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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inside the chapel
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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