What to see
You’ll find accounts of Cambridge’s tourist attractions in Towns of Two Halves (and of 91 other places: order the book now for £8 +P&P from Amazon). For additional information plus shopping, eating out etc there’s Visit Cambridge or Lonely Planet.
For events coming up go to Visit Cambridge‘s Events pages.
Comment and colour
Some towns and cities clearly need no help from Towns of Two Halves to boost their tourism statistics. In Cambridge on 14 August you could hardly move – literally, in some places – for visitors.
Cambridge United were at home to Newport County in the League Cup (until the sponsor pays me to call it the Carabao Cup, it will be the League Cup here) that evening. Newport would have to have a startlingly large Far Eastern following to account for the tourists in the city. Last season (2016/17), County’s average away following was 438. Sure enough, according to Visit Cambridge & Beyond about 5.3m people went to Cambridge in 2016. That would be 14,500 a day and there’s no reason to think the number is falling.
Of course, the hordes will presumably be seasonal. The pavements will surely be easier to negotiate in January and February, and rights of way for punts on the Cam will not be an issue. But when a city councillor says “short-stay tourism… threatens to overwhelm the city within a very few years”, it looks as if you should go now, while you can.
And what should you go to see? I asked the young woman on the ticket desk at the Museum of Cambridge. She replied: “You must see a college, and the Fitzwilliam has some fine things, and the river…” The Museum of Cambridge might be taken for granted on that itinerary.
In fact I’d started with a college. Emmanuel was hosting the Anglian Potters summer exhibition, which provided an excuse for nosing around without having to queue. To judge by the lines outside St Johns and Kings, tourists from the Pacific Rim are easily as disciplined as the British where forming an orderly queue is concerned. And apart from the history of these places, and the manicured quads, and the sense of Hogwarts for grown-ups, there are works of art within: Kings College chapel claims the world’s largest fan-vaulted ceiling and adds, almost casually, Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi.
The Fitzwilliam Museum is stately and spectacular but it also has some quirks: the air-conditioning is inconsistent, for example, and the placing of a Lowry alongside three Picassos is odd. But in general the Fitzwilliam has plenty to offer, it’s free and it is not – on a summer’s weekday afternoon – crowded. Geographically, it’s a provincial museum and art gallery; which shows how misleading the word ‘provincial’ can be.
As for highlights, that’s a matter of personal taste. In the museum, I liked the Egyptian section for the opportunity to spend time without being jostled. In the art gallery the prints on display included works by Dürer and Altdorfer. Here in Cambridge, as in Huddersfield, there’s a sculpture of Einstein by Epstein.
Elsewhere in Cambridge the Kettle’s Yard Gallery houses “modern and contemporary art”, and the Royal Academy included it in a selection of seven new galleries to visit in 2018.
As for other museums, the city has plenty of highly specific institutions. Geology, zoology, anthropology, computing, polar exploration, archaeology, the history of science… if you have a particular interest they won’t let you down, and even if you don’t they might surprise you.
The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, for example, sounds fairly dry. And when the entrance presents you with long galleries extending to either side you’re into a serious boneyard if you turn left. The museum’s collection of fossils numbers more than a million. They’re not all on display, of course, but it’s easy to imagine that the non-opening drawers beneath the display cases are wedged shut.
At the end of the left wing is an area devoted to Charles Darwin. Darwin was a geologist as well as a naturalist and he collected rocks during the voyage of the Beagle. The museum has his field notebook, his equipment and some of the rocks. It’s a surprising and absorbing end-piece to the gallery.
In the other direction, the period indicators printed on the window blinds are immediately more recognisable: Jurassic 213-145 million years. Here be dragons! Or, at least, skeletons and reproductions of dinosaurs. The Iguanadon is perhaps the most impressive but my favourite is the winged Ornithocherius, with its fingers gripping the leading edge of the wing like a frantic hang-glider. All it requires is the knuckles (three of them, as in the hands of The Simpsons) to be painted white.
The right-hand option becomes a 90° dog-leg, culminating in a kaleidoscope of light, prisms and colour. This is the Whewell Mineral Gallery in which minerals and gemstones are displayed, beautifully lit and explained. The Sedgwick has its dusty moments but there are reasons to explore its distant corners, and the distances aren’t vast.
I was pressed for time at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology and another helpful lady on reception proposed a flying visit that omitted the archaeology of Cambridge. Another day, perhaps. It’s a timeless interest.
Instead I saw the exhibition on Photographing Tutankhamun. Harry Burton’s photographs, taken in the 1920s, were black and white. The contrast with the colour paintings of Ernest Harold Jones in the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, once again brings a Yorkshire perspective into your appreciation of Cambridge.
In other halls the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology is as much an art gallery as a museum. The objects, created by people throughout history and across the world, are quite beautiful as well as functional. The Maudslay Hall is three storeys high to accommodate objects that would otherwise have to be laid out flat – an 8 metre Maori carving, for example.
The objects on display at the Museum of Cambridge are on a much more modest scale. Housed in what was a 17th century pub, it’s a folk museum that guides you through the way local people lived. The artefacts are deployed as much for what they say about everyday life, but some form rather touching collections: pipes and tobacco, jelly moulds, irons and so forth. It also emerges that the gentleman for whom the expression ‘Hobson’s Choice’ was coined was a Cambridge trader; the picture that explains this was donated by none other than John Maynard Keynes.
The Museum is close to Kettle’s Yard, over the bridge to the north of the city centre. I could find no way of walking along the Cam from here, and there’s a promising lane beside Trinity that turns out to be a cul-de-sac. But Silver Street takes you into prime punt-hiring territory and a pleasant riverside walk runs south behind the Fitzwilliam.
There’s a more historic open space only a short distance across town from here. Parker’s Piece is a large diamond-shaped common on which association football was supposedly first played to an agreed set of rules in 1878. The ‘Cambridge’ rules are commemorated in a rather odd monument unveiled earlier in 2018. On the Piece itself, a game of volleyball was in progress when I was there, but in another nod to the spirit of the age a desultory game of football involved players of both sexes. And nobody was wearing a gown.
Also in Cambridge
Centre for Computing History www.computinghistory.org.uk
Museum of Classical Archaeology www.classics.cam.ac.uk
Polar Museum www.spri.cam.ac.uk
University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk
Whipple Museum of the History of Science www.sites.hps.cam.ac.uk