"Ummm... excuse me, but could you tell me where Isaac Newton's clapping hallway is?"
Katrianna stood on tiptoe to peer into the ticket booth at Trinity College's Great Gate.
Katrianna tried again. More than anything else at Cambridge, she wanted to see the hall where Newton tested his speed of sound hypothesis by clapping his hands and listening for the echo. Earlier that day, when driving to the university, our family voted on which college to visit based on limited time & expense. Katrianna convinced the rest of us that Trinity's Isaac Newton trumped all other notorious cards who'd attended our second choice, nearby King's College (we could save face(s) for another trip).
She dejectedly walked back through the heavy wooden doors to report, "He said Newton didn't do the clapping experiment. It's just another tourist trap!"
Impossible! Could Rick Steves be wrong? All four of us simultaneously looked up to check the sky - nope, still intact. Katrianna pulled out her well-worn pocket travel log and made a tally mark - "That's #42, Mom."
Alas, once again, we would have to hold our applause. We consoled ourselves on the outside of Trinity's ivory towers (which looked a lot like exterior brick walls) by taking a photo of Newton's dorm window which faced the street and looked down upon a small apple tree.
"If I may, do you know who is up there above the gate?" asked a man who suddenly stood beside us, apparently taking it upon himself to point us in the right direction. (Verily, it was the same gentleman whose truth telling had taken its toll on Katrianna minutes before.)
Mikaela giggled self-consciously and Katrianna held her breath. "Ah ha," he thought, "I've got them!" But just as he was about to explain, Mikaela realized that his was not a rhetorical question and exclaimed, "Sure, doesn't everybody? That's Henry the Eighth!"
"And he had six wives!" jumped in Katrianna, who was busily leaping from cobblestone to cobblestone in a game of imaginary hopscotch.
The gatekeeper looked up to Henry and then back down at the girls with a quizzical expression.
"Your turn?" Katrianna asked. Mikaela gave the nod. They took their positions - face to face, two feet apart. Mikaela cleared her throat. Katrianna attentively bounced in place. Their Henry VIII call and response commenced:
"Catherine of Aragon --" "Divorced!"
"Anne Boleyn --" "Beheaded!"
"Jane Seymour -- " "Died of her own accord!"
"Anne of Cleves -- " "Divorced!"
"Catherine Howard -- " "Beheaded!"
"Catherine Parr -- " "Survived!"
"Crikey, that's more than most English schoolchildren know!" He scratched his thinning silver crown and reconsidered, "I've been working here for over 30 years - that's more than most people at Cambridge know!"
He told us about the students' annual prank of stealing Henry's scepter and replacing it with either a chair leg or a broom handle. Indicating the globe held in the king's left hand, he next queried, "Do you know what an orb is?"
Evidently, unbeknownst to him, this was a multiple choice question, for Katrianna started, "O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb..." And Mikaela finished, "Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere."
The poor fellow hadn't realized his miss fortune. M&K had spent months reciting that "orb" line from Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene and Mikaela had grown especially fond of the Twelfth Night quote after seeing it engraved on a statue of Shakespeare's jester in Stratford-upon-Avon. From then on, she seemed to find it applicable to any and all situations in Europe, even without such fortuitous prompting.
Additionally, M&K ran through their sing song rendition of Henry's greatest hits (on his wives) on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis - it was part of their top 40 repertoire at the time. Besides DK or Michelin travel guides, we'd brought along only 4 books for this entire European trip (we'd agreed to "go light" & the limit was one book per carry on bag). The kids had never experienced such a dearth of literature and so had devoted themselves to memorizing the minutiae of The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Kings & Queens of Britain. (By chance, we'd found it on Border's 60% off clearance shelf just before our trip and, unlike the Don't Know Much about the Kings and Queens of England series or similar children's books that were considered "age appropriate," M&K were fascinated by its 250+ pages of stories and argued over whose turn it was to reread the best parts aloud as we drove around Great Britain.)
[As far as learning English history for the even younger set, we liked an 1897 edition of Short Stories from English History by Albert F Blaisdell, a book passed down to us from Grandma's collection.]
Luckily, our self-appointed phantom of the tollbooth discerned (or forgave?) the jovial spirit of the girls' copious (or would that be quote-idian?) exuberance and graciously suggested, "Jolly good, now why don't you take a tour? You do have time to look around?"
It was getting late and most of the colleges were closing to visitors soon. "Well," I answered, "we just have this afternoon... And we'd hoped to see Newton's hall, but now that we learned the truth about that - thank you, by the way - we're pretty happy to see his tree here..."
