Two days in Cambridge: Sights, Shopping, Lodging, Transport
CAMBRIDGE is a secluded little wonderland of 19th-century splendour and Victorian façade.
The town’s name stands worldwide for egalitarian students in smart academic dress with ties and gowns attending Cambridge University. Surprisingly I learned that presenting itself as one renowned university to the world is foremost good PR – well okay, it does have some historical relevance as well.
But, what the world perceives as the one Cambridge University is a variety of 31 Colleges, the oldest being Peterhouse dating back to 1284 and the most famous embodied by King’s College with its stunning late Gothic architecture and Trinity College, the smarty pants leader with the most Nobel price winners of all.
Nobel prizes have been awarded to affiliate colleges of the Cambridge University for the discovery of DNA structure, the development of a national income accounting system and the discovery of penicillin (to name a few).
Gibbs’ Building with a statue of Henry VI (1421-1471), the founder of King’s College. Visitors have to pay an entrance fee to get a glimpse of educational interiors.
City model to commemorate Cambridge’s octocentenary (King’s College is in the back). Evanescent autumn leaves commemorate my short stay.
Neoclassic landmark next to King’s College. The Senate House. Policemen are making sure everything goes according to plan as I am about to meet the royals, Kate and William.
Cambridge’s curiosa. A large clock at the corner of Bene’t Street and Trumpington Steet, unveiled by Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking. It is called the Chrophanage, meaning ‘time eater‘.
The huge grasshopper has eyes that blink as it eats the ‘seconds’. Time is displayed by backlit slits. It reads ‘mundus transit et concupiscentia eius (‘the world passeth away, and the lust thereof”).
More curiosa. What vending machines are to Tokyo, phone booths are to Cambridge.
If you are state educated, like me, you may share the excitement which elitist fee-paying schools emanate. The aphrodisiac qualities of intellect and money, embodied by upper class lads in tweed suits, such as worn in the 1860s until the 1930s, and sophisticated settings out of Brideshead Revisited, are much appreciated.
However, if you are a bit younger than me, you might walk through Cambridge to catch the magic from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and meet Harry Potter impersonifications.
There are many cultural attractions apart from amazing college architecture, for example classical music at West Road concert hall, performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre (where I saw Oliver Twist!), the great Fitzwilliam Museum (now showing woodcuts of Japanese winter – I missed by only three days) or the Cambridge Observatory.
The tourist information centre on Peas Hill does not have much information for free, the smallest brochure or map starts at £1.50. All I liked to know can be found on their website for free: http://www.visitcambridge.org/
Tiny picturesque streets with many British brands around every corner.
Students will offer punting excursions to get romantic views of all colleges lining the banks of the river Cam. No way to get bored but not enough time to do it all in two days. Well, maybe there would have been just enough time, but poking around British stores was the opportunity I preferred not to miss.
Beyond academic institutions and cultural entertainment there is forefront-shopping at the Grand Arcade and the Grafton Centre. Those malls deliver with established high street fashion stores but also some brands that were new fashion territory for me. It seems that all British girls are carrying Cath Kidston bags and accessories.
The Grand Arcade on Saint Andrew’s Street with British Top Shop, New Look and John Lewis.
Shopping hours are very conservative: Mon-Tue and Thu-Sat it’s 9am–6pm, on Wednesday you will have a bit more time the evening 9am–8pm and Sun is really short from 11am–5pm. ( I have gotten used to ultra shopping convenience in Asia and the nowadays ultra capitalist Ex-Soviet countries in Europe.)
The Grafton Shopping Mall on Fitzroy Street. A ten minute walk from the centre, it features many British stores Dorothy Perkins, BHS, Debenhams, Clarks, Claire’s, Accessorize, Jemporium Vintage, Miss Selfridge and has a multi screen cinema.
Shopping hours are even shorter than at the Arcade: Mon-Tue and Thu-Fri it’s 9am–5.30pm, on Wednesday 9am–8pm, Saturday is 9am-6pm and Sun is really short from 11am–5pm.
I had two full days to enjoy myself in Cambridge while Tomek was at work, attending business meetings, lunches, dinners, he generally spent all days indoors. In the meantime I was busy with common activities of unemployed blogging wives. I enjoyed British fashion.
Top Shop is feminine and edgy but this was a bit over the top.
Strolling around the city, taking in the academic flair, exploring independent boutiques and shops, was like a Spa treatment. I am all for shop therapy (spending money is satisfying body and soul). All the same, I am just as great of a window shopper and to my delight Cambridge has great shop windows.
In the appropriately named Market square, Cambridge’s main market is selling everything from vintage clothes to flowers every day.
