Cambridge is world famous for its university, whose ancient halls attract the cream of the academic crop to study there, as well as countless tourists on a yearly basis, keen to catch a glimpse of what was like for some of Cambridge’s most famous alumni, from Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking to Prince Charles and Ian McKellen. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Cambridge, despite the crowds that it draws in the summer, but to make the most of this slice of history you need a local to guide you. Having grown up just outside this fascinating university town, I’ve discovered a few little things that visitors often miss, and have got a few tips that will make your Cambridge experience extra-special.
1. Great St Mary’s Church
A ‘great’ way to kick off a day exploring Cambridge is by climbing the steps up the church tower to admire the panoramic views from the top. From the top of this 15th-century church, you get an almost bird’s-eye views of the whole city, including the iconic King’s College, which is the star of Cambridge’s most emblematic postcards. Nowhere else in the city centre will you get a view like this, so be sure to cough up the few pounds it costs and spend plenty of time enjoying the 360-degree views.
Now this one is no secret. Everyone that comes to Cambridge of a weekend will immediately be accosted by a student trying to sell you a tour on one of the punts, the shallow boats which float on the River Cam. Just like in Venice, punters use long poles to propel themselves along the river. My tip here is to bargain hard with those trying to sell you a tour. They will start off with an exorbitant rate, but you should be able to get it down to half the original price they give you.
Taking a tour is a great option because your tour guide regales you with anecdotes about the city, from cars that appeared on the roof of colleges to the fact that Prince Charle’s bodyguard got a better result in his degree than Prince Charles did (honestly).
If you’d rather go it alone, be careful not to fall in, and try and stay out of the way of the professional punters. Self-punting is best not done on Saturdays in the summer, as the river starts to resemble the M25, England’s busiest motorway, during rush hour, and you’re more than likely to fall in. Also, don’t drop your pole, as retrieving it from the depths of the murky water isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.
If you decide to brave the River Cam in winter you’re much less likely to end up playing bumper cars with other boats, just make sure you wrap up warm.
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea? 140
The Old Vicarage, Grantchester Rupert Brooke
Another Cambridge alumnus, Rupert Brooke wrote his famous poem singing the praises of this idyllic part of the English countryside in 1912. Today, the Old Vicarage is a tea room set in an orchard of gnarled old apple trees, amongst which you can sit back on a deck chair and enjoy a cup of English Breakfast tea and a fresh scone, with jam and clotted cream.
You can either drive out to Grantchester or take the fifty-minute walk along the banks of the River Cam, through beautiful water meadows and past docile cows, until you reach the orchard, which makes the experience that much more special. In the winter, huddle in the quaint indoor section of the tea room. Cambridge’s students used to famously punt down here after their infamous May Balls, so you’re following in the footsteps of the likes of Virgina Woolfe whilst strolling amongst the apple trees.
When you’re done at the tea rooms, why not go for a drink at the no-frills, authentic Blue Ball Pub, no hipsters in sight.
4. Green Space
Cambridge is also famous for being dotted with beautiful green spaces. As soon as the sun peeps its head out during the summer months, locals flock to these parcels of greenery and start kicking a ball around or having an impromptu picnic. Places like Jesus Green can get a little hectic, so find Alexandra Gardens on the map, which is usually quieter. Stock up on picnic essentials at a local deli, some of which sell ready-made picnics for hungry tourists who want to enjoy the great outdoors. These parks are also used for lots of events throughout the year. Every summer, Midsummer Common is overtaken by Strawberry Fair, an event entirely organised by volunteers at which quirky dress and face paints are practically compulsory, and there is a huge amount of live music.
Well, there you have it. My four local’s top tips for making the most of this incredibly historic city, no matter what time of year you visit. Make sure you leave plenty of time for wandering the narrow streets of the city centre and popping into the numerous, quirky independent shops that you’ll come upon as you wander.