Good news this week, via television, of the reopening of the old rail line between Oxford and Cambridge. Neither new nor true, actually, and worse for being a curate's egg; a deception redeemed, in part, by the irresistible glimmer of hope that it might happen, as if in the repetition it might materialise.
Back in the summer, corks flew at the then Transport Secretary's announcement that the Government would commit a tidy £270 million pounds to the electrification of the line between Oxford and Bedford as part of its transport pledge. But a short step from Bedford on to Cambridge, you might think (if you hadn't ever tried it). Despite evading the Beeching Axe, when British Rail finally withdrew all services from the old Varsity Line — the so-called 'Brain line' — in 1967, Oxford and Cambridge entered into the transport equivalent of a ménage à trois with London, a necessary third party to any efficient travel between the two.
Cross-country courtship proved time-consuming and complicated, with most finding it easy to resist the siren charms of Milton Keynes and her roundabout ways. Since those heady days in July, The Right Honourable Justine Greening MP has since been shuffled out of Transport and shunted off to the siding of International Development, thus filling the shoes of the Government's mercurial new Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, whose enduring interest in transport, particularly in and out of Downing Street on a bicycle, is currently well documented.
Both may now be wishing they could turn the clock back. A Cambridge graduate, Mr Mitchell is at the eye of a veritable storm over what he may have said to a policeman. Cambridge's most visible media don Mary Beard, hirsute by name and nature, inspires confidence when she tries to persuade that the 'p' word of which Mr Mitchell stands accused is not as ugly as charged, and certainly less socially exclusive than his demand for privileged passage, the catalyst for his outburst.
Not many people rate their own private transport system, two-wheeled or otherwise. Think of the Queen's Flight, Air force One or, closer to home, the specially commissioned train which used to convey an eager audience from King's Cross to Cambridge for the triennial Greek play, the latter still a fixture, the locomotive but a memory. Might a new Varsity line, despite the jaunty East West Rail link branding, be jinxed by the genie of exclusivity?
I wonder if we are all misled. Trains may start to run but only as far as Milton Keynes where we're all reduced to playing round and round the new town, as apt a metaphor as imaginable for the arrogance of hoping to get from Oxford to Cambridge, or vice versa, with ease. Not so much dumbed up as university challenged. Beyond Bedford, the line has been variously built over or requisitioned in parts for other schemes, most notoriously Cambridge's guided bus route. It's an unfinishable bridge between the two places.
Actual bridges loom large in both Oxford and Cambridge. While Cambridge takes its name from the Saxon bridge over the river Granta, built by King Offa in the mid to late eighth century, Oxford's second syllable was a ford through the Isis, thought to have been somewhere along the stretch of Thames between Folly Bridge and Iffley Lock, dating back to the tenth century.
Tourists in both places gravitate towards the bridges, not just for their watery views. Here in Cambridge, to pass over any of the bridges which cross the Backs, is to enter several parallel universes as tour guides pour forth whatever history or mystery seems most diverting on the day; famous names are taken in vain, dates are ruthlessly co-opted into the service of lucrative entertainment and anecdotes are made to sing for their supper. Thus although Isaac Newton actually died a few decades before the construction of Queens' College's Wooden Bridge, it is almost beyond reproach to call it the Mathematical Bridge and would be a dereliction of duty not to attribute its inscrutable tangents to Cambridge's apple-dubbed genius, glossing over its very visible nuts and bolts.
Likewise, there is a pleasing chicken and egg confusion with which to befuddle credulous visitors to either Cambridge or Oxford's Bridge of Sighs. Once one accepts that Venice's famous Ponte dei Sospiri is known worldwide by the romantic name bestowed on it by a generous Lord Byron, imagining the last, desperate exhalations of prisoners being sent, over the canal from interrogation in the Doges' Palace to incarceration in the city's New Prison, it's not really disappointing to learn that Cambridge's Bridge of Sighs, built in 1831 to link Third Court and New Court over the Cam at St John's College actually resembles more closely the Serenissima's Rialto Bridge, a mistake shared with Oxford's Hertford College.
Before the realisation of Channel Tunnel there was the suggestion of a nearly 3 mile suspension bridge. What resulted after nearly two centuries was the antithesis. Tunnels, at least to me, suggest covert activity, escape and concealment, avoiding public gaze or censure. That might be just what Oxford and Cambridge really need: perhaps we should get going with our teaspoons.