London Day Trip: Cambridge

London day trip, Cambridge
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.

Sights
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.

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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.

Outings
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.

Looking for more London day trips? Check out my articles on Oxford, Anglesey Abbey, Bletchley Park, Bath, St. Albans and Canterbury.

Five ways to enjoy “Suicide Sunday”

I stumbled into Cambridge, England on “Suicide Sunday,” a joyous occasion in which the local university students cut loose and get wasted blow off steam following the completion of final exams. The streets are packed with tourists and students, the former gawking, the latter playing. To witness the events is figuratively intoxicating, while to participate offers a more literal experience. The booze flows plentifully, and merriment is omnipresent.

So, how can you get in on the action? Call ahead to the Cambridge University to find out when Suicide Sunday will be (it’s always in June). Once you hit the ground, here are a few ways to pass the time:

1. Pour yourself a drink: If you’re clever, enter one of the colleges. The signs prohibit non-student entry, and there are security guards just inside those doors (as I learned the hard way). But, if you can slip inside, you’ll be at the center of the party. It’s fairly likely that free liquor will flow your way.

Backup Plan: If the rent-a-cops bust you, shoot for an aquatic landing. Take a “punt” (flat-bottomed boat) or other vessel onto the River Cam. Slip up to the shore and climb out. Bribe a student (in the boat and on shore). Get wasted. Too easy.

2. Stay on the river for a bit: “Punting,” mentioned above, is really nothing more than pushing a boat with a pole along the River Cam. You can either rent your own and try your luck or hire a “chauffeured” punt to bring you along the river. Keep in mind that there will be plenty of self-hired punts out there, so you’re best bet is to stay in the hands of a professional.

People Watch: There are parties at the colleges all along the river. Watch for the splashes, as drunk students tend to toss each other into the water. Sometimes, small wrestling matches occur that ultimately lead to a trip into the drink. You can enjoy the show from start to finish.

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3. Fill your stomach: The most common picnic fare seems to be beer and cheap Indian food. Join the party! Both are plentiful. Grab your grub and head out for the punt bridges behind St. Catherine’s (on Silver Street). Look for a spot in the unmowed grass, and chow down. Buy a little extra – you may be able to host a small party of drunk college kids!

Heckle the Help: When you’ve finished eating, stake out a spot on a bridge. To fit in with the locals, pick up a few water balloons. Then, hunt drunks. You won’t be alone. More than a few people were on the prowl while I was waiting for my punt.

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4. Enjoy the architecture: Yes, there is a cultural aspect to Cambridge University. The easiest way to satisfy your intellectual obligation is to wander the streets and enjoy the downright regal architecture that the various colleges offer. Also, you can do this while meandering from one rockin’ party to the next, so you don’t have to sacrifice any precious drinking time.

Watch for Pitchers: The clean cut British boys pushing punting tickets aren’t as skilled as the souk-minders of Marrakech, but they’re trying. Don’t get sucked in by their innocent charm while you’re snapping photos of the buildings. Make your arrangements for punting when you get down to the river.

5. Protest, protest, protest: Cambridge, England is not unlike Cambridge, Massachusetts, in that there is always some group fighting the social and political injustices of the world. On the most recent Suicide Day, I saw a bike rally chanting: “Free Gaza now!”

Let It Roll: Speaking of bikes, they’re the most popular form of transportation in Cambridge. Look for them when you cross the street. Hell, rent one for a while. It’s nice to see the world like a local.

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Disclosure: Many thanks to Visit Britain, which picked up the tab for this trip and to British Airways for the flights. Obviously, it did not pay for my opinions. If they did, I doubt this is the story that would have been commissioned.