fresh young faces,—the perennial stream of youthful scholars which has not ceased to flow for seven or eight hundred years. As the resident undergraduates in October, 1890. according to a published list, numbered 3469, and the new arrivals 865, the total aggregate of persons in state pupillari exceeded 4300, — more, I am told, than are now at Oxford, although. until recent years, that university is said to have had the greater numbers. Eight thousand youths just on the verge of manhood are of course a large number to be able to absent themselves from productive labor during the three years necessary for a degree (and during preparatory years as well), yet they form but a part of the large body of persons undergoing tuition at different places in the kingdom. It is possible, under the socialistic rule which is supposed to be impending, that this more or less studious but otherwise unprofitable army may be measurably diminished ; but meanwhile the numbers grow, new colleges and halls, not. always beautiful, are built, and the two great universities expand and flourish.1

Among the many surprises awaiting the visitor from abroad who arrives at the beginning of the October term — especially if he comes from one of the more southern colonies—is the small amount of daylight enjoyed by the student of mathematics and optics at the ancient seat of those sciences. He will be puzzled to divine how Newton secured enough light to make his famous discoveries in that medium ; and even transatlantic visitors, at this time of the year, are struck with the rapid disappearance of the sun from the field of human vision. The fifty-second parallel is not a high latitude, and with the clear atmosphere of New England the mere difference between sunrise and sunset would not be so noticeable ; but Cambridgeshire has not the American skies. Fogs, mists, and other watery fen products lie low on the surrounding plain, and materially diminish the light of the heavenly bodies. Perhaps the October of 1890 was exceptional here in this respect ; yet I do not mean to imply that it was gloomy. The long afternoon and evening walks in the frosty half-twilight were especially pleasant, — to the pretty thatched cottages of ancient Grantchester and Trumpington, or to the well-known Gogmagog or the Madingley hills ; from which latter slight eminence the low outline of Ely Cathedral could sometimes be seen to the northward, rising above the far-stretching fens as it formerly rose above the shallow waters covering them. At every turn in the smooth roads and footpaths one met the ubiquitous undergraduate in walking costume, — small cap, short coat, and knickerbockers, — taking his five, ten, or fifteen mile constitutional before dinner in hall, though usually keeping in view the long-drawn roof and short corner pinnacles of the chapel of King’s College, or that more recent landmark, the light and slender spire of the new Roman Catholic cathedral. This year, however, the charms of the English autumn were somewhat abruptly exchanged for those of winter, — frost and snow, with other concomitants not charming. The blizzard began about November 15, and the “cold snap ” lasted two months, that period being the severest known in England for seventy years, and Cambridge enjoying the honor of being the coldest place in the kingdom. Snow, I think, covered the ground during the whole interval, nor was there any general thaw. Of the quality of English cold one cannot speak but with respect. It is a “ nipping and eager ” air which penetrates all wraps and freezes the bones. One pities the Roman invaders, who, it is well known, could not exist in their British villas without systems of hot-air flues; and one feels for the studious Erasmus shivering in his cold room at Queen’s, and for the early Huguenot refugees from across the Channel. Foreigners, however, have seldom found England a genial place ; their opinions, for the most part, agreeing with that of the Constable of France, in Henry V., when he contemptuously exclaims of the English soldiery : —

“ Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull;
On whom, as in despite, the sun looks pale! ”

With the approach of winter, frozen fogs became of frequent occurrence. Rarely have I seen such wonders wrought on the face of town and country, or the miracle of frostwork so prolonged. It lasted for several weeks, every tree and bush, every paling and iron rod, becoming a mass of pure crystals. If any portion melted during the day, it was replaced by a fresh deposit of congealed vapor during the night; and when the sun did shine forth, which after all was not seldom, the picture of the colleges amid their almost arctic environment was one of indescribable beauty, — a beauty equal to that of summer, and of an even more striking character.

