Houghton Mill
Houghton Mill, Cambridgeshire

Cambridgeshire's most popular visitor attraction is the county town of Cambridge, or more specifically, the university which bears the town's name. Cambridge University has suffered comparison over the years from being the relative newcomer to elder sister Oxford.

  • King's College Chapel, Cambridge
  • Ely Cathedral
  • Peterborough Cathedral

The term "relative" is worth noting, as Cambridge University dates back to the early 13th century. Some stories tell that the university was begun by masters and students fleeing one of the periodic outbreaks of "town vs gown" tension which plagued Oxford from time to time.

Whatever its origins, it did not take Cambridge long to evolve its own unique history and architectural heritage. Perhaps nowhere in Britain is so much architectural beauty and historic beauty packed into so small a space.

The Cambridge University buildings are superb, from the stately elegance of Trinity College to King's College Chapel, whose fan-vaulted ceiling presents arguably the finest example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in England. The chapel was begun in 1446, though it was not completed until 101 years later. Daily services featuring the world-famous Choir are a treat not to be missed.

Trinity College was founded by Henry VIII in 1546, though many buildings are earlier. The impressive brick gateway (1535) is a perfect example of Tudor style. The library of the college was built by Sir Christopher Wren.

Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge
Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge

To gain a true appreciation of Cambridge University, don't miss a walk along The Backs, where the lawns of six of the oldest colleges sweep down to the River Cam, overshadowed by willows and dotted by punts (flat-bottomed boats propelled by a long pole). Boats can be rented inexpensively if you'd like to try your hand at punting, but be warned, it's not as easy as it looks, and the efforts of neophytes provide light entertainment for spectators on the banks of the river!

There is more to Cambridgeshire than the University; the county is a study in two distinct landscapes. To the south are rolling chalk hills, but in the north are the Fens, flat, often dreary country unbroken save for straight lines of dykes and roads.

Before they were drained in the 17th century the Fens were marshland, under water much of the time, dotted with small clumps of higher ground where isolated settlements sprouted. One of these settlements was Ely, named for the eels which swam in the shallow waters (in fact, the eels were once used as currency!).

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire
Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

The pride of Ely is its superb Norman cathedral, which rises above the flat countryside like a beacon. The cathedral was begun in 1083 on the foundations of an earlier Saxon church. In the early 14th century, the Norman tower collapsed, and it is then that Alan of Walsingham steps into the limelight of history. He designed a central tower that seems to float unsupported above the crossing of Ely Cathedral like a cloud.

This "lantern tower" is actually formed by a series of massive oak beams which rise to a height of 63 feet. The tower is supported by diagonal oak beams resting upon stone pillars. These pillars support a total weight of some 400 tons of wood and lead.

Competing with Ely Cathedral for attention is Peterborough Cathedral, where the 13th-century western front is one of the most impressive feats of medieval architecture in Britain. The three-storey nave is topped with a unique timber ceiling, which still retains much of its original painted decoration.

On the border of the fenlands is Ramsey, during the medieval period home to a powerful abbey. Only the ruined 15th gatehouse, now run by the National Trust, remains. Duxford Aircraft Museum, south of Cambridge, houses the largest display of historic aircraft in Europe in the grounds of an important WWII airfield. Duxford hosts regular airshows, and there are also museum displays depicting land warfare.

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