Outside the city
Outside the city
There are a number of worthwhile places to visit outside the city.
Anglesey Abbey: A glorious National Trust country house, which was founded as a hospital in 1135 and soon expanded into an Augustinian priory until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. The priory ruins were incorporated into a house about a century later, which was then extended and converted into a gentleman’s home by Lord Fairhaven in the early 20th century, maintaining the monasterial character in the lower rooms. There is a long library, with an unfinished Constable painting of the embarkation of George IV’s royal barge, an interesting Congreve clock, and some characteristic moonlight scenes by the Pether family. The extensive grounds provide good walks all year round, with special openings in snowdrop season, then summer roses, autumn dahlias and a popular Winter Lights season. The estate’s woodland area is a wonderland for kids, with den-building, straw bales for climbing and jumping, a wildlife-viewing hut, and a three-storey treehouse..
Wimpole Hall: Also National Trust, this predominantly Georgian country house is noted for its library designed by James Gibbs (who also designed part of King’s and the Senate House) and its domed yellow drawing room designed by Sir John Soane. The last owner was Elsie Bambridge, the only surviving daughter of Rudyard Kipling. She used the substantial royalties from his books to refurbish the house – such was the state it had been in it was not requisitioned for use during the Second World War. The estate has a great farm for children, with lots of animals and tractors, as well as an adventure playground. The lambing season is a particularly good time to visit, and all year round there are daily activities to watch or take part in – the most memorable being the pigs’ feeding time, when the cacophony of noisy ‘Don’t forget me’ grunting as pigs lurch their hefty frames to get their slobbery snouts onto the wall of their stall will stay ringing in your ears for days.
Audley End: An English Heritage Jacobean mansion, started by Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, later owned by the Howards and finally the Nevilles. The Great Hall is notable for its carved oak screen, used to hide the servants from their masters, and there are eight rooms redecorated by Robert Adam, and an 18th-century bed which is unusual in having its original coverings. The Victorian nursery and servants’ wing bustle with hands-on activities and period-dressed actors. Nearby in the estate’s woodland, but separately managed, is the Audley End miniature railway and enchanted fairy and elf walk. Audley End is located on the outskirts of Saffron Walden, a town with pretty half-timbered houses, noted for their pargeting (East Anglian style of decorative plasterwork), set along narrow lanes.
Ely Cathedral: Sometimes dubbed the “Ship of the Fens” due to its visibility from miles around and reflecting the time when the Isle of Ely was surrounded by water, this early 12th-century building has a Romanesque nave, with Gothic arches added later to support the weight of the walls. It is particularly known for its gloriously-coloured ceiling, with its unusual wooden octagon centrepiece (octagons were symbolic of the eighth day, thus being the time beyond our earthly time), that forms the base for its octagonal, turreted tower. There is an adjoining stained glass museum and nearby you can visit Oliver Cromwell’s House, a half-timbered structure where Cromwell lived from 1636-47, when he was the local tithe collector. (There is another Cromwell connection at Sidney Sussex College in the centre of town, as his head is supposed to be interred in an unmarked location in its walls.) The quirky Ely Eel Festival on the first bank holiday weekend in May remembers the wriggly creatures that once abounded in the surrounding fens, giving the settlement its name and creating a significant fishing industry.
Imperial War Museum, Duxford: This former RAF base is Europe’s largest aviation museum, with around 200 vintage aircraft, ranging from early biplanes to Spitfires and Concorde (the one in the collection is a pre-production plane that holds the record for the fastest ever Concorde flight, reaching Mach 2.23 (1,480 mph)). This is a superb place to put your child’s knowledge of aircraft to the test: can they name the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, so enormous that its wings span the entire width of the cavernous American Hangar (its arrival in 1983 caused a brief closure of the M11 in case it overshot the runway!)? can they spy the SR-71 (the sleek Lockheed Blackbird, for those not in the know, is the famed US spy plane)? or name the carrier of Britain’s nuclear weapons in the 50s and 60s, the Avro Vulcan bomber, with its unusual delta wing design. There are great displays of 20th century war (right up to Afghanistan), including a Land Museum that recreates scenes of desert tank warfare and the D-day landings, interactive rocket launchers and flight simulators. For the full experience visit on one of the air show days, or get in free on Remembrance Sunday.
