Sightseeing in Cambridge
The site of Cambridge has been settled since Roman times but it became most important in the 12th century when religious orders started setting themselves up here. In 1209 a clique of scholars left Oxford University and set up a rival school in Cambridge which quickly became England’s second oldest top university. Today, student life still largely dominates the city, but Cambridge is also in the middle of a rich agricultural region and is a thriving market centre as well as a brains capital of Britain.
Colleges and kings
As you’d expect of such an ancient city, Cambridge is packed with great attractions. As well as the dreaming spires it has its very own Bridge of Sighs, an ornate little bridge across the river which was modelled on its more famous counterpart in Venice and which is a great spot to watch the punts passing below. Students indulging in this age-old pastime, which apparently helps them to think, also like to lounge about on The Backs, a grassy strip of land at the back of King’s College Chapel, sloping down to the river. St Mary’s Church is the official church of the university, with a famous ornate clock made in 1679 over the west door and with fine views from its tower. There’s a statue of Henry VIII in front of King’s College, which he founded in 1515, and the Mathematical Bridge linking the two halves of Queens’ College is also worth a visit as it was the first to be built without the aid of nuts and bolts. Don’t forget to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum for its fine collections of art and antiquities.
- Location: Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RB
- Open: Tues-Sat 10.00am-5.00pm, Sun 12.00 noon-5.00pm
- Admission: Free
- Website: fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk
The best way to really get to grips with this city is to join a guided tour of the university colleges. Officially sanctioned Green and Blue Badge Guides conduct tours that set out each day of the week from the Tourist Information Centre in the middle of town and you get to see all the hidden gems, including some famous College dining rooms that are off-limits to the general public.
Two-hour walking tours of Cambridge cover the general history of the city, including famous inventions and personalities, and also take in the main sights. Get to the Tourist Information Centre for 11.00am or 1.00pm on weekdays or 1.00pm on Sunday to find out everything you always wanted to know about this ancient seat of learning.
Punt like a pro
Punting around Cambridge is a great way to see the city, like being taken around Venice by gondola. These are basically flat-bottomed boats powered by a long stick, usually with a laconic male student at the back doing the pushing whilst a pre-Raphaelite girl reads stanzas from Christina Rossetti or Keats and trails her ebony fingers in the water. Ah, happy carefree days! You can hire a punt in winter as well as summer, sipping mulled wine and covered with a thick Brora blanket.
Manly rowing clubs
The River Cam is a centre of student life, with several popular pubs on the riverside, punting of course and also several rowing clubs. Here, muscular students limber up throughout the year and keep in trim for the famous Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race which takes place at the end of March.
Winter in Cambridge
Although picnicking on The Backs and maybe punting occasionally may be out in the winter months, there’s still plenty to do in and around Cambridge in the colder weather. In January for instance there’s the Cambridge Winter Beer Festival, organised by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). This has been going strong since 1974. It’s a celebration of proper beers of the sort you find only in England, with none of that Continental rubbish, and the next one will be held at the University Social Club in Mill Lane.
Places around Cambridge
Cambridge makes a great base for day trips around the area as well. It’s easy to rent a car in Cambridge and hit the road to places like Ely, which is just 14 miles distant. Ely has a great Norman cathedral, and you can also see Oliver Cromwell’s House with its haunted bedroom.
- Location: 29 St Mary’s Street, Ely
- Open: Daily 10.00am-5.00pm
- Admission: £4.60 for adults
Other possible destinations close to Cambridge include the Tudor pile Kimbolton Castle, haunted by one of Henry VIII’s wives, and Mountfitchet Castle and Norman Village, an open-air museum only half an hour’s drive away.
- Location: Stansted, Essex CM24 8SP
- Open: Daily 10.00am-5.00pm March-November
- Admission: £9.50 for adults