This week I found myself standing on the platform at Ely, changing trains there on a day when the trains were actually behaving for once. It was a beautiful summer’s evening, and staring out at the green fields across from the station made one feel somewhere in the neighbourhood there must have been the ‘sweet sound of willow hitting leather’, as well as simply the pair of elderly gentleman throwing a ball for a pair of black Labradors. Too often Ely station is a miserable place to find oneself, waiting for trains that never arrive in the icy bleakness of a late winter’s afternoon; knowing that when a train does arrive to take one on to Peterborough it will be across the curious desolateness that is the fens, and on to the flat blackness of the bare fields that abut the line as it wends its way north towards Yorkshire. But this week, it was basked in golden sunshine, the trains were running on time and the sensations that were sparked were very different.
Yes, it’s that time of year when my home town of Cambridge too takes on a different complexion. The undergraduates have sweated through the summer term, their truncated world of revision summed up by the graffiti
Are you dead or just revising?
The subsequent long days of partying leading on to graduation, with associated ritual and Latin are past, the rabbit fur (fake) hoods returned to Eve and Ravenscroft. What does one remember of one’s graduation? In my case my predominant memory is the fear I would trip over my long skirt as I rose from the kneeling stool, a fear enhanced by having severely twisted my ankle a little while before; others have said they don’t remember too much because they were hung over (I didn’t get drunk the night before I graduated, merely got locked into the grounds of St Johns as my friends and I sat and gossipped on the grass through our last balmy evening together, failing to notice the passage of time until too late).
But now the town is empty of our own students, and the college rooms are full of other students, from other countries attending other courses. And the Victorian and Edwardian mansions proudly display signs advertising one English language school or another, with the kids from all parts of the world wearing matching tracksuits or clutching identical rucksacks in some unattractive bilious shade. They are, I’m sure, good for the local economy as they eat many an ice cream on Jesus Green or Parker’s Pieces, trying out rounders or volleyball, burning holes in the grass with single use barbecues and (if they are old enough, or look it) straying into the local pubs investigating the real ales on offer. Added to which it would seem that their language schools include in the overall price of the tuition fee, bicycle hire.
At this point the mask I have adopted to describe a beautiful English idyll comes off, as I transform into a grumpy (relatively) old woman irritated by people’s bicycling habits. Cambridge students are bad enough, but at least they tend to know which side of the road they are meant to cycle on. They still do daft – not to mention illegal – things such as riding without lights in the winter’s evening or nipping onto the pavement when they want to jump the lights or a traffic jam. But they are likely to know that what they are doing is against the Highway Code, and are alert to the fact that other road-users may be doing things which could conflict with their own actions. Not so the students from abroad, often only in their early teens and probably (unless Dutch and we don’t tend to see many of them, probably because their English is already perfect) not used to cycling on roads, on either the right- or left-hand side.
So, they do insane, suicidal things, and they do things that are just plain irritating for the local law-abiding inhabitants (there are a few of us out there). Even on foot, they tend to hunt in packs, walking 6 abreast down narrow streets and across the bridges, without a care in the world and certainly without an apparent awareness that people approaching them don’t want to be forced into the road, up a lamp post or be trampled underfoot. Clearly being loose, unsupervised and abroad is so exciting the idea that other people live in the city escapes their notice. On bikes they are even more of a menace.
A while back there was a particular junction where a steady stream of them would whizz downhill every day and straight across the main road that is Madingley Road as they aimed for the further pavement. Every day, as I cycled into work, I would watch these lunatics and wonder when one of them would get killed straight in front of me. Luckily lights were introduced at this junction before I ever saw a student fall under the wheels of some unsuspecting driver. They are a menace because what they do requires everyone else to take evasive action – and sometimes the only place to go to be evasive may be into the path of an oncoming car. My worst cycling injury was sustained when I was forced into a metal pole on the pavement (which, I should add, was a cycle path); the injury was slight but the shock, I was astonished to find, lasted all day. I clearly should have drunk more sweet tea at the time. I particularly dislike the way they cycle the wrong way up one way streets (though to be honest so do our local students), forcing one to choose between hitting them, a pedestrian or a car. Cambridge streets just aren’t wide enough to cope with these cycling cohorts travelling in large gangs.
So, the arrival of these large numbers of young students – much though I admire them for wanting to learn our language when I have never mastered their’s – is a mixed blessing for the city. I am sure the drivers find them as terrifying to watch and encounter as I do on my bike. Summer in my city is not always idyllic.