Friday, May 16, 2008

Town Meets Gown: Exploring Cambridge

When one is inclined to think about Cambridge, it is often thought of most as a centre of learning. After all, Cambridge University has given the world great men like Oliver Cromwell, Wordsworth, John Milton, and even modern day great minds such as Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.

While the University is certainly an important piece of the Cambridge experience, to be fair, Cambridge has been a vital town since it was first inhabited by the Romans along the River Cam. In the 11th century, Cambridge had put the foundations down as a centre of learning, with many religious orders establishing themselves in the town.

In 1209, groups of religious scholars fled that other University (namely, Cambridge's rival Oxford!) due to riots and hangings that were occurring there. They came to continue their studies in peace at the various religious orders that were in Cambridge. In 1231, Henry III bestowed privileges to the university, which in turn started a few centuries of conflict between the town and gown.

Today's visitor, student or otherwise, may safely arrive without fear of townspeople and student disagreements. Modern Cambridge is a charming town, where townspeople and students coexist in peace in a thriving town of learning which is also an important regional market centre.

Ancient History

Cambridge was one of the first places I visited when freshly arrived in England nearly 5 years ago. At the time, I was captivated by its charm, scared out of my wits at the prospect of moving to a country I had never visited, and very susceptible to being run over by cars and buses by looking the wrong way and the many cyclists who dominate the town. I remember drooling over the shops in the market centre during my first look around, and feeling very sorry for myself because I was worried about running out of money before finding a job and felt I couldn't buy anything. I was back with a fat bank account and vengeful attitude.

After parking the car in , I dutifully made my way to the Tourist Information Centre for a look around. I was dismayed to discover that you have to purchase the official guide booklet (okay, it was only 50p, but I still think these things should be free). Mind you, it was full of useful information not only about accommodation, but had a very helpful map which I didn't of course discover until I was well and truly lost in the car later in the day.

Not far from TIC, I found the shops that had taunted me with retail goodies during my earlier visit so many years ago. I wandered around feeling very pleased with myself and smugly arrived at the market place three boxes of shoes later. Summer sale goodness! Revenge was mine, but Cambridge got the last laugh as I now had to carry these around all day.

The open-air market has been the heart of Cambridge since medieval times, and today you will find a variety of local produce, flowers, crafts and souvenirs. Surrounding the market today is a plethora of cafes, bookstores and both high street and unique shops. One of the most famous bookstores is that of the Cambridge University Press, on Trinity Street, on the site of first bookstore in Britain in 1581.

Going to College

Cambridge University is in actuality, a collection of 31 individual colleges, a fact which continues to befuddle visitors who arrive wondering where the campus is. Students who wish to attend university apply and are admitted to the college of their choice, which becomes the provider of the student's accommodation, individual tuition, meals, facilities, and responsible for the overall welfare of the student. After being admitted to a college, by default the student is a member of Cambridge University, which is responsible for providing the lecture and examination requirements for students as an entirety.

While the colleges are spread out all over the city, a large portion of the colleges can be found wedged between the River Cam and a street called King's Parade (also known as St. John's St., Trinity St., and Trumpington St. at various stages along this stretch of road). While it's nearly ridiculous to single out one piece of architecture in a town filled with masterpieces, the jewel in the crown of Cambridge is the King's College Chapel, which is unmissable on King's Parade.

In 1441, a young King Henry VI laid the foundations for what would be King's College, which he devised for the purpose of housing scholars exclusively from his other recent development, that of Eton College. Having revised his plans to grander scale, the chapel was begun a few years later in 1446. Sadly, Henry VI never saw his plans realised, but visitors today can see the results of years of work, in what many describe as the most important example of late medieval architecture in the country.

The highlight of King's College Chapel is the breathtaking fan vault ceiling, with Rubens' altarpiece "Adoration of the Magi" a close second. Be sure to allow at least an hour for your visit, as the great organ and its trumpeting angels, stained glass windows, and screen and choir stalls are all well worth your admiration. Admission to King's College is £3.50 for adults, £2.50 for children 12-17 and students, and free for residents, the unemployed, and children under 12 accompanied by their families.

With regards to visiting the colleges, many of the colleges now ask an admission charge, which allows them to be well-funded while controlling the number of visitors. You will find that opening times are varied from college to college, with blackout closure periods during exam times. Where there are no opening hours posted, you're usually free to have a discreet and quiet look around. It's worth remembering that these colleges, while ancient, are used by modern students to live and work, and your respect for that will be appreciated.

