It’s one of those places isn’t it – every time you hear mention of it, or see it on TV, it’s ‘I really must go there sometime‘. Well, we finally made it to Cambridge in early March – SO easy to get there and now I’m wondering why it took so long to make the trip!!
Cambridge was already well established as an inland port and market centre before the students turned up. In the late 1220’s, they arrived – supposedly driven out of Oxford after a dispute with townspeople. The rest, as they say, is history. The university grew – as did that infamous rivalry with Oxford which has existed ever since!
It’s not a very big place, which makes it perfect for a mini break. There are a few ‘must do’s’ for the first time visitor but it’s a hugely popular destination for return visitors also which is a very good sign of a place in my humble opinion!
#1 Take to the River
Of course you can stroll along its banks but you cannot come here and NOT go on the river at least once! The Cam flows through the town and punting is the ultimate pastime here – particularly in summer.
You can rent one of the flat-bottomed punts which are ideal for the shallow waters but I suspect it’s not as easy as it looks …..
……so just join a tour and let someone else do the work!
Tours typically last about 45 minutes… they are linear so bring you up and back the same stretch of water…. The punter doubles up as guide – imparting the usual info and stories as you glide along.
The Bridge of Sighs was built in 1831 to connect the original part of St John’s College with the New Court as the college expanded westward. Aside from it’s name and the fact that it is covered, it doesn’t actually have much in common with its Venetian namesake. This romantic Neo-Gothic style was very fashionable at the time and the bridge became a great favourite of Queen Victoria. The window design usually supports glass although there was never any inserted on the bridge.
The Mathematical Bridge takes its name from the arrangement of its straight timbers to create its arching shape. The myth persists that Sir Isaac Newton built the bridge without the help of any nuts or bolts. A group of students supposedly disassembled the bridge to discover how it stood up and then couldn’t put it back together. The bridge was then rebuilt using rather prominent bolts.
In fact, the bridge was originally built 22 years after the physicist’s death and, although it has been rebuilt twice to the same design, there have always been fixings at the joints – no mystery whatsoever!
#2 Visit the Colleges
Cambridge has one of the highest concentrations of preserved historic buildings in England and most of this splendor centres around Cambridge University’s 31 colleges – each one architecturally stunning. Every college has it’s history, its stories, its traditions, it’s library, its grounds, its dining halls, its chapel and its illustrious list of renowned former students. The Big 3 are St. Johns, Trinity and Kings but which and how many you choose to visit depends on interest, time constraints, opening hours and your budget (most colleges are free to enter but some charge a fee – anything up to £10!)
(Note – many colleges are closed to visitors at the moment thanks to Covid)
#3 Partake in Evensong
Choral Evensong is sung in many college chapels on most days during term time – all free and open to everyone. The service at King’s College is the most popular and offers an opportunity to see inside the fabulous chapel. Boasting the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world as well as spectacular 16th century stained-glass windows and original choir stalls, there’s plenty to look at and admire during the service.
Note – services tend to last for circa one hour and there is no opportunity to ‘slip out’ once they have begun. No photos allowed at King’s service.
#4 Stroll along the Backs
The Cambridge Backs is a stretch of land running along the river at the back of the riverside colleges. Reclaimed from what was effectively the flood plain of the Cam, it makes for a nice walk and offers great views of the colleges and river.
I love the view of the punters gliding along – with no sign of the river!
#5 Climb Great St. Mary’s Tower
Great St. Mary’s Church is first mentioned in records dated 1205 – before any students arrived. It became a venue for lectures and meetings but when the wooden structure was burnt to the ground in 1290, there was call for a replacement stone structure. Funding was to become a problem – the building stopping and starting on many occasions. The original plan for an 80ft spire was abandoned so when the tower was eventually completed in 1608, this allowed space for a viewing platform. It’s worth the climb to look out over the university buildings and beyond.
#6 Just go Walkabout
This is a beautiful city for a stroll – either on your own or as part of one of the many available walking tours….
The colleges dominate the town centre, their facades lining up along the main streets.
I wonder if anyone has ever actually tried to count the bikes……
On a visit to his mother during his Trinity days in the late 1660s, Isaac Newton observed a green apple fall from a tree and began to consider the mechanism that drove what is now termed Gravity. This apple tree, growing outside the entrance to Trinity College, was grafted from that actual tree at his childhood home and honours his links with the university.
The poet Thomas Gray was supposedly afraid of fire and attached a bar outside his window at Peterhouse College to which he tied a rope. After been awoken by students pretending there was a fire, he escaped down the rope only to land in a tub of water which had been placed below his window. Enraged by the practical joke, he stormed off across the road to nearby Pembroke College.
The 6 sundials that grace the tower of Gonville and Caius College date from 1963.