But this exceptional weather, though an important item of conversation at the time, did not seriously interrupt the established order of things. The university, it is needless to say, did not suspend its functions. Fluttering figures in academical garb moved about the streets as usual, but in a decidedly frost-bitten state, and walking very fast; lectures and examinations went on, and morning chapel was not relaxed in deference to the elements. Social events, also, and the concerts, public lectures, readings, and other entertainments which make an autumn and winter in an English university town so enjoyable, followed one another in tolerable abundance. At the Union, the undergraduates’ parliament, the affairs of the empire, with other weighty concerns, were duly discussed. A good deal of mild fun has been made of these young statesmen, both here and at Oxford, but when compared with the larger and perhaps more important body at Westminster, I do not think they suffer. They have, for one thing, the dignity of senatorial robes; they are quite as much in earnest, equally patriotic, and usually a good deal more entertaining. They are also adepts at all kinds of parliamentary fence, and use the sharp weapons of ridicule, sarcasm, derision, etc., like old hands, — or rather, perhaps, like very young ones. The courtesies of debate are by no means disregarded, but urbanity and a lenient construction of an opponent’s views and motives are hardly the distinguishing features of the bouse. When one considers the immature character of the body, however, and the highly inflammatory topics chosen for debate (such, for example, as “ whether the coui’se of the present government with regal’d to Ireland does not call for a change of ministry,” or the proposition “ that the University of Cambridge is a vastly overrated institution ” ) one cannot wonder at the animus displayed.

In the musical entertainments of the winter, the undergraduate bears a prominent part. Besides the more classical concerts by the different musical societies already referred to, a series of a popular kind are given in the Guildhall by the University Penny Popular Concert Association. These democratic entertainments, conducted by members of the several colleges, and known colloquially as “ penny pops,” draw large and demonstrative audiences, always ready to applaud their favorite pieces, but, I regret to say, sometimes given to hissing those which do not please their fastidious taste ; this portion of the British public evidently holding that an entrance fee, however small, confers the free right of criticism. For the most part, however, the performers’ efforts are enthusiastically received. Less demonstratively critical, but equally appreciative, are those who attend the many lectures given in public. One would say it must be an agreeable task to address Cambridge audiences. They certainly do not demand oratory, and usually appear well content with a modicum of palatable information discoursed in wellbred monotone, without rhetorical emphasis or adornment; though in case of the more abstruse themes a considerable infusion of humor seems to be necessary to insure acceptance. These popular lectures and addresses cover a somewhat wide range, but in a town like Cambridge the interest taken in pressing social questions of the day is not surprising. A practical student of the relations of capital and labor, from East London, presented the dockers’ grievances to a large and sympathetic gathering ; the widow of a distinguished minister of state described the growing evils of infant life insurance ; and an ex-professor of poetry pointed out the seamy side of modern socialism. On Sunday evenings, also, at Great St. Mary’s, a number of learned theologians discussed the always delicate subject of Church and multifarious Dissent, while the Salvation Army set forth their own version of the matter in an adjoining square. Other lectures were given on subjects more closely connected with educational themes or scientific research, and on matters of local archæology; the audience being of a general character, with, however, a fair sprinkling of gowns, and commonly a deputation of ladies from Girton and Newnham. Most of these entertaining and profitable discourses, always held in cheerful, welllighted rooms, were introduced by a short speech from the chairman, promising the company an unexampled treat, and were concluded by another from some one else, assuring them that they had had it, — a pleasant practice a little suggestive of grace before and after meat.

