It is interesting to visit the city that you grew up in and realise that you never really saw it at all. As a child of parents adverse to paying to park their car (a trait I have certainly inherited!), I have walked through the Cambridge colleges and along the backs countless times. It is only now, however, returning as an adult to see this historic city through the eyes of a tourist, that I begin to appreciate its beauty and intrigue.
In this post, I will share our self-guided walk around some of Cambridge’s famous colleges and landmarks, but first, here is a little history to bring the buildings to life….
A Brief History of Cambridge University
Cambridge is probably most famous for its university, which is second only to Oxford University as the UK’s oldest University. In fact, Cambridge University originated from a group of Oxford scholars who were forced to leave following disputes with the townspeople in 1209. King Henry III granted the University a charter in 1231.
Peterhouse was the first of the Universities colleges to be established in 1284, with the remainder, now totalling 31 in number, following over subsequent centuries.
The University certainly boasts some notable scholars amongst its alumni; Crick and Watson discovered the double helix structure of DNA at Cavendish laboratory, famously proclaiming their discovery to an unlikely audience at the towns Eagle pub!
As a teenager growing up in Cambridge, the sight of Professor Steven Hawking (who developed important cosmology theories during his PhD at Cambridge) was a familiar sight, making his way around the town in his electric wheelchair.
Charles Darwin studied theology at Christs college before hatching his evolutionary theory, whilst Isaac Newton, who developed calculus and would later discover gravity, attended Trinity college.
The poets William Wordsworth and Lord Byron both studied at Cambridge. Famous enough for his poetry, Lord Byron is also notable for keeping a pet bear; rather put out by the ruling that he was unable to keep his beloved dog in his college room according to the
written rules, he instead kept a bear since there was no rule to state that he couldn’t!
The master of Selwyn college later faced the same disagreeable rule which would forbid him to keep his Basset hound in residence. In this case, the problem was overcome when the college council decreed that the animal could be classified as a ‘very large cat’.
Cambridge University boasts more Nobel Prize winners that any other University, Oxford University lagging somewhat behind, although the rival has borne more Prime Ministers than Cambridge; I will leave it to the reader to decide for themselves whether that is a statistic to be proud of!
It wasn’t all work and no play for the students, however. Many an elaborate prank has been concocted over the years.
In 1958, a group of engineering students from Gonville and Caius college managed to place an Austin 7 car on to the roof of a Senate house, something which took the University considerably longer to figure out how to get back down again.
The statue of Henry VIII at the Trinity college gate started out with the king holding an orb and a sword. He is now rather less well armed with a chair leg after the sword was removed, presumably by students, and a thoughtful window cleaner allegedly endowed him with the substitute.
More recently in 2009, students managed to place Santa hats atop some of the Universities tallest buildings in celebration of the festive season.
A self-guided walk around the colleges
Blessed with sunshine on a mild Autumnal morning, the boys and I embarked on a walk through time to explore some of the famous colleges and for me to share with them some of the stories I grew up with.
Corpus Cristi College
The Round Church
St Catharine's College
St John's College
The Senate House
The Fudge Kitchen
The Olde Sweet Shop
Garret Hostel Bridge
Now you might wonder how much traipsing through a jungle of historic buildings would appeal to a trio of under 10’s? More than you might imagine as it happens; as we stepped out onto the cobbled streets of Kings Parade, excited voices immediately likened it to walking along J.K Rowling’s Diagon Alley, with Kings College playing the centrepiece as Hogwarts castle!
The crooked buildings and plentiful Harry Potter merchandise did nothing to dispel the idea that they had stepped into the wizarding world.
King’s College makes an ideal starting point for a self-guided walk around some of the historic buildings. There is usually public access granted to walk through the college grounds (except for during exams etc).
With King’s College Chapel being famous for the annual Christmas carol concert, it is well worth paying the small admission fee to take a peep inside.
Tickets are available across the road at the Kings College visitor centre shop. Please be aware that tickets are sold only up until 15.15, with the last entry to the chapel being granted at 15.30, so it is important to plan ahead.
The chapels stunning stained-glass windows were removed during world war II to protect them, and proved a very challenging jigsaw puzzle, taking some weeks to complete, when they were later returned. Once you step inside the chapel and see for yourself the sheer size and number of the windows, you will soon appreciate what a momentous undertaking their re-assembly would have been.
