A rival runs through it

Oxford man Daniel Scott steps into enemy territory only to find himself falling for the charms of Cambridge.

When I was growing up in Britain, with a father and a favourite uncle educated at Oxford University, I loathed Cambridge with a passion. I'd never been there but that wasn't going to get in the way of a good grudge. My antipathy is far from unique. For anyone with a connection to either university town, the rivalry runs deep. It comes to a head at the annual Boat Race between the dark blues (Oxford) and light blues (Cambridge) along the River Thames, which this year is set to take place on April 3.

As a boy, I'd join 250,000 spectators lining the 6.8-kilometre course, shouting myself hoarse as Cambridge's boat flashed past, well ahead of Oxford's rowing eight. Oxford is still playing catch-up, trailing by 75 wins to Cambridge's 79.

The event, which began in 1829, partly inspired by William Wordsworth's nephew, Charles, a student at Oxford, is the most public focus of an educational enmity that stretches back 800 years. Ironically, Cambridge's origins owe everything to what its denizens call "the other place". The university was founded in 1209 by undergraduates fleeing anti-student riots in Oxford.

While 15 years living in Australia has given me perspective on my prejudice, visiting Cambridge still seems like parachuting behind enemy lines. Today, as I sit on a punt on the River Cam waiting for a chauffeured tour, that feeling is compounded by the fact I seem to have arrived in a war zone.

All around the boat station here at the Backs, the 1.5-kilometre segment of the river that runs behind the colleges, there is mayhem. Several punts conveying screeching English-language students are splayed at right angles to each other. Two have just crashed straight into the base of nearby Silver Street Bridge. Others look set to capsize into the murky green river.

At this point, a young local chauffeuse, Yvette, steps on to our boat and blithely casts off into the middle of the battle.

Suddenly there is a hush all around, as two boatloads of Italian boys - whose vessels have been swerving around like Fiats in Naples - are rendered dumbstruck by the long-legged river goddess at the helm of our punt. "You're meant to stand up while punting," Yvette quips, as one boy begins involuntarily levitating on the pole used to steer the six-metre-long, one-metre-wide craft.

As her passengers close their eyes, Yvette cuts a swathe through the carnage with three swift, graceful digs of her five-metre-long pole. It takes just moments to pass under the bridge and out into clear water.

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"Welcome to one of England's most beautiful stretches of river," Yvette enthuses, as overhanging willow trees, gardens and crenelated college buildings unfold ahead of us.

As we glide along the river, we first pass King's College, founded in 1441, and its magnificent chapel, which took 100 years and the contributions of five kings to complete. Then the gardens of Clare, the second-oldest Cambridge college, dating back to the early 14th century, loom into view.

This is all very lovely. But as a former Oxford devotee I can't help trying to dig for some dirt on Cambridge.

"So what about the town versus gown in-fighting - don't locals hate undergraduates?" I ask non-student Yvette.

"Oh, we don't see the students much," she says, "they're too busy studying, these days." But then, as we approach Trinity College, founded by Henry VIII in 1546 with proceeds plundered during the dissolution of the monasteries, she discloses some juicy internecine squabbling:

"Trinity students would rather," she says, pausing for effect, "go to Oxford than to adjacent St John's College. There's no good reason, they just think Trinity's better."

Well, Trinity students have a point. The college has produced 32 Nobel Prize winners and its alumni include Sir Isaac Newton and A. A. Milne.

In the 1960s, Prince Charles studied history of art here, accompanied to all lectures by his bodyguard. Apparently, the bodyguard took the final exams as well, achieving a superior grade to the future king.

We come next to Cambridge's very own Bridge of Sighs, where there's another bottle-neck of punting Italians, who are audibly disappointed that the 19th-century construction is not more like the Venetian original. Finally we creep up behind Magdalene (pronounced "maudlin") College, where diarist Samuel Pepys studied.

"Magdalene was the last college to admit women, in 1988," Yvette says. "When it happened, the college flag flew at half-mast and male students wore black armbands." Typical chauvinist Cambridge, I think to myself, before giving river goddess Yvette and her legs one last admiring glance and stepping off the punt.

