Small boats on a river with grassy banks and old buildings
Architecture,  England,  History,  Monday walks

A sunny day out in Cambridge, part one

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge (often shortened 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.

A few years ago I spent a day in Cambridge exploring with friends who moved there some years ago. 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.

Do join me for a Monday Walk with Jo.

My friends met me at the station, which is some way from the town centre, so we caught a bus together. Their excellent suggestion was to start with coffee and a chat about the plan for the day.

A Cambridge institution

Fitzbillies is a Cambridge institution, having been here since 1920, on the same corner site. 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. 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. There were 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.

Street scene with coffee shop

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. She stepped in to save it along with her husband. So Fitzbillies is once more a thriving family-run business.

I know Jo likes to end her Monday Walks with cake; maybe it was a bit decadent of us to start with some! But Fitzbillies is known especially for its Chelsea buns; sweet, sticky, gooey cinnamon-laden swirls of yeasty dough. How could we not partake?! We justified 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

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

Old buildings around a grassy courtyard
Old Court, Pembroke College

The college was founded in 1347 by Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke. It is the third oldest of the Cambridge colleges, and the oldest still on its original site. 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.

Building with tall chimneys and roses growing by a lawn
Library Lawn, Pembroke College
Head of a bronze statue of a man
Statue of William Pitt, Library Lawn

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 he 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.

Small church and old buildings with manicured grass
The chapel from Library Lawn
Wooden pews and moulded white ceiling
Church organ and moulded white ceiling

Inside the chapel

Fitzwilliam Museum

From Pembroke College we walked a little further along Trumpington Street. We wanted 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. He 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. It is now considered one of the best small museums in Europe.

Classical style carving above a door in a pale stone building
Entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum

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 that 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 less clement weather.

The Founder’s Entrance

Queens’ College

Retracing our steps down Trumpington Street we turned down Silver Street to visit our next college, Queens’. This is one of the oldest and 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. It 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.

Brick building with small white clock tower
Old Court moondial and clock
Small white clock tower on a tiled roof
Old Court clock

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.

Dark walled room with oil paintings and tiled floor
Old Hall
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Dark walled room with red and green painted ceiling
Old Hall

The hall has a beautiful painted ceiling. This is 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. The central figure is one of the foundresses, Elizabeth Woodville, while on the right is Sir Thomas Smith, a 16th century diplomat and former Fellow of Queens’.

The Cloister Court takes its name from cloisters built in the 1490s to link Old Court with other college buildings nearer the river.

Old buildings around a grassy courtyard
Cloister Court
Old buildings around a grassy courtyard
Cloister Court

Adjacent to Old Court is Walnut Tree Court, built in 1616–18. It is named for a 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.

Old buildings around a grassy courtyard with a large tree
Walnut Tree Court

The Mathematical Bridge

We walked back through Cloister Court to the river and the famous Mathematical Bridge. There 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. 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. That was 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!

Wooden bridge over a canal with old buildings
The Mathematical Bridge
Small boats passing under a wooden bridge
The Mathematical Bridge

We decided to break for lunch at this point and had a very pleasant meal at the nearby Anchor pub. 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. I suggest we take a break here too, and I’ll share the rest of this lovely day out in future post(s).

I last visited Cambridge in 2018, when these photos were taken

36 Comments

  • Teresa

    Such a beautiful post. I haven’t been there so I hope that when I go there next I will see how great it is in person!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Teresa 😀 I’m confident you would love Cambridge! It’s only around an hour from London by train, so maybe next time you visit your son?

  • Annie Berger

    A very fun read about Cambridge including your stops at Fitzbillies and the Mathematical Bridge. Looking forward to your next installment on Cambridge.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you enjoyed this first instalment of my sunny day out Annie 🙂 Part two is already posted (Kings College Chapel) and part three will follow in a few days ifI get my act together!

  • wetanddustyroads

    I would say that is the perfect way to start any walk – to enjoy a delicious Chelsea bun … because you would anyway walk off those calories! And what a lovely walk – the Pembroke College has such beautiful grounds and a ‘moondail’ … that’s interesting. Lovely pictures of the Mathematical Bridge.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah, that’s a great way to look at it 🙂 Although we did have that pub lunch later which probably replaced them and more! Still, there is more walking to come …

  • Wind Kisses

    I always enjoy your stories/history that go with your photos. Funny about the Mathematical Bridge. Kinda wish the Newton story was true. In any case a beautiful view.

    All the grounds you wandered through were immaculate, in proper British fashion. Glad Fitzbillies keeps returning. The history makes it fun, and no doubt the treats make it better. That would be something to search for on another trip for us. Donna

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, they really look after the grounds of all the colleges here – but then, they have to money to be able to do so! And I wish the Newton story were true too 😀

  • Rose

    College Tours are fascinating – to hear the history, to see the architecture, to learn about the famous people who were involved at any point along the way… And Your images are charming.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Cambridge and this post has really rekindled that. I lived in Bedford for over 20 years so visited Cambridge often and never tired of it. My elder son did his PHD at Darwin College at the University too. It’s a genteel city with so much to offer the vistor. Good to read and see it again through your memories.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, ‘genteel’ is a good word for it – although not when hordes of students are flying past on their bikes! Visiting at this time of year I missed the height of the tourist season but got in just before the students all came up after the summer holidays 🙂

  • restlessjo

    I had a rootle around in my old blog before I came here because I thought I’d written about Cambridge on there, but I could only find a couple of photos on a Six Word Saturday. I traveled from Wisbech by train and bus and only had a few hours before I needed to return, but it was one of those ‘if I don’t see Cambridge today it might never happen’ occasions, and well worth the effort. It’s been a pleasure to jaunt around there with you, Sarah, and of course you’re allowed cake if you’re going to walk off the calories afterwards. So glad Fitzbillies was saved, even though I didn’t get there myself. I’m sure you did justice to the Chelsea buns. Looking forward to next time!

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    Is everything in England really that beautiful, or is it that your photos are just that perfect? I think it’s both! It is very hard for me to wrap my head around the construction dates of the buildings and founding dates of the colleges. Our city was incorporated in 1909, and Texas wasn’t a state until 1845! I always enjoy your posts, Sarah. Thank you for sharing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Cambridge is definitely much more attractive than most of our towns and cities. Although most of them have at least a handful of attractive and/historic buildings, very few have this concentration. But the age of the buildings, while notable, isn’t exceptional for Britain. I could show you older! At a more prosaic level, our own very ordinary small suburban house was built in 1889 and that’s not unusual 😀 If you’ve never visited the UK you definitely should – you would love the history I think!

        • Sarah Wilkie

          But wouldn’t be so ordinary here! Not many people get the chance to build their own home, and when they do it is almost always rural rather than urban – no room to build new ones in our cities unless you’re a developer and can buy up swathes of land to build a whole estate of houses!

  • margaret21

    It’s several years since I had a day out in Cambridge. As this post demonstrates, there really is plenty to do and see. Looking forward to Part Two.

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