Date: 6 March 2016
Location: somewhere in the wilds of Essex, on the train home from Cambridge.
The sun has just started to go down over the gentle Cam and, all along Queen St, the lights in pubs and restaurants are flickering to life. The air is cold and crisp and pedestrians and cyclists move at a good clip to beat the rain that's threatening.
Kitty and I, both dressed very neatly indeed, walk up to the grand doors of the imposing Trinity College. The college is closed to those not in residence but we have an invitation. So, at the porters lodge we tentatively say that we're here to see 'The Master'. The porters are, in fact, expecting us and there are smiles all around as we explain that, yes, we're both Australian lawyers working for the same company with the Master's daughter and, yes, we really do have the same first name, yes, it is quite funny!
'Sir,' a porter says quietly into a phone, 'your guests are here. Ok. Ladies, the Master is waiting.'
And we're in. Ahead of us is a huge green lawn cloistered in by the four grand buildings that form the main body of the college. These rise up, tall and proud, and shut out prying eyes. We walk carefully around the lawn (watching in amusement as an older man, robed and clearly a professor, walks across the lawn in a flagrant display of his superior rights to do so) and nervously ring the doorbell on the Master's Lodge.
The word 'lodge' calls to mind a cozy cabin in the woods, or perhaps an elegant chalet in the snow. Don't be misled. A Cambridge lodge is no such thing. The building into which we're soon ushered by the Master himself is a mansion-like house dating back from the time of Henry VIII. And the Master takes residence there, and his post, by personal invitation from the King or Queen of England. It's… surreal.
We make very awkward initial chatter with the Master, both Kitty and I supremely aware of just how ridiculously outmatched we are in the intelligence stakes here. But he's as nervous as we are, clearly ill at ease hosting two thirty something girls — despite having just such a thing as a daughter.
Though, soon, we all start to warm up as we discover a shared interest in all Tudor history. We drift from one of the lodge's gorgeous cavernous space to the next gorgeous cavenous space, admiring the stunning furnishings and original art. I'm utterly fixated by a line of original Holbein portraits, more so when the Master explains their story to me. The portraits were commissioned by the college when Queen Elizabeth tended to visit. This room had been her quarters at the college and the walls had needed decorating. What to choose? Or, in an era when landscapes and still life were not being painted, who to choose? The decorators were cunning. They empaneled Stephen Gardiner, — all people who had assisted King Henry, the queen's father, with securing a divorce from his first wife allowing him to marry Anne Boelyn and Elizabeth to be born. (Of course, despite this work, most of them ended up meeting an early and grisly death by Henry's hand for one reason or another.) There's a small portrait of the man himself over a door and we look at it, me at least wondering what psychologists today would make of him. Kitty comments idly that it's a shame that there are so few portraits of Elizabeth around, the queen having been so controlling if her image that she had most destroyed. The Master smiles slightly and admits that the lodge has one. He leads us upstairs to an obscenely large drawing room. There's an oversized fireplace at one end, a long set of windows overlooking ornamental gardens ('that's all mine,' the Master tells us shyly, and I know our clueless Aussie charm is starting to win him over), two plush sofas that look ready to host foreign dignatories taking tea while maids hover attentively and, at the end of the room, a pair of life sized portraits, one of Newton and one of the elusive Elizabeth in full regalia. You can tell he's proud of it and our reaction dies not disappoint. My jaw drops. Kitty audibly gasps.
To ensure our socks are completely blown off, the tour finishes with a peak at the dining hall (satisfying, as Hogwarts-like as you'd expect it to be) where a lifesize King Henry supervises meals and then, finally, the lofty Wren library. Then it's time to go as the Master has to go to a gala dinner. College life! We make our awkward goodbyes and express the sincerest of thanks for what was truly a once in a lifetime experience. The pair of us stagger out, giddy with all we've seen. I think we're overawed. We polish off the evening with a few glasses of champagne and an early night.
On Suday we finish our perfect Cambridge weekend perfectly: breakfast, a morning service at Kings College and punting on the Cam under snugly blankets with cider in hand. Then we catch our trains home — Kitty northwards, me southbound.