Pleasing the punters

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Pleasing the Punters

cambridge

Mathematical Bridge – legend has it this was built by Newton

Cambridge makes a great day out if you’re staying in Norfolk or Suffolk. Former student Tom Kerswill takes you on an insider’s tour of arguably Britain’s most famous university city

We’re in a line of five punts, splashing along a short stretch of river from Cambridge to the village of Grantchester, home of afternoon teas, clocks that stand at ten to three, and, er, Jeffrey Archer. It’s 2am and as close to dark as it will get.

‘May Week’ in Cambridge. Paradoxically the month is June. Undergraduates at the university have finished exams and are celebrating at end-of-year balls. Queues of expectant students dressed in ball gowns and dinner jackets spill out onto the streets. With a group of fellow students we’ve chosen to escape all that, preferring an adventure: punting to Grantchester by night.

Grantchester, is – as you would expect at this hour – completely quiet. It’s a bit strange huddled here on the village green enjoying glasses of celebratory champagne. But the strangest is yet to come. The village milkman, appearing as the sun begins to rise, doesn’t bat an eyelid as 20 young people ask to buy several pints of milk. You get the impression things like this happen all the time here.

"Punting is surely one of the strangest ways of navigating a river ever invented"

We’ve come a couple of miles from Cambridge along the River Cam which winds through the famous Grantchester meadows. The next day we retrace our route by foot. And it’s a lot quicker to walk – only one hour compared with two or three by punt. An ideal starting point is The Mill pub where you can enjoy a pint or two outside on the gently sloping grassland bordering the river. A few yards from The Mill you’ll find yourself strolling through the meadows. All that’s left of Cambridge is a glimpse of the famous spires.

When you reach Grantchester, you’re greeted by another pub, The Green Man, one of four in the village. If you prefer to partake of afternoon tea, head to the Orchard Tea Rooms on the far side of the village.

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Glide by guide

Punting is surely one of the strangest ways of navigating a river ever invented but it does enable the visitor to get an excellent impression of Cambridge. Perching on the edge of the long, thin wooden boat, you plunge a pole – called the ’quant’ – into the water, propelling yourself by pushing against the river bed.

One of the most relaxing – and safest – ways of enjoying the river is to take a guided punt tour. These offer a chance to relax as a guide talks you through the Backs, the famous stretch of river which flows through the gardens of many of the Cambridge colleges. The 45-minute tours are great fun and save all the stress of actually punting.

Perhaps the most famous building you can see from the river is King’s College Chapel, which is open to the public most days and has a magnificent interior, particularly its stunning stained glass windows.

The air of calm vanishes as you reach the city centre, though not because of the roar of traffic – far from it: Cambridge has banned cars from its centre. What you see and hear is the 10am bicycle rush hour – thousands of cyclists pour in on their way to lectures. By car, your best bet is to travel in via one of the park and rides – during the day there’s a bus every 10 minutes and the service is cheap. If fooling about in boats doesn’t sound much fun to you, walking tours of the city are available, or you can take one of the bright red tour buses.

City centre attractions

Cambridge is compact. Given a day in the city centre, you can fit a surprising amount in. And if you get tired, it’s got more than its fair share of cafés. The city’s market runs six days a week and has been on the same site since the 19th century. You can buy no end of tacky tourist T-shirts and assorted memorabilia, but you’ll also find a huge array of fruit and veg, spices, cheeses and other delicious.

Most visitors won’t feel they’ve really seen Cambridge until they’ve had a look around some of the colleges. These aren’t always open: during the summer exam term, doors remain firmly closed. Notable for their architecture are Trinity and St John’s, while the gardens at Clare College are exceptionally beautiful. In summer, Trinity gardens are lovely to stroll through, and if you’re lucky you might get a glimpse of the college’s famous porters, dressed in top hat and tails. But a warning: don’t be tempted to walk on the grass!

Back on the river you’re reminded of the tension between Cambridge’s two worlds of mad bustle and quiet style. It’s almost possible to ignore the noise and hilarity going on around you, as tourists and students alike crash punts gracelessly into each other. This is Cambridge at its best: a place where you can relax but also be swept up by a feeling of enormous energy.

Want to know more?

Punting

Bike hire

  • Mike’s Bikes, 28 Mill Rd, Cambridge, tel 01223 312591
  • Geoff’s Bike Hire, 65 Devonshire Rd, Tel 01223 365629

Cambridge Visitor Information

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