Why I love being at a “far-away” Cambridge college

It’s a long way to Girton College, it’s a long way to go…

On Tuesday (25/01), thousands of young people opened their email inboxes to discover the outcome of their Cambridge application. Some, of course, will have been overjoyed to be accepted, while naturally others will have faced disappointment that they were unable to obtain one of those highly sought after places. 

There is however a third, often forgotten about, group of people who will have opened their emails to discover that while they had been accepted by the university, they had been “pooled” to a college entirely different to the one they thought they were applying to. Now they spend their week frantically researching what life at Cambridge would actually look like for them. 

My college, Girton, has made around 80 offers a year to students during the Winter Pool over the last 5 years, alongside the 100 or so direct offers they make. Each year, it only takes a quick google search to find that one of Girton’s most distinct features in the wider Cambridge community is the fact that it’s far away. It’s even one of the Cambridge student body’s favourite unfunny jokes – 5 minutes on Camfess will tell you that. 

Modern Humour at its finest (Image Credit: Camfess via Facebook)

People act like this distance is intrinsically a negative part of being at Girton, or Homerton or even the Hill Colleges, something to laugh at like it’s a barrier to the proper Cambridge experience to live at these colleges, but I think this couldn’t be further from the truth.

An Actual Sense of College Community spirit

A Girtonian looking out on this unfamiliar land they call Cambridge (Image Credit: Fiona Gibbs)

So it is in fact true that being at a college that isn’t slap bang in the centre of Cambridge does affect the college’s atmosphere. I do have friends at central colleges (I pinky swear xx) but I can’t just pop round to their houses any time I like with just 2 minutes notice – social incursions into town are mainly planned in advance for me.

What this does mean is that most of my evenings where I have no plans are spent hanging around college with my fellow Girtonians. What this ends up fostering is an exaggerated sense of community centred around our college identity – the fact that most undergraduates live on the main college site and aren’t dotted around town in various houses really helps this. The Main College Site isn’t a lifeless ancient building – it’s our constantly thriving home. 

Et in Girtonia, Ego

Girton is so far away, it has entirely different wildlife (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons 4.0)

One common thought that appears on College Pros & Cons lists is the ever-present mob of tourists that fill the streets of Cambridge and invade the cloisters of King’s & Trinity. But when your college isn’t in the heart of the city, you can get away from the hustle and bustle of it all. Far out colleges are less affected by prime real estate and have beautiful spacious grounds that become an out of town idyll.

For me, coming from a big city, Cambridge is tiny. The very idea of everything being on your doorstep actually makes me feel claustrophobic. When you never have to walk more than 5 minutes to get anywhere, does it not make your world feel really small? I mean, granted cycling for 15 minutes twice a day isn’t really a lot – but it makes Cambridge feel a lot bigger than it otherwise would be. And it actually resembles real life a whole lot more, because, you know, commuting is a thing that real grown-ups do. 

“I Want to Ride My Bicycle” – Queen (1978)

A Girtonian has a special relationship with their bike (Image Credit: Fiona Gibbs)

Apparently, exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and not gonna lie, I’m pretty lazy. I’ve never been to the gym and struggle to find time in this busy degree life to do exercise for its own sake. (In case you hadn’t noticed, I spend all my time writing for the Tab, so obviously, that’s the only reason I’m not playing sport at Varsity level. Obviously.)

But when exercise, specifically riding your bike, becomes an integral part of your daily routine, in commuting to lectures and supervisions, you don’t have to worry so much about exercise. I get a guaranteed 30 minutes of physical activity every day without planning it, and I get a great chance to clear my brain before lectures.

Of course, there is a flip side to everything I love about being far away – distance is still distance at the end of the day. At times, it can feel like you’re separated from the main Cambridge bubble, especially when you spent your first year in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. If you spend more than a day without leaving college, your world really starts to feel very small and isolating. The trick is of course to have a life outside college, that regularly draws you into town each day, and then means you get your home to go back to each evening.

At the end of the day, being at a faraway college isn’t a lesser Cambridge experience than if you live on King’s Parade, no more than the thesp’s life is better than the rower’s (ok, bad analogy – anything’s better than rowing).

The point is, life at each of the 31 Cambridge colleges are different. And really that’s the fun part.

Feature Image Credits: Zac Copeland-Greene & Camfess via Facebook 

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