“Oxford gave the world marmalade and a manner, Cambridge science and a sausage.” No one knows who came up with that quip, but what’s certain is that the rivalry between Britain’s two top university cities has raged ever since their foundation.
Oxford – dubbed ‘the Other Place’ by Cantabrigians – is the older of the two. Gallingly for Cambridge, perhaps, it owes its university to the fact that, in 1209, some Oxford scholars got into a scrap with locals and fled to the Fenland market town to found a new centre of learning.
Today, while Oxford’s colleges have become intertwined with a large, modern city, Cambridge has a more concentrated beauty. Its historic colleges jostle for space alongside the willow-draped River Cam, which in medieval times would have buzzed with boats carrying cargoes of sedge and eels, but now hosts burly rowers and lackadaisical punters.
At 3.45pm you can set your watch by the line of uniformed choirboys from King’s College choir school snaking its way across the Backs – as the green swathe of land beside the Cam is called – for choir practice in Kings’ Chapel, ahead of 5.30pm evensong. It’s the same choir that has enraptured the nation’s airwaves on Christmas Eve with its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols since 1928.
In the city’s buzzing heart, narrow, car-free streets echo to the whirring of bicycles, the tolling of churchbells and murmur of shoppers.
At dusk, you’ll spot gown-clad students going to dinners inside medieval college halls. Later, the action moves to college bars or city pubs, the most famous being The Eagle, where Francis Crick and James Watson ran shouting “Eureka” after unravelling the secret of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory.
To grasp the spirit of the place, you’ll want to visit at least a handful of Cambridge’s 31 colleges. Not all are open to the public, so unless you’re happy to take pot luck, check which open when, and whether they charge. There’s no better starting point than Trinity College, one of the oldest and definitely the largest and richest. Above its gateway you’ll spot the king who founded it in 1546, Henry VIII. Look closer and you’ll notice that his right hand grips not the original sceptre, but a chair leg, installed by student pranksters. Glance to the lawn on the right and you’ll spot a small tree, a descendent of the apple tree made famous by one of Trinity’s many glittering alumni, Isaac Newton.
Pass through the porter’s lodge, whose gentleman porters are the last in the university to still don bowlers, and chuckles will turn to gasps of wonder as you see Great Court (never call these immaculate lawn-filled courts ‘quads’ – that’s what the Other Place calls them). At the start of every academic year, freshers compete in the Great Court Run, attempting to run round the court in the time it takes the clock to strike midnight. After rather too many drunken falls, the run – made famous by the film Chariots of Fire, although it was actually shot at Eton – now happens at noon.
Winnie the Pooh fans should continue past the dining hall to the impressive Wren Library, which houses the original handwritten manuscripts of AA Milne, who was an undergraduate here, followed by his son Christopher Robin.
Another must-see college is the even older King’s, started by Henry VI in 1441. King’s College Chapel here is an extraordinary example of late Gothic architecture. The true drama is within, where you’ll see the largest expanse of fan vaulting in the world, a fantastically carved wooden screen commissioned by Henry VIII, and Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi, painted in 1634.
Return up Silver Street, turn right and you’ll reach Peterhouse, the oldest and smallest college, set up by the Bishop of Ely in 1284 to keep his unruly scholars under control.
If Peterhouse is the oldest college, Cambridge’s oldest surviving courtyard is the monastic-style Old Court at Corpus Christi, started in 1352 and built in locally quarried clunch. The statue to the right of the chapel door New Court is one of the college’s former masters, Matthew Parker. He later became archbishop of Canterbury, but is best known for his intrusive investigations of the clergy in the 16th century, which gave us the phrase ‘Nosy Parker’.
You could easily spend a week exploring Cambridge’s narrow passageways and historic buildings, but don’t let its glamour stop you visiting the eerily beautiful flat lands it grows out of: the Fens. For generations, sedge and peat from this wet wilderness kept Cambridge’s students and townspeople warm.
From the 1600s, the Fens were drained to provide agricultural land, but you can still catch a glimpse of how they were in their original state by visiting Wicken Fen, now a nature reserve run by the National Trust.
Unless you have a boat to cruise along the fens’ ruler-straight man-made waterways, the best way to take in their watery beauty and vast skies is by bike; hire bikes at Wicken and follow the Lodes Way cycleway to Bottisham, nine miles south. To enjoy the Fens’ rich birdlife, follow one of the marked walking trails, starting at the visitor centre.
The jewel in the Fenland crown is Ely Cathedral, whose atmospheric towers can be seen from miles around. Its slithery name stems from the time when Ely was an island marooned in the undrained Fens, and whose eels provided delicious sustenance for its inhabitants. Admire the cathedral’s magnificent octagon tower (built in 1322 to replace the collapsed central tower) and surrounding medieval streets, before descending to Ely’s river, the Great Ouse, to enjoy the boats and maybe cakes at Peacocks Tearoom.
Another highlight is Anglesey Abbey, whose gardens at Eastertime are carpeted with tiny pink tulips and hyacinths. The Jacobean-style mansion is also renowned for its vibrant Winter Garden.
On the other side of Cambridge, Wimpole Hall has a park grazed by rare breed animals, whose meat you can buy in the shop. You can feed the animals on its Home Farm and watch lambing in spring.
But if you’ve had your fill of rural life, head to Duxford, to the south, with its Imperial War Museum that houses one of Europe’s biggest aircraft collections and runs regular airshows. Or return to the blissful, timeless streets of Cambridge.