It was no secret, though the target of some teasing, that I considered the then-famed excellence of Merton's cuisine an important factor in choosing where I wished to study. Does it mark me a glutton that I remember as much what I ate, where and with whom, as what passed at interview during those few, remote December days? Does is label me lazy, and exceptionally lucky given the outcome, that I must then have heard and not thought to understand the opening words of Merton's Grace, taken from Psalm 145: "Oculi omnium in te respiciunt, Domine. Tu das escam illis tempore opportuno"? These words, in slight variant, are painted around the walls of the Old Hall, Queens' College, Cambridge and are pre-prandially intoned in various colleges of both universities: "The eyes of the world look up to thee O Lord. Thou givest them food in due season."
On arrival as an undergraduate, I have a vivid memory of walking through the college garden one Keatsian Autumn morning for a first breakfast. Later that term, pigeon and partridge were welcome newcomers to my palate. I didn't quail at quail, even a brace. New experiences came thick and fast, defining Autumn as a time of promise and confounding its role as Winter's usher. In practice, Autumn's harvest betokens fulfilment not expectation, but the two states are forever conflated in my memory and, with the seasons turning, I am daily reminded of this here in Cambridge.
Most days I cross an adjunct of Coe Fen named Lammas Land, en route to wherever, dodging the Red Poll cattle which wade around these urban meadows, depositing cowpats and spooking cyclists. Cambridge's agrarian past is ever-present. Lammas day, on 1st August, named from the Anglo Saxon 'hlaf-mas' or 'loaf mass', was the festival of the wheat harvest and the first harvest festival in the Church's calendar. Had I known this as a once-hungry student, I might also have thought to ask a friendly classicist the meaning of that Grace.
Last week, in an effort to leaven the strain of preparing for the new school year, son and I found ourselves, as often, in the market. The smell of noodles, being cooked to order in a static van by two tiny Thai ladies watched by a crocodile of patient customers, persuaded us without difficulty to stop. We sat on the central fountain's stone surround, busy with chopsticks beneath the adjacent tower of the University Church, Great St Mary's. Minute faces peered down on us diminutive guzzlers far below. Inspired, and now fortified for the 170 breath-stealing steps up past the bells, we soon joined them.
After many years, a novel perspective on the place where you live is invigorating. There lay Cambridge as never seen before. To the north, some 19 miles away, lurked the small shape of Ely Cathedral, ship of the Fens, just discernible on the horizon. To the south, the tall secular spire of Addenbrooke's hospital; King's College Chapel to the west; dotted everywhere in jostling proximity the modest towers of so many churches; and, spread below us, the stick-of-rock striped awnings of the market, as much fabric of the place as any of its brick and stone edifices. A skyward proclamation that this is a market town masquerading as a city.
Only yards from the splendour of the University's Senate House and the civic solidity of the Guildhall, in the shadow of Great St Mary's, Cambridge's market is the beating heart of the place. Tourists gravitate there, familiar faces are seen all ways. I relish being able to buy Fen celery, not because it's voguishly local but because it's delicious and sold with its mantle of gothic-black soil. It's a small thrill to buy gooseberries or damsons when they grace the market with their Cinderella presence for a scant few weeks and hard not to be tempted by the abundance of asparagus and watercress that grows so well here in the East. For weeks at a time, extravagance is cheap. Soon I shall make my annual foray for lumpen, scented quince. I can't imagine needing a whole horseradish root, but appreciate the thought. Were there still eel for sale, trapped from the Fens as in centuries past, I would buy and try. Less indulging, more necessary, but equally as permanent are the stall which mends bicycles, the barber en plein air, and the purveyor of every battery known or necessary. The bookstands are essential.
Contrast this assemblage with Oxford's Covered Market which began as a group -- collectively a 'carcass' or 'hook' perhaps -- of butchers. This is a more assertive collection of shops, opened in 1774 to trade with both the city and university and tidily relocate the stalls hitherto crowded on Cornmarket. Improved in Victorian times with a vaulted roof, it is sometimes still possible to see, furred or feathered, whole and sometimes huge creatures hanging above the sawdust, pending the pot. High table, low table, all tables. As in Cambridge, ciabatta and cappuccino are two a penny, but it would be remiss not to commend the purchase of lardy cake here, Oxford Blue cheese there or all-day breakfast at Browns Cafe. A few steps away down The High, in similar proximity to that of Cambridge's market with Great St Mary's, is Oxford's University Church of St Mary the Virgin. As in Cambridge, a refreshing, though wholly different, perspective awaits here, too, for it was in "SMV's" Old Library that Oxfam was conceived -- in 1942 as 'Oxford Committee for Famine Relief' -- by a small group of socially responsible academics and thinkers determined to persuade the British government to breach the Allied naval blockade and relieve the starving in Axis-occupied Greece. Seventy years on, Oxfam, despite an estimated annual turnover of over £300 million pounds, still avowedly puts 'local' provision at the centre of its efforts.
Though the relative permanence and apparently increased aspiration of Oxford's Covered Market may reflect Cavalier Oxford's greater size, even confidence, compared to Cromwellian Cambridge, both markets testify to the quotidian needs of their peculiar populations. Both are, therefore, essential destinations for any visitor. Now, at harvest time, the double helix binding both Oxford and Cambridge to their central markets and the Churches which stand sentinel alongside is at its most tangible.