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Cambridge

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King's College chapel from the Backs

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge (often shortened here to ‘Oxbridge’) are known the world over for the quality of the education they provide, their many illustrious alumni and their long history. They dominate the towns in which they are based, giving each a unique atmosphere. Both towns are within easy reach of London and make for an interesting day trip from the capital.

I recently spent a day in Cambridge exploring with friends (former work colleagues) who moved there some years ago. One works (and volunteers) at several of the colleges, and studied here too, at Clare College, so has privileged free entry to several of the paid-for sights (and can take in a visitor – me!) In a day it was of course only possible to visit a handful of the colleges but those we went to were beautiful, made more so by the wonderful September sun.

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Punting on the Cam near King's College

Incidentally, I learned from my unofficial guides that this is a great month to visit. There are slightly fewer tourists than in mid-summer, and the students are yet to return en masse after their long break, though there are some around. The college gardens are at their best – efforts are made to ensure that flower displays peak twice a year, in May for graduation and in September for new arrivals. How much the students notice and appreciate this is probably up for debate!

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New Court, St John's College

So join us on our walk around some of these historic colleges.

Getting to Cambridge

I took the train to Cambridge from London’s Kings Cross station – fast (non-stopping) trains take about 50 minutes. I was met at the station by my friends, and as it is some way from the town centre we caught a bus together. Their excellent suggestion was to start with coffee and a chat about the plan for the day.

Fitzbillies

Fitzbillies is truly a Cambridge institution, having been here since 1920, on the same corner site (although it has since expanded to take over the neighbouring property too). It is famous especially for its Chelsea buns – sweet, sticky, gooey cinnamon-laden swirls of yeasty dough.

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Fitzbillies

The bakery was founded by two brothers, Ernest and Arthur Mason, who used their demob money on return from the First World War to buy the shop. The Art Nouveau frontage they installed is still here (on the left in my photo above). The shop thrived and was run by the Masons until 1958, when they sold it to a Mr and Mrs Day. This was an era of enthusiastic cake consumption – Chelsea buns for parties and picnics, iced fancies for afternoon tea, and ornate creations for special occasions such as weddings. But by the 1980s supermarkets provided competition and could sell their cakes more cheaply than a family-run business such as Fitzbillies. The business went bankrupt, and the building was gutted by a fire in 1998, but it was bought, restored and reopened, trading successfully until 2011 when it went bankrupt again.

It was saved through the twin 21st century powers of social media and celebrity! A former Cambridge resident, now working in marketing in London, saw a tweet from the famous writer/actor/comedian Stephen Fry bemoaning the closure of a favourite bakery, and stepped in to save it along with her husband. So Fitzbillies is once more a thriving family-run business, and their Chelsea buns are as popular as ever!

So of course we had to order Chelsea buns with our coffees, justifying our indulgence a little by opting to share two between the three of us. And they were delicious, definitely living up to their fame! Then, fortified, we set off on our walk.

Pembroke College

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Old Court, Pembroke College

The first college we went to was Pembroke, on the corner opposite Fitzbillies. As with most of the colleges, only the grounds and chapel can be visited.

The college was founded in 1347 by Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke, and is the third oldest of the Cambridge colleges, and the oldest still on its original site. It was the first to have its own Chapel – that chapel is today known as the Old Library, having been replaced by a later one (more of that in a minute!) The college originally occupied just one court on the corner of Pembroke and Trumpington Streets, but in the 17th century it started to expand into what became known as Ivy Court (the original being of course Old Court) and in the 19th beyond this again, with the addition of a new library and several other buildings around what is known today as Library Lawn.

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Another view of Old Court

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Library Lawn with its statue of William Pitt, a former student

Meanwhile in the latter part of the 17th century a new chapel was commissioned, as the result of a vow made by a former student, Matthew Wren, now Bishop of Ely. While imprisoned in the Tower of London during the Civil War the bishop vowed that, if released, he would build a new chapel for his college, Pembroke. On release he proceeded to fulfil his vow, and chose as his architect his own nephew, Christopher. Thus this chapel, which was consecrated in 1665, became the first completed work of Christopher Wren, later to be Sir Christopher Wren. The east end of the chapel was later extended by George Gilbert Scott Junior, in 1880 – you can see the lighter stonework in the photo below.