Among these winter festivities, as among those of the May term, might also be included the regular services at the different college chapels, to several of which the public have free access. Of the chapel of King’s, with its “ high embowed roof,”

“Where light and shade repose, where music dwells,”

nothing new by way of criticism can possibly be said : it is now universally admitted to be the most beautiful ecclesiastical building of its kind in England, although many of the Cambridge chapels have their incidental merits. The daily choral services within its walls, led by the “ scanty band of white-robed scholars ” for whose predecessors the vast structure was originally framed, are well attended by townspeople and strangers ; and whether performed with the adjuncts of afternoon sunlight pouring in through the great west window, or the “ branching self-poised roof ” dimly illuminated by some scores of tall wax candles, they possess a full measure of the impressiveness which belongs inseparably to the long-drawn aisle, and to the pealing organ and “ full-voiced quire,” with “ service high and anthems cleare,” and which will always belong to them, unless religion and poetry are destined to lose their power over men. The chapel of Trinity, however, has the advantage of numbers, and here, on Sunday mornings, the ecclesiastical, not to say the religious side of university life can best be seen. It is a long and lofty room, of the Renaissance rather than Gothic, richly ornamented with much carved oak and cornice gilding, and with the benign presences of famous and pious persons — Henry VII. and holy Herbert, Barrow and Bacon, Whitgift, Pearson, Cowley, Dry den, and many others — looking down in resplendent robes from the admirably stained windows. As the army of white-surpliced figures, each with “mortar board” in hand, pours in from the ante-chapel ("where the statue stands of Newton, with his prism and silent face ”), and the seemingly endless current of fine linen, brightened here and there by the scarlet of a doctor’s hood, flows past the black-coated “markers,” and parts right and left to the raised benches on either hand, one has an excellent opportunity for observing the modern undergraduate on his Sunday behavior. This, let it be said, is always reverent, and usually devout; but the total effect of this sea of human faces and Apocalyptic vestments, with the accompaniments of music and vocal response, is at first too curious and too suggestive of Patmos visions to permit the study of individualities. Still, one cannot but note the appearance of firm health before spoken of, the good looks, and in particular the fact that nearly all the heads are plentifully adorned with their natural capillary covering, — a pleasant feature in these days of bald assemblies, — with the further item that every one appears to have been fortunate in his laundress. The general aspect of cleanness and moral innoceney, indeed, is so marked that the occasionally pointed tone of the sermon seems uncalled for, and a little presumptuous as addressed to so celestial looking a company.

Libraries, university and other, reading-rooms, museums, and laboratories open their doors freely to the sojourner, or can easily be induced to do so. One may wander at will through courts and cloisters, in many of the gardens, and in rural and semi-rural lanes without number, enjoying in imagination the goodly and numerous fellowship of the great poets who have formerly walked in them. One may linger on the bridges spanning the “ willowy Camus,” if one choose, from morning till night, though in winter this would not be advisable ; the bridge of King’s probably affords the fairest picture, that of the west front of the chapel, and the low, symmetrical facade of Clare College, with the river, the lawn, and the overarching trees, — a picture perhaps enlivened by the procession of choir-boys returning from five-o’clock service, a queer little white-faced regiment of miniature men, in large chimneypot hats, wide linen collars, and black gowns, marching in solemn order, unless a sudden shower comes on, when a general scamper ensues. Or one may behold other interesting processions walking two and two from the young ladies’ schools of the neighborhood. And one may (line in hall, if fortunate, at the Fellows’ table, where, as at afternoon tea with the family of some hospitable don, a taste may be had of that fine and curious fruitage, university gossip, — the gossip of a mediaeval seat of learning which has largely modernized itself, has even married to a very considerable extent, and in a fashion, at least, has even admitted womankind to a share of its honors.

It is impossible, however, to speak in detail of all the interests and social events, from large political demonstrations to meetings of the Ethical Society, which brighten the winter nights of this city of colleges. In spite of cold, snow, and the general opacity, out-of-door sports, also, were largely engaged in. especially skating. The fens, with their shallow waters, were the original training-school of Englishmen in this admirable art, and here to-day is to be seen a high degree of proficiency in its practice. Large crowds gathered in the mechanically flooded fields, at night lighted by electricity, to enjoy the exercise, and to witness contests of speed between different champions of renown, among them a well-known American amateur.

