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Julian Humphrys takes a stroll through the history of English architecture in Cambridge, one of the world’s foremost seats of learning for 800 years, and a treasure trove of magnificent buildings

Published: July 9, 2013 at 8:00 am
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Julian Humphrys discusses King’s College Chapel on the audio guide that accompanies this piece.


Exclusive audio guide

Download the Audio guide (Right-click and select 'Save as')

In 1209, conflict with the townspeople of Oxford led a number of scholars to migrate to the prosperous town of Cambridge and settle there. At first they found lodgings in the town but later hired houses as hostels, with a master in charge of a group of students. By 1226 the scholars had set up an organisation headed by a chancellor and with regular courses of study.

Initially the new university had no premises of its own and used churches and religious houses for ceremonies and private houses for teaching. However from the late 14th century it began to acquire its own property and build ‘schools’. The first to be erected was the Divinity School. The late 13th century had seen the establishment of the first college, Peterhouse, which was founded by Hugh de Balsham, bishop of Ely.

Colleges were initially founded by pious individuals for law or divinity students who, in exchange, were expected to pray for the souls of their benefactors. Later the colleges housed the young undergraduates who had previously lived in hostels or private houses. Today, 800 years after those first students arrived, Cambridge University comprises 31 colleges and over 150 departments, faculties, schools and other institutions. Degrees are awarded by the university but each college is an independent institution where students live and eat and receive some tuition.

With its gatehouses, courtyards, gardens, chapels and bridges, the university dominates the centre of Cambridge and a stroll through the city is a journey through the history of English architecture. For this day trip I’ve concentrated on the Trumpington Street/King’s Parade area of the city but for those with more time there’s so much more to see.

All the colleges are worth visiting but three of my favourites are Trinity – its Great Court is the largest in Cambridge; St John’s, with its Bridge of Sighs; and Emmanuel College with its ducks and Wren chapel. The city is also rich in museums. In addition to the Fitzwilliam there’s the Folk Museum; Kettle’s Yard with its collections of 20th-century art; the Scott Polar Research Institute; the Whipple Museum of the History of Science; and the Zoology Museum, which includes displays of materials collected by Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle.


Cambridge is 50 miles north of London, off Junction 11 of the M11. Trains run from London King’s Cross and Liverpool Street

Cambridge Tourist Information Centre, Wheeler Street, Cambridge CB2 3QB

Tel 0871 226 8006


Two-hour walking tours of Cambridge leave from the information centre seven days a week.

Fitzwilliam Museum Tel 01223 322900 www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Choral evensong is held in King’s College Chapel 5.30pm Mon–Sat, 3.30pm Sunday, term times.

Tel 01223 331250 www.kings.cam.ac.uk/chapel/services

Please check opening times and admission prices before making a special journey.



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