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The chapel from Library Lawn

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Inside the chapel of Pembroke College

One modern addition, when we visited, can be seen on the right of the aisle in my first photo of the interior above. This curved cross is known as the Cross of the Migrants and was made by a carpenter from the Italian island of Lampedusa, Francesco Tuccio. He used some timbers from one of the many migrant boats which attempted the crossing to Lampedusa in 2016. The cross serves as a memorial to the 3,000 migrants who died in the Mediterranean that year. A sign adds that it is ‘also a challenge to us as citizens, voters, Christians, human beings.’ There is another similar cross made by Tuccio in 2013 in the British Museum: the Lampedusa cross. And you can read more about what inspired him to start making these crosses in this article from the BBC.

Fitzwilliam Museum

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Entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum

From Pembroke College we walked a little further along Trumpington Street, passing Peterhouse College, to see the recently refurbished Fitzwilliam Museum (as an aside, you can see now how Fitzbillies got its name!) The museum was founded in 1816 by Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, who bequeathed to the University of Cambridge his works of art and his library, together with funds to house them, in order to further ‘the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation’. The collection has increased over the years, with art and artefacts from all over the world, and is now considered one of the best small museums in Europe.

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Portico ceiling

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Restored entrance hall

The refurbishment of the museum has focused on the restoration of the stunning Victorian entrance hall known as The Founder's Entrance. We only went into the entrance hall to admire, and photograph, its grandeur – a visit to the museum itself could otherwise have taken up most of our day and is perhaps better left to a less clement day.

Queens’ College

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On St Botolph's Church

Retracing our steps down Trumpington Street and back past Fitzbillies and past St Botolph’s Church we turned down Silver Street to visit our next college, Queens’. This is one of the colleges for which a charge is made to visit, but Members of the University of Cambridge, such as my friend, and residents of the city, can enter free of charge and take one guest – so no need for us to pay!

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Door detail, Queens'

Queens’ is one of the oldest and the largest colleges of the university, and was founded in 1448 by Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. It was subsequently re-founded, in 1465, by the rival Yorkist queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. This dual foundation is the reason why the college is always known as Queens’, never Queen’s.

Entering through the Great Gate we came first to Old Court, built between 1448 and 1451. The Old Library, on the right as you enter, is one of the earliest purpose-built libraries in Cambridge and has what looks like a beautiful and elaborate sundial but is in fact known as a moondial. This tells not only the time of day but also the current sign of the zodiac, month and much more – see this full explanation on the college website: Reading the Dial.

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Old Court moondial and clock, Queens'

On our way through to the next court, the Cloister Court, we could see into, but not enter, the Old Hall, part of the original college. It was hard to get photos through the glass because of all the reflections of the lighting in the passageway, but I did my best, helped by one of my friends who tried to shade the light, with some success. The hall has a beautiful painted ceiling, a 19th century restoration which removed a flat ceiling that had been added in the early 18th. The left-hand portrait at the far end is Erasmus, who once studied here, and the central figure one of the foundresses, Elizabeth Woodville, while on the right is Sir Thomas Smith, a 16th century diplomat and former Fellow of Queens’.

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Old Hall, Queens' College

The Cloister Court is named for its cloisters which were built in the 1490s to link the Old Court with other college buildings nearer the river.

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Cloister Court

Adjacent to Old Court is Walnut Tree Court, named for the tree that grows on its lawn. The one we see today is a replacement for an earlier one in the same position, standing on the line of a former monastery wall. The court was built in 1616–18. On its north side (left on my photo below) is the college chapel, which we didn’t go into (I believe it may have been closed).

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Walnut Tree Court

Instead we walked back through Cloister Court to the river and the famous Mathematical Bridge. The is a story attached to this bridge, which links the two halves of Queens’ College. It is said that the bridge was designed and built by Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts, and that later some students or fellows tried to take it apart and put it back together. They were unable to do so and had to resort to holding the bridge together with nuts and bolts. Sadly perhaps, this story is a myth - the bridge was built in 1749 by James Essex the Younger to the design of the master carpenter William Etheridge, 22 years after the death of Newton. This doesn’t stop the Mathematical Bridge from being one of the most photographed sights in Cambridge and of course I had to take some pictures too, waiting for punters to pass under it and position their boats in aesthetically pleasing spots!

