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Visitor Guide to Historic Cambridge University (4 of 7)


The university was founded in 1209, and is made up of over 100 departments (such as Mathematics, Physics, English and so on), as well as 31 affiliated but independent colleges. It doesn’t have any campus (other than those of the colleges), which leads many tourists and students alike to almost forget its existence.

Students apply to a college, get accepted by the college, live in the college, wine and dine in the college, mostly have their social life in the college, their pastoral care and their supervisions (small group teaching) all in the college. The university only comes into its own for undergraduates as it provides the lectures. Of course, at the end of the year, the exams are set by the university, and degrees awarded by the university.

On the other hand, tourists are frequently heard asking the question ‘Where is the university?’, having seen many glorious colleges but aside from perhaps the Senate House, being unaware of any other university buildings. In fact, the university owns much of the city centre, and the departments are spread out all over the city.

Senate House

Designed by James Gibbs in 1722, the ceremonial heart of the university is a white building to the right of King’s Chapel, which is used for administration as well as degree ceremonies. This building passed me by in my first year until June when I found I had to wander down there to see the exam results, pinned up on the outside of the building. It was even more exciting for the third and fourth year in mathematics (which is the oldest tripos, that is, the first subject to be examined), when the results were read out from the balcony, and then results sheets fluttered down to the ground. Data protection has sadly put an end to some of these traditions!

I distinctly recall one poor chap, let’s call him John Smith, who heard the announcement “John Smith, passed with distinction”, followed by a slight pause and a cough, and then “Sorry. John Smith, passed.”

The main degree ceremony takes place over two days. King’s starts off the proceedings (it is the oldest college directly founded by a monarch), with its students lining up in rows of four, and walking around to the Senate House. Then, four at a time, they approach the officiating officer, each person taking hold of a finger, and the officer mumbles something in Latin to the effect that the person is of good character (being intelligent or working hard doesn’t seem to be so critical), and awards the degree. Students from the other royal colleges (Trinity, St John’s) follow along next, and then the rest of the colleges from oldest (Peterhouse) to youngest (Homerton).

King’s College

Most tourists miss the highlight of Cambridge. Yes, they photograph the classic view of King’s Chapel from the Backs, but the time to see it is a crisp and frosty morning in January, with the world renowned chapel magically rising out of the low mist, inspiring students on their way to lectures.

Founded by Henry VI in 1441 for Etonians, and known to the public for its glorious Christmas Eve carol concert broadcast, this most traditional of colleges became a hotbed of radicalism in the 20th century, becoming one of the first of three males colleges to admit women in 1972, and a champion of admitting students from state schools.

The chapel, begun in 1446, took some 80 years to build thanks to interruptions from the Wars of the Roses. The structure was completed in the early 1500s by the Tudor Henrys, who added what is considered the largest and finest fan vaulting in the world. Other notable features are exceptionally fine stained glass windows, and a rood screen put in by Henry VIII to celebrate his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Its worst moment was probably when it was used by Cromwell as a barracks during the Civil War, although it escaped major damage. In the mid-20th century the College was given Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi painting (bought for a record £250,000) to adorn the chapel, and thankfully it was able to be restored after it was defaced by the IRA in 1974.

Famous alumni include Alan Turing (see Science Hotspots), economist John Maynard Keynes, writer EM Forster (Passage to India), First World War poet Rupert Brooke and actor Ian McKellen (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings).

Trinity College

Largest and richest of the colleges, it is often stated to be the fourth-largest landowner in the country, after the Crown, National Trust and Church of England. It was founded in 1546 by Henry VIII by combining two existing colleges, Michaelhouse and King’s Hall, both which date from the early 1300s. The Great Gate at the front dates from Trinity’s founding – although its statue of the Tudor monarch nowadays sports a wooden chair leg for a sceptre thanks to a prankster!

One of the rooms to the right of the Gate was once home to Isaac Newton (see Science Hotpots), who probably more than anyone established the academic reputation of the college, particularly for Maths and Science. The College’s alumni have won some 33 Nobel prizes (Cambridge as a whole has 107). Trinity is still largely regarded as the most academic and perhaps the most loved/hated of colleges: many of ‘the best’ go there, and are very pleased to be there, while many students at other colleges tend to view it with suspicion.

Around the same time as Newton, Christopher Wren (of St Paul’s Cathedral fame) built his second Cambridge building, the Wren Library (see Literary Cambridge).

Trinity’s Great Court is the largest court in the university, made famous in the film Chariots of Fire for people running the 341 metres around its edge in the 48 seconds it takes for the clock to strike 12 – still a tradition for freshers at matriculation, although now they attempt the feat during the day rather than in the dead of night.

On one side of Great Court is the chapel, fairly normal among college chapels, but with a great number of memorials to its well-known alumni – Francis Bacon, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ernest Rutherford, and many more. Not in the chapel, and rather more Pointless, the TV presenters Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman were both at Trinity.

St John’s College

Second-largest and second-richest of the colleges, lying next to Trinity, it was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother. The story goes that its Catholic supporters felt quite a rivalry with Trinity in later centuries, and deliberately built their clock tower a little bit taller, and put their finest architecture facing Trinity.

It has one of the largest main sites, with attractive grounds including the Bridge of Sighs, named after Venice’s bridge, though with little in common other than being a covered bridge. Visitors wanting to avoid the hefty entrance fee to the college can catch a glimpse of the bridge from the back of Trinity.

In truth, the college is as varied and mixed as most colleges, but there is a perception of it attracting students from public schools. It also has a great reputation for sports and its choir, and it is no surprise that its May Ball is possibly the best.

Queens’ College

A beautiful college which suffers at the hands of many a tour guide who talks long and hard about its mathematical bridge, telling stories that are almost certainly not true. The most common is that it was made without nuts and bolts or any nails, but at some point was taken apart to see how it worked, and they were not able to put it back together again. In truth it was built nearly 300 years ago, and is a great spot on the river, adjacent to the oldest building on the river, and an exquisite Tudor half-timbered courtyard – I saw a Shakespeare play here once, which was most appropriate. Queens’ chapel is an 1891 Arts and Crafts style building, while the rather heavy Cripps Court,on the other side of the river, is a matter of taste, and not a popular one.

Queens’ has a reputation as a hard-working college, with active support from tutors, but little money for grants and the like.

Best of the rest

Peterhouse (definitely not Peterhouse College) was founded in 1284 and is the oldest of the colleges, a small and very traditional college. Close by is Pembroke College, which includes Christopher Wren’s first work – its chapel, followed by Corpus Christi College (like Pembroke, founded in the mid-14th century), which is now most known for the Chronophage ‘time-eater’ clock, set opposite King’s College in 2008. The finest garden in Cambridge (and most colleges have a claim to this) is in pretty Clare College.

University Library

Built in 1934 by Gilbert Scott (also known for designing the British telephone box and Battersea power station), this copyright library is entitled to receive every book published in the British Isles. Some consider it to be worth a visit merely for the tea room. The tower is a significant landmark of the city, for many years believed by students to house pornography, as it was off limits to students. However, a recent exhibition has revealed it actually houses those books that supposedly nobody would want to look at, including for example, The Hobbit, Casino Royale and the Famous Five. Watch for peregrine falcons nesting on its lofty heights. Inside, there are changing exhibitions for the public and tours on open days, while all alumni have visiting rights for life.

– Christopher Jagger ‘King’s College, Alumni’