We live a short distance from Cambridge in England. My husband is from Chicago and during the summer months we often take visiting family and friends punting along the ‘Backs’ (so called because the ‘backs’ of several Cambridge colleges can be viewed from the river).
Punts are flat-bottomed boats that are propelled through the water using a 16 foot pole. A journey along the Backs will take you past King’s, Queen’s, the Wren Library and Trinity Hall. The Bridge of Sighs, with its graceful arch and barred windows, was designed (back in 1831), to prevent St. John’s students from climbing in and out of the college at night.
My father, Peter O’Connell, was a student at St. John’s during World War II. He was invalided out of the army in 1943 with suspected tuberculosis, and, following several months in a Belfast sanatorium, went to Cambridge to read History. During and after the War, the government kept a significant proportion of university places open for ex-servicemen. The Chief Constable of Cambridge, for example, was himself an undergraduate in 1945.
After an hour on a punt we take our visitors along the riverbank to Grantchester for tea and scones at the Orchard Tea Garden. In the early years of the 20th century, a diverse group of friends met regularly at The Orchard. They included Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
In 1912, Rupert Brooke was in Berlin. Feeling homesick for England, he wrote a poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, which ends with the immortal lines:
Stands the church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
During the long summer vacation of 1945, Peter remained in residence at St. John’s. He read a lot, played cricket for Magdalene College, swam in the Cam and punted to Grantchester with his friends, Lethbridge and Symons.
In his diary of July 21st, 1945 he writes:
Midnight – the moon is shining between white lacy clouds and the gable heads and turrets of Second Court stand out dark against the pearly sky. It is at such times as this that the spirit of Cambridge speaks to those who have any ears at all.
The beauty of the evening and a disturbed mind drew me away from Barkers’ ‘Greek Political Thought’ as dusk fell and I wandered along the Backs, listening to the wind whispering in the long tresses of the willows and watching the moon glittering on the still waters of the Cam.
Lethbridge and Symons appeared in the magic gloaming, swimming like a couple of nyads from Trinity Bridge up to the Bridge of Sighs. Puffing and dropping silver beads of moonlit water they climbed out onto the bank and we went back to Symons rooms in Third Court for coffee and a yarn.
Coming back through Second Court the mystery and loveliness of this old Tudor building held me in a spell; the oriel window of the Combination room gleamed in the moonlight and I could see the ghost of unhappy Charles proposing to the woman who became his devoted wife and evil genius, the ill starred Henrietta Maria. Ghosts thronged the shadowy court for John’s has had close bonds with English history for the past 400 years.
If all who have resided in Second Court and who have become famous in their country’s annals were to return, we could dispense with text books and learn our history orally. It would not be the most dispassionate and objective history, but it would certainly be vivid.
In 2011, St. John’s College marked its quincentennial. 80 years have gone by since Peter O’Connell was a student at St. John’s and, in that time, thousands of undergraduates will have passed through Second Court, some of whom will have gone on to become famous in their country’s annals.
In 2023, we took our American friends, Tom and Eileen, to the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Plays are performed in secluded college gardens in areas of the university not generally open to the public. This year, we saw The Tempest in the Scholars’ Garden at St. John’s College.
In Act IV, as the sun cast its setting light through the trees, Prospero reminded us that human beings are temporary, life on earth is short and that even ancient buildings will someday crumble and fall.
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on: and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Act IV, Sc 1 The Tempest by William Shakespeare