London is an amazing city for art, culture, dining and nightlife. It can get a bit overbearing at times, though. If you want to get away from it all you’re in luck. There are plenty of day trips you can do.
One of the best destinations is the university town of Cambridge 60 miles to the north and easily accessible by train or bus. With its Gothic towers, verdant gardens and storied history, it makes for a pleasant change from the big city. The university was founded in the 13th century and is divided into several colleges each with its own character and traditions. In the town itself, winding streets lead to atmospheric pubs, medieval churches, museums and shops. Cambridge is compact and walkable, and it’s easy to get out into the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside.
The colleges are one of the main attractions. King’s College is the most spectacular and also one of the oldest, having been founded in 1446 by Henry VI. The chapel with its 16th century stained glass and the “Adoration of the Magi” by Rubens is a memorable sight. Its soaring fan vault ceiling can be seen in this photo by Tom Thai. Another popular college is Trinity College, which has graduated more than 30 Nobel Prize winners. Sir Isaac Newton used to teach there. The 17th century library designed by Sir Christopher Wren is a must for any bibliophile and features an incredible collection of rare manuscripts including an 8th century copy of the Epistles of St. Paul.
The Fitzwilliam Museum is the university’s art museum and has a large collection of European masters, Asian art, a medieval armory, illuminated manuscripts, artifacts from ancient Egypt, plus lots more. An unusual aspect of the displays is that most are simply hanging on the wall or on shelves as if they were the collection of some eccentric and vastly wealthy collector. Unfortunately, someone stumbled on the stairs in 2006 and knocked over a Ming vase. Luckily he was British, so there wasn’t an international incident, but please be careful.
St. Bene’t’s Church is the oldest of Cambridge’s many churches. Much of the original Saxon construction from c. 1020 is still visible, including the tower, which you can climb to get a photogenic view of the town.
Step into a bit of English and American history at The Eagle, a traditional English pub that started serving in the 15th century and became popular with American aviators from the nearby air base during World War II. Many of them wrote their names on the ceiling of the back room with candles and lighters, and you can still see their burnt scribbles. The Eagle serves the usual pub fare, including real ale and a fine Sunday roast.
The Cambridge Chop House is set in a medieval wine cellar opposite King’s College. You can’t get much more atmospheric than this. The cuisine is a mix of traditional British and Continental favorites.
If English cooking is getting a bit too heavy, try the Rainbow Vegetarian Cafe. This cozy little place serves some of the best vegetarian food in England, literally. It was named cafe of the year by the Vegetarian Society. Besides vegetarian food, it also serves a good variety of vegan and gluten-free choices. Even a dedicated carnivore such as myself can appreciate the friendly service, heaping portions and internationally inspired dishes.
If you walk through town you’ll be sure to get bushwhacked by touts hustling boat rides. Boats generally hold 3-4 people and the punter stands on the stern with a long pole and pushes along the shallow River Cam. You can hire someone to punt for you or do it yourself. Either way it’s a serene way to spend a lazy afternoon.
My personal favorite outing from Cambridge is the walk along the River Cam to Grantchester. It’s only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) and you can do it on foot or by punting. Grantchester is a little cluster of thatched roof houses and a famous tea garden called The Orchard. Lawn chairs, a sparkling river and high tea make this one of the most relaxing spots in England. I simply can’t sink into one of those chairs without drifting off to sleep. The Orchard was founded in 1897 and soon became a favorite for university students. Before World War I it was the meeting place for the “Neo-Pagans,” a literary group that included Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. Check out the free Rupert Brooke Museum at The Orchard to learn more about the life of one of England’s most cherished early 20th century poets.