Tuesday, 27 October 2015

NEWS - Cambridge Poetry Tours at the Festival of Ideas

On Saturday, I was one of a team of poets who facilitated the first ever Cambridge Poetry Tour, as part of the Festival of Ideas at the University of Cambridge.

And we had an awesome time!

The tours were devised by local writer Michael Brown, and featured poets Robin Lamboll and Nikki Marrone. (All three of whom are bloody brilliant!)

For each tour, we visited famous landmarks around Cambridge - and snuck into two of the best private libraries in the city - all the while learning all about the history of the colleges and the famous poets who lived and worked in them. We we performed a selection of poems by well-known Cambridge alumni, as well as a few of our own poems, which had been written especially for the event.

The whole thing was such a great idea, and the people of Cambridge were obviously keen because both tours were totally sold out!

Autumn Leaves

On our first tour, we took our little crowd of people across the Sedgwick Site, passed King's and into Trinity College. Inside Trinity, we learned all about Lord Byron's time as a student, including the bizarre company he kept while in Cambridge. (He brought a bear to live with him in his rooms, supposedly because he wasn't allowed to keep a dog. What a cad!)

After hearing reciting some Byron, we took a look around the Wren Library. And I have to tell you, this building is so old and majestic, it made my toes tingle!

Completed in 1695 and designed by Christopher Wren - the same guy who designed St Paul's Cathedral - the Wren Library was so breath-takingly beautiful, and one of the highlights of my day!

As well as being a lovely old building, the Wren Library is also filled with a ridiculously excellent collection of rare books, including a signed copy of Das Capital by Karl Marx, a beautiful hand-written Quran, and one of the first folios of Shakespeare's plays, not to mention Isaac Newton's actual notebooks, alongside his walking stick, a first edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and even a lock of Mr Newton's own hair! (Weird *and* creepy! Hoorah!)

It's amazing to think that academics and students still use this library as a place to study. Imagine revising for finals in the same library as Byron! And Isaac Newton! And Isaac Newton's disembodied hair! Amazing!

The porters wouldn't let us take pictures in the library, but I did get hold of a postcard, so here's a picture of that postcard.

B&B Bedsheets Bonus!

It really doesn't do it justice.

But seriously, it really is an awesome library, and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Cambridge. You can find visitor's info here.

After the Wren Library, we took our tour group up to the 'O' bridge (Why is it called that? Answers here.) for a group rendition of Cambridge by William Wordsworth, complete with cyclists rushing past us, while punts glided underneath us. It was all *very* Cambridge!

Then, we headed to Heffers bookshop for a short poetry performance to conclude the tour.

Nikki doing poems at Heffers

I managed to speak to a few of the tour-takers on the way round, chatting to a retired professor, a Chinese Postgraduate and a German lady now living in Cambridge. Everyone I spoke to was really enthusiastic and engaged with the performances, and loads of people came up to us afterwards to say how much they enjoyed the tour - which was really lovely to hear! I also sold six pamphlets, and made enough money to have two sausage rolls for my tea. What more could a poet ask for?

For our second tour, we had a much larger group, and we took them on a different route, from the Mathematical Bridge at Queen's to the Ted Hughes Library at Pembroke College.

I was particularly impressed by the beautiful stained glass windows in Pembroke Library, each one depicting one of Hughes' nature poems.

The Ted Hughes window at Pembroke Library

The bloody hand print is my favourite part. Very in-keeping with Hallowe'en...

We also got the chance to wander the courtyards of Pembroke, which I really enjoyed. I am, by nature, massively nosy, and any chance I get to go somewhere people are normally allowed is like heaven for me!

Plus, I'm ashamed to admit that in all the years I lived and worked in Cambridge, I never once went on a guided tour! Isn't that awful? Hopefully I've rectified that woeful error now!

Again, our tour ended up in Heffers bookshop, where we rounded off the event with another performance of our own poems.

This time around, I got chatting to some Malaysian graduate students, who were really friendly and told me all about their PhD projects. And in fact, everyone I chatted to was really great, interested not only in the history of the Colleges and the famous poems that we performed, but also in our own work too, which was really lovely!

Cambridge, you beautiful bastard!

I was also pleased as punch to hear performances from Nikki, Robin and Michael - with Nikki's poems being especially poignant, given that she's moving away to Europe soon!

Anyway, in case you're interested, here's a list of all the famous poems performed on the tour. Each one has embedded links, so you can check out the whole poems, if you like:

I give to you these verses by Charles BaudelaireI'm Leaving Cambridge Again by Xu Zhimo She Walks in Beauty by Lord ByronCambridge by William Wordsworth Archaeopteryx by Gillian Clarke The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes All the Dead Dears by Sylvia PlathThe Epitaph by Thomas Gray
Thanks again to Michael for organising the event, to the Festival of Ideas for hosting the poetry tours and to Trinity and Pembroke Colleges for letting us in to their secret places. Thanks to Heffers for hosting our performances, and to everyone who came along on the tours - you were all excellent!

Michael reciting a poem

Same time next year?


  1. talk about making a person feel homesick!! Sounds like it was a wonderful event. I think we are all guilty of not seeing what's on our own doorstep. If it does happen next year, I will have to try to be back for that. Oh, and I love your taramasalata poem, not keen on the product, poetry about it is better!

    1. I know the feeling, Theresa! Since we moved away from Cambs, I've been dying to go back to the old stomping ground, and this was the perfect opportunity! You should definitely try to get to the Wren Library if you visit Cambridge again soon - it's just awe-inspiring! Thanks for your comment! -x-