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Rowan Williams: Room Y27 Christ’s

Rowan Williams (Christ’s 1968) and third-year Human, Social and Political Science student Grace Etheredge discuss icons, baked beans and a bed-sized alcove at Y27 Third Court, Christ’s.

  • Interview
    Lucy Jolin
  • Photography
    La Tigre
- 3 minute read

Fifty years separate Rowan Williams (Christ’s 1968) and third-year HSPS student Grace Etheredge, but following a discussion on the unexpected hazards of wearing a mitre (low-hanging chandeliers are a challenge), it emerges that they both brought the same item to room Y27: an icon.

Williams brought his from the Christian monastic fraternity at Taizé, France, which he had visited just before he came up. “Along with some crockery – my parents had this idea that you would probably need to make
a cup of tea every now and again – and lots of books.” Etheredge’s is by Francisco Argüello, the founder of the Catholic movement, Neocatechumenal Way. “I’m the oldest of eight in a Catholic family,” she says. “The icon reminds me of home – and keeps me on track.”

You always need to remember who is outside the circle – and outside the room

Rowan Williams

Williams says the room has barely changed since he first saw it as a first-year. The gas fire over which he heated baked beans has gone, but the room’s most distinctive feature, the bed-sized alcove, remains. Indeed, Etheredge says it’s the best room she’s had so far. “In my first year, I overlooked the alley. In my second year, my view was of a bike yard. And then I got lucky. This room is perfect when my family visit.” Williams, too, made the most of the room’s proportions. “There were half a dozen of us who came up from Swansea grammar schools, all of us feeling a little bit like: ‘What on earth is going on?’ We used to meet in this room for tea, to catch up, reminisce about Swansea and tell each other funny stories about the extraordinary people we were meeting here – the bizarre and exotic English!”

Grace's Icon is by Francisco 'Kiko' Arguello
Grace’s Icon is by Francisco ‘Kiko’ Arguello

Etheredge travelled to Nigeria with VSO in her gap year, while Williams worked with Cambridge’s homeless community and volunteered at what is now Mencap. “I was,” he says, “trying to keep one foot outside the academic world: a reminder that this isn’t everything, that you might see the University more accurately if you have a little perspective from people who aren’t insiders. “I guess that was one of the things I took away, the feeling you always need to remember who is outside the circle and outside the room.”

Indeed, this room has been the backdrop to testing times. “When times have been tough, my neighbours were there for me,” says Etheredge. “Cambridge is intense and it brings out the best in people, even though you have to confront the worst in yourself along the way.” Williams agrees. “There’s a wonderful phrase in Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim about getting over the desperate maturity of your 20s,” he says. “And the same is true of the desperate maturity of the late teens. I was a tense, perfectionist sort of teenager, determined to get into things and do well. I hope I learned a bit, in those three years, about how not to be trapped by that.”

Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, is now Master of Magdalene. Grace Etheredge hopes to take a year out before becoming a barrister.

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