Look up to see the spectacular vaulted ceiling, admire the extensive stone and wood carvings and be sure to look out for the beautiful Rubens painting which makes an impressive altar piece.
Once you’ve finished exploring the chapel, take a walk outside towards the river where you will be rewarded with a stunning view back towards the chapel, and from where you will likely be able to spot people punting along the river and the famous Cambridge cows grazing on the opposite bank.
When you’ve had your fill of King’s College, cross over the road to explore the independent shops housed in Olde Worlde buildings along King’s Parade.
Be sure to pay a visit to the Fudge Kitchen where you can watch fudge being made, indulge in plenty of delicious free samples and choose from a selection of mouth-watering flavours to take home.
Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe, unsurprisingly, was also a massive hit with the boys.
Continue along Kings Parade as it becomes Trumpington Street to see the Corpus Clock on the corner of Corpus Christi College library.
A creature resembling a dragon crossed with a grasshopper perched on top of the gold pendulum clock appears to be moving the time piece with its’ feet. LED’s light the supposed time, however, don’t be fooled; the clock speeds up, slows down and sometimes stops altogether, telling the correct time only around once every 5 minutes! (If you have time after your sightseeing, there is a similar clock in the nearby Grand Arcade shopping centre).
Opposite Corpus Christi College, St Catharine’s College, known locally as ‘Cat’s’, sits beside King’s College. Named after the patron saint of learning, that can’t be a bad omen for its students!
Further along Trumpington Street, Pembroke College is famous for its beautiful chapel designed by the celebrated architect Christopher Wren as his first work.
Pembroke College was in fact the first of Cambridge’s colleges to have a designated University chapel, although the original chapel, built during the 14th century, is now known as the Old Library and used as a dining room.
The current chapel was built much later during the 17th century. Access to the chapel is free of charge at the time of writing.
If all the walking and sightseeing has made you peckish, pop into Fitzbillies bakery on your way to Pembroke College and treat yourself to a delicious Chelsea bun; you’ve earnt it!
Since these tasty treats date back to the 1800’s, you’re actually eating a little piece of history. The bakery is also famous for creating Stu’s and my wedding cake!
Once you’ve finished exploring Pembroke College, cross over the road and walk back in the direction you came from to find Cambridge’s oldest college, Peterhouse. You can wander in free of charge to view the pretty building and manicured lawn.
Carry on walking back along Trumpington Street until you reach Silver Street where you take a left.
Continue along Silver Street to walk over the Silver Street Bridge from where you can view the famous Mathematical bridge (officially known simply as ‘the wooden bridge’) which connects the two parts of Queens’ College which occupy opposite sides of the river bank.
Designed by William Etheridge and built in 1739 by James Essex, the original oak bridge was, for many years, believed to be self-supporting owing to the unusual orientation of the timbers.
Over time, the Oak rotted and the bridge you see today is actually the second re-building, this time in Teak for longevity.
Today, the screws holding the structure together are clearly visible, giving rise to the rumour that those responsible for it’s re-building were simply unable to re-create the original self-supporting design. In fact, the bridge has always been screwed together, however the screws in the original design were concealed.
Walk to the end of Silver Street where it joins Queens Road and take a right to walk along the backs of the colleges.
Enjoy the views across to King’s College chapel, peep into the pretty gardens of Clare College and catch a glimpse of St Johns College* across the river bank. You can expect to see plenty of squirrels along your way if you walk along the unsealed path through the meadow rather than along the pavement (you will see the path just before you reach the road).
Walk along until you reach Garret Hostel lane (*St Johns College is further along so if you’re keen to see it, walk along a little further then double back on yourself to complete the route).
Turn right here to make your way back towards Kings parade, enjoying views across to the grounds of Trinity College along the walk.
At Garret Hostel Lane Bridge, look to your right to spot Clare College bridge, and down to your left to see Trinity Colleges punts.
With the name Trinity referring to the trio of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each of Trinity college’s punts bears a name relating to the number 3.
