Postcard from Woke Central, Part One

In September this year, I received an invitation to a symposium in Cambridge. This was to be held in December, in celebration of the decades of amazing scientific achievements that my old boss has initiated, participated in, and influenced whilst there.

Figure 1: Page 12 and 13 of “Guide to Cambridge: the town, university and colleges
British Library, No known copyright restrictions

My reaction to this invitation? Fantastic! This would be a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends, visit old haunts, and update myself with the research which has continued to blossom in the years since I moved on. A noteworthy part of my somewhat eccentric and meandering career was spent at the University of Cambridge, where I worked for nearly ten years. For my sins, I ‘looked after’ a number of research groups as a laboratory manager in the School of the Biological Sciences.

I have already written about the project involving the gifts I made to take down for my professor and his wife in a previous piece, ‘Time Flies’. This article centres around the practicalities and challenges which cropped up in making the trip (boy, did I have to be flexible!). I’ve also included some of the changes observed, after a good few years absence.

Planning my visit, the ideal arrangement seemed to me to be to go down the day before the symposium and stay for a couple of nights, travelling back home to Staffordshire the day after it. This was a good start, but little did I know that the actual trip would turn out to be very, very different.

Incurably romantic fool that I am, right at the beginning, I decided that I would treat myself to a couple of nights in one of those gloriously Gothic old College buildings that I’d walked past so often. Aaah, the anticipated joys of waking in the midst of Cambridge’s dreaming spires. Gleefully, I started looking around for somewhere to stay.

Figure 2: Cambridge, from St John’s college
Valerian Guillot, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Oh! Perhaps that’s not such a great idea, after all. The cost of staying in a somewhat spartan single student room with… well, damn all, really… and the dubious privilege of sharing a loo and shower with half a dozen other unknown suckers, was simply extortionate. Then once one even begins to think about a room with en suite facilities…? Nope!

I started looking at hotels and B&Bs, close to the centre, wincing as I did. Thankfully, I didn’t get to make a booking—my bacon was saved, and in the nicest possible way. Once she’d realised that I’d be making the trip to Cambridge to attend, one of my former colleagues got in touch with me. Would I like to stay with her and her young family on the outskirts of the city for a couple of nights? Yes please!

The next stage was to buy my rail tickets. What! You mean you can’t book two months in advance? Apparently not. Tickets for December, which I’d unwisely imagined was likely to be a particularly busy time of year to wish to travel, were ‘yet to be released’. Damn this ‘progress’. OK, impatient me would just have to wait, and for an indeterminate time too, since they couldn’t tell me when the tickets might become bookable.

I checked back on that rail website now and again as the date drew nearer, but there were still no tickets to be booked. A little irritating, but it was at this point that I came up with another cunning plan. I spoke to my sister and suggested that I book somewhere to stay for an extra night or two after the symposium. This didn’t need to be in the centre, but we could spend a couple of girly days together, just pootling about and putting the world to rights. She jumped at it.

Of course, I couldn’t possibly impose on my lovely colleague, but here we are fortunate as the housing provider where Mr S and I live also has properties in that fair city. Better still, one is relatively close to the centre, not all that far from the Botanic Gardens. These schemes, like ours, have fairly basic but perfectly acceptable guest rooms and this one, thankfully, had space for my sister and I to spend two nights there. What’s more, they have nice secure car parking on site that sis could use without having to shell out the completely doolally charges which seem to be accepted as the norm to park in central Cambridge.

If you’re interested, have a look at the cost of parking in the city for a couple of days at I’ll warn you now, you’ll probably spit your teeth out!

At this stage though, I still hadn’t actually sorted out how I was going to get there and back. Although I thought it’d probably be by train, I’d be silly not to explore other options. National Express? Nope, not feasible. Megabus? After the previous experience? Don’t be so bloody silly! A taxi? Ouch! OK, train it was, so I went to the station at Stafford to speak to a human in the hope that I could finally book my tickets.

Yay! Success. I left with tickets in my hot, sticky mitt for a journey to Cambridge on the 14th and home again on the 18th. Even better they had pointed out that I now qualify for an ‘old gits’ rail card so I can travel with a discount. It seems there are a few advantages to becoming grey-haired and cranky.

