The Varsity Town

The Covid Pandemic has certainly restricted travel opportunities and with restrictions changing almost by the day, it has put us off international travel for a while. Nevertheless, it has prompted us to think about parts of our own country that we’ve overlooked to date. Well, covid and our daughter F, to be more accurate.

When F expressed a keen interest in attending a summer school in Cambridge, it occurred to us that we had never visited the flat lands in the east of England, commonly known as East Anglia. Taking her to Cambridge would afford my wife and I the opportunity to explore this region. Not only that, it would be our first substantial break without our daughter since she was born. The stars seemed to be aligned for us to book a trip to East Anglia.

Not surprisingly, our first port of call was Cambridge itself. We stayed at Madingley Hall, in a small village 5 miles away from the city. Madingley is a manor house dating from the 16th century. The gardens were redesigned in the 18th century by Capability Brown, the most famous landscape architect of his day. In 1861, Queen Victoria rented the property for her son Prince Edward (later King Edward 7th) while he was a student at Jesus College, Cambridge. Madingley is now owned by Cambridge University and houses its Institute for Continuing Education. Happily for us, the university rents out rooms to visitors, allows them to explore the gardens and serves enormous breakfasts.

Madingley Hall

Our first full day started with a brief dog walk and lunch with friends, which I might have had room for had it not been served within 5 hours of breakfast. We explored the sights of Cambridge, starting with the Mathematical Bridge. Designed by William Etheridge in 1749, the bridge is almost an optical illusion as it appears to be an arch, but is made up of entirely straight pieces of wood. The Mathematical Bridge portrayed a tranquil scene as punters gently propelled tourists along the River Cam beneath it.

Mathematical Bridge

We walked past St John’s College, Queen’s College, Corpus Christi and St Catherine’s among many others. There is no mistaking that Cambridge is a university town. I wondered if it would even exist, were it not for its 13th century university, the 2nd oldest in England.

On arriving at Newton’s Apple Tree in the grounds of Trinity College, it was time to stop for photos. This is where Sir Isaac Newton was sitting, when he received a knock on the head from a falling apple. Rather than feeling sorry for himself, Newton was inspired to come up with his theory of gravity. Or so we thought. Newton was actually at home in Lincolnshire when the inspirational whack on the head happened, but the Cambridge tree is an offshoot of the original, planted in the grounds of his old college where he developed his theory.

We viewed the magnificent gothic King’s College Chapel from across the river in “The Backs”, a grassy parkland area that appears to give the university buildings a rural aspect. The adjacent Gibbs Building is said to have inspired the design of the White House in Washington DC.

King’s College Chapel

Seeing all the punts cruising up the river, later inspired us to get on the water ourselves. Not fancying the donkey work myself, I left the punting to a very able guide called Charles. Starting from Jesus Green, he transported us down the Cam, taking us under Cambridge’s Bridge of Sighs, elaborately decorated on one side. Charles informed us they ran out of money to do the other side. When floating beneath the Mathematical Bridge, we were advised of the myth that it was built without nuts and bolts. The fact they’re not visible doesn’t mean they’re not there. Charles pointed out the rainbow flag, draped from a university building that flies in honour of Alan Turing. Turing, a Cambridge graduate, did vital code breaking work during World War 2 that was credited with shortening the war and saving many lives. Later persecuted for his homosexuality, Turing took his own life. He has since been pardoned by the Queen and appears on the UK’s current fifty pound note. We saw a number of notable buildings that can’t be seen from the street, including  the Wren Library, designed by the same Wren of St Paul’s Cathedral fame.

Gliding back under Magdalene Bridge, we came upon a remarkable sight to our right. There was a row of riverside restaurants that to my knowledge, are not owned by Cambridge University. This made these buildings unique as far as our river trip was concerned. The attraction was all about admiring the historic university architecture, apart from having a laugh at the tourists who elected to punt themselves, travelling gracefully down the river in a zig-zag fashion and trying not to collide with their fellow punters. After an entertaining ride, we arrived back at Jesus Green.

Across the green was where we had to leave F for her summer school at Jesus College, but not before a guided tour.

Jesus College

Located on the site of a former nunnery, Jesus includes some of the oldest buildings in Cambridge. We walked through the gatehouse into First Court and then Chapel Court. We were taken briskly past the old chapel through the cloisters and shown the horse sculpture in the middle of a green. Apparently, students can be expelled for mounting the horse which some have taken as a challenge down the years. We finished at North Court halls of residence, one of the most modern buildings on the campus and home to F for the next 2 weeks. The current Prince Edward lived here when he studied at Jesus. F was more impressed that one of her favourite YouTubers lodged at North Court. Having come from the stately Madingley Hall, it occurred to me that the Royal Family have economised in at least one area over the last 100 years or so. The 19th century student Prince was accommodated at a country manor whereas the contemporary one lived in the same building as the other students.

After F had passed her covid test and settled into her room, she informed us it was time to leave. She was very keen to start her independent study break. We said our goodbyes and left through the Jesus Lane gate. Next stop Norfolk!



Cambridge is in the east of England, 65 miles north of London and 97 miles east of Birmingham


Direct train services are available from London, Birmingham and other English cities. The city is linked to London by the M11 motorway and lies on the A14 Midlands to Lowestoft road


For further information on visiting Cambridge, click here

4 thoughts on “The Varsity Town

  1. Oh my gosh Cambridge! I loved our 1-day excursion here many summers ago. I’m really glad you blogged about this because this gave me a bright idea! (Not as bright as Newton’s though hahah). I’d love to stay a night or two here too, and renting at one of the uni’s rooms would be awesome. But 16th century you said, hmmm…

    It was nice seeing you guys in the picture. What a productive summer for F. It must have been a great experience, too. Time flies, I assume she’ll be off to uni soon?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The rooms were less salubrious than those found in a good hotel, but the surroundings were palatial! F has a few years to go yet, although she is even more keen to go to uni after this summer!


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