Whilst ‘Point Turn’ and ‘Wise Monkey’ won’t stretch you too far, ‘Codon’ (a sequence of 3 nucleotides which make up an amino acid in protein manufacture) might make your brain hurt a bit and ‘Fluffy’ might be lost on ‘Muggles’ unfamiliar with the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
When you reach the end of the lane, take a right turn on to Trinity Lane which you follow until you reach Senate House Passage on your left. Walking along here will bring you back out with The Senate House (of Austin 7 misplacement fame) on your left and King’s College on your right.
A former meeting place for the University’s Council of the Senate, The Senate House now serves primarily for graduation ceremonies. Expect to see the streets flooded with graduates in their college gowns between June and July annually.
Great St Mary’s Church, the University church, dominates the street opposite The Senate House.
For a small fee, climbing to the top of the tower offers panoramic views of the city, a fitting reward for the 123 step climb.
As Kings Parade gives way to Trinity Street, watch out for cyclists as you follow the road along to Trinity College. Don’t forget to admire Henry VIII’s chair leg!
Below his statue, you will see shields bearing the coats of arms of Edward III and of his 5 sons. The blank shield which lies alongside these belongs to his 6th son, William of Hatfield, who died in infancy before he was granted a coat of arms.
Next door, St Johns College marks a further change in the name of the road to St John’s Street, and it is at the end of this that you will find the Round Church (no prizes for guessing the name by which this section of the street is called!).
This Medieval building is officially known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (so now you see why it’s known as the round church!).
Whilst many churches are built in the shape of a cross, the round shape symbolises resurrection and was inspired by the circular structure of Jerusalem’s church of the same name.
It is believed that the Jerusalem church stands on the very site where Jesus was buried and was subsequently resurrected, making it one of the holiest sites in the Christian world.
Legend has it that in medieval times, the crusaders of Cambridge gathered at the round church for a blessing before setting out on their mission.
There are plenty of interesting shops to explore along the route; opposite the round Church, sweet toothed tourists will be delighted by the traditional feel of Hardy’s Original Sweet Shop. Here, the boys were invited to try some of Bertie Botts all flavour beans. Alas, Daniel scored himself a stinky socks flavoured treat whilst Ben and Sam were disgusted by dog food flavour!
Check out Jacks for a great selection of Cambridge souvenirs and venture downstairs for all things Harry Potter (no Harry Potter fans writing this blog, honestly….!)
Green Street and Rose Crescent which both branch off Trinity street both make for some independent exploring.
If you walk all the way back to King’s Parade, head down past Great St Mary’s church to discover Cambridge market which dates back to Saxon times.
Choose from freshly baked bread, produce and flowers amongst a selection of other goods on weekday’s and Saturdays or enjoy a full blown arts and crafts market every Sunday.
Look out for the bizarre modern art sculpture in the corner of the market in front of the Guildhall.
The statue is a tribute to Cambridge eccentric ‘Snowy’ Farr who stood on the same spot for many years with his tricycle adorned with soft toys and mice running around the brim of his hat making up part of his menagerie, raising money for the Guide Dogs for the Blind charity.
As strange as the sculpture is, it is lovely to remember a man who brightened up many a childhood shopping trip into Cambridge for myself and my sisters.
Guided Tour Options
Although we took a self-guided walk around some of the historic sites (with the benefit of plenty of insider knowledge), for those wanting to learn more of the history of Cambridge and the Colleges, Footprints tours offers a free two hour walking tour around the colleges and historic buildings with an informative commentary. A tip at the end of the tour is voluntary.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and feel like adopting this philosophy whilst exploring Cambridge, why not do as the locals do and cycle around the city? Cambridge Bike Tours offer full day and half day tours around the city exploring the colleges and historic sites.
Alternatively, the open topped Cambridge City Sightseeing tour bus offers a hop on / hop off service for which your ticket allows you unlimited access over a 24 hour period.
Hop onboard to see the sights and enjoy the commentary then hop off when you want to take a closer look at one of the sights.
Tickets are available from the tourist information centre located in the Guildhall. The front of the building faces the market square whilst access to the visitor centre is along the side, marked by a Queens guard of the wooden variety.
No trip to Cambridge would be complete without taking a punt ride along the river Cam. There are options for both self guided punting and chaufer tours with a commentary about the historic sites available with Scudamore’s among other operators.
Our walking route will take you around several of Cambridges historic ttractions but there are plenty more to see besides. If time is on your side, why not take a wonder through the streets and see what else you find……