April 19th, 2006 08:09 EST
The Wheels are Still Turning in Cambridge
It’s a university town like no other. The world-famous Cambridge University takes up a large portion of Cambridge’s city center. Since its loose formation more than 800 years ago, the school’s influence has pervaded its hometown, molding a unique cultural and educational atmosphere.
Unlike many English towns, Cambridge hasn’t quite given way to the modernity of a new age. The University, the city, and their inhabitants seem content to live amongst the same trees as Isaac Newton, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and CS Lewis.
You won’t mistake Cambridge for another University town. Not with wise professors passing through the streets with their heads held high, as if to say, “yes, mere mortals, it is I, the professor.”
Bikes bustle up and down the cobbled streets at an alarming pace, but the activity speaks of productivity. There are classes to be taken, exams to study for.
The primary mode of transport for Cambridge students, bikes are an absolute necessity. Parking has become a hot commodity in the small town, but so are wicker bike baskets.
The all-black 1890’s version of bike may have gone out of style at the turn of the century, but it’s still a stronghold in Cambridge. It’s a nod to the past most would love to have lived through.
These days though, more than half are mountain bikes, built to endure steep ledges, but also perfect for keeping upright while riding down cobbled streets through the rain.
When they’re not running down tourists, bicycles line the stone walls that have held up the town, and protected it, for hundreds of years.
Unlike its American counterparts, the University is not separate from the town it sits in. Instead, it’s a central feature on the landscape of the downtown, and adds vibrancy to what would be, without the University, a small Essex township.
Students pour in and out of the coffee shops, cafés and pubs that line the streets. When they’re not studying over a latte, you’ll find them arguing over last Sunday’s rugby match, and discussing plans for world domination.
It’s a strange layout, having one of the world’s best universities’ directly across from outdoor boutique shopping, but it makes life a lot easier for the tourists, if not the students.
The true heart of Cambridge can be found along Kings Parade. The path takes world-re-known professor and tourist alike past many of the University’s most imposing structures.
The two most impressive colleges are among the most historically significant. Kings College and Trinity College are just a short walk from one another; both sit directly across from the downtown shopping district.
Visitors are invited to stroll amongst the pillars of marble, and marvel at the pillars of learning, but most interiors are off limits. Kings College charges a ₤5 entrance fee, but all other buildings are free.
Each is more impressive than the other, and all deserve at least a short stroll. Even the smaller colleges have their own well-maintained gardens and perhaps even a greater sense of medieval intrigue.
Just a hint: keep an eye out for tiny wooden doors set back into stone walls. And be sure to try the locks. Often, they lead to much more than they suggest.
One notable exception to the interior off-limits rule is the Wren Library of Trinity College. With more than 300,000 volumes, it’s an impressive sight. It contains an 8th century manuscript of the Epistles of St. Paul, 750 15th century printed books, and some of Tennyson’s college papers, among other works. The library is open for two hours only on weekdays, from noon to 2 p.m.
The grassy courtyards are covered with students at class-time, looking out of place in their football jerseys, sneakers, and baggy jeans. It seems time has caught up with the students here at least.
But never fear. There are still a few students with that classic ‘bewildered genius’ look about them. Hair tousled, glasses askew, piles of books stacked precariously under-arm as they bump along the gravel on their bikes.
And if you hang around long enough, you may catch sight of a school porter. Just look for a man dressed in an old-fashioned suit and bowler hat, passing beneath the grand entrance to Kings College, swinging an umbrella by his side on his way to work.
Or on a rare sunny day, catch sight of the same porter as you punt down the river Cam. No, you won’t be taking a bet on how quickly the swans will get from one bank to another. You’ll be hopping into a flat-bottomed boat reminiscent of a Venetian-style gondola for a lazy ride past the grandeur of Cambridge, and its many green spaces. In the city center alone, there are nine parks, including the Cambridge University Botanical Gardens, a must see.
To make the most of your trip for the least amount of money, pick up Cambridge’s Official Visitor’s Card for only ₤2.50. Cardholders receive discounts at most tourist attractions, at entertainment venues, and on sightseeing tours. They can be picked up at the Visitor Information Center, and in 12 other downtown locations.
The De Vere University Arms is perfect for those looking for a luxury hotel with old world charm. Built in 1835, the building served as a hotel for the Victorian-era wealthy. Prices at the four star hotel range from ₤89 for a single room to ₤179 for executive rooms, and ₤279 for family-sized rooms.
If you’re on more of a budget, try the Warkworth Terrace guesthouse. Also four stars, and located in the city center, the comfortable family-run house and a full English breakfast run from ₤45 for a single room to ₤95 for a family.
To lunch with the locals, try Agora. Across from the entrance to Kings College, it’s a popular spot for student-teacher conferences in the late afternoon. The extensive menu of both traditional English meals and Mediterranean cuisine make it easy to please even the pickiest diners.
Just next door, No. 1 Kings Parade Bar & Restaurant serves traditional English fare in a hip, modern atmosphere. Live Blues & Jazz music is featured on Thursday nights, and main meals run from about ₤7.50 to ₤14.
If you have time between sightseeing, catching up on that English Lit. class you skipped in college, and eating a hearty roast, take time to stroll through the quaint market square for dainty nick nacks, University souvenirs, or even a midday snack. On Saturdays throughout the year, the All Saints Garden Art & Crafts market is held on Trinity Street.
To plan your trip to Cambridge, check out www.visitcambridge.org.