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Things to do in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Inner courtyard of Trinity College with lawn area surrounded by college buildings
Trinity College Inner Courtyard ©Shutterstock / pinggr

The City of Cambridge is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in Britain, situated in the quiet east of England, amid the rural countryside of Cambridgeshire.

The residents, students of the University and visitors, have the best of all worlds, the combination of the romantic medieval image and an up to date city; Cambridge is beautiful, not over big and with all the amenities of a University City.

Cambridge's unique setting on the banks of the River Cam, the "backs" and the magnificent architecture of the University buildings all combine to make Cambridge the most unforgettable place, one which will linger long in your memory.

Early Cambridge

The history of Cambridge began in the first century BC when an Iron Age tribe established a settlement on Castle Hill. A ford was built at the foot of the hill to cross the River Cam, originally known as Granta, the river upstream of Silver Street Bridge still retains its old name.

River Cam at King's College
River Cam at King's College ©Shutterstock / Cedric Weber

Later the Romans took over this site which was an important crossing point, marking the meeting place of the Roman Roads, in particular, the Via Devana which linked Colchester to Chester.

It was the Normans who built a castle here as a base for fighting Hereward the Wake, the Saxon rebel. The mound of William the Conqueror's castle is still in existence, from where on a clear day you can see the lantern tower of Ely Cathedral.

The Beginnings of The University

In the 12th century, students attended schools attached to the Monasteries and Cathedrals and as Universities developed in Italy and France scholars migrated from one centre to another. Some went from Paris to Oxford and later in the early 13th century groups arrived in Cambridge.

Aerial view of Cambridge skyline
Cambridge Skyline ©Shutterstock / Ben Jeayes

During the 12th century, several religious orders came to Cambridge attracting sufficient numbers of students for the town to be recognised as a seat of learning by a writ for its governance made by Henry III in 1231.

At this time, students would gather around whichever religious, or lay teachers ideas appealed to them and had to make their own arrangements for living accommodation.

Due to the unsatisfactory conditions in which the students had to exist, hostels were set up in the care of the masters and from this, the college system evolved.

It was not until 1284 that the first college came into being when Hugo de Balsham, Bishop of Ely, founded Peterhouse.

As the University grew and took over more of the town, inevitably there were disagreements between residents and members of the University and for many years there were spasmodic outbreaks of trouble between "town and gown".

During the 16th century, at the time of the church reformation, Cambridge educated famous Protestant preachers such as Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley; all later became martyrs in Oxford, during the reign of Mary Tudor.

The Civil War brought Cambridge to the centre of events as Oliver Cromwell was a graduate of Sidney Sussex College and also the local member of parliament, while the University was mainly Royalist.

Although the University regained its status after the restoration, there came a time during the 18th century when, according to Lord Byron its reputation for "din and drunkenness" was better known than its academic record.

By the 19th century, the University underwent changes, introducing subjects such as natural science and history to its curriculum and vastly increased its numbers.

The coming of the railways to Cambridge brought industry and employment opportunities, increasing the local population which redressed the balance of "town and gown".

Exterior view of building with many arches and clock tower
Emmanuel College ©Shutterstock / Raedwald

In the late 1800s, two colleges were founded for women, but it was not until the late 1940’s that they were awarded degrees. A third women’s college was founded in the 1950s, it was not until the 1970’s that other colleges began to accept female students for the first time.

Cambridge has always enjoyed a reputation for being at the forefront of scientific research, and today it is a thriving place, considered to be a centre for hi-tech industries and referred to locally as "Silicon Fen".

Days Out

When you visit Cambridge, some of the famous attractions you will not want to miss include The Fitzwilliam Museum, housing a collection of world-famous paintings, drawings and prints together with Egyptian and Roman antiquities, there are permanent collections and temporary exhibitions.

The Cambridge and County Folk Museum is in a building dating back to the 16th century. Its rooms display fascinating local domestic history of the past 300 years.

Exterior view of Trinity College
Trinity College ©Shutterstock / Vasilieva Tatiana

Other Cambridge museums are the Wipple Museum of the History of Science, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Museum of Zoology, the Museum of Classical Archaeology and the Scott Polar Research Institute.

