Cycling · Orientation · Weekends

Week 27: Traditional Birthday Punting

We had arrived back in Cambridge from Bulgaria very late, one of the last trains out from Stansted Airport. After a whirlwind adventure through Bulgaria, it was time to get things back on track and to some relative sense of normalcy. On the first day back, being a Wednesday, work resumed with the regular weekly lab meetings followed by a lab lunch at the food trucks, something which can be considered the most regular component of my life in Cambridge at the moment. Technically, it was term break, which meant that all of the undergraduate students had been sent home to prepare for their exams, and so may academics see it as a time to go off and do things as well. As such, many are away on conferences and hence there aren’t even any weekly seminars.

Thursday, the 30th of March brought with it my twenty-first birthday (yes I’m doing my PhD at 21, there’s nothing unusual about that). I’ve never been one for showy nights out on my birthday, so I took it relaxed and easy. There wasn’t anyone in the office that day and so I afforded myself some time to plan my next holiday (having just finished the previous one), being my planned trip to the Alps in July to see the Tour de France. This requires a number of cumbersome train and hostel bookings as travelling with a bike has various conditions and restrictions that one has to meet.

My birthday also marked the start of a new role I’m taken up for the next few months. I applied, was interviewed for and thence appointed to the position of Orientation co-director for the Gates Council. That means that me and my co-director Harum are responsible for managing, organising and running all of the events for the next year’s round of Gates Scholars as they arrive in Cambridge. This includes the four-day trip to the Lake District where I met many of the people I call friends here today. It’s a big role, but we’ll have a committee to help us. Anyway, that evening was the official handover. Rebecca (now the Gates Council President) and Alex, the previous years directors, met up with Harum and myself in the Grad Café and went through all of the details on what the role encompasses and things we needed to know to get started. Our next step would be to call for and thence select a committee to help us out, something that we would do over the next few weeks.

Meeting over, I rode to Trinity College to meet Annalise, Jacqueline and Paul (all of whom I’d been to Bulgaria with) at Annalise’s place of residence. They, being the lovely friends that they were, had conspired to host a small get-together to commemorate my day of birth. When I arrived, I found that they had prepared a lovely roast meal complete with my equal all-time favourite dessert and drink. Humbled and apologetic in a very British way, I really enjoyed being able to share in such a meal with what have become good friends. Halfway through the evening, my friends had arranged a surprise Skype call home to my parents (somewhat miscalculated due to the recently changed summer time clocks). It’s always nice to connect with what is going on back home, and to receive birthday wishes from family. The night concluded with a board game; a round of mega-Monopoly, designed to still be authentic yet faster than the original. I (rightfully) wasn’t awarded birthday privileges and subsequently lost, but that wasn’t the point.

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On Saturday, I was back out on my bike, this time to the town of Baldock, a 50 km ride away. At the end of April, I have entered a mass-participation ride in Sheffield and it is long and hilly, so I intended to get some decent training in. Problem is, Cambridgeshire is so flat and yet Yorkshire is so hilly, so I needed to go somewhere with at least some elevation gain. I did manage to find at least some gradient, on a road running through the middle of a golf course up into a forest. It did, however, feel good to be back out on some hills again, something I’ve only had during my trip to Mallorca since I’ve been in Europe.

Sunday morning was for watching the Tour of Flanders on television, the biggest Belgian cycle race of the year. But it was the afternoon which I was looking forward to. I went out to the market and picked up (probably too many) bakery items and met up with Annalise, Jacqueline, Paul and his friend from home Gianina in the Darwin College Gardens. For the second half of birthday commemorations, I had arranged for us all to go punting. It had just gotten warm enough to do so, and I was keen to give it all another go. On the river, there are always punts going up and downstream past all of the colleges, but they tend to be punts with tour guides or tourists who are complete novices who can’t steer properly. There aren’t actually all that many authentic Cambridge students out on the river. Hence, I decided that I wanted to dress up for the occasion. Over Christmas, I had acquired a straw boater’s hat, and so I combined this with my college gown to dress up as a “typical” student. In reality, it’s a mix of never turning down an excuse to wear my gown, a sense of historical traditions but mostly the amusement of watching all of the tourists at the side of the river or on the bridges surreptitiously try to take photographs on their phones.

We were out on one of the Darwin punts. Instead of going down the congested river, I wanted to go upstream. First this meant pulling the punt up the rollers around the sluice that is opposite the Silver Street bridge, which is where I discovered just how heavy a punt can be. Once up, it was a relatively straightforward journey up the river and out of town. We had a three hour return trip, spent chatting and picnicking on the river, whilst I tried to navigate the more frequent overhanging trees and muddy sections compared to heading downriver. After an hour and a half of the old-worldly experience, we turned around and headed back into town. Going downstream, we had the current with us and so it was a slightly easier ride. We still had some time to spare when we made it back to college, so we went a short way downriver so as to see the postcard-like King’s College chapel from the river. Here especially, the tourist cameras were out in force. We finished up the picnic in the Darwin College gardens until it got too cold and we had to head home again.

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