Tuesday 23 August 2022

The Varsity Line In The Sand

It's a question that's torn British society asunder for literally centuries: which is better, Oxford or Cambridge?  There has never been a definitive answer to this question... UNTIL NOW.  Yes, thanks to a couple of mini breaks I took this year, I am able to once and for all settle this question, through the twin powers of science and railway stations.  These are the only true metrics that should be used to decide anything.  I will run you through my workings before I reach a conclusion, breaking it down into a series of extremely valid categorisations:


Oxford Parkway station opened in 2013, though weirdly, it didn't have services to Oxford itself until three years later.  This was part of Chiltern Railways' scheme to improve the line from the city into London Marylebone and it's a very Parkway station.  There's an absolutely enormous car park, tied into the local park and ride bus service, while there's a lot of silver cladding and glass on the building itself.

One feature it does have that I thoroughly approve of is tilework.  Ceramic tiles used to be all over railway stations - they're easy to clean, they add colour, they're charming.  It seems to have been lost over the decades however, replaced by plain walls or plasticky cladding.  Oxford Parkway brings back the tiles with a lovely blue colour throughout the ticket office and public areas.

Delightful.  There is one minus however, and that's the lack of a ticket office.  There's an "information desk", but if you want to buy a ticket, you have to use the machines.  Why they couldn't combine these two services into the one desk, I don't know.

Meanwhile there's another grey box over at Cambridge North, opening in 2017.  This one isn't a Parkway station, but was instead built to serve both the burgeoning Cambridge Science Park and the redevelopment of the area.  It's a bold, show off-y building, the kind of building that gets called "iconic" by the developers before they've even laid a single brick.

There is also quite possibly the largest cycling storage facility I've ever seen in the UK.  Imagine a warehouse, without walls, and filled with row after row of racks.  It looks like something from Amsterdam.

Cambridge North has been decorated with an intricate design cut into its steel fascia.  It looks lovely, and is apparently based on some incredibly complex mathematical something.  I don't really understand it.  Head over to The Beauty of Transport for the full explanation, and also, the story of how they got the wrong design and the one they used was actually by someone from Oxford, which is quite funny really.

Final verdict: Cambridge North should win this.  It's newer, it's funkier, it's got artwork.  But I'm going to give it to Oxford Parkway because... I liked the tilework.  I mean, I really liked it.  Also that family you can see in the picture above were really annoying, bouncing all over the station like it was a playground, and that put me off North.



I spent one day in each city, being a tourist, clattering around pretty wildly without much of a scheme.  As such I almost certainly didn't go to wherever you thought I should've gone.  Yes, there probably is a fantastic cafĂ© tucked away at the back of an alleyway that's only open for twenty minutes a day, but sorry, I'm being basic and hitting the sights.

My impression was that Oxford felt more like a city: by which I mean, a functioning, modern place where people lived and worked.  It had buses and noise and bustle in a way that Cambridge didn't.  Cambridge felt more historic, more preserved, as though it had settled on its form sometime in the 15th century and hadn't bothered updating it.  Oxford was a bit more modern, although since we're talking about Oxbridge, I'm using "modern" in the sense of "felt like the Victorians might have actually been here."

Normally I'd go with the city that feels more modern because that's who I am.  I dislike cities that are fossilised.  But Cambridge had a charm woven through it that was absent from Oxford.  Wandering the narrow streets of Cambridge felt like a delight, a pleasurable experience in itself, while in Oxford, ducking down a tiny street was a means to get somewhere else.  It didn't bewitch me in the same way.

Final verdict: Oxford should win this on paper, but I simply found Cambridge much more fun to be in.  It made me smile.



Obviously I didn't go to Oxbridge (Edge Hill massive, represent).  I did actually get invited to my Sixth Form College's Oxbridge preparation class; a teacher took me aside and advised me to attend it at lunchtime, because he thought I had the potential.  I went to one session and I was terrified.  It wasn't about simply being clever - you also had to be a certain kind of person, act a certain way in interviews, have a varied and interesting life outside of your studies.  I fled the class and put any thought of attending out of my head, which was lucky considering (a) I then comprehensively cocked up my A-Levels and (b) I wouldn't have been able to afford a single term there.  And this was when you still got grants!

I wandered the precincts and imagined how it would be to attend here and suddenly I got it.  I got that Oxbridge attitude, the slight sniffiness, the superiority.  It wasn't pure snobbery.  Walking among those buildings I could see how you had history pushed into you.  These were thousand year old colleges, places that produced kings and prime ministers and the finest scientists and artists and mathematicians of their age.  You weren't simply studying here, you were being added to their ranks.  You were being imbued with importance.

How can you wander through exquisitely designed ancient corridors and not feel like a prince?  I felt like that and I was only using it as a shortcut between one bit of town and another.  If I'd been wearing a gown and clutching a pile of books I'd have felt like the greatest person on earth.

FINAL VERDICT: Both universities seem like astonishing, inspiring places to study, places that have changed the course of the entire human race.  So it's a tie there.  I'll have to bring it down to alumni.  Cambridge has the Footlights, which has been home to some of my most favourite people on earth.  Oxford has the Bullingdon Club.



Oxford is on the Thames, which seems like cheating.  The Thames is London's, and you can't muscle in on it, I don't care what "geography" says.  It's like Stockport having a Merseyway Shopping Centre, laying claim to a river that quite clearly belongs to Liverpool.  

Meanwhile, Cambridge is on the Cam, quite obviously.  That's more like it.  As the name implies, the Cam goes right through the centre of the city, while in Oxford it sort of bends round the edge - by the time you reach it you are most definitely on your way out of town.  