Hemingford Grey Manor: The beautiful thatched village of Hemingford Grey on the River Great Ouse dates back to Anglo Saxon times and is reason enough to visit this area, but it also has the oldest inhabited house in the country, where Lucy M. Boston wrote and set her Green Knowe novels. The manor was built around 1130 in the obvious Norman tower style, which it retains to this day in the huge thick walls and other features, as well as Tudor additions. Lucy lived here from 1937 and is also known (particularly among the Japanese) for her patchwork quilts. Tours, mostly by appointment, are delivered with great fervour by Lucy’s daughter-in-law. Don’t miss the impressive topiary in the colourful, riverside garden and once you’re done, take refreshments at The Cock, the finest pub in the country (see Eating and Drinking).
Wandlebury Country Park: This lovely meadow and woodland area in the brilliantly named Gog Magog Hills has been used by man since at least 500BC, when an iron age hillfort was constructed, with the 5m circular ditch still surviving. It is now a nature reserve with plenty of birds, and a great outdoor family space, used for many activities including orienteering. Wandlebury Manor once stood at the centre, though only the stables remain, which once housed the legendary Godolphin Arabian racehorse, one of three stallions which founded the modern Thoroughbred. The park is managed by Cambridge Past Present and Future, who just charge visitors a nominal parking fee.
Wicken Fen: The National Trust’s oldest nature reserve, which was opened in 1899 by the banker Nathanial Charles Rothschild, is an important wetland for many plants, birds and dragonflies. This type of undrained fenland once covered most of East Anglia. There are a number of boardwalks and nine wildlife hides, as well as the option of cruising along one of the waterways.
Zoos: Shepreth Wildlife Park and Linton Zoo are both within half an hour of the city, and both long established centres for breeding and displaying exotic animals. Shepreth has tigers, red pandas and a bat walk, but my favourites are the playful sea otters and the crazy armadillo. It also has outdoor play areas and soft play, and is right by Shepreth station so easy to get to by train. Linton boasts lions, snow leopard, giant tortoise and an unusual variety of lemur species, which usually don’t fare well outside of their native Madagascar. As a breeding centre, new members are often arriving – most recently, as I write, a cute baby tapir!
Newmarket Racecourse: Horse racing has been taking place in Newmarket for 400 years, and it is often regarded as the headquarters of British horseracing, with two of the five Classic Races taking place here (1,000 Guineas and 2,000 Guineas, in a weekend in late April or early May). The town itself is pretty and home to the National Horseracing Museum, essential for the devotee, but also of more general interest.
Houghton Mill: Another National Trust property, the idyllic setting on the River Great Ouse is perfect for this 18th century working watermill. The mill houses hands-on exhibits – grind wheat in a hand quern, heave sacks using pulleys and control model locks – and on milling days watch the real process from the revolving water wheel to the grinding cogs and whirring mill stones until flour drops down the final chute for bagging. Buy a bag of freshly milled stone-ground wholemeal flour to take home or sample final products – scones and cakes – in the tea room.
Thetford Forest: Some way east of Cambridge, this sizable, pine-forested area was created after the First World War to provide a strategic reserve of timber, since the country had lost so many oaks and other slow-growing trees as a consequence of the war’s demands. Prior to that, local ‘warreners’ harvested rabbits here, and much earlier still, around 2000BC, it was a flint-mining area, the resulting craters from which activity are still visible today as well as a 9m shaft at Grimes Graves that you can climb down (owned by English Heritage). Knettisham Heath has wild ponies, birds and butterflies, and there are many other places to wander or cycle, as well as play parks and attractions such as Go Ape Tree Top Adventure and Forest Segway. The area was used for filming Dad’s Army and there is a Dad’s Army Museum further on in Thetford itself.
Lavenham: One of the finest medieval towns in the country, noted for its picturesque, timber-framed Guildhall (National Trust). Many of its pretty Tudor buildings date from the early 1500s when the town really flourished on the back of the wool trade, becoming the 14th most wealthy town in the country (in terms of the amount of tax paid). Its good fortune in retaining some 150 old buildings is by virtue of the town falling on hard times so nobody could afford to replace them with more modern architectural designs. The late 18th-century poet Jane Taylor lived in the village – you won’t have heard of her, but you will know her nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The Guildhall and De Vere House are must-sees if you’re a Harry Potter fan as both featured in the films (as Harry’s parent’s house and Godric’s Hollow) – in fact the latter is an AirBnB option, if you need to stay the night!
– Christopher Jagger ‘King’s College, Alumni’