Cambridge: Whether town or gown, it passes with distinction

The English town is as much a tourist hub as a centre of learning, and has lots to do

Cambridge: punting on the River Cam

Cambridge: punting on the River Cam

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Ah, college days, punting along the Cam on a sun-dappled late-August morning, the giant weeping willows on the banks trailing into the water as Newton’s Mathematical Bridge looms into view while gliding by Cambridge’s finest and ancient colleges. No, not my college days – they were spent in UCD, which in the 1980s had all the windswept, poured-concrete charm of a Lithuanian Soviet-era apartment block, and where the most appealing transport wasn’t a boat trip on the man-made lake, but the number 10 bus at going-home time.

Cambridge, as much a tourist hub as a college town, is, as expected, very different.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related content in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related content in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth

Adam, a summer-jobbing student standing surefooted at the back of the punt, easily wielding the pole to propel the boat, is working the last couple of weeks before returning to college. By now his tour-guide patter is practised and enjoyably informative. These river trips are a staple of the Cambridge tourism offering, and follow the stretch of the Cam river between Bishop’s Mill and Jesus Lock. This route is called “the backs” because it offers views of the rear of eight colleges, including King’s and Trinity, as well as going under the Bridge of Sighs and Magdalene Bridge.

King’s College, Cambridge
King’s College, Cambridge
Trinity Lane, Cambridge
Trinity Lane, Cambridge

The morning is a good time to come, says Adam, as there is not much river traffic. The river looks busy during my trip, with plenty of incidental entertainment offered by self-punters, visitors who – quite wrongly – believe that this punting lark is so easy they can simply hire one of the flat-bottomed boats and try it for themselves.

Cambridge is busy at any time, its narrow footpaths crowded with tourists – and there’s plenty to do even if you only stick to college or museum visits. On a 24-hour trip – and some visitors spend even less time there given that it’s easily accessed by train from London – top of my list was the House in Kettle’s Yard, which reopened after a major redevelopment this year.

Owned by the University of Cambridge, its main attraction is the house – really three ancient Cambridge cottages joined together, which between 1958 and 1973 was the home of Jim and Helen Ede. He was the curator of the Tate Gallery in London and gathered a remarkable personal collection, including paintings by Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

The house, where the couple kept an “open house” for students every afternoon as a sort of arts, ideas and music salon, was left to the college on the proviso that nothing be taken out, and now it is a most unusual art gallery, perfectly preserved, with visitors encouraged to mosey around, sit on the chairs and generally soak up the atmosphere while enjoying the stunning pieces of art dotted about.

King’s College Chapel
King’s College Chapel

Gothic splendour

Several colleges open for tours, but if time is short the vast chapel at King’s College is a true wonder for its gothic splendour and astonishingly beautiful stained-glass windows. Admission is £10, but check before you visit as the church closes for services and events during term time.

There are several specialist museums – the Polar Museum will be on my list next time, to see the Ernest Shackleton material – so if you have a niche interest, you’ll probably find a museum to suit. I stuck with that great Victorian wonder, the vast Fitzwilliam Museum, and as I only had an hour, I zeroed in on one exhibition, Sampled Lives.

The Fitzwilliam has an enormous collection of samplers, intricate needlework sewn by girls and women in the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-centuries. They were once dismissed as “women’s work” but are now viewed by historians as important documentary evidence of past lives. This exhibition shows some of them, and the industry and skill is fascinating. Ask for directions as it is slightly tucked away in the sprawling museum.

Bikes at the University Arms Hotel
Bikes at the University Arms Hotel

I cycled to the museum – the hotel I stayed in offers free bicycles, as many do, and there are plenty of places to hire bikes in this cycle-friendly compact town. A special map you can download from the museum’s website encourages visitors to “hop on a bike and see more of cultural Cambridge”.

A good stop-off is either of the two Fitzbillies cafes (on Trumpington and Bridge Streets). A Cambridge institution and open for nearly 100 years, Fitzbillies is famous for its Chelsea buns, which are delicious, their syrupy stickiness saving you from yourself as it’s hard to imagine anyone managing more than one.

Staying in the town centre in Cambridge’s University Arms Hotel (room rates start at £205 (about €235) meant views from the bedroom window of Parker’s Piece, a 25-acre common that’s well used by locals. Soccer fans make a pilgrimage to the common, as it’s considered the birthplace of the rules of modern football. The hotel, which dates back to the 1830s, has just opened after an £80 million renovation which enlarged it and swept away the ugly 1960s edifice that had become – according to locals – a real eyesore.

A cottage room in the University Arms Hotel
A cottage room in the University Arms Hotel

It’s very swanky, with a clubby library where afternoon tea is served, a cocktail bar and Parker’s Tavern, a restaurant headed up by Tristan Welch, who cut his cheffing teeth in La Gavroche and Pétrus. Cleverly, the layout, by classical architect John Simpson, means the restaurant, which also overlooks Parker’s Piece, feels quite separate from the hotel, making it more accessible for non-residents.

Even if you’re not staying there it’s worth a peek – or a coffee – to see the panelled walls, rich upholstery and gorgeous wallpaper. The “traditional with a glamorous twist” style is the signature of Martin Brudnizki, who is very much the interior designer of the moment when it comes to hotels and restaurants – his portfolio also includes the Beekman in New York and the Ivy London.

Bernice Harrison travelled to Cambridge as a guest of the University Arms Hotel and flew to London Stansted, a 30-minute drive from Cambridge, with Ryanair

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