I was running along the Cam this morning and passed one of my favourite buildings in Cambridge (so far): the Museum of Technology. On a palely-lit, slightly misty autumn day like today, it was in its element. The dark brick of the compact building and its smokestack always puts me in mind of Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ or an L. S. Lowry* painting – though this building has rather more prosaic origins as a sewage pumping plant, not a mill. I’ve yet to visit the museum but tomorrow there is a special exhibition of letter- and printing presses which I’m very excited about attending. The museum is a bit out of the way for tourists visiting Cambridge, despite the attempts by the city to make its river walkway attractive. If I’m honest that is part of the reason why I like it – it doesn’t feel the need to prove itself. Just a bit of industrial/trade history and voila! automatically interesting, if possibly not for everyone.
And so, I suppose, goes my finding of places in Cambridge that make it feel more like a home. I like out-of-the-way buildings with good stories – that this one is a museum is an added bonus. So far the tea and coffee shops have proved perfectly acceptable, though I’ve yet to find one that works well as a second home in which I can get lots of academic work done. The student short-cuts through Kings and Trinity College, over the river to the University Library or the Divinity Faculty are already seeing plenty of me, as are the cobblestones in front of Peterhouse, where I’m attached as a trainee clergywoman – or more accurately, as ‘Dean’s Vicar’ – for the first two years of my three-year training. Those colleges still feel like another world to me; one that I feel I should be reading about in Evelyn Waugh et al rather than actually inhabiting myself.
Westcott House, as a place, breathes. You can feel it beginning to inhale early in the morning with the bell that rings to tell the highly dedicated** that the chapel is open for silent meditation, then later for morning prayer. There’s a rush that follows and flows through to the early afternoon. It sounds like telephone rings and classes and lectures and tutorials. I’m not sure when the exhalation begins though I suspect it’s probably in full swing by 3pm as the children begin trickle back from school, and then all of us ordinands from wherever we’ve spent the day. Evening prayer, and supper, and then back to the books or out to placement responsibilities or what have you else, all grounding down into a quiet pause before another breath is taken.
It has been easy to observe the rhythm of Westcott’s life and less easy to graft myself into it. The newness of things, so many things at once and so many people at once, still overwhelms me. I have to escape sometimes. I go for a run along the river, go out cycling and get deliberately lost on all the ridiculous one-way streets, or take my notebook and find a place to sit and write before the weather gets too cold for me to do so outside. Part of me hopes that practicing my writing around the town will somehow endear it to me. I can’t say that Cambridge, or Westcott, feel very dear to me yet.
I like them both, and the people whom I’ve met within them, very much. My lessons have so far been challenging and my inner ravenous student has begun devising plans within plans for research and further learning, so the university environment seems to be doing its job. But what I have felt little of, thus far, us is the deeply happy appreciation for life here, in this place. It’s that settled appreciation of uniqueness, or the sort of echo of something very true, a fierce pull towards something although it’s imperfect or maybe because it’s imperfect. That feeling, or that constellation of feelings, have been largely absent since I moved here.
And yet for some odd reason buildings like the Museum of Technology have the ability to conjure this/these feeling(s) up in me. Maybe it’s because buildings ask things of us that we don’t quite know how to give. Perhaps we don’t even realise that that they are asking. But again and again, new place after new place, it is the architecture of that place that allows me to live into it as a home, to wait more patiently for the love for new rhythms of life, new friends, new adventures and new challenges to appear. So I’m very thankful for buildings like that – they allow me a space away from any bitterness or sadness about things that I’ve lost and help me to be a bit more human.
* Not to be confused with the also excellent Lois Lowry, YA author.
** I am über-dedicated. To my duvet.