Cambridge: History and humor

Sam’s parents arrived in England a few days ago, and we’ve already made good use of our time together. Day 1: Cambridge! 

Cambridge has become one of our favorite places in England. We realized we are there just about every other day during a normal week. Our church is in Cambridge and therefore many of our friends are in Cambridge. It pays to know some locals… they’ve showed us great places to eat, shop, and importantly, park for free. 🙂 Cambridge is brimming with history, culture, and is absolutely beautiful to look at – rain or shine. So, naturally, it was the first place we took Sam’s parents.

The day started out cloudy and gloomy, but we still enjoyed a stroll through the Backs. As we gazed across the Cam at several of the University of Cambridge’s famous colleges, Mike was on the lookout for new “life birds”. He’s already found a few!

Bird watching

Bird watching

We checked out the historic Eagle pub (where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of DNA, and many American and British forces hung out during WWII).

After walking through more of Cambridge – peeking into college courtyards and dodging bicycles as we went – our appetites grew, so we stopped in Bill’s for lunch. Sam and I had eaten at a Bill’s in London a few months ago and the one in Cambridge was just as eclectic and tasty. With full bellies, we headed on to our next activity… one I was much looking forward to…


We took the advice of our dear friend Lucy who resides in Cambridge and had a professional guide us around the river for our first punting experience. You can rent your own punt and take a stab at it yourself (get it? STAB?!), but after watching several tourists spin in circles (and almost fall in!) while attempting to merely proceed forward, we decided to heed her wise words.

Here is a prime example of a tourist trying to punt. Our guide ran into them on purpose. :)

Here is a prime example of a tourist trying to punt. Our guide ran into them on purpose. 🙂

Punting is a very specific type of boating that Cambridge is known for. The boats, or “punts” are long and narrow with flat bottoms. They are pushed through the water by “punting” with a long pole. You poke the pole into the bottom of the river and push the boat along. When I asked our guide if he had ever dropped the pole before, he replied. “Yes. Yesterday.” It  happens to the best of them.

Our guide, Sam. Notice how deep into the river the pole is.

Our guide, Sam. Notice how deep into the river the pole is.

About to pass under the town's namesake, the original bridge over the Cam. It has been rebuilt twice.

About to pass under the town’s namesake, the original bridge over the Cam. It has been rebuilt twice.

Sitting back and enjoying the ride.

Sitting back and enjoying the ride.

What a lovely way to spend an afternoon!

What a lovely way to spend an afternoon!

Thankfully the sun came out just in time, giving us perfect weather to enjoy the river. Not only was it relaxing to laze around on the punt while our guide – Sam, coincidentally – did the work for us, but it was informative as well! Our guide, Sam, passed along many interesting facts and anecdotes on our almost-hour-long ride. Here are a few of them that you might also enjoy:

(*Note*: I am no Cambridge scholar… I’ve only flipped through one or two books about the history of Cambridge… I also didn’t verify any of these facts or check them online. I’m just passing along what our guide told us that is hopefully mostly true. Enjoy!)


College Rivalry.  When considering college rivalries, I immediately think of Ohio State and Michigan. Their respective fans, usually decked out in a ridiculous amount of team paraphernalia will vehemently trash talk the other school. Though some fans may opt for vandalism, few colleges have ever gone the route of architectural abuse toward their foes. Ones that have? St. John’s College and Trinity College, at least, according to legend. The rivalry is well known and documented, even though they are two colleges in the same institution. Continually neck-and-neck in both sports and academics, each has taken dramatic steps to indicate their superiority over the other. One legend is the race to build a clock tower. Supposedly, a few centuries ago, a monarch decided that there should only be one functioning clock tower in Cambridge to minimize noise from too many bells clanging in every significant time change. (With 31 colleges, that is a reasonable fear…) So, the race began to see what college would gain that honor. As legend has it, St. John’s began work on an elaborate stone building and clock tower while Trinity swiftly built one out of wood. Trinity, rightly finishing their tower “first,” accepted their victory and then rebuilt their tower using stone, as it stands today. St. John’s clock tower therefore remains clock-less. Even still, St. John’s didn’t take defeat lightly, placing a large eagle in the center of their tower giving the cold shoulder to Trinity’s general direction. Similarly, Trinity College boasts a few stone cannons on their bowling lawn that just happen to be aimed right at St. John’s.

St. John's New Court building. Note the "wedding cake" tower, the empty clock face, and the snooty eagle.

St. John’s New Court building. Note the “wedding cake” tower and the empty clock face.

The snooty eagle. (Picture not taken by me. Click through for source.)


