John and Jackie Witts live aboard Wide Beam Pippin, up at Waterbeach on the lovely river Cam. John and I became Internet friends when I discovered his blog and left a comment about blog posts being like bottles with messages in them, thrown out to the universe where someone a world away thrills at the find. John discovered my blog in turn and we became fast internet friends.
I love John's writing. His is pithy prose; he has a turn with words that make me smile and want to read more. He is thoughtful, funny, and engages himself fully in the act of creative writing with vivid descriptions that place me with him, looking over his shoulder, considering whatever it is that has captured John's attention. Witt's writing draws his readers into a conspiracy of fun with words and phrases. If you are a wordsmith or you love words and language, you will enjoy John's blog.
John knew from my blog that I had fallen in love with narrow boats and British canals--everything about them fascinated me. He was kind enough to send me the collected works of Tom Rolt all the way to Cloudhouse--my American home. I devoured it with grateful thanks, touched by the generosity of someone I had never actually met.
Through John's blog I found Amy and James' writing about their lives aboard NB Lucky Duck. Both are students at Cambridge University--Amy was at Selwyn College and James at Clare College. I loved the spontaneity of Amy's posts which covered a range of topics from their cat Lyra, to baking on board, to her sensational thrift shop finds. I lived vicariously through them, experiencing the town and University from their viewpoint; enjoying sculling races in which they have both rowed and also served as cox swains in charge of the boats.
Reading about the community camaraderie between the Witts and the Ducks as Amy and James are known, and the colorful characters that pepper their posts about their lives in Cambridge and the fens made me determined to make their acquaintance in person one day. John posted an invitation to us for a visit when we were up on the Lee and Stort and we jumped at the chance to meet them.
Les and I left NB Valerie moored up at Royden and caught the train to Cambridge on a lovely Sunday morning. John was there to collect us and off we went to a parking space near the town-side moorings in Cambridge to hook up with Amy and James who had placed NB Lucky Duck for sale and bought Motor Boat Severner Willow--an old working boat which they are restoring while they live aboard. As you will discover if you read their new blog, Severner's are a class of old working boat. Willow was built in 1935 for the Severn Canal and Carrying Company.We had a look through MB Willow--a stout, solid working boat oozing with character and so LONG at 72 feet compared to our 58 foot floating home. While there is much to be done, James and Amy have the passion, drive, creativity, and knowledge to turn the NB Severner Willow into a lovely home and they are wasting no time getting started.
We walked with James, Amy, and John through the streets of Cambridge, thrilling at the ancient history and tradition which resides in the cobbled lanes and stone buildings, enjoying the whimsical and the sublime.
|The Knitted Bike! This is an amazing work of art which tours around town, turning up here and there. On our visit it was sitting outside a local punting business on the Cam.|
|Hardy's sweet Shop! Look at the size of that all day sucker as we call them in the States. Over here I imagine it would be called a large lolly!|
|The incredible skyline as one moves from town to gown--to which the University and its community is sometimes referred for the academic dress (regalia) often worn by fellows (faculty) and students.|
|An ancient Cambridge street. No garish modern lights, signage or other items to give a clue as to what century it might actually be, with the exception of the yellow lines painted on the street. It could easily be the Middle Ages!|
How many footfalls have echoed down the cobble and stone lane over the centuries? I close my eyes and listen: whispered bits of Danish, old English, Latin, and Norman French tickle my ears; the sounds of feet on the march to cloister and courses; horse hooves clipping against stone, and cart wheels creaking along. It's all there beneath my own feet!
|A gargoyle about to take flight!|
|Another timeless skyline...|
As if this impromptu tour is not enough, Amy and James had a surprise in store for me and Les. Ushered through the Clare College gate by the porter, we stepped into the quadrangle formed by classrooms and lodging.How many times have I seen similar scenes on television in Lewis?! Now it is my turn to visit the hallowed spaces of learning separated from the mundane world beyond; I am standing amongst the gated close, the greens, commons and quadrangles of Cambridge University!
While John drove back home to help his wife Jackie with preparing our luncheon repast, we walked through the gated courtyard and beyond to Clare College Bridge--the oldest of those now in existence over the College Backs--or the Backs as they are known.
Pursuing their degrees allows them student access to Clare College's punt. Les and I were gobsmacked. What an incredibly generous and thoughtful treat!
Down a steep, narrow staircase a punt awaited. James donned a straw boater, Amy climbed aboard and helped me and Les to settle in. James poled the boat and both he and Amy provided commentary on the view. Sitting back, just inches above the water line we glided along quietly past architecture and landscaping I have seen in films over the years such as Maurice, Harry Potter, and Chariots of Fire.
|Clare College to the left with King's College Chapel rising upward on its right...|
|...giving way to the Classical architecture of the Gibbs building and Bodley Court.|
|Clare College stretching away behind us.|
|A punt loaded with tourists and a spin-doctor chauffeur, right. James and Amy keeping it real for us, left.|
|Students reading on the grass while punts painted with King's College purple are moored at their feet.|
The American University system pales by comparison. To attend a prestigious U.S. University--for example Harvard--one would rack up tuition and fees of close to $150.000.00 for a degree. Add in the Greek system on nearly all American University campuses with the attendant issues of alcohol abuse, hazing, and what I feel is the debasing treatment of members--especially girls, with the coup de gras of swelling enrollments of anywhere from 80-600 students per course impacting actual teaching and learning, and there really is no comparison in regard to educational quality between the U.S. and the U.K.