With the general exodus at the Christmas vacation, however, the town again relapsed into a state of somnolence resembling that of midsummer, and it was not until the beginning of the Lent term (about the middle of January), when the mills of wisdom resumed their grinding, that the tide of life and activity returned. But by this time the “back of winter ” was broken. Daylight came in with a speed equaled only by the rapidity of its departure, snow and ice disappeared, and the long, slow - coming English spring, which faintly dawns with the earliest tinges of color in the midwinter woods, and only merges into summer by the middle of June, had fairly begun, though the winter of 1890—91 did not release its grasp without struggles lasting far into May.

It is not my purpose to discuss at any length the present status of this great " knowledge shop,” or “ Latin and Greek factory,” as Emerson called it. That it is still a centre of intellectual and moral influence, by the power of its manifold agencies still beneficently moulding the lives of thousands of young Englishmen, need not be doubted, in spite of much popular opinion to the contrary. A glance at the array of subjects in the list of triposes, classical, mathematical, historical, theological, languages, etc., — the catalogue is much too formidable to give in its entirety, — shows that the “ Chancellor, Masters, and scholars of the University of Cambridge " may still be regarded as an “ incorporation of students in all and every of the liberal arts and sciences,” great as the number of these has now become. If modern science has broken the ancient reign of mathematics, it is only a sign of the times ; and if the greatly shortened terms during which Fellowships are now held, with their smaller emoluments, have made them prizes of much less worth than formerly, and have effaced many of their original characteristics, this too is a sign of the times not less significant. Another important change, though one not so greatly affecting its interior affairs, is the object of the present strenuous efforts to relieve (or rather to deprive) the university of an onerous function which it has performed for several hundred years, that of general policeman and guardian of morals in the town at large. But the greatest innovation, though one now of some eighteen years’ standing, is the movement known as University Extension, the attempt to place university benefits within reach of the middle and “ occupied ” classes. This experiment, of which several analogous agencies exist in America, has thickly dotted the map of England and Wales with “ local centres,” representing the outposts of the different learned camps, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and others, and is believed to be carrying into practical effect the original intention of the pious founders of the colleges : “ the intent that knowledge, a pearl of great price, might be spread abroad beyond their walls to give light to them that walk in the dark byways of ignorance,” — if the British shopkeeper, clerk, and artisan can be held to come under that uncomplimentary designation.

It is of course urged by many that even with favored individuals of the unoccupied class the benefits of university training are not always apparent; that the life is not wholly salutary for the many youths who, with no especial aptitude for study, — or for morals either, if one may so speak, — are sent up for the somewhat vaguely conceived advantages of university residence ; that the modicum of “ pass Greek ” required for “ Little-go ” is a possession of doubtful value to its owners; and that degrees are rapidly becoming empty honors. These, however, with a long list of similar objections, are criticisms of the day with which the modern defenders of the learned faith must be left to deal ; but the universities are not of the day nor of the hour. Still wearing the sober garments of scholastic antiquity, and touched by the spirit of the old religious houses, Augustinian, Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite, on whose foundations they stand, these “ noble nurseries of English youth ” will always influence, always instruct. “ Look upon us,” they seem almost pathetically to say, " and upon the antique beauty of our towers and courts, our Gothic halls and chapels : is it of your scientific, mechanical, modern age, or of the fair mediæval time ? We would gladly teach you, inarticulate stones as we are, some of the secrets of those fastvanishing days, the secrets of repose, of religion, and of beauty; but between us there is a gulf fixed which we cannot pass. You must come to us, and in some faint measure become even as we are ourselves, before you can hope to understand the mystery which we have in our keeping.”

Albert Gillette Hyde.

  1. An assessment of the different colleges at Cambridge, for “ university purposes,”in October, 1890, showed the income of Trinity, the largest, to be £45.489 15s. 11d,; that of St. John’s, the next in size, to be £30,912 9s. 4d.; and that of King’s, £22.912 14s. 8d. ; while several others possessed annual revenues of over £ 10,000,—the total income of the seventeen colleges being set down at the liberal figure of £216,409 16s. 4d.