The signpost and sacrosanct lawn

By Henry Soong

On the back lawn of King’s College, Cambridge, charming little signposts printed in white on black backing bestride the best kept and most magnificent lawn on this side of Eden. I say this without hesitation or exaggeration; the squat signposts make the self-important grass clear.

Their white paint, weathered and fading from years of English rainfall, proclaims (more than requests) in no less than six major languages: PLEASE KEEP OFF THE GRASS. And sure enough, from the edge of the stone footpaths, camera-wielding tourists inspect the grass with hallowed reverence, snapping pictures of centuries-old buildings before crouching to brush a hand through the fine carpet of greenery.

In Cambridge, nothing is more sacrosanct than the elegant grass lawn. I learned this quickly when on move-in day I plopped my luggage onto its edge.

A purple-and-black gowned porter, one of the college’s gatekeepers, rushed to my side and swiftly edged the suitcases back off the grass, pointing his finger firmly in the direction of the nailed signpost before rushing off to shoo away a Japanese family on the other side of the lawn.

Surrounded by gothic grandeur and holier-than-thou grass, I realized rules in England are a bit more eccentric than those back home.

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    On any given day, frisbees fly and sunbathers reign supreme across the stretching quads of Illinois. The footsteps of thousands give the grass a worn and inviting look, a scene of which college viewbooks are in no short supply. Even the squirrels take note, burying their winter loot beneath the grass before scurrying off to terrify bleary-eyed students.

    But at King’s College, relegated to the small grass courtyard in front of my room, I watched with curious envy as only the elite senior fellows of the University hierarchy were allowed to walk across the lawn. For a few moments, I considered dedicating my life to academia in order to one day have their privilege, too.

    The lawn is an immense stretch of grass which sits like a watercolor masterpiece in a gilded frame, bordered by the River Cam and the spaciously set buildings of King’s. A small fleet of gardeners appear every other day to mow, prune and hedge the grass to uniformed perfection so that it takes on a checkered green-and-yet-greener hue.

    On the last night of my summer in Cambridge, the college threw our group of two hundred some American students a farewell party. Themed “Flight of the Concorde,” the party was a formal affair, and the college had at last invited us to join our professors on the lawn.

    I walked – nay trampled – on as much grass as I could, enjoying the wine and conversation with smartly dressed friends before dinner. We joked about high heels aerating the grass and the monotonous task of keeping it tidy day-in and day-out.

    From a distance, we must have truly looked like a throng of passengers awaiting our Concorde jet. Spread across the enormous grassy concourse, we celebrated the triumph of summer, which sees the sun set far past 10 p.m and rise shortly after 4 a.m. Between the dawns and dusks, the long stretches of daylight – interrupted only by rain showers – gives the summer months a dream-like quality.

    Our hosts, professors and TAs dressed as pilots and flight attendants, began flagging us down to board our “plane,” we moved reluctantly off the plush lawn and into the regal dining hall. While filing into the building, I glanced back and noticed the once pristine lawn looked severely battered from our eager footsteps.

    But not for the worse. The sacrosanct lawn, now littered with the pocks and holes of high heels and matted down from the weight of our excitement took on a new face. In the foreground, the small multilingual signpost still demanded satisfaction. As I lingered back to snap pictures of the transformed lawn, it was clear to me that a Concorde had truly landed on King’s back lawn.

    I walked into the hall, took my seat, raised a glass and readied for takeoff.

    Henry is a sophomore in Business. He’s glad to be free to roll in the grass once more, but is still – and likely forever – infatuated with the back lawn at King’s.