Other than wandering around yourself, there are two popular ways to see the colleges. One is to join the walking tours that are offered from the Tourist Information Centre daily (call 44 (0)1223 457 574 for enquiries on guided tours). These tours vary in price depending on what is open on a given day, and are all led by knowledgeable guides. Walking tours are very popular, so it's a good idea to purchase tickets in advance, especially during summer months.

A favoured and relaxing way to view the colleges is from the River Cam, which overlooks a tranquil stretch of lawns and gardens known as "the Backs." You'll also get a first-hand view of some beautiful bridges on your way to the countryside. Punting is a popular traditional activity in Cambridge, and a superb experience. The one cliche is that punting is truly not as easy as it looks, and although you are welcome to give it a go yourself, I can think of nothing better than to sit back, relax, and let someone else do it for you with a chauffeured punt. Most punting places charge about £8.00 an hour to rent a punt (with a substantial refundable deposit required), but a guided punt usually costs £20.00, which isn't bad shared among four people.

Stompin' Around Town

While the colleges are certainly a big attraction for visitors to Cambridge, it would be wrong to ignore the other attractions the town holds for tourists. One area to explore is Bridge Street. This area is a striking area of 16th-century buildings that now house an area of fine shops. Nearby you'll find the All Saints' Garden Craft Fair opposite Trinity College, which is open one or two days a week from early Spring to the end of Summer.

To me, the highlight of this area, is the Round Church. The Round Church was modelled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, after the first Crusaders returned. It is only one of four surviving churches in England, and is home to the Cambridge Medieval Brassrubbing Centre. Not far away is the lovely Christ's Pieces park, which is a wonderful place to spend an hour or take a picnic lunch.

Down on Trumpington Street, be sure not to miss the Fitzwilliam Museum. One of Britain's earliest public galleries, it hosts a brilliant world-class collection of paints and antiquities. Best of all, it's free!

Last, but certainly not least, be sure to visit the touching American Cemetery, which lies four miles west of Cambridge. This land was donated to the United States by the Cambridge University in 1944, and holds a chapel and the graves of thousands of American servicemen and women. You'll also find a poignant memorial with names of those missing who were presumed dead.

Eating, Sleeping, and Getting Around

Let me start by saying that Cambridge, to the uninitiated, is not an easy place to get around by car. If you're hell-bent on taking your car into town, the best place to park up is the central multi-story in Corn Exchange Street. Mind you, it'll cost you as well. Parking for up to 5 hours costs £5.00...and it only gets worse from there.

Cambridge was not built for cars, which is the reason why there are cyclists everywhere you turn. A much better solution, in my opinion, is to use the very efficient Park and Ride option. There are four places you can park in various approaches to Cambridge. Simply park and pay £1.20 for a return bus ride into town. Easy!

Now, how do you get around in town? Cambridge is compact enough to get around comfortably on foot. Guide Friday does hop-on, hop-off bus tours of Cambridge, with stops all over town, including the Madingley Road Park and Ride. Tickets cost £8.50 for adults, £7.00 for students and seniors, £2.50 for children 5 through 12, £19.50 for families of 2 adults and up to 4 children, and free for children under five years old. The tickets are also good for discounts for various places around town.

While in Cambridge, I stayed at Oakley Lodge, located at 627-631 Newmarket Road (ring 44 (0)1223 506 007, or email: for enquiries), which is quite close to the Newmarket Park and Ride. While the room I had was comfortable and clean, the room was really small and somewhat cramped. The meal I had in the hotel's dining room was delicious and a good value.

If you hanker for something to eat in town, be sure to make time for a snack at Fitzbillies, on Trumpington Street. Fitzbillies is known for their famous Chelsea buns, but I have no qualms recommending the pecan pie! For a full meal head to Brown's, a large brasserie-style diner, opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street. Brown's offers classic English dishes and fresh pasta in a family friendly atmosphere.

Marks out of 10 for Cambridge overall: 7.5

To get a peek at Cambridge, visit Ana's Pics to see the photos from my trip!

Top Tips!

A great time to visit Cambridge is during the Cambridge Music Festival. This year it will be held from 11-29 November in various areas around town. For more information, check out:
For more information on Cambridge, check out these web sites:

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