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The Mathematical Bridge

Incidentally, punting on the Cam is a traditional and very popular activity here. You can hire a boat to punt yourself, or join an organised tour where the guide punts for you. The sound of the commentary on these tours drifts up as you watch from one of the many bridges or walk along the river banks – so much so that it can distract somewhat from the beautiful views. Punting was first introduced in the early 20th century and was quickly embraced by the students as a leisure activity, and more recently by visitors to the city keen to experience it as they do.

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Punting under the Mathematical Bridge

We decided to break for lunch at this point and had a very pleasant meal at the nearby Anchor pub, which I somehow omitted to photograph! It has a terrace overlooking the Cam, which on this sunny day was completely full, but we secured a table only just inside the door so we still had the view but were out of the sun, which was maybe a good thing as it was pretty hot for September. The pub dates back to 1864 and is associated with the rock band Pink Floyd – Syd Barrett was a regular here and the band played here several times.

King’s College

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King's College from the Backs

After our lunch we continued our explorations, crossing back over the Cam to walk along what are known as The Backs, the green lawns on the far side of the river to the town, from where you get excellent views of several of the colleges – and none more so than King’s.

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On King's College Bridge

We crossed back over the river at King’s College Bridge. This took us to the lawn immediately behind the main college buildings, dominant among them the famous King’s College Chapel.

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King's College Lawn with Chapel, Gatehouse and Screen

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Above the Gatehouse, King's College

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Entrance to King's College Chapel

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Exterior details of the Chapel

When I was a child my mother would always insist on listening to (and in later years watching) the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s on Christmas Eve, despite being the most unreligious person I know! That pause for beautiful music amidst the frenetic preparations for the big day was as much part of our family’s Christmas traditions as Mum’s recipe for Christmas pudding and the timing of the opening of gifts (always after breakfast!) So I loved being able to visit the chapel where these services are held.

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In King's College Chapel

As with Queens’, my friend’s membership of the university allowed us free access to the chapel and grounds of the college (otherwise the charge is £10). The chapel alone is worth a trip to Cambridge in my view – it is stunning!

The chapel was founded, like the college itself, by Henry VI. But the king didn’t live to see the work completed, being murdered in the Tower of London in 1471 when little more than the foundations had been built. Work continued rather half-heartedly under Edward IV and somewhat more enthusiastically under Richard III who gave instructions that 'the building should go on with all possible despatch' and to 'press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed'. By the end of his reign the first six bays of the Chapel had reached full height and the first five bays were roofed with oak and lead and were in use.

But it was under the Tudors, first Henry VII and then Henry VIII, to finish the work, and they did so in a grand style. The main structure and the vaulting (the chapel has the world's largest fan vaulted ceiling) were funded by Henry VII – partly during his reign and partly through his will. It was Henry VIII who oversaw the fan vaulting, which was built in just three years between 1512 and 1515, and later the glazing and most of the woodwork. The most striking example of the latter is the rood screen, which separates the nave from the altar and supports the chapel organ. This was erected in 1532–36 by Henry VIII in celebration of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and you can see both their initials carved on it. It is considered an exceptional example of early Renaissance architecture.

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Henry VIII's initials carved in the rood screen

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Arms of Henry VIII, King's College Chapel

The Tudors were of course a royal family under pressure – recently come to the throne as a result of victory in the Wars of the Roses, and facing ongoing challenges from other claimants. Asserting their authority was highly important, and where better to do so than in the building of this magnificent chapel?

Much of the decoration here, therefore, has little to do with Christianity and much to do with the power of the ruling family. The arms of Henry VII appear above the entrance and are repeated all around the walls of the nave, below the choir. A feature on the university website describes them:

‘Each shield (or escutcheon) is flanked by heraldic “supporters”: a dragon on the left and a greyhound on the right. Carved from pale limestone, the slender greyhounds have collars set with jewels, marking them out as favoured members of a wealthy household. All the shields have holes in their left-hand corners. This is a reference to jousting: a knight would pass his lance through the hole in the shield in order to defend himself while tilting at his opponent.’

