The post on Christmas Eve 1968 brought the letter telling me I had a place at Queens’ Cambridge. I’d opted to stay for a third year in the sixth form to do the Cambridge Entrance Exam, so I spent the rest of the year doing very little at school, instead fiddling with my organ, as it were, and singing and playing at Carlisle Cathedral, which I’d been increasingly doing since 1963.
On my last night in Langwathby in October 1969 Hitchcock’s Psycho was on TV. I was not allowed to watch it. Off to Cambridge the next day, over Stainmore and down the Great North Road with its roundabouts and cross roads, and bottlenecks. Six hours and more.
First year students at Queens’ didn’t have rooms in College but were in lodgings. I was billeted on Mill Road, number 81 I think, on the town side of the railway bridge in a semi where post-war dark greens and browns predominated. Mrs K L Gentle was one of the long-serving College landladies, and Kitty, as we didn’t dare call her, knew what she wanted and how we should behave. And we did.
There were two of us. David from Buxton was the other, also a medic. I was glad to discover that he didn’t play rugby. He later became my ‘best man’ and is now a pillar of society and indeed of The Victorian Society. We had to get our own breakfasts—I still open my boiled egg like David did—and we were allowed one bath a fortnight.
Despite wanting to get away from Langwathby, I was quite lonely for about a month. Homesickness is not the right word, for it wasn’t home that I was sick for. It was nest-warmth—for the Cathedral community in which I felt authentic, valued and safe. I suppose that search became a lifelong quest. It’s illusory, of course.
Ye Gods, Cambridge in winter is cold. Winds whistle west from the Urals. I exchanged cold, damp Cumberland for freezing, foggy Fens, the Fens fog that gets right into your bones. A foggy start to a new life. So much for its being warmer down south.
The next upheaval came in 1972 when I moved to London. I’ve written about this before, but memory today takes me to finding accommodation. I arrived a couple of weeks early and slept on the floor of a college friend, already at work at the Bank of England, in Orlando Road, Clapham. There were invertebrates slithering slowly along the bathroom walls. I did the rounds of letting agents all over the place. Praed Street (Paddington) stands out—why in God’s name Praed Street I do not know: it was nowhere near the Medical School in Camberwell.
After a day or two, a few of us including David from Buxton joined forces. We found a basement flat in south Clapham, almost Balham really—the gateway to the south—on Cavendish Road, the South Circular. Living room, kitchen, part of which was partitioned off as the bathroom (yes, the bathroom in the kitchen), and one bedroom for three blokes. There was a tiny room under the stairs just big enough for a double mattress, and that was shared by Geoff and his girl.
It was to this nest that I invited Susan, then teaching in Manchester. It was on Clapham Common that I proposed. It was just outside The Windmill on The Common that she accepted.
Strange things happen on Clapham Common.