Sunday 21 January 2018

Travel: Degrees of happiness... in Cambridge

Punting in Cambridge. Photo: Tony Gavin
Punting in Cambridge. Photo: Tony Gavin
Queen's College Cambridge. Photo: Liz Hull
Hotel du Vin and Bistro Cambridge
Cambridge on the map

John Chambers

There would be no Bridget Jones moments. On that we were agreed.

Specifically, no scenes similar to the one where Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) ended up flailing about in his rowing boat prior to falling into the water. We were due to go punting in Cambridge and our guide book was clear: you were liable to zig-zag all over the place if you didn't know what you were doing. So we chose a chauffeured punt trip - 45 minutes of being transported up and down the Cam, feeling smug as we heard the shrieks of (mock) alarm from the self-driven boats.

The sun and willow trees combined to cast shadows on the water as we drifted by, on nodding terms with the ducks. We went under the Bridge of Sighs, and St John's College gave way to Trinity and then later King's. Meanwhile, our guide told us the university was made up of more than 30 independent colleges, the first of them founded in the 13th Century, and that amongst those who had attended them were Emma Thompson and Hugh Dennis, who announced their discovery of DNA in the Eagle Public House in the city. Or maybe that was Crick and Watson. All that beauty was enough to addle a fellow's head. We got the point - with more than 80 Nobel laureates, they are a clever lot in Cambridge.

The punting is a must when you are in Cambridge, and so is a visit to King's College Chapel. Beautiful from the outside, even more stunning within, especially its fan vault ceiling, King's College was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI. Henry saw little of his ambitious plans completed, owing partly to the wars of the Roses. At least a start had been made on the chapel, which was finished by the Tudors. The contrast between the simplicity of the design in Henry's time and the later plethora of Tudor emblems gave rise to the suggestion that one end of the chapel is dedicated to the glory of God, the other to the glory of the Tudors.

Magnificent as it is, the chapel is not a cathedral, and Cambridge is a town, not a city. The cathedral and the (charmingly tiny) city can be found in Ely, just over 20 miles away. The cathedral is vast and it's easy to see why it's often called the ship of the fens, built as it is on a hill towering over the plains. It has two towers - the Octagon Tower is known as a wonder of medieval engineering, while the West Tower, 215 feet high, offers spectacular views of the low-lying fenland.

Though the monastic settlement in the area became a cathedral in 1109, much of the interior is Victorian, including the amazing painted ceiling. There are also some modern artworks including the striking The Way of the Cross. The cathedral also bore witness to some of the darker passions aroused by the Reformation - many of the statues in the vast and light-filled Lady Chapel had their heads smashed off. Still that didn't stop it standing in for the palace of Westminster during Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and the cathedral has also featured in The King's Speech and The Other Boleyn Girl. It would be wrong to think, however, that Ely is just about the cathedral, impressive as it is. For instance, one of the most infamous visitors to Ireland lived nearby.

The tourist information centre is in Oliver Cromwell's house. The building houses a display on the Cromwells' domestic life including a representation of their kitchen where we picked up a recipe on how to make eel pie - though Oliver's favourite dish was said to be roast veal with oranges. Upstairs, along with more rooms kitted out as they would have been in Cromwellian times, there's information on his political and military careers - though not much on Ireland. All I could find was "1649-50: Royalist resistance in Ireland crushed" and "puts down rebellion in Ireland with great severity". Visitors can vote on whether they found Cromwell a hero or villain. Generally, each month's vote ran two-to-one in his favour. On your behalf, I voted that he was a villain.

Hotel du Vin and Bistro Cambridge

Hotel du Vin and bistro, Cambridge

What Oliver would have made of the Hotel and Bistro du Vin in Cambridge is anyone's guess. Each of its 41 rooms is named after something connected with wine, its bistro has an extensive wine list, there are wine-related events and tastings; even the chandelier in reception is made out of wine glasses. He would have been happy with the food - from breakfast (who knew carrot and ginger sausages, part of the healthy choice option, could taste so good?) to dinner, my wife was vastly impressed with the beef bourguignon - while within a few minutes' walk of our hotel the Cambridge Chop House offered a fantastic meat and suet pudding and there was also a good fish restaurant nearby.

Of course, it's not all about food. Judging by the number of flyers attached to the railings the city has a buzzing nightlife. I counted three theatres, and to continue the links to Ireland, both Lisa Dwan and Imelda May were due to perform. I'm sure they did brilliantly, though showbiz in the town can be exacting. Just ask the poor guy who was reputedly turned down after auditioning for a role in one of the local theatre groups. His name? James Mason.

Maybe poor Mason put in some of his spare time in one of the town's museums - including nine of them attached to the university, covering everything from archaeology to science and polar exploration. We picked the Fitzwilliam Museum, described 'as one of the great treasure houses of Britain'. There's an eclectic mix of paintings from artists such as Gainsborough to Poussin and all stops in between - Egyptian coffins, Greek and Roman antiquities and hall after hall of porcelain. We spent a couple of hours enthralled, and admission was free.

It wasn't all culture, of course. The shopping was good too, according to my wife who picked up a pair of boots for a bargain ... well, look, what does any man really know of these things? But she professed herself happy.

In fact, over the course of the three days Cambridge went from a place she "had never thought she'd visit" to an "ideal weekend break".

You see? They really are a clever lot in Cambridge, capable of producing degrees of happiness all round.

Getting there

You can reach Cambridge by flying into Stansted and then catching a train direct from the airport to Cambridge. The journey time is  approximately half an hour. Some journeys can take longer if you have to change trains.

Hotel du Vin Cambridge and Bistro Restaurant is located in the heart of the city. A classic standard room starts from £175 per night, based on two sharing. To book see, or call (0044) 1223 227 330.

An adult ticket for a 45-minute chauffered punt tour costs £13.50 (children £6.75, student & senior tickets £12). We tried an informative walking tour, which lasts about two hours. Our tour included entry to King's College Chapel and Queen's College. Tickets £18 (Concessions £16, under 12s, £8). Tickets for both walking and punt tours can be booked in the tourist information centre in the town centre, by the Guildhall.

If visiting the colleges on your own, some charge admission and some don't. Hours also vary. Check the signs at the gates.

There's also a Cambridge hop-on hop-off sightseeing tour from £14pp. This takes you further afield - for instance the American World War II Cemetery at Madingley or the Botanic Gardens. Tickets are valid for 24 hours. To book, visit:

To plan your trip to Cambridge, visit:

Admission to Ely Cathedral is £8, concessions £6. Tower tours are £14.50, concessions £12.50 Combined tickets offering admission to the cathedral and the stained glass museum are £12 for adults, concessions £9.

Tickets for Cromwell's House are £4.90 for adults, concessions £4.40, child £3.40, family £14.

For more info on Ely see

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