In this country you either cheer for Oxford or you cheer for Cambridge -- it's a bit like loving The Beatles or the Stones. When the University Boat Race comes on we are all secretly hoping that the other side will sink (or is that just me?). I'm actually not that fussed, to be honest. I wasn't much of an academic at school so the only way that I was coming here was on a day-trip on the train.
Your first view of Cambridge when you pull into the station will be disappointing, to say the least... it's the same bland flats and concrete office blocks as everywhere else. What you need to do is escape from the station as quickly as you can and head up Station Road and then Hills Road... towards that big church steeple you can see in the distance. That's the church of Our Lady & English Martyrs -- the first decent building in Cambridge. Then take a left down Lensfield Road and right when you get to Trumpington Street.
You'll have been walking for a good 15-20 minutes by this point, but don't worry because things will start to pretty up considerably now. Once you pass the Fitzwilliam Museum (you can't miss it -- it looks like the British Museum) then you'll be in the touristy part of Cambridge. I'm going to save this museum for the end because it's on the way back to the station.
A visit to Cambridge is all about the colleges and the architecture -- that's why you've come here. You need to step inside all of the colleges and have a good nose around, otherwise there's no point coming. That's what most of your day is going to be from this point on -- having a look around the colleges. And the road you're on right now is the one you have to remember -- Trumpington Street. It changes its name as you go along (to King's Parade and Trinity Street), but you'll be following the line of it for the rest of the day. It's basically impossible to get lost -- just keep coming back to this road and make your way up to the end.
The first college on the left is called Peterhouse. It's not the best in town but it's worth a quick five minutes to get you in the mood. They've got a nice little green underneath the arch, and some pretty little lampposts and flower boxes hanging off the windows.
Pembroke is next, and it's a beauty inside -- but you'll have to brave it through the arch because it does look a bit intimidating. Poke your nose in far enough to see the building in the far corner with the grey spire and brown brickwork. They've got a little chapel too.
Now take a detour down Silver Street and find the entrance to Queen's College. You have to pay a few quid to get into this one but I think it's worth it. This is the first college that will really knock your socks off. It's 550 years old and they've got some very nice timber-framed Tudor buildings inside -- the proper wonky ones with sloping walls.
If you continue walking down Silver Street to the river then you can see the famous Mathematical Bridge (you will already have walked over it if you paid the entrance fee into Queen's). There's a myth that this was designed by Isaac Newton but it wasn't -- it's just a plain old wooden bridge. If you're feeling adventurous then you can pick up a punt from here if you like, and have a lazy float along the river (they have people to do the actual punting, so you don't have to steer them yourself). I witnessed about three crashes whilst I was standing there watching -- no joke! They dont seem to mind nudging the others to clear them out of the way, so it's a good job those boats are flat and wide otherwise they would have tipped the poor tourists into the drink.
Now head back out into Trumpington Street because the next college is a blinder -- Corpus Christi. You have to pay a few quid to enter this one as well, but you'll get to see a couple of the courts, a tiny little courtyard garden and the inside of their chapel. It was whilst I was walking around this place that I realised how young the students are -- I guess I'm getting old.
If you thought that Corpus Christi was nice then wait until you get to King's College further along. The sixty minutes that you spent snoozing on the train will have been worth it as soon as you clap eyes on the exterior of this place. This is the most expensive college to enter but it's worth it for the grounds alone. You can also have a wander across the parkland at the back and see them punting on the river. The only building that you are allowed to enter is the famous King's College Chapel, which is home to the famous choir of angelic-looking schoolboys who sing Christmas carols at the Royal Albert Hall (they are probably chain-smoking hoodlums in real life).
You're supposed to say that you like the interior but I guess I must be spoilt, because it just seemed like a big empty box to me. I genuinely loved the outside, but the inside was a bit of a letdown. If you unwrap a present this big then you expect to see something fantastic inside, but it's the sheer size alone that impresses (and the vaulted roof too, if you can bend your neck high enough). There are no columns or statues or tombs or interesting side chapels to focus on, and the stained glass windows are too bright and high up to provide a light show. It hasn't even got a proper altar -- just a plain wooden table at the far end. I would describe it as looking like the shell of Westminster Abbey with all the columns and decorations taken out. Sorry God -- but I am not impressed at all. I'll stick with Westminster Abbey thank you very much.
