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Popular Activities in Cambridge City

private punting


Cambridge combines all the best features of a small city with a thriving centre where lots of things are going on, many of them free. There are numerous choirs, many university talks and public activities (such as star-gazing at the regular Institute of Astronomy evenings) and so on. Many university clubs are open to anyone in the town, so for example, the huge Cambridge Dancers Club (with some 2000 members) is the easiest and cheapest way to sample various dance forms.

Hot off the press is the long-awaited Cambridge Ice Arena, opposite the airfield, offering ice skating, ice hockey and curling, which only opened in 2019. For a few years during the winter months you have been able to skate at Parker’s Piece’s “North Pole”, with associated Christmas market food stalls and fairground rides.

Tenpin bowling is available at the Cambridge Leisure Park, which also has a cinema, the Junction entertainment venue (see Nights Out), and numerous restaurants and bars. Clip’n’Climb and the Cambridge Science Centre are also near here.

Cambridge is well endowed with swimming pools. Parkside Pool is by far the best equipped with three pools, one of which can be turned into a diving pool (watching it turn from one to the other does have a certain fascination), and two large flumes. And even the hostile reception that formerly was handed out has improved of late. Abbey Pool is a friendly and fairly quiet pool in Coldham’s Common, flanked by a great children’s play area with splashpad on one side, and a BMX park on the other. Chesterton Sports Centre and King’s Hedges Learners’ Pool are two more possibilities, while DW Fitness at the Beehive Centre is a recent entrant with great facilities. Jesus Green Lido is an outdoor option with one of the longest open air pools in Europe, at 100 yards, which somehow gets a mention in Time Out’s 1000 things to do in Britain. Less known are the 17th-century outdoor pools at Christ’s and Emmanuel, perhaps the oldest baths in the country that are still in use.

A new craze is to be had at the Cambridge Escape Rooms, where you do just that, escape from a room. Your team of 2-6 people get locked in a room, and have to crack codes, solve ciphers and decode clues to get out. Or you can explore the city on one of a handful of self-guided Treasure Trails, with Murder Mystery, Spy Mission or Treasure Hunt options.

Plenty of sport is played in Cambridge, both in the town and the university with most colleges having substantial sports grounds, and excelling at particular sports. Rowing is popular at every college, and it is amazing how many students who find a 9am lecture too early to make will drag themselves out of bed for a 6am row on the river. The smarter students opt for coxing, which allows them to yell at the crew rather than doing the hard work, or coaching, which may involve cycling along the tow path. For the college teams the focus of training are the unusual bumps races where you have to ‘bump’ the boat in front, a great spectacle for those on the river bank: the Lent Bumps are in late February-early March and the more major May Bumps are of course in June. For the university’s top rowers, the pinnacle is undoubtedly the Boat Race against Oxford on the Thames, watched by millions.

Rugby Union is another big sport at Cambridge, having been played for over 150 years, and with representation on the national ruling body. Many colleges have teams and the annual highlight is the Varsity Match against Oxford, which takes place at Twickenham and draws some 25,000 spectators. Rugby League is also played but is a much newer addition to the scene.

Cambridge United (Football Club) is in League 2 (effectively the fourth division for those that know nothing of football or are simply 30 years out of date) and play at the Abbey Stadium. The university does not have a great tradition of playing football but the ‘Cambridge rules’ defined on Parker’s Piece in 1848 were central in establishing the rules of association football 15 years later, and has a monument testifying to the fact.

Cambridge University Cricket Club has a great tradition of providing future England players, including 21 test captains, the latest of these being Mike Atherton. They have been playing cricket since at least 1755, playing at well-known Fenners since 1848. There are numerous cricket pitches in Cambridge, so much so that even anti-Cambridge cricket lovers will acknowledge that it is the best place in the world for finding a good pitch. Not so great, but very popular, is Parker’s Piece, which was a first class cricket ground in the 19th century and usually has at least one game being played on it in the summer.

Between the town and the university, nearly every sport is played. Of the more offbeat sports, Cambridge has become a flagbearer for tiddlewinks, a surprisingly skilful and serious game, and many of the world champions have been from Cambridge.

Night climbing, the sport of climbing the walls of colleges or public buildings, generally done at night for obvious reasons, is something of a Cambridge tradition. There are several books that have been published on the subject, but the best way to get involved is to contact the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club, which has had some great mountaineers over the years.

And just before you thought we were going to forget all about it, of course punting is one of THE Cambridge activities. Punts had been used to navigate the shallow waters of the Fens for centuries, but using a flat-bottomed boat with a punt pole as a pleasure activity appears to have started in the 1860s on the Thames, and became increasingly popular as people got more leisure time, but then declined with the advent of motorboats. Cambridge probably has more punts now than anywhere else in England, perhaps due to the lovely way the River Cam wends its way through the ancient colleges and gardens. Oxford thinks we punt ‘backwards’ as our punters stand on the flat back of the boat, while in Oxford this flat section is actually at the front, and the punter stands inside the boat at the other end.

Aficionados punt themselves, and on the stretch above the rollers upriver to Grantchester even try bridge ‘hopping’ (climbing from your boat up the side of a bridge and jumping down from the other side into your boat before it has passed you by), but it is more relaxing to hire someone to gently glide and guide you along the river, perhaps rounding off the occasion with champagne and strawberries. If you give it a go yourself, bear in mind that if the pole sticks in the silty mud it is overall preferable to let go – it is easier to paddle back for the pole than to find yourself dangling in mid-air … temporarily. In times gone by, “all those who have unwillingly entered the Cam fully clothed” were allowed to join the Dampers Club, once led by Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame.

Punting turned out to be a very useful skill to have acquired when I visited Botswana’s Okavango Delta – the locals expected us to be hopeless at poling their mokoros through the labyrinth of waterways, and were delighted when in fact they could sit back and enjoy the ride!

– Christopher Jagger ‘King’s College, Alumni’