Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Additional photos courtesy Visit Britain
“It’s so close to London, come visit.” insisted my great-niece. “You can get around on foot or by bike on the cobblestones,” That sounded dandy. And so off we went to Cambridge, England, a college town that my niece assured us was full of history and charm.
She got that right! The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have quite a city for themselves. This university town, which inspired Catherine and William's royal titles, is only 50 miles from London -- great for a day trip or overnight stay. Cambridge is perfect for relaxing walks and museum visits, surrounded by medieval buildings and extensive green spaces.
How did it feel to be in the same spaces as DNA discoverers Francis Crick and James D. Watson, economist John Maynard Keynes, novelist E.M. Forster and actor Dudley Moore, who are all Cambridge grads? Energizing, actually.
All around are stately buildings from the Middle Ages on. The great stone edifices that comprise the 31 colleges have elaborate, carved wooden doorways that grace entrances. Everything is landscaped in an English garden way with hydrangeas, daisies and fuchsias bordering the buildings. Lush grass flourishes in the courtyards -- often the size of football fields or tennis courts -- that surround the buildings. Beware! Visitors are forbidden to walk on the grass -- this is a privilege reserved for students.
We particularly liked Christ College, where scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin as well as actors John Cleese and Emma Thompson studied. Speaking of Darwin, we most purposely went to see his digs at Christ College, which dates from 1450. "C. Darwin" remains written on the entrance of his three-story dormitory. Farther into the squares and buildings of Christ College grows the famous mulberry tree that John Milton wrote about.
This garden's plants resemble those Darwin found during his historic voyage of discovery. The garden holds a life-size sculpture of Darwin as a student sitting on a bench. We were lucky. Visitors are welcome to walk the grounds and climb the stairs to Darwin's room,
In a constellation of star-power buildings, King's College glitters prominently. Founded in the 15th century, its late English Gothic structures are imposing. King's crowning glory is the chapel commissioned by the Crown: several King Henrys planned it; Henry VIII saw it through to completion, in between doing away with a few wives. Touring that building alone would have been enough!
Nothing says Cambridge like a punt on the Backs. So we treated Nina and her husband Justin to a punt with us. Punts are wooden boats that ply this narrow river, only 30 feet wide and 3 feet deep. The Backs are just that -- the back side of the imposing medieval buildings that surround the 31 colleges that comprise Cambridge. It's an easy, relaxing way to learn about the university, particularly if someone else is doing the punting. Developed over the centuries, several bridges now span the Cam. Nina and Justin thought the most unusual one was the covered Bridge of Sighs.
You can rent your own punt or pay for a chauffeur-guide, a wise alternative unless you've got college-age musculature. We chose to punt with a guide. We were both amused and educated about Cambridge in a very short time. Boats pass, filled with tipplers lifting glasses, while their punter does the heavy lifting. We saw a cow on the riverbank and hear a mash of Italian, Hindi and English, coming from boats named Steps to Heaven. Hat Trick, and -- no surprise -- Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Scudamore's, like most large operators, provided cushions, blankets and brollies (umbrellas)…just in case. Remember it’s England.
After, we treated Justin and Nina to lunch at the nearby Galleria Restaurant with its two protected terraces that overlook the Cam. We watched the punts glide . . . as well as collide . . . while we dined on succulent roast lamb and portobellos with quinoa. (galleriacambridge.co.uk).
Another day we trotted off to an historic pub: The Eagle. It dates from 1525. This is an important landmark, as it is where university scientists Crick and Watson announced their discovery of DNA…the secret of life. We marveled at that while savoring butternut squash risotto along with other high-quality pub grub. We chose to dine outdoors, but there were several rooms inside, too.
With all that verdant 700-year old grass, my husband and I decided to picnic. For provisions we chose Cambridge Cheese Co., in All Saint's Passage, because it sells local cheeses and accompaniments. We took our spread to a place on the Backs by Queens College. There were several other large greens we could have selected. Parkers Piece, Jesus Green or Christ's Pieces all welcome picnickers. We almost caught a cricket game at the same time.
Justin had been a choral singer in college and was enthusiastically knowledgeable about the concerts in town. Choral and organ music are part of the Cambridge experience in several of its colleges: King's, St. John's, Trinity, Clare and Trinity Hall. Usually, free concerts are held in the early evening, when school is in session. The music is both secular and religious, with many varied events. King's is renowned for concerts Easter Week, the Cambridge Summer Music Festival and its Christmas Eve concert. Broadcast worldwide, that concert "is" Christmas for many Britons.
We checked the individual college websites to find out what was happening when. St. John's College, which resembles a wedding cake, was offering Evensong concerts as well as jazz sessions. We were hooked and happy. We would have attended more, but there was so much more to do and see.
We walked to the Fitzwillliam Museum to take in first-rate works of art in a grand building. A plus: no entrance fee. It’s free. This museum is filled with treasures and is itself a treasure. Magnificently outfitted with marble, wood and elaborate ceilings, the rooms felt intimate yet elegant. The museum offers easy-to-read explanations of culture and history, which made the exhibits more meaningful to all of us.
Fitzwilliam's collection encompasses oil paintings from old masters Gainsborough and Breughel, and Impressionists Degas and Corot, to art by Picasso and America's Larry Rivers. We took in Italian etchings, fine furniture, and more. (fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk).
The natural world was of interest to my husband, so we hurried off to the University Museum of Zoology. It is free of charge, as are seven other university museums. We scrutinized specimens donated by Charles Darwin from his voyage on the Beagle. There are skeletons, fossils, shells, and animals preserved by taxidermy -- stuffed but not stuffy. We knew the museum by the large boned "creature" outside that looks like the remains of a dinosaur or some sort of abstract sculpture (it's actually a finback whale skeleton).
Beyond the colleges lay other historic sites with contemporary joys. A rare, round church known as St. Sepulchre dates from the 11th century. Near the tourist office, on the town square, is an open-air market that has been operating for centuries. It's filled with local produce and foodstuffs along with witty British souvenirs. All this and more make up Cambridge – a place to be!
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