Coincidentally we found ourselves in Oxford last weekend and Cambridge the weekend before. Both cities have strong personal associations: I was a student at Cambridge in the mid-70s and worked in community education on the outskirts of Oxford in the mid-80s.
We were in Cambridge to see Peter Gill's production of The Importance of Being Earnest (which transfers to London in January), starring Penelope Keith as Lady Bracknell, and with a supporting cast that included Rebecca Night who recently achieved fame as the star of the BBC's Fanny Hill. It was an enjoyable production, though you could almost hear the disappointment in the audience at Penelope Keith's low key interpretation of the famous 'handbag' speech. Our reason for visiting Oxford was more mundane: to do a spot of early Christmas shopping.
The two visits, so close together, revived our old debate about which city we like best. I used to prefer Cambridge's small-town, semi-rural feel, by comparison with the more urban, semi-industrial atmosphere of Oxford. And I've always liked the way you can walk freely through the colleges in Cambridge, whereas Oxford's tend to be hidden away behind high walls and 'keep out' signs. But this longstanding preference was challenged when we lived and worked in Oxford in the '80s. We grew attached to the city and its surroundings: there's a certain magic when you drive through the 'canyon' on the M40 from London and see Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds spread out before you, a first glimpse of the West Country.
In fact, the two cities now feel remarkably similar, with their identical Borders bookstores and anonymous new shopping centres. Interestingly, on both visits we found ourselves eating in restaurants located in converted public institutions. In Cambridge we had lunch at Browns, in the old Addenbrookes Hospital building, and in Oxford we ate in Carluccios, one of a number of new eateries situated in the old prison: the Malmaison hotel, in the same complex, has even retained the bars on the windows.