The reason I love to shop at Boots and Marks & Sparks so much is foremost due to their extensive food palette, in addition to affordable take away offers. Too bad that M&S fashion is sort of stuck in the past and Boots is not the best-deal drugstore in Cambridge.
While Athens was yet in Christmas slumber, Cambridge had the Christmas lights on and the public was pampered with Christmas carols. Christmas choir at the Grand Arcade (in the corner) and Christmas themed clementine juice (with Santa hat).
Great Britain is not the most affordable host and our stay at Harry’s Bed and Breakfast amounted to 85 pounds per night, including breakfast.
We stayed in a typical Victorian terraced house in brick, constructed during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837—1901).
Bricks surrounded me plenty in Manchester during university times and judging the black burned toast and colour of British beans at the all girls’ hall canteen, I am sure I was served brick for breakfast.
Manchester was blessed with the industrial revolution and the successive Victorian housing boom. Britain is now dominated by brick-gloom, even new buildings conservatively stick with characteristic industrial brick architecture.
British country chintz interior. Our bathroom did not have two taps which generated inner outcries of joy, every time I was washing my hands or brushing my teeth, recalling the one too many hand, face and mouth burns at ‘Gab’s Hall’.
Despite Tomek being in a constant morning work-flow rush, our traveler tradition to enjoy meals together stayed. Breakfast is a sacrosanct institution.
Our very British breakfast. The vegetarian version to the courtesy of Harry, the B&B owner. Veggie sausage, beans, fried egg, hash-browns and a delicious mushroom. Breakfast was enormous and we had to kindly asked Harry to resize them to manageable continental portions.
(BTW British food is awesome – in parts – and more on undervalued British food in the next post).
The eating room. The interior is beautifully British. Notice the compulsory sign on the ‘fire door’. When it comes to fire safety measures the whole of Britain seems to be OCD.
Ugh. Cambridge has an impenetrable bus system.
No timetables, no useful info on bus routes – make for a totally unpredictable and chaotic system run by various companies which can cost you twice as much for the same ride.
It was easy to get to the city centre or main bus station (which is in the city centre) but I suspect the every-10-minutes-promise only applied after I left Cambridge and before that. The weather was not adapted to waiting passengers either.
While waiting for the bus I found traces of the less fortunate – a testament of their frustration (in their native language): “Beware. I have sharpened all kitchen knives.” Cheap labour from Poland has swamped the low key service sector in Britain.
Polish waiters and waitresses are the rule in cafés and bars. Hence the mentioning to cutlery and the kitchen, I think.
It was a public transportation night mare to return ‘home’ to Milton Road at around 9-10 pm or later. Because I had no clue how to go back I thought I would ask at the bus station, wait for the right bus, board and be home within 30 minutes (it’s about 3 km but going by foot included dodgy dark ways). Instead, this is how I got home:
1. First, I asked a competent looking passenger waiting at the main bus station. He told me how you really have to know ‘Cambridge’s bus secrets’ to get around, took me by the hand and escorted me to bus stop two, like I was his granddaughter (all English people are lovely).
2. Bus driver at station two said that buses do not run to Milton Road from here.
3. Helpful passenger walked me to bus station number three and we parted. I thought that all it would take now, was to wait for the right bus.
4. Bus arrived. Happy to board my bus, the bus driver put all hopes to shatters. It was going to be bus stop two and I needed to hurry because the bus to take me home was leaving in three minutes.
5. I made it. Only to hear from the next bus driver that it was definitely the station I was coming from (bus driver giving info and bus-numbers out confidently). Puzzled, I explained and asked if this was right. Yes, he said. I urged him to confirm the bus number again (rude foreigner).
6. Back at the other station. Over one hour had passed. Chances to get home were diminished by the minute. Then came my bus.
7. And another bus driver that looked at me in disbelieve and confused about what I was told by other bus drivers. He was not going to Milton Road but… explaining his route in such a polite and amicable manner that I couldn’t possibly get mad. The bus driver claimed that at this late hour (past 11pm) buses are not running up to Milton Road any more. Her recommended a taxi and put an end to me running around town.
8. I returned home for £6.50 via taxi. Happy and optimistic that the next Nobel price will be about the regulation of public transport.
Conclusion: Get a bike. Harry’s Bed and Breakfast at Milton Road number 39 is not accessible by bus from the city.
I do know why virtually everyone in Cambridge owns a bike. I asked Mr Harry but he doesn’t rent out those handy two wheelers.
Bikes are perfect for a small place like Cambridge (and replace huge advertisements). Cambridge is a small town boasting majestic post boxes On Her Majesty’s Service.
Put on your tweed, tie the ascot, get a bike, come to Cambridge and pour the port!