What Oxford does have is a disused railway bridge to let you cross the river.  This is the Gasworks Bridge, which used to carry a small spur off the mainline to a long demolished gasworks.  

Cambridge, on the other hand, has footbridges that belong to the colleges and are fenced off to the plebs.  In fact, at one of them, the BF paused in the shadow to check his phone, and a porter appeared behind him and eyed him suspiciously in case he tried to open the gate.  Unfriendly.

FINAL VERDICT: I almost gave this to the Cam based on the fact that the trousers of the punters are extremely tight and make their backsides look amazing, but at the end of the day, I can't fully condone private bridges.  



If you need the loo in a strange city, head for the John Lewis, because they'll be clean and easily accessible.  I visited the department stores in both cities and while they were both nice enough, Oxford's mall was a bit better and more interesting, so they get the win.



Harry Potter still means a lot to people, of course, even though its author has turned out to be a thoroughly awful person.  I enjoyed the books myself.  And even though it's literally more than a decade since they last released a Harry Potter film, lots of people still want to visit the locations.  Fair enough - I visited Matera while I was in Italy, not because of its stunning architecture and proud history, but because James Bond shot a significant portion of it to pieces.  Oxford, however, has really embraced its legacy as a filming location, to the extent that you can't go more than ten yards without someone in a striped scarf lurching out of a side alley talking about their patreon.  There are Harry Potter shops and Harry Potter cafes and Harry Potter walking tours and I will remind you that this is the oldest university in the English speaking world and a city that existed for more than a thousand years before JK Rowling put aside her rampant transphobia for a couple of minutes to write a book.  There was something quite depressing about standing behind a tour guide talking about the Bodleian Library, one of the finest academic centres on earth, and have them reveal that it was used for a scene in one of the Harry Potters to gasps from the assembled tourists.  Cambridge, on the other hand, wasn't used for a single scene in the films, and so can't make any spurious claims to fame; it sells itself on being Cambridge rather than Gryffindor adjacent.  Perhaps if Hogwarts' dining hall had been in Peterhouse College instead of Leavesden Studios it'd be a very different story but for the time being Cambridge comes off as a lot classier. 



I'm going to tell you the winner before we even start here, because I'm sorry, it has to be said: Oxford station is a dump.  I expected a historic, beautiful building, something with a bit of class.  Instead I got a load of red and blue metalwork chucked up during the fag end of British Railways.

Who hurt you, Oxford?  Who told you this was acceptable?  Aren't you embarrassed?  I suppose they have the Oxford Tube, that famous coach line that runs direct to London, so the trains are an afterthought.  Still, I expected better.  I thought of the thousands of people who must pass through here every year and get this as their first view of a legendary city.

I must also point out that directly outside the station is the entrance to the Thatcher Business Education Centre, named after That Bloody Woman.  Welcome to Oxford, indeed.

Cambridge on the other hand - now that's what you want from a railway station.  An epic frontage, a station square, some artwork.  Admittedly Cambridge has a slight advantage in that it's clearly in the middle of a big regeneration project; the station is surrounded by a serious of large bland boxes that house apartments, hotels, offices.  It's a bit like Canary Wharf has crashed into the Fens.  

Still, it's better than the bloody Thatcher Institute.  The interior suffers slightly from being a through station - it's more of a long corridor stretched along the platforms - but it carries itself well, and has some lovely heritage features.  It also has some funky LED next train indicators with animations and colours.  I'm easily impressed.  It is, however, lacking a proper totem with the station name on it.  Sort it out, please.





Both cities are beautiful and elegant and totally worth visiting, but Cambridge nudges ahead.  Cambridge was the one that I could see myself revisiting someday, for a longer period, whereas I feel like I've "done" Oxford.  Still, it's good to finally solve the eternal question of which one is better.  You can argue with my decision in the comments if you want, but know this: I am right and will not be persuaded otherwise.  Next week, I definitively prove which is better - Cats or Dogs.  

(Spoiler: it's dogs).

Friday 12 August 2022

Going Round The Back

For reasons far too dull to go into here, I nipped over to Liverpool today.  Heading for the lift at James Street I noticed there was only one in use; not ideal, but not unusual.  The lifts at James Street are large and aging and get a hell of a hammering - it's rare to see all four functioning.  Going back to the Wirral, I passed through the ticket barriers, and was waiting for the lift when a man appeared behind me and the small group waiting.  "Do you want to come this way instead?"

We were lead across the ticket hall and into the goods lift, a lift I had never before noticed even existed.  It was a little grimier than the usual ones, not quite so well kept, but larger, and comfortably took the dozen or so passengers and suitcases and pushchairs that squeezed in with it.  The Merseyrail man pulled the cage doors closed, pushed the button, and we descended.

Then, much like a theme park, we got the chat.  It seems the Merseyrail man had a spiel, a little monologue he'd prepped, and for the entire descent into the bowels of the earth he talked merrily.  They'd opened up this lift because three were out of action to accommodate the passengers, it's all perfectly safe, couple of little gags for the kids, a whole one man show.  Bless him, he loved his moment in the sun.  And he fell the right side of charming too - not one of those excruciating speeches that make you die inside.  I did video it, but then it occurred to me that it's kind of rude to post someone on the internet without their knowledge (plus there were a load of kids in the video and parents don't like that) so you'll have to take my word for it.

We got down to the concourse below, welcomed by another member of staff, and directed off to our platforms ("Wirral to the right of me, Liverpool to the left").  I tottered off to my platform, pleased to see a side to a station I'd never seen before.