The greyhound is the symbol of the Beaufort family (Henry’s mother was a Beaufort) while the dragon is the emblem of the Tudors. It struck me how each pair of animals is posed slightly differently – I haven’t found any mention of this online, so it perhaps has no particular significance other than to demonstrate the skill of Henry VII’s master mason John Wastell and his chief carver Thomas Stockton, or even to relieve their boredom at creating multiple copies of their master’s arms!

Elsewhere you will see the crowned Tudor rose, the crowned portcullis (another Beaufort family emblem), and the crowned fleur de lis for his titular kingship of France. Look at my photo of the fan vaulted ceiling – roses and portcullises sit at the highest intersections.

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Fan vaulted ceiling, King's College Chapel

You have to look quite closely to find any religious symbols in the stonework, like the small instrument-playing angels I spotted high on the walls of the chancel.

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Carving of angel, King's College Chapel

The stained glass windows here are magnificent, and these do have a religious theme, depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. Even here though the politics of the time crept in. I found the following intriguing explanation in a Telegraph newspaper review of a book about the windows:

‘Henry VII studded the windows with stubby hawthorn bushes that symbolised his victory at Bosworth Field. As Henry VIII careered from one wife to another, the glaziers were called on to make subtle alterations to the windows: for example, Anne Boleyn's falcon badge was quietly translated into Jane Seymour's phoenix. … Henry was Solomon. Henry was Moses. Henry was David brandishing the head of a papal Goliath. Renaissance buildings, Tudor galleons and more naturalistic techniques humanised the illustrations.’

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Stained glass windows

Amazingly most of the original early 16th century windows, including the great east window behind the altar, survived both the ravages of Cromwell during the Commonwealth and the bombs of World War Two when most was taken out and stored safely elsewhere.

The only later window is the west one, added in 1879, but it holds its own among all the others.

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West window, King's College Chapel

The painting above the altar is the Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, originally painted in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium. It was installed here in 1968, an operation that involved lowering the sanctuary floor and which was therefore not without controversy – especially as the painting is not considered one of Rubens’ best and as it clashes in style with the stunning east window immediately above it.

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East window, and Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

To the right of the altar a small side chapel serves as a memorial to those from the college (scholars, fellows, masters, staff etc.) who died in the two world wars. One very notable name to look for, near the top left of the WW1 commemorative plaque, is that of the famous war poet Rupert Brooke who died in 1915, aged just 18, from sepsis while with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. His most famous poem is The Soldier:

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WWI memorial plaque

‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’

I don’t think any number of photos can replicate the overall impression you get standing in this chapel, so do look at this virtual tour on the Kings College website to get the full effect.

More colleges and other sights

From Kings we walked past the Old Schools which house the Cambridge University offices and formerly housed the Cambridge University Library. My photos are of the entrance gate on the west side in a building designed by George Gilbert Scott (also responsible for the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial, among many others).

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The Old Schools

We walked through Senate Passage and emerged on to Kings Parade by Senate House. This is where all the university degree ceremonies are held. It was designed and built by James Gibbs in 1722–1730 , in a neo-classical style using Portland stone.

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Senate House from Senate Passage

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Senate House from King's Parade

We passed, but didn’t go into, Gonville and Caius College, named for its two founders. Gonville, Rector of Terrington St Clement in Norfolk, first founded the College as Gonville Hall in 1348. When it went into decline in the 16th century a former student and Fellow, John Keys, who also spelled his name as the Latin Caius, came to the rescue and re-founded his old College of Gonville Hall as ‘Gonville and Caius College’. My assumption is that the two stone figures above the Great Gate which show men holding buildings must be Gonville and Caius, and the third, in bishop’s robes, would perhaps be William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, who executed Gonville’s will and appointed the first Master of the college (he also, incidentally, set up his own college, Trinity, which we will come to shortly).

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Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Next on our route was Great St Mary’s, the university church. Although we didn’t, it’s possible to climb the 123 steps of the tower for views of the city. The present church was constructed between 1478 and 1519, replacing two earlier ones on this sit, and the tower finished later, in 1608. There have been various restorations over the centuries including one by George Gilbert Scott in 1850-51, and most recently during the last century.