As I stroll through the city's central, expansive market square and find my way to Alimentum restaurant, something disturbing is happening to me. I am beginning to like Cambridge.

Lunching on an exquisite cauliflower soup with cumin and pomegranate, followed by rainbow trout in a zingy watercress pesto, only adds to the city's appeal.

On the walk back, I take a detour through the University Botanic Garden and am beguiled by this 16-hectare haven right in the city centre. There are butterflies and birds flitting about everywhere and in a glasshouse a collection of "exotic" Australian plants.

In the afternoon, I join guide Margot Goodridge for a historic city tour and am immediately impressed by this older lady's twinkling good humour and her passion for the city.

"There aren't many places," she whispers, as we enter the Anglo-Saxon St Benet's Church, Cambridge's oldest building, "where you can just pop into a 1000-year-old church."

During the tour, we stroll through the beautifully kempt, rose-scented college gardens I'd seen earlier from the punt. It's an intoxicating scene and as I step back on to the street, I come close to being run over by a speeding cyclist. If there's any city in Britain where cyclists reign, it is flat, compact Cambridge.

What also rules at Cambridge is science. Over the centuries, discoveries made at Cambridge or by its alumni have included Newton's laws of motion, Darwin's Theory of Evolution, the splitting of the atom by Walton and Cockcroft and Crick and Watson's unravelling of the structure of DNA.

Although scholars first gathered here in 1209, it was 75 years before the founding of Cambridge's first college, Peterhouse.

There are now 31 colleges and 18,000 students and, Goodridge boasts, "the university is consistently listed among the top five in the world, placing second to Oxford's fifth in 2009". Damn, it seems I've spent my life backing a loser.

Even Cambridge's student pranksters have achieved soaring heights. What started as a protest against having to be back in their digs at night evolved into the furtive Night Climbers club, with members scaling ever more lofty college facades.

The most legendary prank, in 1958, involved engineering students hoisting a car on to the roof of the university senate house. Goodridge ends our tour by taking us inside the King's College Chapel, a building so magnificent and exquisite in its detail that it leaves visitors open-mouthed. Its 26 stained-glass windows, donated by Henry VIII, alone took 30 years to complete.

But it is the 80-metre-long, 24-metre-high vaulted ceiling, weighing an estimated 18,200 tonnes and stretching overhead like a colossal spider's web, that is the chapel's undoubted glory.

The chapel is also home to the world-renowned King's College Choir, consisting of 16 hand-picked young boys with flawless voices, and I am fortunate to be in town on the day they are performing a choral service.

So, after a quick pint of the cricket-themed LBW bitter (which I assume means Lethal But Wonderful) in the historic Eagle pub, where Crick and Watson drank during their work on DNA, I return to the chapel.

It's here that I have something of a religious conversion. As the choristers' voices rise ethereally and the chapel's mighty organ resounds, my devotion to the dark blues of Oxford finally fades, to be replaced by a fervour for the lighter hues of Cambridge.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Visit Britain.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Cambridge is a 45-minute train journey from London Kings Cross, with regular departures. See firstcapitalconnect.co.uk.

WHERE TO STAY + EAT

The boutique, modern Hotel Felix and its excellent Graffiti restaurant, just outside central Cambridge, on Whitehouse Lane, are highly recommended. Dinner, bed and breakfast packages from £99 ($164) a person, a night. Phone +44 1223 277977, see www.hotelfelix.co.uk.

Alimentum restaurant is at 152-154 Hills Road and has regular jazz nights featuring international acts. Phone +44 1223 413000, see restaurantalimentum.co.uk.

WHILE THERE

Scudamore's College Backs punting tours depart from the boatyard beneath Silver Street Bridge. Prices from £12 adults, £6 children. Phone +44 1223 359750, see scudamores.com.

Historic University and College Tours are run from Cambridge's Tourist Information Centre, Peas Hill, at 11.30am and 1.30pm daily. Adults £11, children £6. Phone +44 1223 457574.

For performances by King's College Choir see www.kings.cam.ac.uk/choir/index.html.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See visitbritain.com.au, www.visitcambridge.org.

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