World Class

A semester in England

Alexandra Churchill punting with friends on the River Cam in Cambridge, England. Alexandra Churchill punting with friends on the River Cam in Cambridge, England.
By Christine Murphy
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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A passion for travel writing and English literature led Alexandra Churchill, a junior majoring in journalism at the University of New Hampshire, to Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge in England. Some of her favorite writers, including A.A. Milne, Sylvia Plath, and Lord Byron, all studied at Cambridge. One of the highlights of her stay was a private viewing of Milne’s original manuscript for “Winnie-the-Pooh.’’ Read more about Churchill’s travels at

THAT’S SERVICE: “The dorms at Gonville and Caius come in all shapes and sizes. Every morning, a member of the housekeeping staff, called a bed-setter, comes to make our beds and switch our laundry. The affluence of Cambridge dorms is a long way from my American housing back home with bunk beds and cramped quarters with roommates.’’

ROYAL TREATMENT: “The dining halls at Cambridge are very ceremonial, and every meal is treated as an extra-special occasion. Four-course dinners are fit for a king with entrees such as tender duckling, cold cherry soup, baked haddock, and specialty desserts like the delectable Queen of Puddings. Fish is a common staple, as are potatoes and pies. If anything of English cuisine is worth raving about, it is their clotted cream desserts.’’

IN ENGLISH, PLEASE: “There have been times, especially in the beginning of my trip, that I couldn’t understand what people were saying, which is particularly embarrassing since they speak my own language. England has a wide range of dialects and sometimes if people spoke too quickly, I couldn’t catch their sentences.’’

STIFF UPPER LIP: “Overly dramatic emotion, though not quite a taboo, is frowned upon in certain public circles. I’ve found myself with one too many cold stares after ‘making a row’ in a restaurant or outdoors. Keeping a reserved control about your personality has been one of the hardest bits of British social etiquette for me to learn. I am a naturally touchy-feely kind of person, apt to hugging and touching friends and acquaintances, and this sort of interaction is awkward to the British.’’

HALLOWED HALLS: “At first, I was intimidated by the illustrious list of alumni that attended Cambridge. Still, after some time I came to find that I am just as academically motivated. Students at Cambridge take their work much more seriously than students at UNH. It is the academic pressure which they are under.’’

HOUSE RULES: “The university is divided into 31 colleges, each with a different history and set of traditions. Each college is patrolled by porters and housekeepers, chefs and fellows. Each college might be considered a family, which is closely akin in nature to the Greek system in America.’’

ROW YOUR BOAT: “One of the greatest cultural traditions of Cambridge is punting on the River Cam. You can see tourists laughing and screeching as their small flat-bottomed boats collide with the stone edges of the canal. Punting, while a lot of fun, is also surprisingly hard for beginners.’’

FIELDWORK: “What would a college town be without night life? Cambridge certainly doesn’t disappoint. I’ve spent plenty of weekend nights dancing and bar-hopping at local venues. One, called the Eagle, happens to be where [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick discovered DNA.’’

KISS AND TELL: “Once, I was sightseeing with some friends in London and I was in the middle of having my picture taken at Big Ben when a howling throng of guys came traipsing up behind my friend. They were on an expedition for the bachelor to kiss as many women as he could before getting married. Now I have a great picture of diaper-clad men in the middle of London’s Parliament Square, kissing me on the cheek. That’s a photo-op you can’t fake.’’