His eyebrows went up (proof he adhered to a naturally principled philosophiæ). I calculated (though it seemed an infinitesimal differential), "Or a descendant of his tree?" He nodded, the gravity of the situation sinking in.
"We're thinking we'll go ahead to King's College." I'd unwittingly touched a nerve.
"King's College? Why there's so much to see right here! Come with me!" Immediately, he waved his arm and the gates to higher learning open sesamed.
We entered Trinity's vast courtyard together, but soon after our spontaneous guide noticed a bevy of VIPs congregating at the entrance. He quickly imparted instructions for us to stand in a very particular spot and he'd return for our answer to "What is significant here?" No doubt pleased by our puzzlement, he cried as he sped away (in much the same fashion as Alice's rabbit hurrying off for his very important date), "It's to do with the clock! Go, watch the clock!"
So, we compliantly bided our time in front of King Edward's Tower, taking care to steal only furtive glances at this side of Newton's paradise, aka an inside job view of Sir Isaac's dorm room. But our satisfaction was short-lived as we realized, in watchful ignorance, that we had no idea what he was talking about.
Was there a ghost of a chance that Hamlet's father was still lurking about up there? No, that was not to be, I was quite off the Den mark - he'd be over at King's College. Ah ha, the clock struck the hour! Surely now we'd learn for whom the bell tolls. From their tower roosts, disturbed doves fluttered about cooing secret messages to us, but regrettably their pidgin English was merely indecipherable squab(ble)s... Then, from the adjacent college, another tower's clock chimed out of sync - was that it, were we caught up in the chronic[ker] showmanship of rival superiority? Or, a once-in-a-sentry breach in the time peace? Whatever was the Greenwich meaning of this? I admit, I was getting ticked.
"Having a good time, all tickety-boo?" Our seer, mortarly bored of regents perhaps, had enthusiastically returned to us at last! However, his new hints were to no avail and finally he just told us that this was the clock featured in Chariots of Fire - the "stopwatch" timing Lord Burghley's famous run about the perimeter of the Great Court during its 12 noontime strikes. We never would have recalled that detail on our own, mostly due to the fact that the girls had not seen the movie and their parents had watched it in 1981. He'd done it! We were speechless. He then took pity on us and revealed that the scene's filming had actually taken place at Eaton College, not Cambridge, and that the Harold Abrahams character is erroneously portrayed as fleet footing it when historically Lord Burghley was the only runner to successfully beat the clock (yet not in 1919, preceding the '24 Olympics, but in 1927).
He escorted us to the chapel, lingered over a few more questions and then allowed us to tour the rest of the grounds on our own. It felt as though we had the place all to ourselves (well, with the exception of the omnipresence of our ol' pal, Newt, Sir Francis Bacon, Ernest Rutherford, Charles Babbage, Niels Bohr, John Dryden, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, A.A. "Pooh" Milne & William Makepeace Thackeray) and we were suitably charmed by its vanity fair. When we met up again with our host, he had one final question for Mikaela: "So, do you think you'd like to study here at Cambridge?"
Wishing not to offend him, a wise Mikaela summoned all of her tact, saw fit to spare him of her "homecolleging" plans and simply reverted to a schoolgirl giggle by way of response. "Indeed," he proffered, "we should have given you a degree already!"
The rest of our gloaming Cambridge evening was filled strolling along the River Cam like typical tourists and unintentionally finding ourselves trespassing through college yards and campus grounds (to which we were politely told by the guards to go back the way we came, essentially permitting us to freely explore many of the colleges' "backyards" and hangout spots at our leisure). There were more repeatedly surprising and remarkable conversations, as well: the first was struck up by a friendly biology professor & her teaching assistant; later, graduate exchange students wanted to compare impressions of England's attractions (and dwell on the weather's detractions); and finally, the local grocery store's chatty & inquisitive checkers were keen to hear all about our "brilliant" adventures throughout Britain, although they were incredulous that "there was anything interesting to do here in Cambridge?"
At the end of the day, it was clear to us that America's Southern hospitality and manners have some serious competition from the Brits' warmth and easygoing gentility. Not only that, but despite Mikaela's uni-lateral acceptance deferral, I readily consider this the kids' first college scholarship offer (at least in terms of its third degree potential?). Of course, it seems a mite presumptuous, but after all we obviously have very powerful connections with those in charge of Cambridge U's highly selective admissions process.
[Editorial note: We know, it's Oxford with the Rhodes Scholars program, but Cambridge has the Golden (Bill) Gates.]