On Friday we piled in our little red car and headed off to Cambridge.
Our two weeks in England are swishing past quicker than I have ever thought it possible and eager to explore as much as we can, we punched Cambridge in the GPS and set off.
I had been to Cambridge once 15 years ago, so I was curious to see with fresh eyes the city famous for its colleges, academic achievements and the fine minds it had cultivated.
The road swirled through picturesque small villages and just over an hour after leaving St. Albans – our base in England – we were already driving through the congested outer streets of Cambridge. A multi-story car park materialised out of thin air, so we left the car in there and headed out to explore.
‘We lucked out’, I told my husband, as it transpired that we had parked just a few minutes away from the main colleges lined up along the river Cam.
We followed the street signs and soon joined the crowd of locals and tourists. Numerous as they were, their number was by far exceeded by the countless bikes which swished past us or peacefully reclined against metal fences and railings. Being the main mode of transport of the students at Cambridge, the bikes have become a symbol of the city.
We saw them everywhere we went. Colourful and plain, brand new and second-hand. I loved seeing them lined up in dense groups in front of the many colleges, libraries and other academic buildings.
Bikes were so ubiquitous that the local market had a bike shop housed in a market stall…
and they had been even turned into a novelty advertising vehicle, as several shops, cafes and even a barber had an old bike chained in front of their premises artfully promoting the offerings of the respective establishments.
Fellow tourists on the other hand would overtake us riding their rented bicycles whilst on an organised bike tour of Cambridge.
All this gave the city a young, energetic appearance. Its central streets felt unburdened by the traffic we had encountered on the outside.
We walked slowly, just taking it all in and trying to decide how to spend the day. Fabulous buildings followed one after another making us stop and gasp at their architectural prowess and whimsical ornamentation.
Gargoyles stuck out of the rooftops.
Sculpted heads and pre-historic animals adorned facades of weathered stone.
Not to mention the mythical creatures which we spotted all over the city. Like these yales on the 500 years old Great Gate of St. John’s College. Yales apparently had elephant tails, antelope bodies and goat heads with horns which could swivel from back to front. Quite the beast, don’t you reckon!?
And above them all reigned the long chimneys of Cambridge. In groups of two’s and three’s they jutted out from the old brick homes which have been housing the cleverest students of many a nation for many centuries.
It was all so magical and whimsical, beautiful to look at, almost unreal to behold.
I love it when a city speaks to you through its buildings. When every house and every structure which surround you have been marked by the skillful hands of an imaginative builder. When putting together all the pieces of the puzzle creates a city which is like no other. A city with its own identity and soul, where the high street is not overtaken by cookie-cutter stores and offices.
We found Cambridge to be one such city and one of the great things about it was that its central streets bristled with independent shops, cafes and galleries selling their unique wares. In a country where countless towns now have identikit high streets, Cambridge was a breath of fresh air where history, tradition, nature and creative flair have devised a unique environment.
So, I was not the least surprised when we came across a small bookstore imaginatively named ‘The Haunted Bookshop’. It seemed to be just at the right place in a city which has so many stories to tell.
But, what is that small unsightly brown book right in the bottom corner of the dusty window display?! Oh, my! A 1809 edition of Gulliver’s Travels! My heart started racing. Here, right in front of me was a piece of literary history. Like it was perfectly normal to simply walk in a bookshop and leave with an over 200 years old book.
I was unable to afford such a relic though, so diverted my attention elsewhere. Seduced by the many cafes with huge windows and little tables set up on the pavements, I dragged my husband to one of them even before any proper sightseeing had been accomplished. By chance, we entered Fitzbillies – a Cambridge institution.
What had attracted me to it was a huge tray with chelsea buns humbly placed by the window. They looked sticky and rich, studded with countless juicy raisins.
A note placed by the tray explained that the cafe has been making them daily to the same secret recipe since 1921. Each bun is made by hand and each year over 100 000 buns are baked on the premises. We couldn’t miss a chance to sample them!
Oh, God! The bun was sticky, gluing your fingers tight one to another. Thick syrup was dripping from each piece my hand torn off the bun greedily. And the taste… the taste was like you had gone straight to sugar heaven. One bite was enough to make you fill replete and yet the bun was so good I couldn’t stop until it was gone completely.
Under the spell of a sugar rush we continued our slow walk.
We passed by the gates of several famous colleges. They were either closed…
or open wide and admitting visitors. For a fee of anything from £3.50 onwards one could visit a college the list of famous alumni of which sounded like the who’s who of British politics, finances, arts and theatre.
Somehow though we first walked into Pembroke College – established in 1347 – which was completely free to visit. We wandered off the street just to ask where to find a cashpoint and after conversing with the kind porter we saw the sign advising that visitors were welcome to walk through the college’s courts and garden, and to visit the chapel, provided they didn’t walk on the lawns or picnic, or made any noise with radios or otherwise.
We didn’t plan to disturb the students in any way at all, so we walked in and just spend some time exploring the college’s grounds.
In spite of the several groups of people milling about, it was a place of pure peace and quiet. Everything around us was beautifully maintained, too. One look at the green space in the middle and the meaning of the English term ‘manicured lawn’ became suddenly transparent.
Flowering bushes and pink and red roses in glorious bloom emphasised the perfect green of the lawns.
Straight ahead of us the college’s chapel stood up. Designed by the renowned English architect Christopher Wren (of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral fame), it is an example of the new style of English churches born after the Civil War. No, I didn’t know this, I admit it honestly. I overheard a gentleman with white hair and a distinguished look explain this to his companion inside the chapel.
