I’ve always loved university towns: the spirit, the energy, the combination of youthful, bustling enthusiasm and quiet intellectual reflection they exude refreshes me. Most university towns have a keen sense of place and radiate a palpable sense of better possibilities. They also usually have a fun-loving side.
One of the original university towns is Cambridge, England, site of Cambridge University. A jaunt to Cambridge makes a worthwhile day trip on a visit to London. One to two hours from London’s King’s Cross station by train, Cambridge has a claim to the title of Intellectual Capital of the Western World. Its 801-year-old university has produced more Nobel Prize winners (32) and Nobel Laureates (61) than any other university, edging out its perennial rival, Oxford.
With its medieval architecture, meandering Cam River and lovely Backs, Cambridge boasts a pleasant setting. The Backs are the pastoral green banks along the Cam River, a serene spot for strolling.
One favorite activity for adventurous visitors is punting down the Cam River. This isn’t kicking a football, but maneuvering a thin, flat-bottomed boat down the Cam River with a pole. I’ve been told that poling a punt is harder than it looks. Stories are told of visitors quite embarrassed when their pole gets stuck in the mud and the punt subsequently drifts away to the amused delight of onlooking students. (Oh well; just wait ‘til these guys come out here and try to surf!)
To lessen the possibility of this sort of humiliation, take a nine-minute punting lesson from Scudamore’s Punting Company. You can also hire a chauffeur punt guide at about 15 pounds an hour to guide you through the experience and show you the sights along the banks. These are generally students who offer stories of life at Cambridge stretching back hundreds of years. A boat ride really is the best and most memorable way to see Cambridge. (If things go awry, a sense of humor is a helpful asset.)
Cambridge is also a great town for walking. The Tourist Information Center (visitcambridge.org) is a good first stop to get your bearings. Daily walking tours depart from there at 1:30 pm.
I arrived just as a tour was about to leave, so it was a convenient way for me to become acquainted with the area. Narrow medieval passageways meander through town. Two main streets, Trumpington Road and Bridge Street, run parallel to the Cam River and provide easy access to the university. Just take one of the footbridges across the river.
Cambridge University is the second-oldest university in England to Oxford. A list of its distinguished alumni encompasses an astonishing collection of talent and genius – including Stephen Hawking, Sir Isaac Newton, Bertrand Russell, John Milton, Lord Byron (who supposedly had a pet bear while there), William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, Crick and Watson of the DNA helix, and John Cleese and Eric Idle of Monty Python fame.
Cambridge can also lay claim to being the birthplace of the computer, as local Charles Babbage produced the first computing system in the mid 1800s. Cambridge takes justifiable pride in its academic prowess. The university was ranked #1 in the 2010 QS World University Rankings. It barely beat out Harvard, which is, coincidentally, located in a Cambridge of its own.
The history and architecture of the university is another attraction. Its Gothic architecture hearkens back to the 1300s, when the town was founded by monks attracted by the area’s pastoral beauty. The most notable local architectural landmark may be King’s College Chapel, built in 1441 by King Henry VI. For the most memorable visit there, attend a choral Evensong, held in the chapel Monday through Saturday at 5:30.
Trinity College is the largest and wealthiest of Cambridge’s colleges. It was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. Christopher Wren’s library for Trinity College is a notable building that has inspired students for centuries. The Trinity Chapel includes memorials to famous past students, including Sir Isaac Newton. The University Botanical Gardens and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the oldest of the university’s museums, are other campus spots worth exploring.
Cambridge has more to offer than just the university. The central town bustles with a variety of shops, restaurants, markets, pubs, bookshops and inns. The Fitzwilliam Museum has an excellent collection of paintings and antiquities. The Cambridge Arts Theatre almost always has a performance worth taking in. There’s also a Ghost Walk tour offered at night (featuring spectral alumni?). Alimentum Restaurant was recently voted among the top restaurants in Britain by a respected food guide. There's a growing trend among recent graduates of the university to stay in town to run art galleries, cafes and other local enterprises.
There are lovely parks and open green spaces throughout Cambridge. The surrounding Cambridgeshire Fenlands are marshy regions that were underwater in medieval times until the draining of the fens in the 17th century. The Wicken Fen Nature Reserve explores their history, flora and fauna.
It’s a little quieter in Cambridge during the summer when many of the students go on break, but the town makes a worthwhile destination any time of the year. If you’re lucky, perhaps some of the genius it has spawned will rub off on you.