The 25-acre Parker’s Piece is famous as the birthplace of modern football (it was here that the Cambridge rules were first applied in 1848)
Officially known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Round Church dates back to 1130.
Streetscapes are not all about colleges and chapels….
The Corpus Clock, or Grasshopper Clock, hangs at street level outside Corpus Christi College.
The ripple design of the 24 caret gold face suggests the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang.
Time is displayed, not by hands or numerals, but by three concentric rings (hours, mins and secs) of individual slits backlit with blue LEDs.
The clock is entirely mechanically controlled and electricity is used only to power a motor which winds up the mechanism and to power the blue LEDs. It is accurate only once every five minutes. The rest of the time, the pendulum may seem to briefly stop while the lights may lag or race ahead. This erratic motion reflects life’s irregularity.
A metal grasshopper called the Chronophage or time-eater sits above the clock. It moves its mouth – eating up seconds as they pass – and occasionally blinks in satisfaction
Guided walking tour or not? If you’ve already enjoyed a punting tour then a lot of the history / stories re colleges etc. will double up. But there’s plenty to be discovered around the streets that will be missed from the river. We’d prebooked a walking tour before deciding on the punting trip so ended up doing both. It took up a lot of our day of course – 45 minutes on the river and 2 hours walking – but gave us a great overview of the city. We had a bit more than one day in Cambridge and most of the colleges were closed so we could spare the time….
#7 Visit The Fitzwilliam
The most famous museum in Cambridge was founded when Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion donated his art collection to the university. Free to enter, the beautiful 19th century Neoclassic building is worthy of a look in itself….
The lower galleries contain a huge collection of ceramics as well as arms, coins, Egyptian sarcophagi and Greek and Roman antiquities….
Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, the upper gallery was closed in preparation of an upcoming Hockney exhibition. So we missed works by Monet, Picasso, Rubens, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Turner, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Constable, Stubbs, Freud, Hockney…….sound’s like it’s worth going back for..
#8 Go for a pint in The Eagle
Every pub in Cambridge has a story but the Eagle has two in particular..
During the Second World War, Allied airmen, who drank and socialised at The Eagle, used wax candles, petrol lighters and lipstick to write their names, squadron numbers and other doodles onto the ceiling of the rear bar. The graffiti, in what is now known as the RAF Bar was uncovered, deciphered and preserved during the early 1990s.
On 28th February, 1953, Francis Crick interrupted patrons’ lunchtime to announce that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” after they had come up with the structure of DNA.
#9 Shop in Market Square
Traders have been running stalls here since the middle ages. You can pick up your fresh food and ingredients as well as art, plants, jewellery, books, etc. Not surprisingly, there’s a busy trade here in bike parts and repairs!
The Market from Great St. Mary’s Tower….
#10 Take a break in Fitzbillies
A Cambridge institution, this is THE place to go for their famous Chelsea Buns ……… but forget that! – I’m hooked on their bacon rolls!!!!
Honourable Mention – Botanic Garden
This would probably have made the Top 10 except we ran out of time and didn’t get to visit.
Covering an area of some 40 acres, a visit to the University Botanic Garden seems to be included on most ‘must do’ lists. Established in 1831, the garden’s trails and glasshouses showcase an impressive collection of more than 8,000 species of plants.
We travelled to Cambridge directly from Stanstead Airport by train.
You can buy tickets in the terminal ( there is usually an attendant on duty to help if necessary)
The Express train took about 35 minutes.
We returned to the centre of London by train.
The centre is compact and all major attractions are an easy walk apart. Tourists are well catered for so there’s plenty of signage…
Where we Stayed
We spent one night at Cambridge Ibis Central Station
Double Room – £82 (room only)
It is literally just outside the train station.
We arrived into the hotel at 8.55 am (YES!! I Know!!! Left home at 3.45am!!) and were given a room immediately (a Thursday morning) – VERY impressive!
We didn’t dine in but there are lots of convenience stores around the station. Kettle etc in room so very easy to source own breakfast..
There’s a nice coffee shop on the ground floor. It displays the railway timetable so its a good place to await your train.
Its a good 20 minute walk into the city centre which may not suit everyone. The station, of course, is served by buses in and out from the centre.
Would we stay here again? – definitely
How we spent our time…
Great St. Mary’s Tower
Coffee, scones – and clotted cream of course!
Fitzbillies – for my first bacon roll!
Free Walking Tour
The Eagle for a pint
Dinner – Browns
Searched out a few colleges that were open to the public – Pembroke and Emmanuel
Parson’s Piece, River Walk, The Backs, etc.
Lunch – Prince Regent
(Yes – you’re right – we spent a lot of time eating!!)
If I ever go back….
I’m going to stay on the train and go to Ely first to see the cathedral (about an extra 20 minutes)
Upstairs in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Hopefully get in to some of the larger colleges
Fitzbillies for another bacon roll!!