Happy as a dog with two tails, I was… that is until the news began to emerge of proposed rail strikes in December. Rather concerned by this, back to Stafford I went, tickets in hand. Could I still get there? Could I get home? Below is the rather crumpled A4 sheet detailing the strike action they gave me, whilst carefully telling me that this covered only what they ‘knew’ about at this point.

Figure 3: Strike!
SharpieType301 2023

Well, that’s really kiboshed things. Going on the 14th as planned was completely out of the question. No way could I travel then, and the 13th was just as bad. One possibility, only a possibility, mark you, I ‘might’ be able to get to Cambridge on the 12th as ‘some’ trains might be running. I couldn’t travel any earlier as I was due to sing in our choir’s Christmas Concert on the Sunday night. More of this later.

Also kiboshed was getting home. I now couldn’t travel home on the 18th as intended. Thankfully I was able to extend the stay with my sister by an extra night. Yes, there’ll doubtless be some delays after days of strikes, but I’ll worry about those when I need to. And, yes, I knew I’d be winging it on the 12th to get there but was quite prepared (I thought) to do that.

OK, maybe this once-in-a-lifetime trip is still do-able?

However, I really needed somewhere to stay when I first got there though. I couldn’t book where I’d be staying with my sister, and in the run up to Christmas it simply wasn’t fair to expect my old colleague to put up with me for any longer.

Hmmm, as this trip started stretching out to a week or more, it was becoming a wee bit expensive, especially since I am all too aware that eating out in Cambridge can be an eye-watering experience. So, to save costs I decided to book myself into the Cambridge Youth Hostel (YHA) for a couple of nights when I first arrived. It’s been a while, but I have happily stayed at the Y in the past.

Actually, though, this plan still assumed that I ‘would’ arrive, since travel plans for the 12th were extremely tenuous. Ah well, at least with the YHA any cancellation costs, if needed, wouldn’t be bank breaking. The Cambridge Y is in an area I know pretty well, and only a short walk from the rail station. It’d only be for a couple of nights. Seemed ideal.

What could possibly go wrong, eh?

Well, there were one or two minor things that I hadn’t really anticipated. The first of these was that Christmas Choir Concert. A chilly Sunday night in a village hall, but all went very smoothly, from setting out a couple of hundred chairs and so on in the morning, to a last-minute rehearsal in the afternoon, to the concert itself. Thankfully, though cold and frosty at night it hadn’t, as had been threatened, snowed, so all was good. Tremendous.

But then, after the concert, came the time for clearing everything away. No problem, except that we were by now all rather tired, and the temperatures had dropped yet further meaning the country roads would be icy. We were hurrying a bit. I headed into the little kitchen where I’d left my coat and bag but didn’t spot whatever had been dropped on the floor. For once in my life, I was wearing heels. Those of you who have met me will know what a very unusual thing this is. To cut a long story short, I went arse over tit and, in trying to avoid worse, planted my face rather firmly on the concrete floor.

It… Bloody… Hurt.

I sort of came to (er, I now realise that I’d knocked myself out) and realised that I’d done some damage. Thankfully not too much blood though and, small mercies, my teeth and my glasses appeared to be intact. Once a couple of the ladies had helped me off the (bloody freezing) floor into a chair, my primary concern was not to worry Mr S. After I’d stopped them fussing, I asked them to let him know I was OK.

This, as it transpired, morphed into him being told that his wife had “had a fall but please don’t panic!” Hmmm, that went well.

My next battle was that several people felt, nay pretty much insisted, that an ambulance should be called, and I should be checked over at A&E. Do what? Don’t make me laugh (actually, please don’t—that hurts). Voluntarily spend six or more hours in a bloody NHS waiting room to be told to use a cold compress and take some paracetamol? No way! I had a train to catch in the morning.

After a bit of debate (OK, Sharpie being cranky), my will was done, and we went home. I’d like to say that I spent a comfortable night, but… Most of my anatomy seemed to enjoy reminding me that it hadn’t appreciated the unexpected acrobatics. My mouth and schnozzle had swelled (imagine Jimmy Durante with a Botox trout pout) and I had the headache from hell.

Figure 4: Elephant seal? Or Sharpie?
devra, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I’ll admit that paracetamol was a boon that night and became an important part of my life for some days afterwards. Just as well, as other painkiller pills like ibuprofen (and other NSAIDs) bring me out in a rash. I shan’t even mention what effect codeine has on me.

