The English university town of Cambridge is half of the famed Oxbridge, the convenient twinning of the two ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge into a united academic entity – a concept which exists only in theory, as in practice the two towns are far apart and have had a healthy rivalry for something like 900 years.
Oxford may well be the older of the two universities, but in terms of beauty and pure aesthetics, Cambridge is the clear winner.
Oxford is beautiful, but much of the beauty is hidden away within the privacy of the colleges. Cambridge, on the other hand, flaunts her beauty and fabulous medieval architecture for everyone to see. At every turn of the city’s winding cobbled streets, there is seemingly a college, a chapel, a distant glimpse of an ancient spire – architectural excellence everywhere.
There is no better place to start in Cambridge than by strolling along The Backs - the rather prosaic, unassuming name for what are in fact glorious college gardens that slope down toward the River Cam. The river winds gently along with The Backs on one side and the soaring spires of the colleges and their chapels on the other, while undergraduates and tourists try their hand at painting, often with noisy and hilarious results.
As good a place as any to view the panorama of the river is from the wooden Mathematical Bridge which leads to Queens’ College. One of the quirky things about Queens’ College – which very definitely has its apostrophe ‘s’ after the word Queens – is that it was actually founded twice - once in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou and again in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville, hence the rather idiosyncratic name.
Further along the river is (perhaps predictably) King’s College, a staggeringly beautiful institution that was built between 1446 - 1515 by three Kings – Henry VI, Henry VII and Henry VIII - but this time there is no grammatical hairsplitting about the apostrophe. King’s College Chapel is probably one of the most beautiful buildings in England and has been praised by poets and writers over the centuries. William Wordsworth wrote three sonnets about King’s College Chapel and the highly accomplished architect Sir Christopher Wren is reputed to have marveled at the largest single-span vaulted roof in existence. He offered to make one himself if only somebody could tell him where he should lay the first stone.
Gonville & Caius College (the final word confusingly pronounced ‘keys’) was founded in 1348 and has a charming and unique architectural quality. John Caius designed a series of gates and entrances to symbolize a scholar’s progress through the University. You enter the College through the gate of humility, progress through the gates of virtue and finally – just once in your academic career, the day you graduate - you pass through the symbolic gate of honor to receive your degree.
After you have taken a punt (a shallow, flat-bottomed boat) along the river, another ideal way to explore this beautiful university town is the way the undergraduates get around – on a bicycle. Wherever you go, there are bicycles parked in ancient college entrances and students cycling to and from lectures. And, in case you do decide to try your hand at punting on the river, do remember that Oxford uses one end of the punt as its stern, while Cambridge uses the opposite end of the punt as its stern. The friendly rivalry between these two universities exists on many different levels.
As well as the colleges, the University also has its own exceptionally good Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum. You could spend days exploring this collection, which includes Roman and Greek relics, medieval antiquities and outstanding porcelain and pottery collections. But the stars of the museum are undoubtedly the paintings, with showcase pieces by some of the Italian old Masters.
If it’s true that aesthetic surroundings help to concentrate the mind and inspire students to academic excellence, then it is small wonder that Cambridge has produced a roll-call of renowned intellectuals and scholars over its 900 year history.