Dispatch from England - Part V

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Advice for future Churchill Scholars (and other Cambridge students) from a former Churchill Scholar.

The Pepperpots offer the most consistency in good living – large rooms, private bathrooms, and spacious and modern kitchen and living rooms. The size and quality of the bedrooms and kitchens in the hostels are more variable, while private bathrooms are, to my knowledge, not available. Most also do not, I think, have living rooms. The advantage of the hostels is that they are far more charming from the outside, several have vast backyards with fruit trees and gardens, and the rent ranges from slightly to considerably cheaper (depending on room size). However, I certainly do not seem to be running short of money while paying Pepperpot rent.

If you choose to stay in the Pepperpots, request a large bed and/or large room. The floor plans and bed sizes differ slightly and considerably, respectively. My own room (63K) is equipped with a standard single, from which my feet often hang over the edge. Other rooms, including that of fellow Churchill Scholar Sam Strasser, who lives next door (63H), include massive double, perhaps even queen, beds.

Acquiring internet access upon your arrival in Cambridge is painfully slow. Rebecca Sawalmeh will give you a form which allows you to apply for an IP address, thereby giving you internet access in your room. The process takes about three days, so submit the form ASAP. In the interim, you can access wifi in the buttery.

The college does not provide wifi in any of the hostels, Pepperpots, or other outer accommodations. Moreover, the internet agreement form and any conversations with college computing personnel will likely imply that you are not allowed to install a router. This is in fact not true and a careful reading of the agreement form will indicate that you can install a router, provided you password protect your network. Consider bringing a router with you or ordering one (e.g. from Amazon UK) to be delivered before or soon after you arrive.

Eat in the dining hall often. It is no gem, but it is inexpensive, reasonably tasty and healthy, and, most importantly, a great place to meet people outside of your discipline or social circles, including undergrads and faculty.

The dining hall pricing system is mysterious and erratic. The same plate of food may vary in price by 50% or more, depending on who is manning the tills. A consistently cheap option, however, is the salad bar. Though all the items are cold, it always includes a wide range of salads, vegetables, meats, and beans. Regardless of how much you stack on your plate, the fee is only about £2.

Take advantage of the college trip to Chartwell during Michaelmas. Not only is it a rich historical site and interesting portrayal of Sir Winston (whom I warmly refer to as our “sugar daddy”), it is nestled in the gorgeous English countryside.

The MCR runs approximately one trip to London each term. Sign up early, as spots go fast. Even if you are not interested in their destination (e.g. British Museum, National Gallery), you can always claim the free round-trip train ticket and head off on your own in London.

Take advantage of the MCR bar. It is convenient, dirt cheap (e.g. £1.25 for a glass of wine), and yet another great way to mingle with grad students outside your discipline. (Well, perhaps not too far outside. After all, this is Churchill College – home of a 70% population of scientists and engineers.) You are also welcome to bring in friends from other colleges.

An entertaining game that a group of friends and I accidentally discovered is “the animal sound game.” One person proposes an animal and then each person describes their own culture’s canonical sound for that animal (for example, cows “moo” in English). The variation in the ways different languages interpret the sounds of animals in ways most congruent with their own language is remarkable and very entertaining. Best played in hall with your most diverse group of friends.

Order your groceries online. It is more convenient (no hauling groceries from town to college), less stressful (no crowds), and much faster (easy item searching). Moreover, the delivery fees are modest (£3-5) and can be shared with friends if you pool your orders. Possible options include Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, and Ocado. In short, I find Sainsbury’s to be a tad pricier than the rest, Ocado to have a poorer selection than the rest, and Asda to have less of a range of vegetables than Tesco. Thus, Tesco has so far been my vendor of choice. Your own preference will likely depend on what kinds of things you order, so it is wise to try ordering once from each service and then choose your favorite.

Arrive early and spend a couple of weeks settling in. Doing so before term starts ensures that you beat the crowds at banks and for various university services. It also ensures that you don’t leave your life half-organized before embarking on your research or coursework. Try also to visit colleges, museums, Grantchester, and other Cambridge sites as early as possible. The longer you are here, the more your focus and time will be absorbed by your studies, so do things early!

Finally, familiarize yourself with Gumtree, the UK’s equivalent of craigslist. It is, for example, the best way to pick up an inexpensive and high quality bike in Cambridge.

This post is the final part of a five-part series on my first four months in Cambridge adapted from a mid-year report I submitted to the Churchill Foundation - the sponsor whose generosity is allowing me to spend one year at the University of Cambridge. It was written in January 2012. You can read some additional advice I wrote at the end of time in Cambridge here.