Cambridge: a city of cobbles and crenelations

Cambridge: a city of cobbles and crenelations

Returning to a city we know and love, Modern Traveller looks for secrets and surprises in celestial Cambridge.


A return trip to a city one loves is inevitably filled with trepidation. Hope of finding the place unchanged wavers, memories come flooding back and the thought of ambling down those same streets feels utterly surreal. Such was the case for MT, spending a highly-anticipated few days in charming Cambridge.

This is a city of secrets, of tiny, age-old bookshops, hole-in-the-wall eateries and rose-clad walled courtyards: history seeping from its very stones.

Forget the run-of-the-mill hotels and go local, setting down your satchel in a snug Airbnb — of which there are an astonishing number to choose from — ready to really get under the skin of the city.

King’s College, the archetypal, picture-perfect postcard image of the legendary 800-year-old university, makes for a truly striking spot to start. Sure, it’s been done before, but a glimpse through that gothic façade to the enormous stretch of greener-than-green grass, a flawless lawn never to be set foot upon by anyone but the college’s fellows — Cambridge professors — is not to be missed.

Dodge students on rickety two-wheelers, bright paint peeling and baskets heaving with books, as you take a sharp left onto the tiny Senate House Passage, its pitted flagstones paying heed to centuries of comings and goings, from the likes of Charles Darwin, Rupert Brooke and — more recently — Stephen Fry, to name but a few.

Raise your eyes skywards as you turn left again: crooked crenelations await, stark cut-outs against a cyan sky. At the end of the lane lie the lofty heights of King’s Chapel, a wonder well worth the entrance fee: building began under Henry VI in 1446, and the monolith was completed a century later by Henry VIII, whose Tudor rose and intricately carved initials can be seen everywhere.

Subsumed by the enormity of this stone sanctuary, tiptoe between rows of worn wooden pews to admire the rood screen, installed to mark Henry VIII’s marriage to the unfortunate Anne Boleyn; note the lone name of the Hungarian Ferenc Békassy, listed separately to that of his fellow students who laid down their lives in the First World War, having fought for the other side; and peer closely at Rubens’ altar-topping masterpiece of 1634 to see the ‘IRA’ scored into the wood as a gesture of rebellion.

In the building where Cromwell stationed his troops, stooped in its carved recesses and marvelling at its stained-glass windows, stored away to avoid destruction in the Second World War, you being to immerse yourself in the history of this incredible place.

Just streets away, duck into the discreet doorway of David’s Bookshop, a treasure trove for the bibliophile. Run your fingers along the covers of fascinating biographies, gaze wide-eyed at shelves stacked with first editions, rare leather-bound tomes and faded posters, relics of a half-forgotten era.

Forget Trinity and St. John’s, the renowned show-stopper colleges, and dodge the camera-toting tourists by heading the opposite way up King’s Parade. Assuming you aren’t swept up by the bright smiles and famous charm of the iridescent-shorts-clad punt guides, you’ll find yourself outside the wonky wooden gates of Pembroke College.

This is the real deal. Founded in 1347 — only the third-oldest of the 31 Cambridge colleges — Pembroke is a stunning hotchpotch of architectural styles. Stepping around the impeccable grass of Old Court, take a moment to admire the chapel, the very first designed by Sir Christopher Wren, long before he turned his hand to St Paul’s Cathedral. Continue through rose gardens, past the Hogwarts-esque gothic Formal Hall and pause before the statue commemorating William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister at just 24 – perhaps one of the college’s most famous alumni.

Museum-lovers should wile away an hour or two in the nearby Fitzwilliam Museum, rightly dubbed one of the most impressive regional museums in Europe for its fine collection of objects and artwork. Lesser-known but equally as intriguing, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, also just a few hundred feet from Pembroke, is filled to the brim with artefacts from across the globe, providing an astonishing insight into the human desire to explore, to discover, to collect and to preserve objects, whilst, in some cases, having a profound and controversial impact upon the cultures which created them.

Out in the open once again, marvel anew as each and every turn reveals yet another dreamy alleyway, another walled wonder or cosy alcove in which to curl up with a cup of tea.

Wander a little off the beaten path to Afternoon Tease, to gorge yourself on Guinness Cake and savour a cinnamon spiced latte, or to Sticky Beaks around the corner, for gluten-free delights and a cup of the good stuff.

As dusk sets the city aglow, tuck into a hearty fresh ciabatta, brimming with pesto, pork and crackling at the fabulous Bread & Meat, or grab a slice of Sicily at Aromi, before settling back into your seat at the ADC Theatre, home of the Cambridge Footlights and the stage upon which the likes of Emma Thompson, John Cleese and Eric Idle improvised in front of an audience of their peers.

Cambridge is a city of secrets. There can be no better way to sink under its skin than to amble up and down twisting alleyways, to peer into hidden alcoves and to trace the steps of Quentin Blake, Sylvia Plath, Sir Salman Rushdie, Stephen Hawking and the innumerable others who lived and thought and wrote and drew and painted here. Their legacy is to be felt in the city’s very stones, making it a place of rare and particular magic.

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