The Round Church, is one of only four remaining round churches in England, it now houses a brass rubbing centre.

The American Cemetery is set on a beautifully landscaped hillside, it commemorates the American servicemen and women who died during the Second World War.

You can relax in the pleasant surroundings of the University Botanic Gardens, where you will find a huge collection of plants in a tranquil garden setting. Or take a gentle stroll along the Backs where you will enjoy seeing the wonderful architecture of the colleges across the river; for the more energetic why not take a punt along the River Cam, in true Cambridge style.

Stone bridge with gothic windows - Bridge of Sighs, St John's College
Bridge of Sighs, St John's College ©Shutterstock / r.nagy

For those interested in rowing, they will be entertained by the “Bumps Races”, which take place on the River Cam. These races between colleges take place several times a year; there are Lent Bumps, May Bumps and Bumps’ Races rowing eights in June and July.

Shopping, Eating and Entertainment

Shoppers will find a pleasant environment in Cambridge, for browsing in the bustling market square or discovering the many individual shops, the major stores and the excellent bookshops.

Cambridge has many cosmopolitan cafes and restaurants, serving a selection of food from around the world, together with traditional English cuisine.

In the evening Cambridge offers a choice of theatres, cinemas and clubs. Classical music concerts and organ recitals take place in many of the college chapels and live music can be enjoyed in a number of pubs.

The University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge is made up of thirty-one colleges; many of them are architectural gems, founded by Kings, Queens, bishops, noblemen and wealthy patrons.

Large endowments of wealth and land allowed the colleges to employ the best architects, who created magnificent buildings, which reflect 700 years of British Heritage. The older colleges were planned in the monastic tradition, with cloisters, courts, a large dining hall and a chapel.

Fisheye view of interior of Trinity College Chapel
Trinity College Chapel ©Shutterstock / r.nagy

Entrance is through a porter’s lodge at the gatehouse where you can find out the opening times of individual colleges. The colleges are first and foremost private places, where people live and work throughout the year.

Visitors are usually welcome to walk through the courts, to visit the chapels and libraries but quietness is important.

Examination time is from mid-April to late June and most colleges are closed to the public during this period.

The 31 colleges comprising the University of Cambridge:

Christ's College (1505) Founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort mother of Henry VII, her arms and statue can be seen on the imposing gate. Famous members were John Milton and Charles Darwin.

Churchill College (1960) Is a National and Commonwealth memorial to the great wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

Clare College (1326) the picturesque bridge at Clare’s is the oldest surviving River Bridge in Cambridge, built C.1640 in the classical style by Thomas Grumbold. It crosses the river Cam to the Fellow’s Gardens, one of the most beautiful gardens open to the public.

Notable members were the reformer Hugh Latimer, who was burnt at the stake in Oxford and the Elizabethan dramatist Robert Green.

Clare Hall (1965) was founded as a college for graduate students, Clare Hall has many overseas students giving it an international atmosphere.

Corpus Christie College (1352) was founded by two of the town’s guilds. Old Court is the best surviving early Medieval college court in Cambridge.

The college library contains a valuable collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The church of St Bene’t, is the original college chapel but has an earlier Saxon origin.

Bicycles parked outside college buildings
Cycling is Popular Student Transport ©Shutterstock / NEIL ROY JOHNSON

Among the distinguished people who studied at the college were the dramatists Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) and John Fletcher (1579-1625).

Darwin College (1964) Darwin is a college exclusively for graduate students. The name is from the family of Sir Charles Darwin, whose second son owned Newnham Grange, the oldest part of the college.

Located in the centre of the city, the college backs onto the River Cam and two small islands owned by the college give it a uniquely charming atmosphere.

Downing College (1800) the Neoclassical buildings were designed by William Wilkins. Downing is unique in Cambridge for being laid out in the campus-style, built around a central lawn instead of being enclosed in separate courtyards.

Emmanuel (1584) the chapel by Sir Christopher Wren contains a plaque to John Harvard, a former student, who sailed on the mayflower in 1636 giving his name to Harvard University.

Fitzwilliam College (1966) Fitzwilliam started life in 1869 from a house opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum, as a non-collegiate student board with responsibility for undergraduates unable to afford membership of a college.