– The Bridge of Sighs. There are a few bridges in the world that bear this name, the most notable in Venice. This one, part of St. John’s college, is said to have got its name in one of two ways… One story is that Queen Victoria passed under it, while boating down the Cam, and said that it resembled the famous Venetian Bridge of Sighs. When you’re the queen, people tend to not argue… They agreed, the name stuck. OR, another story is that the students of St. John’s crossed the bridge in order to discover their exam grades, full of anxious sighs. Either way, it’s a beautiful bridge. (And, to continue the St. John’s vs. Trinity rivalry… only the side of the bridge facing Trinity is intricately carved. The idea is that they didn’t feel the need to try to impress Magdalene College, so that side remains “plain,” while the side facing Trinity is showy and ornate. Ha!)

The ornate side facing Trinity College.

The “plain” side facing Magdalene College. (Look at above the arches)

The ornate side facing Trinity College.

The “ornate” side facing Trinity College. (Look above the arches. There were rosettes on the ends as well.)


These are no “dorms.” I recently learned that most of the beautiful, individual “college” buildings dotted throughout Cambridge are actually residential. They are the equivalent of our US “dorms.” It’s where students of that college eat, sleep and study. Prince Charles attended Trinity College (he was accepted after his mother made a convenient and sizable donation) and demanded to be treated as a “normal” student… then promptly took over an entire floor (7 rooms!) for his own personal apartment. He apparently had to sit for his exams seven times in order to pass with a 2.3. His body guard decided to sit the exams as well, since he had accompanied the prince to all of his classes, and achieved a 2.1 on his first try.

Another residence building... The large bay windows here are all part of one apartment, awarded to the top-performing third year student.

A residence building… The large bay windows here are all part of one apartment, awarded to the top-performing third year student.

A residence of Queen's College, I believe.

A residence of Queen’s College students, I believe.

A residence building of St. John's college.

A residence building of St. John’s college.


– Door to the Cam. Often when touring historical buildings, I’ll see tiny doors several feet above the ground with no staircase or balcony to catch an unsuspecting escapee. This one, opening up to the river, was just as curious. Our guide said that St. John’s third year students have been known to redirect all fire escapes to lead to that door, sit back, and pull the fire alarm. As first year students pile up at the door and tumble over each other into the Cam, a banner on the Bridge of Sighs welcomes them to St. John’s College. 🙂

Welcome to St. John's.

Welcome to St. John’s.


– Trinity’s Wren Library. Who doesn’t love a good library? Trinity’s library was designed in the 1600s by the famous Christopher Wren. Though the library has two floors, the lower one is just bare columns, safely elevating the books on the second floor from any potential flooding. But the library is famous for more than its architect. Legend has it that Sir Isaac Newton, a Trinity alumnus, discovered the speed of sound while listening to echoes in the colonnade on the lower level of the library. The first edition of his work Principia Mathematica is housed in the Wren Library, along with many other original famous works such as Milne’s manuscripts of Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner  and original Shakespeare drafts. Best of all, its open for visitors to tour (for FREE) a few hours every day. Checking it out is definitely on my list!

The Wren Library

The Wren Library


Night Climbers of Cambridge – Long before YouTube videos featured free runners and parkour enthusiasts running across rooftops or scaling walls to a soundtrack of obnoxious dub step, a small group of  students known as the Night Climbers did just that around some of the University’s most famous buildings. In one famous stunt, they climbed up the left spire of King’s College Chapel and placed a traffic cone at its apex. After the cone’s removal but before the university could respond by adding spikes around each spire, the Night Climbers struck again and placed a second traffic cone atop the right spire. I couldn’t find any pictures of the cone, but here’s one of a Night Climber atop St. John’s New Court building in the 1930s.

Night Climber (Not my picture… clearly… Click through for source.)

King's College Chapel on the left. If you look closely - click to enlarge - you can see spikes along the spires to prevent future climbers.

King’s College Chapel on the left. If you look closely – click to enlarge – you can see spikes along the spires to prevent future climbers.

Apparently the Night Climbers have been active since the 1890s and are still climbing in secrecy today.


– The Mathematical Bridge. For some reason, there are several rumors surrounding this bridge. One is that it was built without using any bolts. That is inaccurate, however the wooden bridge does appear to arc even though it is made from completely straight boards.

Mike and Terry laughing as our guide (accidentally?) bumped another punt.

Mike and Terry laughing as our guide (accidentally?) bumped another punt.


The ducks and swans are not afraid of people in the slightest.

We had a wonderful day exploring the city and learning a bit more about a place I’ve come to love. If you’re ever in Cambridge, I encourage you to take a punting tour of your own. There were many more interesting bits of history that I’ve left out. And if you ever want to come visit, we might just have a place to put you up! 🙂

Punts waiting for you to give it the old college try...

Punts waiting for you to give it the old college try…



4 thoughts on “Cambridge: History and humor

  1. Sounds like you all had a great time! I never got to visit Cambridge while I was there, but it looks beautiful!

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