Cambridge is part of ye olde England with one of the oldest universities in the world. It’s up there with Oxford when it comes to elite learning and there you have the whole story – No one are snobs like the English and the last bastion of the class system are firmly entrenched in Cambridge hoping that shoe shine boys will make a come back.
Yet it’s also a middle England town which means that it holds its own when it comes to heavy drinking and hooliganism It’s sometimes said that the town is split between the ‘townies’ and the ‘gownies’, the latter referring to the ridiculous gowns the students of Cambridge were required to wear until the 60’s. Granted it’s a bit annoying when American tourists arrive and expect anyone under the age of 30 to be a Cambridge student. The undergraduates here tend to come from pretty wealthy families and there’s a slight undercurrent of resentment through the town as the privileged intellectuals gallivant through the streets.
The university is the basis of the town though and make this one of the more affluent places in England to be. The students themselves keep many local breweries and pizza parlours in business and the tourism that the colleges generate is phenomenal. The town is stuffed with ancient churches and college buildings and Cambridge is firmly on the tourist trail with tour buses full of Americans, Europeans and rude mainland Chinese tourists pile in from March until October.
Ready to fleece them are the ice cream girls, the Big Issue vendors and, of course, the Cambridge punters. Punting down the river is as ancient as any tradition in England though instead of moving along heavy sacks of flour or coal, these days the punters heave along overweight tourists.
A punt is a long, narrow boat that is moved along by a chap wearing a straw boater hat with a five metre long pole. The punter takes the tourists down the river and tells them tall tales about the colleges and bridges they pass under. In summer you’ll be hassled to death each time you approach one of the main bridges to go on a tour and the river can get to be more like a demolition rally than a peaceful country locale. The most fun you’ll have though is to learn to punt yourself and head out on the river with a bottle of wine. Particularly beautiful is if you head up to the village of Grantchester by punt and chill out under the overhanging trees on hidden bends in the river.
At night the area around Magdalene Bridge (pronounced ‘Maudlin’ on account of the heavy drinking of the students) can get quite lively and there’s a fair number of good pubs around. You can sit down by the punt moorings and hang out with an international crowd of students. The main street can get quite rowdy though with the usual yobs and tarts that do their dressing up/getting drunk/fighting thing on a Saturday night.
Besides punting, one of the nicest things you can do is to go walking around the colleges – they charge entry but if you enter Trinity or St Johns from Queens Road there’s never anyone on the gate. Take a seat on the grass beside the river, read a good book and laugh at everyone trying to punt for the first time. King’s Chapel is also pretty stunning from the inside and you can get in free if you go during term time for the choir service at 5:30.
Cambridge Guided Punt Tours – Here you can get an alternative guide to Cambridge along the river.