Life

A Day at King’s College, Cambridge: A Visit to the Most Beautiful College in the World

1. When it comes to the exquisite beauty of the campuses of the world’s celebrated universities, the University of Cambridge in fair England stands foremost. The University of Cambridge boasts not only a profound historical lineage but also an outstanding ethos of learning, and its architecture and environs are singularly sublime. Its thirty-three independent colleges are serenely ensconced in the modest market town of Cambridge, home to scarcely more than one hundred thousand souls. In October 2019, I came as a visiting scholar with the Asian Union’s Executive Class to sojourn here for upwards of a fortnight, studying, roaming, and communing. The college commissioned as our host and steward was Churchill College. Beyond intense study, our enlightened organizers also judiciously chose several emblematic colleges for us to survey and fraternize. King’s College Cambridge was naturally first choice. As the dons informed us, King’s College is a nonsectarian research university established in 1829 under the aegis of King George IV and the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Owing to its special founding lineage, it has always enjoyed the patronage of the British Crown. This formidable political backing and robust funding have enabled the college to construct edifices not only pulchritudinous but perdurable. Thus tourists who come to Cambridge will depart without regret.

2. On the fifteenth of October, the firmament was clear and cerulean, and King’s College lay before our eyes like an arboreal painting suspended beneath the azure dome and floating cirrus. The portal to King’s College is a nineteenth-century Gothic gatehouse. A bronze effigy of Henry VI stands on the verdant expanse of the quadrangle. The magnificent corner of the college is entitled “Clare’s Corner.” Strolling on the expansive and pristine walkways hemmed by viridescent plants, one cannot but admire. Among the archaic edifices of Cambridge University, the most arresting is the chapel of King’s College. Its soaring spires and magnificent Gothic architecture have become the hallmark and glory of Cambridge. Entering the chapel, one is awestruck by the mystic interior. The chapel’s fan-vaulted ceiling is supported by twenty-two buttresses and was erected in 1515 by the eminent artisan Robert Vastel. The heraldic insignia of crown and Tudor rose on the western portal reflect King Henry VIII’s vision of British hegemony; the sixteenth-century stained glass windows on the walls are painted with tales from the Scriptures. The chapel is bifurcated into the narthex and chancel by a perpendicular screen. Surmounting the rood screen is a monumental seventeenth-century organ loft, embellished with two angels clutching trumpets; behind the altar is an enormous reredos portraying “The Adoration of the Magi.” The atmosphere in the chancel is solemn, sacred, and peaceful. Standing there is akin to undergoing a baptism of the soul, transporting one to a sanctified realm.

3. Outside the chapel, strains of the choir’s heavenly singing could intermittently be heard. On the paths within the college close we espied a troupe of choristers dressed like cherubim in tailcoats and top hats, escorted by their parents as they processed toward the chapel. Their presence imbued the environs with a heightened aura of sanctity. As the dons apprised us, the choir of King’s College is famed as the possessor of “the most entrancing boy’s singing voices.” The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is held every Christmas Eve and is one of the world’s most acclaimed concerts, broadcast throughout Britain by the BBC, and has become a Yuletide tradition. For a child to be chosen for the choir is a point of unparalleled family pride and distinction.

Of course, in addition to the chapel, the dormitories, library, and refectory of King’s College are likewise redolent of history and eminently impressive in their distinctiveness.

4. Another vista of King’s College encompasses the “River Cam” and the whole of “Cambridge.” The Cam meanders through the entire University of Cambridge and is also a symbol of the university. Dotting the serpentine River Cam are over twenty bridges of intricate design and picturesque mien, constituting a distinctive bridge culture in Cambridge. Among these crossings, one has gained special fame, known as the “Bridge of Sighs.” Various tales exist about its name. The most typical one holds that examinations at Cambridge were notoriously stringent. Students who did not apply themselves assiduously usually failed, unable to obtain their degrees. They would frequent this bridge to sigh, weep, and rue. Thus the college entitled it “The Bridge of Sighs.”

Naturally, in addition to viewing the bridge, one must also enjoy the water. Numerous tour boats line the banks of the Cam, taking innumerable visitors punting daily. Prices vary by passenger number. When hiring a punt, one can also commission an expert oarsman. As one glides along, he narrates the history and topography of Cambridge. Most of these boatmen have undergone professional training and are highly eloquent, often amusing their fares. The punt slowly navigates the glassy water. From time to time, dipping golden willows brush one’s face. Scooping up a handful of river water, an instant coolness permeates one’s being. The setting sun glimmers on the limpid waters, refreshing and exhilarating. One cannot but think of Xu Zhimo and his “Taking Leave of Cambridge.” When the poet Xu Zhimo came to King’s College, Cambridge as a student, he not only composed numerous poems saturated with the spirit of Cambridge but also left behind many twisting tales and affecting love stories. At Cambridge he attained great renown. Chinese tourists usually visit the Xu Zhimo poem monument to commemorate him, recalling his brilliance and grieving his untimely passing.

5. The monument lies on a patch of green within the college grounds, on the right bank of a bridge directly facing the chapel. This unassuming marble slab bears the immortal line from “Taking Leave of Cambridge”: “Softly I am leaving, gently as I came.” The stone is unobtrusive, yet redolent with emotion, a modest poetic memorial and serendipitous locus. Reciting a few lines from “Taking Leave of Cambridge” imbues one with a touch of melancholy.

6. After perambulating the campus, we proceeded to the lecture hall. Our entire class congregated before a lecturer’s dais in a King’s College classroom, seating ourselves in a semicircle. The college had arranged for three professors to each deliver a lecture. They were: Knowles, an economist (transliterated); Willie, an astronomer (transliterated); and Li Dawei, a professor of Chinese literature (Chinese name). Each professor’s presentation was singular, and we reaped much from attending.

7. Knowles’ lecture was “Stock Market Trends and the Global Economy.” He covered copious abstruse data models, beyond most of our comprehension, yet he was adept at lucid organization. At the conclusion he had us proffer predictions, finally distinguishing the most accurate “Star Forecaster” and least accurate “Catching-Up Star.” Fortune smiled, and I chanced to be the most accurate prognosticator that day, earning a bottle of champagne. Willie the astronomer’s talk was “Climate and Social Progress,” replete with humor, especially regarding Professor Hawking’s research on solar black holes. Willie related an anecdote about a pianist whose daily practicing engendered noise disturbances for Professor Hawking. Hawking actually lodged a complaint against the musician, resulting in the college relocating Hawking’s quarters. This illustrated how even the greatest minds can be simple and down-to-earth in daily affairs.

8. The third lecture, by Professor Li Dawei on “The Influence of Tang Poetry and Song Lyricism in Europe,” demonstrated Li’s consummate command of ancient Chinese literary history through vivid explications of canonical texts. Most impressively, he was doctoral advisor to Jin Yong, the famous Hong Kong martial arts novelist. Having served in the British military in Hong Kong, Li pursued Chinese literary studies from an early date. His erudition won warm applause from all present. After class I requested an inscription from him in my notebook; with dashing fluency he wrote out a verse by Tang poet Wang Bo: “There is an intimate friend beyond the sea, and all the world is like a neighbor.” We took a photograph together as well.

9. Although the day of learning at King’s College, Cambridge was fleeting, it brimmed with riches. Reflecting on the august history of Cambridge University and its constellation of luminaries, those fragments coalesce into a mosaic of warm and unforgettable memories, like a sturdy vine accompanying me on life’s journey ever onward in beauty.

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