Posted 3rd Dec 2015
Cambridge is one of Britain’s most picturesque cities, rich with history and a world-famous university, yet there is so much more to be discovered amongst its quaint cobbled streets and majestic colleges
A city for all seasons, Cambridge, with its medieval passageways, peaceful Backs straddling the historic River Cam and of course the handsome colleges, rises from the Fenland that surrounds it offering a place steeped in art, culture and wonderful history, right in the middle of sweeping agricultural land. A city quite unlike any other, with its concise size, eccentric ways – look out for cattle grazing on urban pasture – and one of the world’s oldest universities, Cambridge is a destination well worth discovering on foot, so leave the car at home and don your walking boots to see the city at its best and most beautiful this winter.
It can be hard to imagine a time before the ornate colleges, that are now the very essence of Cambridge, were there, but its rich history dates back much further. Romans first established the town around 2,000 years ago, when they came and built a fort on Castle Hill. Later, with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Anglo Saxons moved in and Cambridge became a trading town for the first time, boosted by the River Cam – to which the city owes its name – which played an important economic role as the main source of traffic through the town, leading right out to the North Sea. By the 12th Century there were a number of religious institutions established within the town and in 1209 Oxford University scholars taking refuge from riots and hostile townsmen in Oxford, migrated to Cambridge and took up residence, later organising regular courses of study and nominating a Chancellor to lead them – a momentous moment in history as it marked the very early beginnings of Cambridge University. By 1284 the first official college of Cambridge, Peterhouse, was founded by Hugo de Balsham and the Bishop of Ely, and today there are 31 constituent colleges that make up the world-famous University spread throughout the city.
With 91 Nobel laureates and alumni including Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton and author A.A. Milne to its name, it’s easy to see why Cambridge is most famous for its prestigious University. But there is even more to discover in this historic city, and there’s really no better way to see it than on an official guided walking tour. Follow a Blue or Green Badge guide to some of the most interesting and oldest parts of the city, including two of the colleges, starting just outside the Tourist Information Centre in the very heart of town. Embarking on your tour, walk past St Benet’s Parish Church, the oldest building in Cambridge, thought to date back to around 1020, before stopping at the Eagle pub just opposite. This pub, as your guide will tell you, is a fascinating find and one you’ll want to tell your friends about. Serving the people of Cambridge since 1525, it was at the Eagle that on 28th February 1953, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick announced that they had discovered the structure of DNA, a breakthrough thought to be the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th Century. The pub was also a favourite haunt of Second World War RAF pilots where they would meet with their American colleagues in the bar for a drink. Evidence of their visits can be seen today above the bar, where they each burnt their names and squadron numbers into the ceiling after a few drinks – and one or two human pyramids! The pub is especially cosy and full of character inside, so it’s well worth returning for a bite to eat or drink at the famous bar later. As you depart the pub look back and see the tiny window in the corner of the top floor is open. The story goes that, hundreds of years ago, the pub was subject to a fire that ravaged the top floor. It is believed a child had been trapped in one of the rooms and couldn’t get the window open to escape, so sadly perished. From that day on the window always remains open and there are many stories around town of strange happenings and even another fire whenever it has been accidentally closed. Feeling suitably spooked, head next to the original Cavendish Laboratory just across the way, where, in 100 years, it produced 22 Nobel prize winners. It was here that founder of the electron JJ Thomson was a professor and where physicist Ernest Rutherford split an atom for the very first time. It was also where the structure of DNA was first discovered, before being announced at the pub.
An innovative place, Cambridge University is renowned for its forward thinking pupils, notably the great physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton, who attended Trinity College in 1661 and went on to become a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University in 1669. However, over at King’s College pupils were not required to be quite so dedicated as, up until 1873, a privilege of being a King’s man meant you were given a degree without having to do exams first. As you make your way to the magnificent gothic-style building just off King’s Parade, world-famous for its chapel and choir, imagine this sizeable college originally built to take just 12 boys. Founded by King Henry VI in 1441, who also founded Eton College in Windsor, he wanted only 12 boys drawn from Eton to attend King’s College to complete their education, 12 to represent Jesus’ Apostles. The king destroyed a vast area of the medieval town to make way for his college in the 15th Century, much to the dismay of local people, and in 1446 King Henry laid the foundation stone of the imposing chapel next to it, but work soon came to a standstill. When the king was deposed in 1461, the chapel was left standing at around 60 feet high at the east end sloping down to around six feet at the west end. Work wasn’t resumed until 1476, when Edward IV and Richard III made significant contributions, though soon stopped again until 1508, when King Henry VII provided funds to finally see it finished. As you stand outside the impressive chapel notice the difference in either end. Built in phases, using different stones, the east end is fairly plain and differs slightly in colour, whilst at the west end the buttresses are heavily embellished with decorative Tudor symbols – so there would be no mistaking who the magnificent completion was down to.
Reaching 24 metres high, 12 metres wide and 88 metres long, the lavish chapel is a grand construction and is no less impressive inside with its ornate fan vaulted ceiling – the largest of its kind in the world, enormous stained glass windows and highly detailed rood screen at the centre of the chapel. As you enter via the west end you’ll see Tudor symbols, including Tudor roses and coats of arms, once again adorn the walls. It’s well worth taking a seat here and looking up at the incredible fan vaulted ceiling, estimated to weigh around 2,000 tonnes, though notice there are no columns to support its incredible weight – a structure that has baffled even the greatest of architects. The stained glass windows are also a sight to behold, telling the story of the New Testament on the lower panes and the Old Testament above. The chapel is divided into two areas, the anti-chapel area, considered the common area where visitors enter, and the chancel, separated by a wooden carved rood screen and organ. The east end of the chapel, like the exterior, is plain and deliberately so to avoid distracting those who are praying. At the altar stands ‘The Adoration of Magi’, a painting dating back to 1634 by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, created for a convent in Belgium and presented to the college in 1961 by Major A.E. Allnatt with the idea it should once again stand at the altar of a great church.
The guided tour finishes a short walk away overlooking the great court at Trinity College, the largest in Cambridge and Oxford, founded by Henry VIII in 1546, combining the existing Michaelhouse and King’s Hall colleges. Its students included Lord Byron, Isaac Newton, Prince Charles and six Prime Ministers, as well as many notable scientists, and the college is well worth paying the small fee to enter after your tour finishes.
Walking back towards King’s College along Trinity Street, be sure to stop off at Great St Mary’s Church, a significant part of Cambridge’s history for it was the first home of the University when scholars came from Oxford in 1209. It was here early lectures were given, degrees were conferred and celebrations were held, with Royal patrons including King John, Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, who visited the church in 1564. Rebuilt in the late 15th Century, with the addition of a tower by the early 17th Century, the church boasts some of the best views of the city from the tip of its tower. It’s a steep climb to the top, but well worth it when you get there with panoramic views sweeping right across the city to the countryside beyond. On the way down don’t miss a chance to see the bells which were the model for the Westminster Chimes of Big Ben in London. The church is also home to a Heritage Education Centre open daily, with interactive touch screen information points full of Cambridge history, videos, games and beautiful imagery, as well activities including brass rubbing for all ages to enjoy, and explore packs on hand for the little ones.
For more information on Cambridge visit www.visitcambridge.org.
By Natalie Crofts
Read the rest of this feature on p.116 of the January/February 2016 issue...
Images courtesy of Visit Cambridge, Visit England: Iain Lewis