Cambridge is famous for a number of reasons. It boasts the world’s best choir, one of the world’s top universities and, until his death in March this year, it was the home of acclaimed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
But the best kept secret about this stunning university town is that the sun is always shining there. No matter when you choose to visit, be it spring, summer, the middle of autumn or a dreary winter’s day, you will always arrive in Cambridge greeted by rays of sunshine. There is rarely a bad time to visit.
Cambridge should feature on any tourist’s list but usually, in a time-honoured fashion, it competes with Oxford on the list of ‘places to go in England’. It is always one or the other, never both, as they are considered practically the same thing. This is a serious mistake and failure to choose Cambridge over Oxford will prevent you from visiting England’s most beautiful and idyllic city.
Reached easily by car from London, sitting just off the M11, or by train from King’s Cross Station, Cambridge is just over an hour’s journey from the capital. Its train station sits close enough to the city centre that you can wander down without risking any great exhaustion.
The centre of Cambridge hardly feels like a city at all. Instead of high-rises and offices, the tallest building to be seen is the magnificent King’s College Chapel. It sits along the main road, King’s Parade, which sees more traffic in the way of tourists, and students on bikes than it does cars. The gothic building, dating from 1446, is the stuff of fairy tales, with its spires and golden adornments. Stop and take a tour of the chapel, £9 for adults and just £6 for students and children. For wicked fairies turning up to curse princesses, it is probably free of charge. Apart from King’s, there are numerous historic colleges and their chapels to wander around. Another favourite is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or The Round Church, as it is more commonly known, which was built in 1130, and provides a historical overview of the history of Christianity in Britain.
For those looking to enjoy the sunshine, there are plenty of ways to spend your day outside. The feeling that you aren’t in a city at all is aided by the many fields that sit in the centre. For those interested in a nature walk, there is no need to even travel far at all. Bring along a blanket and enjoy a pleasant picnic lunch amongst trees, tall grass and even the odd cow.
Interested in a bit of shopping? Take some time to wander around Market Square hidden away a few steps from King’s College. The market is open seven days a week and though only small, you can find everything from handmade soaps, to fresh fruit and vegetables, knitted scarves, jewellery, and vinyl records. There is a good range of vintage items for sale as well, so for only £2 you may be able to snag yourself a bullet canister from WWII, or the first edition of a comic printed in 1942. Maybe you can even find an antique copy of Vogue that will instruct you on the best way to wash your silk stockings and clean your husband’s pipe.
While we are on the subject of first editions, you must take a moment, or maybe even set aside an hour, to explore the second-hand bookshops Cambridge has to offer. The Haunted Bookshop offers a great deal of intrigue, with its creaky stairs and wonky floorboards. Just don’t be too disappointed when the person behind the counter can’t tell you anything about the ghost. The best bookshop, beyond a doubt, is the G. David Bookseller, located in the quaint alleyway that is Jacob’s Passage. Strictly no photos are allowed inside which is a pity, because you are more than likely to find a first edition Jane Austen, the complete collection of the Chronicles of Narnia (also first edition) and anything a literary heart could ever desire. Unfortunately, these tend to have price tags over £5000, which seems a bit expensive for a second hand copy.
The classic Cambridge pastime is taking a punt down the River Cam. A punt? A long, flat-bottomed boat that is pushed down the river by a punter, who stands on the back and pushes a long pole against the riverbed to steer and move. Sort of like a very geometrical gondola. While there are plenty of people throughout the city who offer to take tourists out on a punt, punts can also be hired.
After a little practice you’ll find yourself floating down the river, and only occasionally bumping into other boats. If you’re lucky enough not to be the punter, lean back and enjoy the picturesque views as you travel under historic bridges and past the many colleges of Cambridge. For a moment you can fool yourself that you have stepped back in time.
As dusk comes around there is one final stop to be made to complete the Cambridge experience. Evensong at one of the many college chapels, each with its own university choir. Be prepared to hear some Latin, a sermon or two read in the most perfectly clipped English voices imaginable, and to sing a few hymns yourself. Most importantly, soak in the splendour of your surroundings. In particular, notice how the low evening sun streams through the intricate stained glass windows making everything look glorious.