We had arrived in Cambridge by train the previous evening and checked into the nearby Cambridge Central Travelodge a short stroll away. The hotel overlooks the central plaza of the Cambridge Leisure Park where there are several places to eat, plus two small supermarkets meaning that we didn’t need to venture into the centre that night. The next morning we woke to bright sunshine and set off on foot into the city centre. Although the hotel styles itself as the Cambridge Central, it is, in fact, around a mile from the city centre but just a few minutes walk from the railway station.
Along St. Andrews Street we came to the Regal, a former cinema which has since been converted into a Wetherspoon’s pub. It must surely be one of their largest pubs but early on a Friday morning we had the place pretty much to ourselves. After a delicious breakfast of Eggs Benedict and two cappuccinos we felt ready to start exploring.
Our first stop was Emmanuel College, located just a few steps away along the same road. Visitors can visit Emmanuel free of charge between 9.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m. daily. It is one of the university’s larger colleges, occupying extensive grounds with its buildings ranging from medieval to modern. I particularly liked its beautiful clock tower in the quadrangle courtyard entrance way which seemed like a haven of tranquility in the city centre.
After leaving Emmanuel, Christ’s College was next on our list. Entrance is again free here but its opening hours are slightly shorter, being 9.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. Visitors are also welcome to stroll through the Fellow’s Garden but this is closed at weekends.
Christ’s College was founded in 1437 as God’s House, changing its name to Christ’s College in 1505 when it was granted a new royal charter. The College is renowned for educating Charles Darwin, the naturalist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution.
Continuing around the corner onto Sidney Street we explored the grounds of Sidney Sussex College (free admission all day). This College was founded in 1596 by legacy of Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex. It, again has some beautiful pale yellow stone buildings and attractive gardens.
Leaving the colleges for a short time, we admired the exterior of the Round Church (Church of the Holy Sepulchre) on Bridge Street. This church is Cambridge’s second oldest building dating back to 1130. Its shape being inspired by the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. It is one of only four medieval round churches still in use in England. We then crossed over the River Cam at Magdalene Bridge by the punting station.
Overlooking the river stands Magdalene College (pronounced Maudlin). Admission to the college is free (6.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.). Magdalene College started life as a Benedictine Hostel, later becoming the College of St. Mary Magdalene in 1542. The college’s most famous scholar was the diarist Samuel Pepys. After his death, his books and papers were bequeathed to the Pepys Library. Visiting Pepys Library is free of charge but hours are limited during term time.
The College is noted for its candlelit formal hall which is held every evening. It was also the last all male college in Cambridge to admit women in 1988. Its buildings are distinctive in that most of them are of brick except for the front of the Pepys library. Magdalene is one of Cambridge’s smallest colleges with around 300 undergraduate students.
The Museum of Cambridge on Castle Hill was next on our list. This timber framed building was a former coaching inn known as The White Horse dating back to the 17th century. Admission to the museum is £5 (£3 concessions) with remnants of the coaching inn still visible.
Touring the nine rooms of the small museum we discovered the vibrant history of Cambridge life. On the ground floor is the original pub bar and kitchen whilst up some narrow stairs we found several small rooms dedicated to folklore and childhood. These exhibits demonstrated how local people worked and played from the 1660’s to recent times.
Lying next door to the Museum of Cambridge is Kettle’s Yard a contemporary art gallery and house. There is no charge to tour the house but timed tickets are required which can either be pre-booked on-line or arranged on the day at the information desk. The house is open between 12.00 – 5.00 p.m. (closed Monday).
Between 1958 and 1973 Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede. In the 1920’s Jim had been curator of the Tate Gallery in London and through his friendship with famous artists and sculptors he gathered a remarkable collection of paintings and sculptures.
He carefully positioned the artworks in his Cambridge home in such a way that works of art could be enjoyed and where visitors could feel at home, unlike in a public art gallery or museum. Upon arrival, visitors are taken across to the house where a volunteer is requested to ring the doorbell. A guide then welcomes the group indoors and gives a short talk about the house and its contents. Afterwards, visitors are able to wander around as they please and, unusually for a museum, are encouraged to sit on the chairs and sofas in any of the rooms. The house, formerly a row of tumbledown cottages had been thoughtfully transformed by the Ede’s with the help of an architect in the two years before they moved in.
In 1966, Jim Ede gave the house and its contents to the University of Cambridge. Four years later it was extended and an exhibition gallery added. We didn’t know quite what to expect before visiting but very much enjoyed our visit and would recommend adding it to your itinerary if you plan to visit Cambridge. The adjacent gallery opens at 11.00 a.m. and hosts modern and contemporary temporary exhibitions. After all this sightseeing and museum visiting we headed along to the John Lewis department store approximately 10 minutes walk away for a refreshing pot of tea, slice of cake and a nice sit down for half an hour.
Feeling rejuvenated, we headed back to the quayside on Bridge Street to take a 45 minute shared College Backs punting tour. No visit to Cambridge is complete without a river boat trip with several companies offering tours and punt hire. Our tour was with Scudamore’s where tours cost £20 or £17 with an e-ticket. On-line tickets are valid for six months and can be exchanged for a specific timed trip by visiting the company’s ticket booth on the day.
Punts are flat bottomed boats which are propelled by a long pole. They were first used in medieval times in areas of shallow water such as the Fens to the north of Cambridge. As there is no foot well, the cushioned seats are almost at floor level so it might be difficult getting in and out for those with mobility problems. The punts are equipped with blankets and umbrellas but neither were needed during our late autumn trip as it was unseasonably warm and sunny.
The punt tour was even better than I had expected passing along this beautiful stretch of river lined with weeping willow trees. Our guide kept us entertained for the entire journey with lots of interesting information about the colleges, their famous alumni, and about the bridges we passed under.
The Backs are landscaped open gardens behind the seven colleges that back onto the River Cam. From our starting point we passed Magdalene, St.John’s, Trinity, Trinity Hall, Clare, King’s and Queen’s Colleges. It’s not possible to stroll along the river as the land is privately owned by each of the colleges and there is no towpath so taking a punting tour is really the best way to view these beautiful colleges and their bridges.
Passing St. John’s College we admired the Bridge of Sighs, a neo-gothic covered bridge linking the new court with its older college buildings. It was completed in 1831 and named after the covered bridge in Venice.
Approaching Queen’s College we caught our first glimpse of the Mathematical Bridge which was constructed in 1749. This wooden footbridge crosses the River Cam and connects the two parts of Queen’s College. The original bridge was made from oak but the current structure is a teak replica built in 1904.
After such a splendid boat trip we decided to spend the remainder of the afternoon shopping but first took a slight detour to admire the ornate entrance gateway of Trinity College. The city’s narrow pedestrianised streets were crowded with tourists and locals spending an afternoon in the historic centre. We came across an open air market, its stalls selling a wide range of goods mostly aimed at tourists. A market takes place daily with the one on Sunday having an emphasis on local food, arts and crafts.
We returned our shopping bags to the hotel and had a well earned rest before heading back into the centre later in the evening for dinner.
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