Aim High Cambridge Trip 2015
Following the success of last year’s trip, a second “Aim High” visit to Cambridge was organised. This year we were hosted by our area link College, Gonville and Caius. Boasting both Stephen Hawking as its current Fellow (and alumnus) and the champion of University Challenge 2015, Caius (affectionately called) is the fourth oldest College and prides itself in “combining the best of Cambridge tradition with 21st-century teaching and research”. It was its ancient history and academic excellence that some of our most able GCSE students had come to experience – all in one day.
After three and a half hours’ journey, the group was met by Tom Norwood, Schools Liaison Officer, at Harvey Court – home to the first-years of the College – where we parked our minibus. Our students were immediately struck by the friendliness and helpfulness of the porters. From Harvey Court, we took a few minutes’ walk to the College itself via the iconic The Backs, passing King’s Chapel (one of the most photographed landmarks in the country) and Clare Old Court. Refreshments were laid on on our arrival at the College, and Tom began the day’s activities with an introductory talk about studying at Cambridge.
A guided tour of the College gave our group a first-hand experience of seeing where they could potentially spend three of their years as undergraduates at Cambridge. The wooden staircases, the narrow stone passages, the oak panelling and the ecclesiastical architecture certainly lived up to the group’s expectation of a Hogwartsian image. Many of the group members had identified their favourite place already – Caius’s College Library, behind the Senate House. Due to its religious foundation and monastic existence, communal dining is an essential part of College life at Cambridge. Although it was not a Formal Hall, our students were definitely delighted to be offered a free, cooked lunch in the dining hall, sitting at the top of the table, with portraits of past and present Masters beaming down on them benignly.
Lunch was quickly followed by a more practical session about choosing A-level subjects. Our students found the advice on combining the right subjects most invaluable. They were also given the opportunities to talk amongst themselves about their interests and to ask questions about making the most competitive combinations of subjects for university applications. It became apparent to our students that starting preparation for university at GCSE was not at all too early. In fact, it was imperative that one remained well-informed of the relationship between entry requirements and a-level subject choices, which in turn could be influenced by GCSE results – rightly or wrongly.
To gain some insight into the academic life at Cambridge, a taster mini lecture on Anglo-Saxon and Norse was given by Dr Andrew Bell who was also the Admission Tutor at Gonville and Caius College. Engaging and informative, Dr Bell’s lecture caught the group’s imagination straightaway. Before the end of the lecture, members of the group became quite competent at translating Anglo-Saxon and Old English into modern English. Our students’ thoughtful response certainly made a positive impression and won praises from our hosts. Still buzzing from, and perhaps dazzled by, their intellectual encounter, the group said a reluctant but very fond farewell to Caius. Trooping through the Porter’s Lodge somewhat acquired a melancholy air as the mackerel sky with its muslin half light continued to drip with spots of rain.
From old to new, we walked through Clare College, stopping at arguably the most romantic of all bridges on The Backs for some photo opportunities. Our route took us to the imposing, towering building of the University Library. Someone set an immediate target to read all the books housed inside, clearly not having seen the sheer size of the building. Nevertheless, they were clearly deeply attracted to the idea of solitary reading on a deserted floor with only the occasional squeaks of opening and closing of heavy oak doors and the musky air for company. Picturing their scholastic future, the group found itself standing under an arch of red bricks – a lot of them, in fact – the Porter’s Lodge of Robinson College to meet our host, Dr Christopher Warner.
The contrast between the old and the new Cambridge could not be more stark. The visual markers were all too apparent. Nevertheless, the philanthropic philosophy of the founding of the College underlines much of its architectural character. The Chapel, showcasing John Piper’s “The Light of the World” stained glass, offers an open space for multi-faith worship, whereas the dining room has no raised area for The High Table to demarcate the hierarchy between the students and the academics. Without too much repetition, Dr Warner gave us a guided tour through Robinson’s stunning gardens. A visit to the College Bar (only coffee, tea and hot chocolate were ordered) gave the troop an opportunity to recharge and regroup before our final activity of the day.
To many, their “Cambridge experience” is not complete without messing about on the river. No danger of anyone messing about from these extremely conscientious youngsters. Instead, they were completely entertained by the most charming and knowledgable chauffeur in the form of Dr Warner’s very own son who turned out to be something of an expert in architecture. Perfect! Even more conducive to an impromptu lecture of the History of Cambridge Colleges Architecture was the fact that the rain stopped and there weren’t many other boats on the river. The thrill and delight of punting was clearly visible on each of the beaming faces! Had the students been able to access the Internet, they would have happily and willingly given their guide a 5-star rating on Trip Advisor!
Just like last year, most of conversation on the way back centred around planning for universities. I sat smiling an inward smile at their hopes and dreams. As we headed north – in the safe hands of Mr Wainwright – the sun streamed in through the windscreen and lit up many happy faces without much sign of tiredness. I wondered what dreams they were dreaming behind their closed eyes. After three hours of smooth journey, we arrived back in Yorkshire that welcomed our return with a most spectacular sunset.