The Queen granted its charter in 1966, and today Fitzwilliam is a modern friendly college situated on Castle Hill.

Girton College (1869) The first residential college for women. Situated about 2.5 miles from the city centre, the college occupies spacious grounds. Girton became mixed in 1977 with the arrival of the first male Fellows and male undergraduates in 1979.

Gonville and Caius College (1348) known as Caius (pronounced “Keys”) Founded by Edmund Gonville and restored in 1557 when it had fallen into disrepair by John Keys a former student; Dr Keys changed his name to Caius, adopting the Latinized spelling of his name, in the fashion of the time.

As part of the reconstruction, Dr Caius had three gates erected, which still survive.

New students to the college enter through the Gate of Humility; while studying in college they would pass through the Gate of Virtue every day; on leaving after receiving their degrees they depart through the Gate of Honour.

Homerton College (1976) An internationally renowned college with a history of offering high-quality courses in teacher education.

Hughes Hall (1885) The oldest graduate college of the University of Cambridge, unique in specialising in the admission of women graduates when the University still did not confer degrees on women.

Named after the first principal Elizabeth Phillips Hughes. As the college provided residential accommodation to large numbers of its students it was called Hall after a hall of residence.

M.V. Hughes chronicled the earliest days of the college in her book “A London Girl in the Eighties”.

Jesus College (1497) was built on the site of a 12th century Benedictine Nunnery; the original buildings were taken over from the nunnery remain the core of the college.

The Chapel, which has undergone restoration, has decoration by Augustus Pugin, William Morris and stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones.

Among leading Jesuans down the ages are Archbishop Cranmer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Laurence Stern, the broadcaster Alistair Cook and Jacob Bronowski.

King’s College (1441) Founded by Henry VI, the original great court still survives, but much of the college buildings we see today are from the 18th and 19th centuries. Kings College Chapel was begun during the reign of Henry VI but was not completed for a hundred years. This is the jewel in the crown of the college and of Cambridge itself, a magnificent example of Gothic architecture.

Exterior View of King's College
King's College ©Shutterstock / Cedric Weber

The interior is breathtaking, with the combination of the delicately fan-vaulted roof, the lavish woodcarving and the 16th century stained glass.

Well known around the world, for its music, the beautiful singing of the choir, and for the Christmas service of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which has been broadcast worldwide since the Second World War.

Some of the distinguished alumni of King’s College are Orlando Gibbons the composer, Sir Robert Walpole, the poet Rupert Brooke, A.M. Turing one of the originators of the computer and E.M. Forster the writer.

Lucy Cavendish College (1965) was founded for the specific advancement of women’s education. An informal and friendly atmosphere characterises the college.

Magdalene College (1428) The College is home to the Pepys Building, named after the Magdalene scholar Samuel Pepys, who bequeathed his library including the original shelving and his desk together with his famous diary. The library is arranged in order of size No.1 (the smallest) to No.3,000 (the largest).

Other graduates of the college are Michael Ramsey Archbishop of Canterbury 1961-74, Sir Michael Redgrave the actor, and Bamber Gascoigne the author and chairman of University Challenge 1962-87.

New Hall (1954) Occupies a grade II listed building completed in 1965, on an old Roman site on Castle Hill. The student body of New Hall is open only to women.

Newnham College (1871) The second college for women, the college's pretty red and white Edwardian buildings are situated in large grounds.

Pembroke College (1347) was founded by Mary Countess of Pembroke. The college Chapel is the first work of Sir Christopher Wren, commissioned by his Uncle Bishop of Ely a royalist supporter, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London for seventeen years.

The chapel was given to his old college in thanksgiving for his release, consecrated in 1665 it was the first chapel in Cambridge in the classical style. The reformist Bishop Nicholas Ridley who was burnt at the stake in Oxford, William Pitt the younger, the poets Edmund Spenser and Ted Hughes were all Pembroke men.

Peterhouse College (1284) Founded by Hugo de Balsham Bishop of Ely, this is the oldest and smallest of the Cambridge colleges. The only original building to survive is the 13th-century hall. Eminent Petreans include Henry Cavendish, Charles Babbage, Thomas Grey, Lord Kelvin and Frank Whittle.

