During the past week, I had lunch with one of the Indian students at the University of Cambridge. We had met at the welcoming tea parties which the University Commonwealth Society organises every year to welcome newly arrived students from overseas Commonwealth countries. My lunch guest is not in fact a newly arrived student, but has been here for more than two years. She had come to the tea party as part of the welcoming team.

Our conversation turned to the impression that Cambridge had made on her. She said that when she first arrived in the United Kingdom, she had spent a few days in London, because she thought it would be sensible to get a feel for what it is like. She quickly decided that it did not attract her, because it was far too impersonal and too crowded. When she arrived in Cambridge a few days later, she was immediately impressed by the more “personal” and friendly atmosphere.

Having lived in Cambridge (or more precisely just outside it) for forty five years, I was greatly struck by this impression. It described a Cambridge that I know well — and which I therefore take for granted.

Cambridge is quite a large city, and although the University is very much its central element, it is not the only element. The city is the focus of a large amount of commercial — mainly high-tech — activity. The personal and friendly atmosphere, it seems to me, is not essentially a reflection of this (although the high-tech activity is not unfriendly, or impersonal) but a reflection rather of the nature of the central element.

What I mean by this is that the central part of the city and the University are indistinguishable. University department, and the colleges which are an integral part of the University, are to be found everywhere. There are of course shops and restaurants, and the public buildings you expect to find in any town, but they are interspersed with University and college buildings.

The reason for this is that the University came centuries before the other bits of the city: gown came centuries before town. And, crucially, because the University is historically a medieval institution, the town remains still in many ways a medieval town. For example, it has far more narrow streets than you would expect in a modern conurbation.

Large, and bustling, and modern though it undoubtedly is, therefore, it still has something of the flavour of a medieval village. I exaggerate, of course, but it is undoubtedly true that when as a student you walk or cycle round Cambridge you will be close to your fellow students. You will be far from the detachment from other people that is a feature of many towns.

The business of being close to other people does not apply only to students and other members of the University. Cambridge attracts thousands of visitors every year, and they fill the town particularly during the summer, much of which is the university vacation period. Every time I visit the city I am reminded of this. The streets are full of tourists — walking, of course, as they attempt to get something of the flavour of the place. This does not mean that a walk through the busy streets produces a kind of perpetual mobile conversation. That would be very un-English. It does mean that one is constantly reminded that this important city, and the great university around which it has grown, still retains something of the characteristics of a medieval village.

I have no idea what my Indian lunch guest would make of all this. She might well feel that I had allowed my imagination to run away with itself. All I could say in answer to that is that our conversation caused me to reflect on the nature of Cambridge, and some of the paradoxes which it offers. It is hugely international: there are students from all over the world here to study or carry out research. Notwithstanding that international nature, it is in a real sense a number of small communities — the colleges — which at their best provide a family setting. Whatever their subject, students are not isolated from those studying other subjects. Nor are they isolated from people from other countries; the Commonwealth welcoming tea parties are a reminder of that.

I think my student friend was right about the personal and friendly atmosphere. What Cambridge offers is an international community in a kind of village setting.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, the U.K. Email him at:bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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