The big church opposite King's College is St Mary's, which looks quite promising from the outside, but once again it is decidedly average inside (sorry God -- you're not having much luck today!). But you still need to go in there if only to climb up the tower. If you stump up a few quid you can climb up the windy stone stairs to the platform at the top. It's a bit of a climb though -- and I'm being serious. There are a couple of places to sit down and have a rest on the way up, but it's still a heart-thumping workout. Assuming that you don't die on the way up you'll be treated to a fantastic view over Cambridge. You can see right down onto King's College and Clare's College next-door, and all the way up to Trinity College and beyond. It really is a great view and it's definitely worth half-killing yourself up the stairs. (And it's just as scary coming down.)
The next big college to visit is Trinity's, which has a gatehouse very reminiscent of the one at Canterbury. You have to pay a few quid to get inside this one too, but the interior courtyard is worth stumping up a few bob. This was the only chapel I saw all day that actually had some decent statuary inside, with marble works of Cambridge's favourite sons -- Newton, Macaulay, Tennyson and Bacon. The altar is quite nice too, but they've roped it off for the devoted (club members only).
St. John's is another nice college to visit. This one has a very generous selection of courtyards and a chapel to nose around, some of which remind me a little bit of Hampton Court. Unfortunately they've also decided to stain one of the courtyards with a truly horrendous piece of modern architecture. Why do they do that? It's like painting a boil on the Mona Lisa's nose. Go and have a look at the Fisher Building and the Cripps building behind the back of New Court... and tell me that's not the most horrendous piece of architecture you've ever seen in your life. Apparently that building won a lot of prizes (that's what they tell you in the guide). Presumably they were booby prizes.
Carry on walking down the road until you get to the Round Church. This is a poor man's version of Temple Church in London, and is definitely not worth the entrance fee -- sorry God. In fact, when I get up to heaven I'm going to ask him for my £2.50 back.
The only other college that you might want to visit is Christ's -- but only because of who is associated with it: Margaret Beaufort (the mother-in-law from hell).
So that's about it for the colleges... all we've got left to do now is head back to the Fitzwilliam Museum on our way back to the train station. You might want to have a little stroll around the side streets before you do, because there is plenty of old architecture around town (it's everywhere!). The actual city centre itself is a bit bland (where all the high street shops are), but you can still find some interesting things down most of the streets.
You might like to pick up one of those city bus tours as well, which will fill in the history of Cambridge and show you what you've missed. There are bus stops all over the city and it takes about 1 hour 20 minutes from start to finish, and I think it's worth doing.
Now... you're probably wondering what the Fitzwilliam Museum is like, and I would love to tell you but the damn place is shut! It seems that it doesn't open on Mondays so I am stuck outside the front door. I've tried banging on it and kicking it but there is no answer -- sorry about that. It's probably a load of rubbish anyway. I will make up for my error by visiting the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences instead... which turned out to be about as interesting as it sounds. Imagine the Natural History Museum without any of the good stuff. It's just endless cases of shells and stones and tiny bits of bone embedded in the rock. They've got some fossilised leaves and rocks of coral as well -- flints, axe-heads, crystals, minerals and meteorites. There's thousands of these things in dusty wooden cabinets. It's okay if you've already got an interest, I suppose. But don't take your kids there or you'll have to carry them out fast asleep in your arms.
So here comes the million dollar question: is Cambridge worth a visit?
Yes, I think so. But it's all about the architecture. If you can't be bothered to walk from college to college and check out the buildings then it's hardly worth going. And all you're really going to see inside are some courtyards and an occasional chapel (and the huge one at King's College), but the town doesn't seem to have the variety of attractions that Oxford does. So if you've only got time for one then I'd definitely pick Oxford (or even Bath).
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