The next morning dawned after not much sleep, but after a nice warm ‘little old dear’ shower (carefully does it) I insisted that I was OK to travel. Looking at the various lumps and bumps, Mr S was doubtful, but this really was my only chance to get to the symposium. My train was booked for oh-nine-something, but when I checked, it had been cancelled. Oh dear, I thought, at least it’d give me a little more time to get myself moving. At this point, I was quite sanguine.

I compromised with Mr S, and instead of starting my journey from my hometown, we took a taxi to Stoke-on-Trent station for my first connection. I felt grumpy enough to snarl at the North Stafford Hotel opposite the entrance as we pulled up. We had plenty of time for a warm drink, cautiously sipping for me, and the departures board in the station café reported that the next train to Nuneaton (my next change) was ‘on time’. Good oh.

Hmm, perhaps it was not so good after all. As we left the café to head for the platform, my train on the departures board suddenly changed to ‘cancelled’. I was not amused, so went straight to the information desk to find out how I could get to my destination. “No problem” I was told, “just get on the next train to pull into Platform 2. It’s due in a couple of minutes.”

Perhaps too trustingly, I did just that. Well, as G.K. Chesterton wrote: “The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.” The train was heading to London Euston, but with a few stops on the way. Maybe I changed for Cambridge from one of those? There was no time to check but I assumed there would be a guard/ticket inspector or whatever they are called nowadays on board that I could ask. Nope, and so commenced a memorable experience which I’d really rather have missed.

I didn’t want to get off the train at one of the, few, stops without knowing how I could then get to Cambridge. As the mobile signal wasn’t too good, I couldn’t get any information on my phone. Sod it, I’d have to figure it out at Euston. As we headed southwards, I could see that while we had missed most of the snow in Staffordshire, it had sure as hell landed on the countryside I passed through. The fields were shrouded in what looked like several inches, the canals had frozen, and the hills were draped in freezing mist where it wasn’t actively snowing. It was beautiful, I have to admit.

When we finally pulled into Euston, rather later than expected (delays? the weather, dontcha know), it was perishingly cold. Things rapidly went from bad to complete and utter chaos. People with mountains of luggage were milling everywhere, bad-temperedly, and not looking where they were going for the most part. The departures boards seemed to be lacking in any discernible information. Announcements were being made over the Tannoy, but these were quite incomprehensible. A touch of panic was now beginning to tickle the back of my mind. Was I going to be stuck in this hellhole for a week?

I queued to speak to some poor sod who’d drawn the short straw and was on the ‘we’re here to help?’ stand. The man before me in the queue was grouchy and rude, and the poor information chap obviously expected I would be too. I described how I’d ended up there, asked him how I could get to Cambridge from here and explained that I was baffled. He was incredulous when I told him that Stoke had suggested I get on the train that brought me here. There are no trains running to Cambridge from Euston!

What’s more, he said, the trains from King’s Cross were ‘problematic’. Yep, that weather again. With this he passed me on to his colleague to look for other options. I think he regretted that. The next person in the queue was a right cow, and tore strips out of the poor chap, who was only trying to help. Meanwhile, his colleague tried to find a way forward for me. By now, I told him, if it meant travelling by bloody sleigh I’d do it, which at least raised a smile. He mournfully replied that he’d need one to get home himself once his shift was finished.

He found a route for me. A train was running from Tottenham Hale. Er, lovely, but where the hell is that? He patiently explained how I could get there via the Victoria line and checked that my ticket was valid to do this. Off I set. I don’t much like the Tube at the best of times, which this wasn’t, and am always a bit wary and jumpy now. Seems things have got worse since I last rode the thing. No sooner had I figured out where to go and settled onto the train but a fairly well-dressed ‘heaven-knows-what’ nationality young woman came a-begging. I felt like a bloody sitting duck as she whinged that she needed money. Thankfully she got out of my carriage at the first stop, but only to hop into the next compartment.

I got to Tottenham Hale, which was a dump. It was snowing in earnest now. Bitterly cold on the platforms, it was pandemonium, and not much room for it to be so. People were desperate to get to Stanstead, the previous train hadn’t arrived and when a train did turn up it was just horrible. To be honest, there’s no point going into detail. You can imagine what it was like. However, the promised train to Cambridge finally arrived, and off we set, stopping at every tiny station known to man.

