02 September 2015

An afternoon walk along the River Cam
as summer lingers a little in Cambridge

A panoramic view of the River Cam from Fort St George to the Sidney Sussex boathouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford. 215; click on photograph for a larger image)

Patrick Comerford

This has been such a busy week in Cambridge that there have only been few opportunities to get out from the IOCS conference in Sidney Sussex, and then only for short walks through the cobbled streets to Saint Bene’t’s Church each morning or along Trinity Lane and by the Backs and the Banks of the River Cam at lunchtime.

When the conference ended late this afternoon, I went for a stroll first along Sidney Street and Bridge Street, and popped into Magdalene College where Archbishop Rowan Williams is now the Master.

Magdalene College was founded in 1482 and refounded in 1542. The first foundation was as a Cambridge hostel for Benedictine monks from Crowland Abbey, to the north of the river, under the shadow of Castle Hill. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, Lord Audley of Audley End founded the present college.

The Pepys Building in Second Court in Magdalene College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I particularly wanted to see the Pepys Building in Second Court, which houses the Pepys Library. It is regarded as the principal ornament of “Mags” and is a building of considerable architectural interest.

The building was probably not completed until the early 18th century. The original plan was probably for a more modest, all-brick building until the project was revived in 1677.

The diarist Samuel Pepys made three subscriptions to the building fund, although there is no formal evidence of his intention to bequeath his Library to the College, and of his hope to have it placed in “the new building” until his will, dated 1703, just before his death.

The back of the Pepys Building looks like a Jacobean manor house, but the front is neo-classical and in Ketton stone.

The west front is delightful, but there is a lopsided rhythm to it and it is slightly asymmetric. The middle window on the first floor is not central, the distance between the second and third windows is greater than that between their equivalent pair on the other side, and so on.

The frieze inscription, Bibliotheca Pepysiana 1724, records the date of the completion of the Pepys Library. Above this inscription is the coat of arms of Samuel Pepys with his motto: Mens cujusque is est quisque, a quotation from Cicero’s De re publica VI.26, “What a man’s mind is, that is what he is,” or more simply “The mind’s the man.”

To each side are the coat-of-arms of two college benefactors, though neither contributed to this building: Sir Christopher Wray, to the left, and Peter Peckard (quartering Ferrar) to the right, both added probably around 1813.

Audley Cottage recalls Lord Audley … there is a rustic feeling about these cottages on Chesterton Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Around the corner from Magdalene College, Audley Cottage on Chesterton Lane is named after the college founder. A row of cottages here retains a rustic charm, and some of the pubs along Chesterton Lane and Chesterton Road, such as the Boathouse, take their names from life on the river.

After crossing the river at Victoria Bridge, I walked along the south bank of the Cam, with the boathouses on the opposite side, as far as the boathouse of Sidney Sussex Boat Club, and then turned back to stop for a glass of wine at the Fort St George In England (to give it its full name), an old pub on the south bank of the river and on the edge of Midsummer Common.

Fort Saint George is the oldest pub on the River Cam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This is the oldest pub on the River Cam. It is a Grade II listed timber-framed building dating in part from the 16th century. The name is commonly abbreviated to just “Fort St George,” but the pub is often known simply as “The Fort.” The full name reflects a supposed resemblance to the East India Company’s Fort St George at Madras (now Chennai) in India.

This sprawling pub looks much larger from the outside than it is inside. It has three rooms of differing sizes and styles: the large open wooden-floored bar area, a traditional dark snug, and a light (dining) room, with windows overlooking the river. Outside, there is a large pleasant pub garden, on two sides, and a substantial covered area overlooking the Common.

Over the years, it has been much altered and enlarged, but it retains much of its charm. The walls are lined with photographs from the 1960s and 1970s of winning boat clubs, the snug to the right of the main entrance has some ancient panelling, and a sign over the bar boats proudly: “Welcome to Fort St George, proudly serving Cambridge since the 16th century.”

Fort Saint George claims it is “proudly serving Cambridge since the 16th century” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The building dates from the 16th century, with alterations and additions in the 19th century and later. It was refurbished most recently in 2008. It is timber-framed, rendered and painted, in part refaced or rebuilt in brick, especially the east and west gables and the ground floor south front. It is a two-storey building with modern casement windows, three below and five above and one small-paned sash window.

Originally the building had a T-shaped plan, but the 19th century additions make it difficult to see this. The first floor has an overhang on carved timber brackets, there are some chamfered ceiling beams, a great central brick stack, and an old tile roof.

During the high summer, the pub has a reputation of being rowdy and unpleasant. During many events on the Common, such as Midsummer Fair, it often closes to avoid trouble.

But on an early evening like today’s, it was a rather pleasant place to sip a glass of wine and watch life go by on the river.

Strolling through Jesus Green in the early evening sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I walked back through Midsummer Common and Jesus Green, and by Jesus Ditch to Park Street, where the ADC Theatre, the home of the Cambridge Footlights. Its initials stand for The Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, the oldest and largest student drama society in Cambridge.

The first performances on the site were staged in 1855. As the Club expanded, the students bought the building, originally the Hoop Inn, and turned it into the ADC Theatre. The freehold of the building is still owned by the members of the Club today.

It was just another few minutes before I was back in my rooms in Sidney Sussex College.

A glass of white wine at Fort St George … it was possible to imagine that this was still summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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