View of world's largest stained glass windows lit from outside
World's Largest Stained Glass Windows at King's College ©Shutterstock / Cedric Weber

Queens’ College (1448) Founded by Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and re-founded in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. Cloister Court is a picturesque Elizabethan courtyard, with galleried arcades. The president’s Lodge is exquisite, one of the few half-timbered college buildings in Cambridge.

Queens’ College is home to the famous Mathematical Bridge a reconstruction of the original mid 18th-century bridge, built without nails, relying on precise mathematical calculations for its strength.

Robinson College (1979) Built by Sir David Robinson, a local millionaire, after whom the college is named.

St. Catherine’s College (1473) founded by the provost of King’s College, none of the original buildings remains, the college was largely rebuilt in the 17th century.

St. Edmund’s College (1896) Founded by the 15th Duke of Norfolk as a hall of residence, it became in 1965 one of the new graduate colleges, receiving its Royal charter in 1998.

St. John’s College (1511) founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, whose coat of arms adorns the entrance. The famous Bridge of Sighs built in 1831 by Henry Hutchinson spans the River Cam adjoining the old and new college buildings, interesting to compare it with the older St. John’s Bridge, built C.1710 based on designs by Wren.

Ben Johnson, Palmerston and Wordsworth, who wrote about his rooms in college in his work “Prelude”, were all notable members of St. John’s.

Selwyn College (1882) founded in memory of George Augustus Selwyn the first Bishop of New Zealand. The college is built in Tudor Gothic style, situated in secluded grounds.

Sidney Sussex College (1596) one of the smaller colleges, founded by Lady Francis Sidney, Countess of Sussex, on the site of the Franciscan house. Oliver Cromwell entered as a fellow commoner in 1616.

Trinity College (1546) founded by Henry VIII, who incorporated King’s Hall and Michaelhouse in his foundation. Great Court is the largest of its kind, with the original fine Tudor buildings; the fountain in the centre is where it is said Lord Byron bathed with his pet bear, students were not allowed to keep dogs!

The magnificent Library is the work of Wren, with bookcases finely carved by Grinling Gibbbons.

University buildings in Cambridge
Cambridge Boasts Many Beautiful Buildings ©Shutterstock / Gordon Bell

Trinity has a longer list of famous alumni than any other college, to name only a few – Newton, Drydon, Byron, Balfour, Baldwin, Vaughn Williams, A.E. Houseman, Bertrand Russell, A.A. Milne and Pandit Nehru.

Trinity Hall (1350) founded by Bishop Bateman of Norwich, it is a small community and one of the prettiest colleges in Cambridge. Notable parts of the college are the Chapel, the Elizabethan Library with its original chains and the Dining Hall. Trinity Hall’s alumni include Lord Howard, Robert Herrick, F.D. Maurice and J.B. Priestly.

Wolfson College (1965) Mainly a graduate college, Wolfson's students come from around the world, making it one of the more cosmopolitan colleges in Cambridge.

Other University Buildings

Apart from the colleges, the University Buildings of importance are, the University Church - Great St. Mary’s – built in the 15th century, with the galleries added in the mid 18th century, when it became popular for large congregations to gather to hear the sermons preached by great scholars. The gallery was used by the fellows and masters of the colleges and was referred to as “Golgotha”. The tower of the church is famous for the views over the centre of the town.

Senate House is a Palladian building with delicate plasterwork and fine woodwork, designed by James Gibbs in the 1722-30. The Senate House is used for important ceremonial occasions such as the conferment of degrees. Old Schools built in the 14th-15th centuries, with later work in the 18th-19th centuries now house the University offices.

Check out our other article about Cambridge:

Romantic Things to do in Cambridge

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By Car

Cambridge has excellent communication links, accessed by the M11 from the south and London (M25), and by the A14 from the North (A1) and from the East coast.

By Coach

Hourly services from London Victoria Coach Station are provided by National Express.

By Rail

There is a fast, frequent rail service from both London Kings Cross (50 minutes) and London Liverpool Street (1 hour 10 minutes). Also good connections from Scotland and the North via Peterborough.

Self Catering

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