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Great St Mary’s, the university church

We continued our walk north along Trinity Street, passing the Great Gate of Trinity College which was built at the beginning of the 16th century. Above the gate is a carving of King Henry VIII who founded the College in 1546 – one of the very last acts of his life. It was formed by amalgamating two existing colleges, King’s Hall and Michaelhouse. Look carefully at the carving on my photo below – Henry is holding a chair or table leg in his right hand! It is thought that this was substituted for the original sword, but no one knows when, or how, although it seems likely to have been a student prank.

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Trinity College - statue of Henry VIII

Students, presumably freshers (first year undergraduates), were arriving here and I spotted these men in traditional bowler hats welcoming them at the old wooden gate.

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At Trinity College

St John’s College

A little further on we came to another Great Gate, that of St John’s College.

The statue above it is of St John the Evangelist, with an eagle (his traditional symbol and an emblem of the College). He carries a poisoned chalice with a snake twined around it, representing the legend that once, while at Ephesus, John was given a cup of poisoned wine to drink. Before drinking, he blessed the cup and the poison departed the cup in the form of a serpent.

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Above the Great Gate, St John’s College

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First Court, St John’s College

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St John’s College Chapel
from Trinity Street

Passing through the gate we were in the college’s First Court, from where we had good views of the college chapel’s impressive tower, the tallest building in Cambridge, which we had already seen in front of us as we walked along Trinity Street.

Front Court dates from the early 16th century though it has been considerably altered over the centuries, especially on the north side where this chapel was built. The chapel is relatively new by Cambridge standards, having been built between 1866 and 1869 to replace a smaller medieval chapel which dated back to the 13th century. The architect was Sir George Gilbert Scott (his name crops up a lot when you read about the college buildings of Cambridge!)

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St John’s College Chapel

The main part of chapel was closed so we could only peer at it from the entrance area through a wrought iron screen. I would like to be able to say that I didn’t see the ‘no photos’ sign until after I had taken this one!

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St John’s College Chapel

We carried on into Second Court, which was built from 1598 to 1602 and is far more intact than First Court, with a symmetry to its Tudor buildings.

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Looking back at the chapel from Second Court

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In Second Court

On the far side of the Second Court (the west) is another imposing gate, a copy of the Great Gate. Above the archway is a statue of Mary Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, who financed the building of the court, which was added in 1671. I was taken by the little faces set into the archway – all different and all rather gargoyle-like in their ugliness!

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Statue of Mary Talbot

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Carving details

We walked through Third Court and little Kitchen Court, and from there out on to the Wren Bridge over the Cam. As the name suggests, the bridge was based on designs by Sir Christopher Wren, albeit for a bridge intended for a different place. I liked the goat-like statues adorning the gateway to this bridge.

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In Kitchen Court, and on the Wren Bridge

The Wren Bridge is the perfect vantage point for views and photos of Cambridge’s best-known bridge, the Bridge of Sighs. This was built in 1831 and is named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, presumably because both are covered. University legend however has it that the bridge is named for the sighs of students as they walk from their rooms in one of the courts on the Backs (New Court, River Court, Cripps Court) to their tutors' offices.

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The Bridge of Sighs

On the far side of the Cam we had a lovely view of New Court, the first college court to be built on this side of the river. It was built between 1826 and 1831 in the Gothic Revival style, to accommodate the growing number of students. It has the flamboyance typical of that style, and in the September sunshine and with beautiful flower beds outside, looked like a very grand stately home.

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New Court, St John's College

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New Court from the Wren Bridge

The Round Church

St John’s was the last college that we visited. Feet were growing weary and I had a train to catch. So we decided to catch a bus back to the main city centre bus terminus from where I could catch a second bus to the station and my friends one to their home.

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The Round Church

We found a pleasant spot in which to wait for our bus, outside the Round Church (more properly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). This is one of just four medieval round churches still in use in England. It was originally built in 1130, modelled on the 4th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and although it has seen many structural changes since then a sign outside proclaimed it the oldest church in Cambridge.

A fitting place perhaps to end our walk around this historic city.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:36 Archived in England Tagged bridges buildings architecture history city museum university chapel Comments (16)

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