The chapel was splendid indeed, but the most interesting thing about it was that the college’s choir was rehearsing for their afternoon concert to be held that same day. As we had walked into the chapel, we had seen a number of students seated in front of it. They were holding cups of tea and were quietly talking right by the memorial dedicated to the 308 Pembroke members who had died during World War I.
Then, once we were inside the chapel, we saw the students coming in one by one and before we knew it, they had taken their places and started rehearsing. It was beautiful to watch them for a while. The religious choral music soaring high in the light flickering with the colours of the stained glass compositions on the high windows.
The choir’s director – a young chap of about 25 years – would stop them every now and then and suggest how he wanted them to interpret the music, where to open up their voices and where to keep them down. A blonde girl provided the solo with a heavenly high voice.
During a short pause in the director’s commentary, we left quietly.
Outside we walked past the college’s library. A notice was attached to its front door advising that access was reserved only to the college students and anyone else needed a prior permission. We didn’t have such, so we continued straight ahead.
Two students, seating on a nearby bench, were discussing a question of seemingly high importance to them. Their voices were measured and used to make a point across.
It was like a window had suddenly opened into a different world. A world where people knew their value and their purpose at a young age. I mean, looking back I think I always knew what I wanted to do – to work in media, to write, to travel – but at the same time I had to adhere to certain family expectations and to follow a path my parents sort of had in mind for me. Rebelling was not really an option. And I think I lacked the self-assurance to stand up for myself until much later in life.
Listening now, as we passed by, to these young yet so self-assured voices filled me with respect for the two girls. They seemed to be at the right place at the right time and to be fully dedicated to their purpose in life. I wish I could find mine pretty soon.
We walked past the dorms – a mixture of buildings some of which were centuries old and others were brand new, built in recent years to accommodate a larger influx of students.
Through a window we also glimpsed the college’s canteen. On each table there were white napkins, glass pitchers and proper cutlery. Dinner ladies in neat uniforms were preparing the room for lunch. ‘Sofia University can learn a thing or two’, I thought of my own alma mater.
Once outside the college’s premises we followed my husband’s suggestion to see the Mathematical bridge. Off we walked down to the river Cam where we were promptly accosted by one of the people selling tickets for the punt tours. A punt is a long boat with a flat bottom which is driven forward with the help of a long pole. The punter sticks the pole vertically into the river bed and then leans on it and propels the boat forward.
Punting on the river Cam has long been one of the great English traditions and nowadays has been turned into a lucrative tourist attraction. A steady line of punts navigates the narrow river, passing by the different colleges, whilst the tourists sit in and listen to the punter tell them interesting bits and bops about the city and its academia.
In all honesty, when we had decided to spend a day in Cambridge, punting had been high on our wish list. However, since we first set foot in the city earlier that morning, we had been accosted by several punt experience sellers and were nearing the end of our tether.
We were quoted between £25 and £30 for two adults and a toddler, provided that we shared the punt with several other people. The different sellers represented different companies and even though the tradition dictates that the punters should be actual students at Cambridge, the ones we spoke to were not and one of them introduced himself as a student at Kings’ College, London.
The representatives of the different companies also tried to warn us off their competitors, by telling us that they didn’t have insurance or that they were operating from a slipway rather than the official starting points for a punt trip. In any case, it started to get quite annoying, so we changed our plans and simply decided to try punting on some other occasion when in town in the near or distant future.
Instead, having admired the elegant simplicity of the Mathematical bridge from the outside, we decided to visit Queen’s College and actually walk on it. The entrance fee for the college was £3.50 and we enjoyed seeing its grounds with its own manicured lawns…
and astronomical clock…
followed by its Old Hall with its splendid Arts and Crafts patterned ceiling.
We also spent some time in the quietness of the college’s chapel…
and admired its magnificent painted ceiling.
Finally, we walked through the college’s grounds and onto the Mathematical bridge. Its arch was surprisingly steep and once we had reached its summit, we stopped for a little bit to watch all the punts which were floating underneath us.
The bridge was truly beautiful. It looked deceptively simple, but the closer I looked at its arch and criss-crossed railings, the more I appreciated the genius who had put it together, making it look so plain and light, when in fact it was a pure mathematical achievement.
After that we had a belated lunch at a cafe just opposite King’s College and then headed to Cambridge Science Centre – an indoors playground aiming to stimulate children to take an interest in science. The different exhibits were really exciting and even I, a long-life unlover of physics, took great delight in trying out the different machines and equipment.
The car park where we had left our little red car happened to be just around the corner from there. ‘Such a great coincidence!’, I said basking in a happy light. Just then the machine calculating the price for our stay showed how much we owed on its display.
’24 pounds?! It can’t be…’, was our unanimous reaction. Having gotten used to Italian parking prices, which can be as little as 25 eurocents for the first hour and a half and then an euro for each consequent hour, the cost of parking in the centre of Cambridge took us a but unawares.
What can I say though?! It had been a splendid day, so relaxing and energising for all three of us.
I would definitely love to see Cambridge again and to explore some of the other colleges and the many museums the city has to offer. I just hope that it won’t be another 15 years before we return there. One thing I am sure of though – as and when we do go back, now that we have learned our lesson, we will be definitely parking outside of the city centre and then use the Park & Ride option to get around.
Have you been to Cambridge before? What did you love the most about the city? Did you see any of the places I mentioned above? And did you go punting? Also what would you recommend that I see next time that I visit Cambridge? Please, let me know below.