Visit to Downing College Cambridge


There were several unusual aspects to our extremely pleasurable recent trip to Downing College Cambridge. RS members hosted and organised the trip, there was a close link to a recent RS lecture and we were given special access to private buildings. 

Jon Howard, whose long and close family relationship to Downing became clear during the weekend, was our host. Mary Nixon made all the arrangements for us. Roger Hinton led the tour, supported ably but unobtrusively by Suzanne. Several members have written subsequently to express their gratitude to all three. So a big thank you - it was a really exceptional weekend. 

The Antony Dale lecture this year was given by Quinlan Terry, and on this trip we had an opportunity to experience his work (and that of Francis Terry) first hand. Whilst they clearly remain controversial architects amongst RS members (the writer suspects that few minds were changed one way or the other), all are agreed that our accommodation was extremely comfortable and well appointed.

We were given a guided tour to the beautiful Wilkins 1811 Master’s lodge by the Master himself, who generously gave his time to talk about the college. For many of us this was a particular high point. 

Other high points included a lecture by Tim Rawle (Fellow Commoner of Downing) about its history in the modern Howard Theatre, built in the spirit of a classic Georgian theatre by Francis Terry. The lecture was fascinating - not only is this the same Downing dynasty who gave their name to the famous London street, but the long, complicated story would probably make a good plot for a novel. It includes changed sides and a fortune made during and after the Civil War, the same fortune diverted by a rich widow to further the interests of her own family and a long, protracted court case resulting ultimately in Downing always feeling somewhat impoverished compared with other Cambridge colleges, with several plans being put forward to complete it at different periods (including one by Brighton Dome architect William Porden) which never saw the light of day. 

The full, ambitious scale of the original intention for the site has never been realised. What remains is a remarkably open, classical campus which feels peaceful and quite unlike any other Oxbridge college. Whilst much of it is in classical style, there is a notable exception in the Senior Combination Room (1970) designed by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis to respond to this environment with a modernist building. 

We were only there for 24 hours but we packed in not only the tour and lecture but a very good dinner in the Dining Hall (recently refurbished painstakingly and beautifully by Caruso St John), a concert on original instruments including the fiendishly difficult natural horn, and a visit to the New and Old Courts at Corpus Christi College, dating from the 1350s. 

All in all a busy and extremely pleasant 24 hours. Those who went would like more of this kind of trip please!



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Inside the theatre, Roger Hinton and Jon Howard enjoy a walk through the spacious grounds, with the Master in the Master's lodge and inside the Senior Combination Room.
Pictures 2 - 5 by John McKean


 

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