Cambridge is renowned as one of England’s two great university towns, steeped in history and tradition. It has been described as one of the most beautiful cities in Britain. The city takes its name from the crossing of the River Cam. Here, at the meeting of dense forests to the south and marshy Fens to the north, was the lowest reliable fording place of the River Cam, or Granta. In the first century BC an Iron Age Belgic tribe built a settlement on what is now Castle Hill. In the first century AD, the Romans took over the site and it became the crossing point for the Via Devana which linked Colchester with the legions in Lincoln and beyond. The Saxons followed, then the Normans under William the Conqueror, who raised a castle on a steep mound as a base for fighting the Saxon rebel, Hereward the Wake, deep in the Fens at Ely. The motte of William’s castle still stands and Ely Cathedral is visible from the top on a clear day.
Today Cambridge is a thriving city of some 100,000 people. Its commercial heart is surrounded by fine buildings and green open spaces. The Backs, the famous grass-covered banks of the River Cam, are carpeted with crocus and daffodils in Spring. This is the Cambridge of Brooke, Byron, Newton and Rutherford, of the summer idyll of punts, bumps’, cool willows, and May Balls. In Summer you can take a punt along the river and enjoy the architectural glories of the riverside colleges. At King’s College Chapel, the best known of all Cambridge buildings, you may be lucky enough to hear the world-famous choir. In Autumn and Winter there are fewer visitors and the City is less crowded, but the presence of the students adds to the special atmosphere.
The colleges contain the great architectural treasures of Cambridge. Founded by kings, queens bishops, nobles, guilds and rich widows, they attracted powerful patrons and large endowments of land and money. Such wealth allowed the colleges to use the best architects, including Sir Christopher Wren, Powell and Moya – to create beautiful buildings that reflect perfectly 700 years of British architectural heritage. It is a heritage symbolised by the soaring windows and fan vaults of King’s College Chapel.
Punts, rowing boats and canoes can be hired from the boatyard at Mill Lane, either to go along the Backs or up river to Grantchester. Boats for the Backs only are on hire from Quayside. But beware: punting is more difficult than the nonchalant experts make it look and you may prefer to take advantage of a chauffeured punt. If you take a boat along the Backs please do not land at the colleges, try to avoid hitting the bridges and banks, and respect the colleges’ wishes for quiet, especially during exams. The boatyards are open from Easter to early October.