Home to brilliant minds like Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking. A vibrant city full of youthful enthusiasm and a long and dramatic history.
Arts! Culture! Education! History!
But do not expect a single moment of calm, quiet contemplation, because Cambridge in the summer months is heaving!
I find Cambridge an asylum, in every sense of the word
At every step you are jostled by large groups of fellow tourists or accosted by polite but insistent offers of everything from walking tours to punt trips on the famous River Cam. It reminded us of our days in Bali when you couldn’t take a step onto the streets without being asked to buy something or visit somewhere. All perfectly pleasant but after a while just a little irritating.
In Bali we swiftly learned the local phrase “jalan – jalan” which literally means “street – street” but everyone understands you’re really saying “thanks, but no thanks”. Couldn’t find a simple phrase in our mother tongue that conveys the same meaning, so we had to make do with the polite and slightly embarrassed English smile.
Punting on the Cam
Of course a punt trip is a super way to see The Backs and the famous bridges. The only other way is to pay to enter each individual college (and that cost will soon mount up) or resign yourself to the view of the ancient Mathematical Bridge from the public crossing on Silver Street.
We opted only to pay for entry to King’s College, because you really can’t miss that glorious Chapel.
Started by the saintly King Henry VI it took 74 years and four more monarchs to complete, because this was one of the most turbulent times in British history. As the long-running fight for the throne between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists came to end and the Tudor era began, each king was keen to keep in with God and the church and continue the work of the previous ruler.
This has led to an extraordinary building with a mixture of styles from the understated ascetic plans of the first Henry through to the rather overblown Tudor roses, portcullises and intertwined initials for Henry VIII. It’s also home to one of the few remaining traces of Henry’s game-changing marriage to Anne Boleyn.
When she fell out of favour (and lost her head) Henry ordered all traces of her reign to be obliterated. Somehow the wooden rood screen at Kings College Chapel was overlooked and there, in just one single section amongst a riot of HRs for Henry himself, are the carved initials HA – for Henry and Anne. A fact that apparently gave their daughter, Elizabeth I a certain amount of quiet satisfaction when she visited years later.
King’s College Chapel tour
History hums in the air, even if you are carried in on a tide of school trips and coach tours. Don’t rush, wait for the crowds to thin, find a knowledgeable member of staff and ask questions, because many of the glories of this amazing building – from its fan vault ceiling to the enormous stained glass windows – have hidden secrets and meanings that the casual visitor can easily miss.
The price of your ticket (£9 for an adult in 2017) also allows you access to the riverbank where you can watch the aforementioned punts drifting lazily by. You can tell the experts by their perfect poise, smooth pole action and easy banter. Watching those who’ve hired the ‘self-drive’ version shows just how deceptively difficult it is to steer smoothly along the crowded waterway. We witnessed more than one near collision and one total immersion as a punter forgot the golden rule “never let go of the end of the pole”.
Back on the busy streets, Cambridge is a pedestrian-friendly place, as long as you keep a weather eye out for the multitude of bicycles. It’s probably best to explore on foot and there is a great park and ride system.
Try to find a gap in the crowd to admire the Corpus Clock, on the outside wall of Corpus Christi College. An amazing timepiece it’s accurate only once every five minutes. The rippled gold-plated steel central disc is dominated by a weird looking insect, which creator John C. Taylor has named The Chronophage. This locust-like creature moves its mouth, as if eating up the seconds. The pendulum swing is irregular and hypnotic, like a heartbeat in a panic attack. I wonder if students, racing to hand in their assignments by the deadline, appreciate this reminder that time is not always on your side.
Some cities, like Bath, offer a free guided walking tour, perfect for first-time visitors. At Cambridge you will have to pay for the privilege of a professional Blue Badge guide. If you can’t afford it (£12 per person in 2017) or the individual college admission fees you can at least take a stroll and admire the entrance gates to each and every one. Many allow you a free peek of the open courtyards and beautiful buildings that surround the quad.
But the best way to see the city, and escape the packed streets below, is to pay to climb the tower of Great St Mary’s.
This church has dominated the Market Place for over 800 years and as the university grew up around it, it became the place for official ceremonies and meetings.
Today 123 steps take you 35 metres up the winding tower, past the chamber where the bells ring out a sonorous Westminster chime every quarter of an hour, to the top and a glorious panoramic view of the city.
Amongst the ant-like crowds below were no doubt some would-be students, dreaming of peaceful study in one of the highly esteemed colleges, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Darwin, Hawking, Alan Turing, Sir David Attenborough and other illustrious scholars.
Cambridge was a joy. People reading books in a posh place.
It was my fantasy. I loved it
It seemed right to leave them to dream.
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