Standing outside of the Cambridge Visitor Information Centre, we carefully studied the paper map. King’s College, Trinity College, St John’s College… and oh look: here’s the Fitzwilliam Museum, and there the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology!
Soon, we understood that history is layered at every corner in Cambridge. But can the city’s wonders be laid out on a tourist map? We both looked at our niece, all excited to explore Cambridge as a prospective student. The amount of colleges to be visited seemed to be overwhelming to her too. Without a word, we folded the map and put it away. – Let’s just wander around, and absorb the atmosphere…
Just like Oxford, Cambridge is a University City where everything is within walking distance. Colleges are spread around town, entangled with modern shops and restaurants. But compared to Oxford, it is much easier to venture into the cloistered grounds of Cambridge’s colleges.
In total, there are 31 colleges in Cambridge, the oldest one being St Peter’s (or Peterhouse), founded in 1284. About 300 meters up north, chairs King’s College, now a favourite place for tourists to take selfies. Founded by King Henri IV in 1441, King’s College is mainly famous for its grandiose 16th century chapel, regarded as the best example of England’s Gothic architecture.
As the queue to King’s College was extremely long, we decided to first visit Trinity College, and next-door’s St John’s College. Kerstin was about to pay for our entrance tickets, when the lady at the counter overheard our niece exclaiming her excitement to visit her (hopefully future) college. Oh, you’re a prospective student, she asked. Well, your entrance fees are waived then! And soon, we passed through imposing oak doors into the two largest of Cambridge’s colleges, gazing at heraldic carvings, beautiful magnolias, and elegant Tudor gateways.
Behind the colleges’ grandiose facades and manicured lawns, lies a series of gardens butting up against the river Cam, known as The Backs. There we strolled along the river, taking in the unparalleled views of the colleges and the dozens of punts.
In the Middle Ages, these flat-bottomed boats, which are propelled with a long pole, were actually work boats. Nowadays, punting is a popular activity for tourists, Cambridge students and locals. But instead of choosing the comfort of sitting in a punt, we meandered through the meadows on foot, at our own pace, soaking in the blossoming atmosphere. At regular intervals, ancient bridges spanned over the river, while weeping willows bent over the shimmering waters.
The most curious bridge in The Backs is certainly the Mathematical Bridge: made of wood, it joins the two halves of Queen’s College, one of the oldest and largest colleges of the University of Cambridge. After marvelling at it for a while, we found out that the only way to cross the Mathematical Bridge is to enter Queen’s College from Queen’s Lane. Once inside, we crossed two medieval courtyards: the Old Court and the Cloister Court, both built in the middle of the 15th century, right after the foundation of the college by Margaret of Anjou, Queen of Henri IV.
The other eye-catcher from river Cam is the Bridge of Sighs. As we approached it, we saw our niece beaming at this Gothic Revival, built by Henry Hutchinson in 1831. A true masterpiece of stone tracery. And the future of a prospective student suddenly looked brighter…