Curiosity and Inspiration: Exploring Cambridge like an Adventurer

For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”).  Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.

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King’s College Gatehouse, the boundary between town and gown.

But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries.  Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.

So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.

*Oxford, I meant Oxford.

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The view from Magdelen Bridge. Photo Credit: alasdair massie Flickr on cc

Punting on the Cam

If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam.  These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower), and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed.  It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.

The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery.  You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers.  Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.

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What punting through the backs on a summer day should look like. Photo Credit: Paul Gravestock Flickr on cc

If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt, and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge style rather than Oxford style) if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers).  Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour.  It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online.  Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.

If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).

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Bicycles racked up under the arches at the Institute of Plant Sciences, Cambridge University

Cambridge University Colleges

The University, founded in 1209, is the second-oldest (after Oxford) in the English-speaking world, fourth-oldest worldwide, and can boast of a plethora of notable alumni, including many names from the realm of travel and exploration: George Mallory, Vivian Fuchs, Thomas Cavendish, Agnes and Margaret Smith, and Robert Macfarlane, to name just a few .

It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real.  Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined).  Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.

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The Gibbs’ building and front lawn at King’s College.  Don’t dare walk on the grass until you’re appointed a Fellow of the College.  Or you’re a duck.

King’s College Chapel

In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel (£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight.  The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows.  They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.

Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir.  Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space.  (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)

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The magnificent stained-glass West Window of King’s College Chapel, and the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world.

The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places.  Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter).  A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.

Museums

Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures.  All listed below are free to visit.

Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute

In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base.  The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.

If, like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home.  It gathers together artifacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero).  The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.

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Artifacts from the Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  No boots.

Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples.  Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia.  A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula).  Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.

But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.

Robert Falcon Scott

**I’m not crying, you’re crying.

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Iguanadon toes

Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since.  Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.

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Burgess Shale Hallucigenia model in the Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?

Museum of Zoology

Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom.  These  include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares.  The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history.  Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.

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An evocative headdress carved from a deer skull.  Possibly plucked from that weird recurring Wickerman-themed dream you have.
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Ducks through world cultures #13

Fitzwilliam Museum

This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day.  The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.

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Rows and rows of bicycles outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.  Beware while you walk, as cyclists weave in and out of pedestrians and traffic.

Explore by Bike

After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artifacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well be in need of some fresh air.  Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills.  The council website has maps available to download.

To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations.  Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it.  Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it.  Simple.

For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside.  The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there’s no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.

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Low horizons, big skies, and flat fenland landscapes. Photo Credit: elstro_88 Flickr on cc

Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles.   Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses.  When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.

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The original Fitzbillies Chelsea Buns

Eat and Drink

  • Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh foccacia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things.  Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
  • Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels.  I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
  • Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles.  Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
  • Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s.  Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies.  They also do a full brunch menu and a very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but it’s likely you’ll have to wait a while for table space.
  • The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process).  A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
  • The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
  • The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century.  It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.

****Cake Manger #lifegoals

Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?
Comment below to let me know.

 

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Armchair Travel: 5 Travel Podcasts

This newest edition of Armchair Travel steps away from previous form, to bring you inspiration and escape from the everyday through some of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed.

I love the flexibility that listening to podcasts and audiobooks gives.  Unlike with reading a book, I can get deeply engrossed in a story or conversation as I walk or run, drive my car, or soak in the bath.  (I’m quite obsessive about the condition of my books*, and there’s no way I’d allow anyone, even myself, to risk taking them into the steamy, damp bathroom).  I even listen to podcasts while I’m working as a bosun on a ship, perched aloft in the rigging to serve, seize, and whip.

*Fold corners over?  You’re now on the list of people I don’t lend books to, along with other barbarians like my Dad and my oldest friend Shel.

So here are five of my favourite podcasts to travel without moving.

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  • From Our Own Correspondent.

Longform journalism podcast from the BBC that blends travel reportage, political analysis, and stories that lie behind recent headlines.  I love listening to this on Radio 4 as part of my Saturday mornings when I’m home, for the content, but also for the lessons in how to present an engaging piece of writing.  Listen live to BBC Radio 4, or follow here.

  • 80 Days.

Presented by three self-proclaimed “history and geography geeks”, the 80 Days podcast is dedicated to discovering lesser-known countries and territories around the world, through their history, politics, landscapes, and culture, including places like Rapa Nui, Sápmi, Birobidzhan**, and the Kuril Islands.  Dive in to the podcast here.

**Yeah, me neither.

  • Travel Tales Beyond the Brochure.

The Barefoot Backpacker dives into a different theme in each episode, talking about concepts like why bucket lists can be a bad idea, reverse culture shock, or travelling in your home town, as well as offbeat destinations like Vanuatu. Follow the conversations here.

  • She Explores.

A podcast bringing forth voices of women doing things outdoors, from exploration and adventure, working in outdoor industries, arts and music, to environmental awareness and activism.  It has a strong North American influence, but reaches out to cover women around the world.  Find it here.

  • Curiously Polar.

Presented by an experienced polar tour leader and a nature photographer, this podcast covers the colder corners of the globe.  Topics have somewhat of a science and exploration focus, ranging from the Global Seed Vault in Spitzbergen, the history of the whaling industry, how to walk in snowshoes, marine mammal sex, and where exactly Santa Claus lives. Find it here.

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Birds do it, bees do it, but just how do fin whales do it?  Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

You can find all these podcasts through their own websites or via various playing platforms like itunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify.

Which travel podcasts do you follow?
Leave me your recommendations in the comments below.

 

Armchair Travel: 10 Books for a Wild World

For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.

Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.

So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…

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  • The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive. Find it here.

  • Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell

I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental. You can buy it here.

  • The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery

Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world. Get the book here.

  • Orison for a Curlew – Horatio Clare

I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist. You can find it here.

  • The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar, and returning home after a long exile. Buy it here.

  • Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey

Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters. Find it here.

  • Winter Count – Barry Lopez

This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature. Get the book here.

 

  • Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this. Buy the book here.

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  • The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky

I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography. Get it here.

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations in my list, you must read this one. Pick it up here.

Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.