The view was lovely, and I actually had a seat, but a few seats ahead of me was a woman and two teenaged French lads she was accompanying, presumably picked up from Stanstead. Their wendyball team had beaten Inngurland a day or so beforehand and they were more than happy to rehash e-v-e-r-y kick…loudly, and in Frenglish. My poor head ached. Then, fresh hell. Along came another young woman a-begging. This one had the ‘woe is me’ spiel printed on a piece of paper to drop in my lap. Grrrr!

By the time we got to Cambridge it was just about sunset. My first shock was the space outside the station, which was nothing like my recollection. Apparently, there’s been a £725 million development project around the station approach. The familiar sea of bicycles and all of the trees have gone. In their place is a modern, open paved concourse (currently an icy wasteland), lined with cafés, bars, restaurants, offices, and flats. There are even a few trendy food trucks, though it’s really not the weather for them. All a bit sterile looking, to my jaded eye, but that’s progress, I guess.

There had been a fair fall of snow, several inches at least, and as this had been trampled on and then frozen, the footing was treacherous. After a long, challenging day I was exhausted, cold, stressed, aching like hell, and hungry. Thankfully, I knew the YHA wasn’t too far, so I slithered my way there.

Figure 5: Cambridge YHA plaque
Steven Tattersall, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Got my room key and headed up to the room and located my ‘as requested’ lower-level bunk. This was when I found that I was sharing with five other females in a 6-bed dorm, slightly better odds than I’d feared may be the case. At this point, since there was no-one about, I crashed. I sent Mr S a quick message to let him know I was safe then I slept (on top of the covers, still in my coat) for two hours or thereabouts, I think.

But yay! I had managed to get to Cambridge. This was a triumph, despite all the angst and the circuitous route. I would celebrate, with whatever tasty repast the YHA kitchen had to offer. Er, no I wouldn’t. Their kitchen was closed as the staff had been unable to get in. Oh, for heaven’s sake! I’d have a coffee and a slice of cake then. Er, no. Just sold the last slice. Sorry.

I had two options. It was venture out again to find the little Sainsburys or go hungry. Dejectedly, and huffily, I cautiously skidded back towards the rail station, to pick up whatever meagre crap I could find in the supermarket. A pint of milk, I tells ya, has never tasted so good.

Despite all this, staying at the Y was alright. It was clean, and warm, it had decent showers, and the bed was… a bed, and I didn’t have to climb a ladder to get into it. My roommates were pretty decent types, generally considerate, and decidedly international.

My only real complaint was the bloody irritating Scottish bird on the second night who never drew breath. Boy could that woman talk, day, night, and every moment besides! Nosy too. A shame that she was sharing my dorm, particularly as she had earbuds and some sort of Walkman thing, on which she played Bob Dylan all night, just at the edges of my hearing. The other slight concern was the decidedly well-upholstered Nigerian girl, with a stinking, snotty cold, in the bunk directly above me. Hey ho. The bed frames are strong. I kept reminding myself it was only two nights, and it was cheap.

I’ve called this article a Postcard from Woke Central and, through speaking to the staff at the Y, I began to realise that all is not well in the fair city of Cambridge.

It’s definitely not the place I remember. There have been a number of stabbings (draw your own conclusions) in recent months which appear to have touched a nerve. Also, Cambridge City Council has drawn up a series of plans for a Sustainable Travel Zone to screw up improve transport in the city.

Thousands of residents have already signed a petition against the plans, which are set to introduce congestion charges of something like £5 a day. The charges are said to be about reducing carbon emissions, improving public transport, and expanding provision for ‘active travel’ (by this, they mean walking and cycling, so screw you if you need a car). Local MP Anthony Browne has remarked that: “Even city residents will face the full charge simply for leaving their driveway or moving their car down the street. It is absurd.”

Perhaps not quite as nutty as Oxford, yet, but give ‘em time.

In Part One I’ve covered, OK moaned about, the joys of the journey and a little about the differences in Cambridge I became aware of. In Part Two I will flesh those out with a bit more detail.

© SharpieType301 2023