Unlike Oxford, which is both a university town and an industrial city, Cambridge, as the saying goes, “is” the University. Cambridge without the University is like Hamlet without the hero, or bacon without eggs! Although sometimes Town and Gown have their quarrels, the two are for the most part inseparable. In spite of this, we shall in fact now separate them for a moment, just to see how each of them has grown up.
All right then, first let’s look at the town. Cambridge is so-called because most of the town is built on the east side of the River Cam, a tributary of the Ouse. Slight hills rise gently on the south and west. Roman remains suggest the existence of a small town first situated around two hills, Castle Hill and Market Hill. Even today these two hills may be said to dominate the town. This is certainly true for those poor students who have to cycle up the steep slope of Castle Hill on the way to lectures. Or even more true for those who risk cycling down it at top speed when their brakes are not working very well. Many shoes are worn out in this way. Market Hill still retains its importance too. Every day, and especially on Saturdays, its cobbled square is the scene of a busy market, selling all kinds of fruit, vegetables, groceries, trinkets, antiques, etc. Housewives come here to haggle (bargain) for their food, and students come in search of cheap books, which you can still buy for 6 d. or a shilling.
The beauty of the city is enhanced by a large number of commons and other open spaces, including Jesus Green and Midsummer Common, Parker’s Piece and the Backs. The Backs are the landscaped lawns and flower-beds, very beautiful especially in spring, through which the Cam winds behind the main line of University colleges, including Queen’s, St. Catharine’s, King’s, Trinity and St. John’s. The river also passes under a series of magnificent bridges, of which the Bridge of Sighs (in St. John’s College), the old stone bridge of Clare College with thick stone balls on the parapets, and the Mathematical Bridge of Queen’s are among the best known.
So you see, the River Cam has led us already from Cambridge to the University, from Town to Gown. For modern Cambridge has been described as “perhaps the only true University Town in England”, and, indeed, the colleges provide the main architectural interest. The best known building in Cambridge is King’s College Chapel (designed by Henry VI). Yet lofty spires and turrets” and fine stained-glass windows are notable features of the Chapel, which is one of the major monuments of English medieaval architecture. Apart from this, there are now 22 colleges. The first one, Pgterhouse, was founded in 1284, and in 1963 Churchill College (named after Sir Winston).
Until 1964, undergraduates (students studying for a first degree) had to wear black cloaks, called gowns, after dark, but now they are obliged to wear them for dinner and some lectures. This tradition is fast disappearing, but one which is still upheld is that of punting on the Cam. It is a favourite summer pastime for students to take food, drink, guitars (or, alas, transistor radios) and girl friends on to a punt (a long, slim boat, rather like a gondola) and sail down the river, trying very hard to forget about exams! Many students feel that they have not been christened into the University until they have fallen from a punt into the River Cam. This has almost become a tourist attraction.
Students also have an official excuse to “let themselves loose” once a year (usually in November) on Rag Day. On this day, hundreds of different schemes are thought up to collect money for charity, and it is not unusual to see students in the streets playing guitars, pianos, violins, singing, dancing, fishing in drains for money, or even just lying in beds suspended over the street swinging a bucket for money to be thrown into.
Such tradition, in such beautiful surroundings, often helps to make Cambridge almost as idyllic today as it was in the 13th century. The parking meters in the main street of King’s Parade assert the presence of modern life, in contrast to the ancient chimes of the church bells in the evening.