I have just spent a month as a visiting fellow at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, on a programme entitled “Design and Analysis of Experiments”.

When you arrive at the Cambridge railway station, the town proclaims itself “Home of Anglia Ruskin University”, though, to be fair, that is not the oldest educational establishment in the town. Indeed, the Newton Institute has a kind of double life, as a national institute for mathematical sciences, and as part of the University of Cambridge, sitting on a corner of the Centre for Mathematical Sciences. Successive Directors have had to strike a delicate balance!

Last time I was in Cambridge for an extended period, I was the G. C. Steward Visiting Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. My duties were to give “three or four lectures” to the mathematics students at the College; in return, I had free use of a flat in the centre of town (right above the infamous Gardenia restaurant) and the very congenial company of the Fellows at lunch every day. (You can read my lectures here.)

This time is very different: an apartment off busy Madingley Road, lunch from a cafeteria in nearby Wolfson Court, in the company of the other programme participants. (I do not want to complain about the company, but one of the great things about meals in Oxbridge colleges is that you are thrown in with people from all disciplines, and cannot be tempted to talk shop at the table.) I only crossed the Cam on my way to either the supermarket or the railway station.

This dissociation from the ancient University is reflected in the photographs I took, all from the outside:


I was a student in Oxford, and a fellow of Merton College for fourteen years. So I can make comparisons. Oxford colleges, conveniently close to the limestone Cotswolds, are mostly built of stone. (There are exceptions, the astonishing patterned brickwork of Keble and the concrete of St Catz among them.) The few hills near Cambridge are of chalk or greensand, and so brick is the building material of choice. It is used in remarkable ways, but huge façades of brick take a bit of getting used to.

Cultural life in Cambridge during August is very much geared to the tourist invasion, as the picture shows. Actors in Tudor costumes walk the streets advertising outdoor performance of Shakespeare plays. Mathematically, too, most people I could work with in the CMS are away – probably a good thing since it forces me to work with others at the INI.

I had hoped to do some serious walking during my time in Cambridge. In particular, I had a number of loose ends to tie up: getting from the end of the Greensand Ridge Walk at Gamlingay to Cambridge, via the Clopton and Wimpole Ways; finishing the Icknield Way; finishing a “Stort to Cam” walk of my own devising. In fact, a dismal August, combined with the need to go to London once a week to see students, put paid to most of these plans. But I did manage the last one. I took the train from Cambridge to Great Chesterford (no easy task, the railway was having a very bad time that day and it was lunchtime before I got started), then walked the Icknield Way to where it intersects the Roman road (Worsted Street) east of Linton, then along this to the outskirts of Cambridge.

This Roman road is part of European path E2, though not included in any British long-distance path. There is, however, a circular walk taking in the Roman road and Fleam Dyke. (The latter is interesting. It crosses the iron-age Icknield Way at right angles. It seems that, long after the Anglo-Saxon conquest, the British continued to use the Icknield Way as a long-distance highway; the Angles built Fleam Dyke and a couple of similar barriers essentially as toll-booths. This is very different from the popular idea of the Anglo-Saxon invaders killing the British or driving them into the western mountains.)

Roman road

The Roman road is impressively straight on the map, a little less so in reality. It runs between hedges all the way, which were richly decorated with berries. (Just as spring flowers were early this year, so are autumn fruit.) Sometimes it runs on top of a bank, sometimes in a ditch; once it crosses a busy road on a modern bridge. It ends in the Gogmagog Hills, of which I had heard, but until I went there I had no idea where they were.

Another walk took me through the dead flat Quy Fen to Anglesey Abbey in Lode; it is a National Trust property, but as I had a dinner appointment in the evening, there was no time to go in. I did see two kingfishers and a green woodpecker over Quy Water.

Of course, the main point was mathematics. I have alluded to some of this already, and more will probably emerge later.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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