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Why Festivals and Events are So Popular in Cambridge?

a group of people standing in front of a crowd

Festivals and events

The highlights for students are the May Balls, which take place after exams have finished in May Week (which is in June – well what else would you expect!). These are lavish black-tie (or even white-tie) affairs that can cost more than £500 for a couple, and will typically involve bands, fireworks, as much food and drink as you can consume, fairground rides, casinos and much else besides. They start by 9pm, one of the main aims being to still be awake for the ‘survivor’s photo’ at 5am the next morning, which also means that most people don’t take full advantage of the limitless drink. St John’s College is supposed to be the best of the balls, but Trinity College also has a great reputation, and many of the other colleges, such as Clare College, are renowned for their more intimate feel. Even without going near a ball you are likely to be aware of firework displays for several consecutive nights, and you can book punt trips for a close-up view. Some colleges hold their balls or similar events at other times of year, particularly winter balls in early December as the Michaelmas Term ends.

Cambridge is the sort of place where people like to be doing things, and residents relish a never-ending stream of events and ways to entertain their family.

The two-week Science Festival in March features many noteworthy lectures, topical debates and experimental activities that ‘sell out’ within moments of booking opening (they are of course free, but are ticketed and these go like hot cakes). Its opposite number, the Festival of Ideas, is a similarly popular fortnight in October, packed full of debates, workshops, talks, exhibitions and performances, celebrating the arts, humanities and social sciences. Both events attract experts from around the country, but are primarily a chance for the University’s great minds to connect with the townspeople, hopefully explaining their complex topics in layman’s terms and not teaching children science before they can really appreciate it!

The four-day Literary Festival in April attracts authors and playwrights, thinkers and speakers, tackling diverse topics from poetry to politics. The organisers also run a two-day winter festival and other book events throughout the year.

The Cambridge Beer Festival is a long-running event on Jesus Green at the end of May (with a smaller winter festival running too), an essential point in the calendar for those lovers of real ale: over 100,000 pints are imbibed over the six days. It is the second-largest beer festival in the UK.

Strawberry Fair is a music and arts fair attracting some 30,000 people in June, a one-day event on Midsummer Common. Later on, the six-day Midsummer Fair, which started in 1211, now has fairground rides, street food, crafts and stalls.

The Sunday evening at the end of May week (in mid-June, remember) is a great opportunity to hear the King’s Chapel Choir – but not in their usual surroundings. They balance on punts in the middle of the Cam, serenading the crowd picnicking on the banks. Trinity’s choir take to the water too, having earlier in the day performed ‘Singing from the Towers’ (of Great Gate, at midday).

The Cambridge Big Weekend, usually the first weekend of July, on Parker’s Piece, starts on Friday night with a firework display. It has music, events, fairground rides and more, a free event put on by the city council. Fairs and circuses also come at various points in the year to Parker’s Piece and Midsummer Common – watch out for their posters around town.

Cambridge Summer Music is a fortnight in July, full of classical music in different locations across the city, which has been run for the last 40 years now. Also starting in July is the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, taking part of college gardens.

The Cambridge Folk Festival has run every year since 1965 (with the exception of 2020) and attracts 14,000 people in July to Cherry Hinton Hall Park. Its diverse range of ‘folk’ music, from traditional to contemporary, has earned it the reputation of being one of the best folk festivals in Europe.

Open Studios, in July, sees hundreds of artists and craftspeople opening their workshops to connect with the local population, while Open Cambridge, a weekend in September, is part of the national Heritage Open Days scheme when lots of the colleges and museums open for free. Tours are arranged of Cambridge buildings and places that are not normally open to the public, and there are more talks and stalls.

October sees the week-long Cambridge Film Festival, now running for nearly 40 years, which is a celebration of films past, present and future in various indoor and outdoor locations across the city.

The City Council organizes a spectacular Bonfire Night event, generously supported by businesses and individuals, which pulls in huge crowds to Midsummer Common to watch one of the best firework displays around.

Mill Road Winter Fair, on the first Saturday of December, attracts visitors from across the county, with Mill Road closed to traffic, replaced by street parades, a packed schedule of bands, musicians and dance groups and street sellers. Many buildings open for visitors and put on special events. Last year St Barnabas Church handed out 15,000 mince pies!

But the hottest show in town is King’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the Christmas Eve service broadcast live worldwide, attended by the ‘lucky’ ones who queue for hours in the cold and wind. (Don’t get confused with the BBC’s Carols from Kings, which is a separate service, pre-recorded in early December, and invitation only, so you’ll have to pull a lot of strings to get into this one!) The Advent service is also King’s members only (although the Queen has attended), so you may have to make do with a daily (term-time) Evensong.

Cam Lates host events from escape rooms to concerts or tapas in some of the University’s museums after hours, the most popular being Twilight at the Museums in February half term, when most local museums host child-friendly sessions of torchlight gallery tours and hands-on experiments.

Sports events include the increasingly popular Dragon Boat Festival at Fen Ditton, now in its 16th year, where up to ten people paddle a boat with a drummer at the front beating time. Hundreds of spectators come along and there are various entertainments and food stalls.

The Cambridge Half Marathon each March has over 10,000 runners, and the latest one followed a beautiful route through King’s College and Jesus College, as well as going out to Grantchester. Cambridge is also a venue for the Wings for Life World Run, a charitable race of no fixed length held simultaneously across the world, with the winner being the last runner to be caught up with by the catcher car travelling at fixed speed and setting off 30 minutes behind the runners! More accessible for the less-serious runner is the Chariots of Fire charity race for relay teams of six members, each running a 1.7-mile course around the central colleges, and well-supported 5k and 10k Race for Life events are held for Cancer Research each June.

Bumps racing developed in the 1820s as a way for rowers to race on a narrow and winding river that cannot hold a more conventional side-by-side race. The races take place over four days in May Week (still in June), with the aim being to bump the boat in front. If you achieve it you then swap positions with them the next day. There are also Bumps in Lent Term. A much-less serious alternative, on the Sunday at the start of May Week, is the Cardboard Boat Race, with three-person ‘boats’ attempting to stay afloat from Jesus Green to the grassy slopes of Magdalene, known as ‘Magdalene Beach’.

– Christopher Jagger ‘King’s College, Alumni’