I'd always thought of Cambridge as a rather glitzy, glamorous town, full of witty intellectuals oozing pithy insights into the vicissitudes of life. But the reality is more humdrum.
I went there on Thursday with my 89 year old mum (she and my sister Heather live 15 miles north in St Ives). We traipsed around the town centre doing our best to soak up the unique atmosphere, but actually it wasn't that unique.
There were all the expected ingredients: breathtakingly beautiful students, shambling white-haired academics, map-clutching tourists, crumbling old buildings, punts on the river Cam, quaint little teashops, wobbling cyclists.
But it wasn't glamorous, in fact it was all a bit shabby and tired-looking. Here and there I saw hideous sixties-style buildings slotted in among the older architecture. On every railing there were scruffy leaflets and posters which suggested impulsive mess rather than creative ferment. The passers-by looked more weary and preoccupied than fizzing with groundbreaking ideas.
The only noticeable glamour came from something quite jarring and anomalous - a swish shopping centre nestling in the heart of the academic enclave, complete with a massive John Lewis and all the other over-familiar High Street chains. How it got planning permission I can't imagine. The prospect of a hefty rates income for the council, presumably.
The only other touch of glamour was an unexpected exhibition of Bridget Riley's abstract paintings at one of the art galleries. I love her work so I was chuffed to come across the gallery.
But I could think of dozens of towns and cities with more charisma than Cambridge. Like Liverpool, which I visited in July. Or Edinburgh. Or York. Or Belfast. There may be lots of exciting things going on in the lecture theatres and seminar rooms, but there wasn't much sign of them on the public streets. I guess you have to be a Cambridge insider to have your finger on the creative pulse. So I doubt if I'll be going back any time soon.
And how are my mum and sister*, you might be wondering. Both rather frail but still enjoying life as much as they can. I hadn't met up with my sister for many years, so that was a great reunion. Luckily she's not on her own but has her husband Mike to support her. I think one day at a time is the motto.
* Heather has Motor Neurone Disease
Pic: King's Parade, Cambridge