City of bicycles, undergraduates, science parks, and Backs1
The colleges collectively make up what is usually referred to as Cambridge University. One of the oldest Universities in Britain, Cambridge was founded many hundreds of years ago. The colleges were founded at different times along the way, resulting in a city containing a wealth of architectural styles.
The bicycles are now an endangered species, the local council having insisted they be banished from the town itself, with the result that the Ring Road has a voluntary speed limit of around a dozen miles per hour, or less for particularly rusty examples.
During the day, the city centre is completely devoid of local residents, and is filled instead with bewildered tourists asking each other where they might find the University. Cambridge can be a confusing place, its famous one way system contributing to the effect.
The Cambridge colleges that back onto the river all have bridges linking the two sides. King's College Bridge is a fine work of stone sculpture, understated yet eminently suited to its purpose. Clare College has a stone bridge, as does Trinity College. St John's College, being bigger and richer than most of its neighbours, has two. One is the so called "bridge of sighs", not to be confused with a bridge in Venice of the same name. At John's it is sighs of anti-climax.
Queen's College has the Mathematical Bridge, which is made of wood. The story goes that this bridge was designed by Sir Isaac Newton with interlocking pieces that didn't need any bolts to hold them together. During World War II, the story continues, the bridge was dismantled to save it from stray bombs meant for Coventry or London. When peace came and with it time to rebuild the bridge, the builders (and obviously the top minds at Queen's) couldn't work out how to put it back together.
This is, of course, a total fabrication - or at least only as true as the one about King's Bridge being built by the Easter Bunny: just another Cambridge Myth thought up by an embarrassed Queen's student trying to cover for a cheap and nasty bridge.2
Another suggestion is that the story of it being originally built without bolts may be basically true, but the bolts were probably introduced as a safety/strength measure when the first residence hall west of the Cam (Fisher) was built, especially as that corresponds to the Victorian era and they were so proud of their metalwork skills. Before that it would presumably have led to a fellows' garden, and been strolled across only infrequently.
A former undergraduate suggests that the best fun to be had on the bridge is to wait for inexperienced punters leaving the Mill pond: as they lift up their pole coming under the bridge, you grab it off them and run away as they drift helplessly.
In a place as old as Cambridge, with colleges dating back to the 13th Century3 there are bound to be a few historical quirks. Where there are quirks there are stories, such as the one about the Mathematical Bridge above.
Most of these stories refer to previous students or University regulations, which can be found in a book that nobody has ever seen called the 'University Statutes and Ordnances'.
Some of the folklore is true: for example, only students of King's College are allowed to shoot and eat Cambridge swans4 and the land at the back of King's was a gift from Trinity College on the condition that it was used for keeping animals, hence King's keeps a small herd of cows on it for part of the year.
On the other hand, there are some stories that need at least a small pinch of salt. For example, it is said that a wily student once found a statute saying that his College had to provide him with nine pints of ale during one of his exams. He presented this to the College, who duly obliged with nine pints on exam day. Sadly, we don't know what the drink did for his answers, but we do know that the College took its duties seriously enough to read the whole statute and had no choice but to fail the student for being improperly attired - he didn't wear a sword to his exam.
Cambridge can be an interesting place to visit. A few suggestions for sight seeing are:
- The Fitzwilliam Museum.
- The Cambridge Folk Museum.
- King's College Chapel - try to catch evensong during term time.
- St John's College Chapel - ditto.
- The spring flowers along the Backs.
Some of the churches will let you climb their towers, affording you a wonderful view. It can also be fun to try your hand at punting on the Cam - but be prepared to get wet, and watch out for those undergraduates on the Mathematical Bridge!