As we traveled up and back again, turned and headed in, the Backs became rammed with punts filled with tourists and families of University students. Boats captained by less experienced punters ended up colliding once or twice with ours and everyone elses, causing traffic jams in the water. No license or experience is necessary to rent a punt on the Cam. Just pay the local boat hire company £14.00 and off you go, quant pole in hand, to wreak havoc on the river.
|Traffic begins to accumulate on the Backs--both on water and land.|
It was clear to both Les and me that James is an expert punter, rock solid on his feet with extremely keen balance; he didn't panic, hurry, or lose his temper. In fact I noticed that his energy is quite intense and focused--like a spring about to bounce but held in check by some internal force; qualities which will serve him well as an elementary school teacher, working with bright, inquisitive young children.
|James takes us past the Bridge of Sighs so named because of the supposed sighing of students as they crossed from their quarters to the tutor's office for exams.|
|The Bridge of Sighs in the far back with Kitchen Bridge in the front and St. John's College on the right.|
|James digs the pole into the riverbed as we float beyond Mathematical Bridge behind us.|
There has been a school of learning here since 1209 and CU is the second oldest University in the English speaking world. It was begun supposedly by fellows who felt unappreciated by their Alma Mater--the first University in the English speaking world--Oxford. It is also the third oldest surviving University in existence after Oxford and the University of Bologna in Italy, established in 1088.
At Cambridge there are thirty one colleges established between the 13th and 20th centuries; three colleges endowed by royalty: King's established in 1441 by Henry VI, Queens' begun in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou (Queen of Hank 6), and Trinity started in 1546 by Henry VIII.
The oldest surviving College is Peterhouse founded in 1284. Clare College comes next, begun in 1326 by Elizabeth de Clare, granddaughter of Edward I. The newest College is Robinson, founded by British philanthropist Sir David Robinson. There are 16 old Schools founded between 1284 and 1596; 15 new Schools founded between 1800 and 1977. Cambridge Town and its University have survived the centuries weathering the Black death and the English Civil War.
|A Willow draped dream...|
|The spheres on Clare Bridge, built in 1639-40. This view takes my breath away.|
|DNA Double Helix by Charles Jencks, 1953, in honor of James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosemary Franklin--the brilliant minds who research uncovered the existence of deoxyribonucleic acid--DNA.|
We crossed over the grass to the lovely wide beam Pippin where an umbrealla'ed table sat decked out with place settings, and tapas--thin, crispy bread sticks, small bowls of olives and platters of thinly sliced meats.
Jackie stepped out of the boat to greet us and I was utterly captivated by her. As folks are wont to do--especially writers who create characters in their head--I had a preconceived picture of Jackie Witt created from a collage of John's words and phrases in describing his wife and aspects of their life, strained through my naive American cultural viewpoint.
Jackie works for the BBC as an independent program writer. Currently she is re-writing programs for the likes of Home & Garden television, translating Brit speak to American speak and vice versa. She was involved in the making of the British series Three Men in a Boat. Jackie commutes from Waterbeach to London, having lived in London for some years where she and John met at their favorite neighborhood pub.
So in my head I pictured a slip of a woman with short, platinum hair, sophisticated clothes, jewelry and makeup, dashing off to BBC London each day in fabulously expensive heels-ala Candice Bushnell's character Carrie Bradshaw in the book and U.S. series Sex in the City! I sheepishly realized my version was trite and one dimensional--based on what an American thinks of the hallowed halls of the BBC, the slick worldliness of London, and those who might be employed by there in its hallowed halls.
The real Jackie Witt is smart and devastatingly witty in that lightening quick way Brits have with humor; delightful double entendre comes easily to her underscored by a soft, sarcastic humor which rolls from her tongue. Well it would, as she is a writer by trade.
She is deep and thoughtful. Jackie's watchful eyes are framed by a halo of dark curls which the wind cannot keep from running its fingers through. Her beauty radiates from deep inside and those with eyes to see cannot miss it in the way her smile tips slightly at first from the corner of her mouth, or the candid way which she engages you with a visual focus that tells you she is quietly attentive to who you are and what you are about.
John is every bit as spellbinding in his way. Both are kindness and generosity itself but there is also an undercurrent there that says neither of them is anyone's fool.
Lunch was delivered to the table without fanfare and what a lunch! Roast lamb with anchovies and garlic, a host of delicious roasted vegetables, savory homemade gravy, wine, beer--it was a feast amongst friends and we were honored to be included. Dessert included a platter of amazing cheeses and chocolate Kahlua cake.
|Lunch amongst friends: around the table clockwise is James, Les, me, Simone and Chris from NB Light Enough to Travel, and Jackie Witts.|
|John toasting to us|
Jackie drove us to the train station where we were totally amazed by the sheer amount of bicycles racked up and waiting for their owners' return. Me and Les sat quietly on the train holding hands and listening to students speak in at least three languages as we journeyed back to Royden and home to our boat. What a splendid day! We offer deep, appreciative thanks to Amy, James, John and Jackie for folding us into their lives for one sunny Sunday and making us feel so welcome.