Cambridge: English town of cobblestones and colleges

If you're feeling culturally inclined during a visit to Cambridge, check out the Fitzwilliam Museum, which showcases works of art, various artifacts and antiquities and special exhibits. And it is free.

By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 17, 2011

Air Force community members who are new to RAFs Mildenhall, Lakenheath or Alconbury in England might feel as though they were dropped in the middle of nowhere when they arrive at their new duty station.

The three bases sit in largely rural areas, where sometimes it can seem there isn’t much of anything going on.

But just 45 minutes away lies one of England’s municipal jewels, the city of Cambridge, a bustling university town full of history and the kinds of things an American back home envisions when thinking of the U.K.

That means cobblestone streets, winding narrow passages and buildings that are much older than America itself. The old and the modern sit next to each other comfortably in Cambridge. It’s definitely worth a Saturday, and one visit could lead you to discover your own favorite spots and require a return jaunt.

My personal favorite has to be the random herds of cattle seen in various parks. They are owned by Cambridge University and add a quirky twist to the old city.

All around the city are beautiful parks and green spaces, areas that fill with all types of locals and visitors when the sun comes out.

Cambridge was settled by the Romans, but the first scholars didn’t arrive here until 1209, a city website says. Seventy-five years later, Hugh de Balsham, the bishop of Ely, founded Peterhouse, the first college. A handful more followed during the first half of the 14th century, and 10 more were added in the 15th and 16th centuries. That’s a lot of history.

One of my favorite areas of the city is known as “The Backs.” On leafy, wooded trails, visitors get beautiful views of the backs of the colleges and the winding River Cam. The highlight has to be King’s College Chapel, a massive and gorgeous church in a setting that is as postcard-ready as views come.

Construction on the Gothic cathedral was started in 1446 by Henry VI and took more than a century to erect. It has a bevy of medieval-era stained glass and the largest fan vault ceiling in the world, according to the Kings College website. If you’re into old buildings, this one is for you.

No summer day in Cambridge is complete without punting on the Cam. You can rent a skiff-like boat, called a punt, and leisurely push your way up and down the river. Bring a bottle of bubbly and some good friends, and you’ll have a true Cambridge experience.

Not into pushing the boat yourself? Guided tours are also available.

Aside from all the British quaintness, Cambridge has a great variety of bars and eateries to suit all types of budgets. The beautiful architecture is free to see, and places like the Fitzwilliam Museum, which showcases works of art, various artifacts and antiquities and special exhibits, don’t charge admission, either.

Cambridge is a high-profile destination for anyone visiting Britain and should be at the top of any new arrival’s places-to-visit list.

Geoffz@estripes.osd.milDirections: From RAF Alconbury, take the A14 motorway south and get off at the first Cambridge exit. Follow signs to the city center. From RAFs Mildenhall and Alconbury, take southbound A11 toward London/Newmarket. Merge onto A14. Take the A1303 exit toward Cambridge. At the traffic circle, take the first exit onto A1303; at the next circle, take East Road/A603. There is parking in the city center.

An alternative is to take a train from Newmarket or Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, or from Huntingdon near Alconbury. Once you arrive in Cambridge, it’s about a 15-minute walk into the town center.

Hours: Standard daytime hours for most tourist attractions and other diversions, although some tied to the colleges vary depending on whether classes are in session. For example, the King’s College Chapel is open 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Saturdays and 1:15-2:15 p.m. Sundays during college terms and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays out of term. Most pubs are open all day and close between 11 p.m. and midnight.

Costs: Admission to King’s College and its chapel costs 6.50 pounds for adults, 4.50 pounds for students and senior citizens, free for younger than 12 if visiting with family or local school.

Food: A variety of restaurants to suit all palates at all prices. Weekends showcase an open-air market in the city center, where walking food, such as sausages or pasties, can be bought for just a few pounds.

Information: For more details on the city, see www.visitcambridge.org. The tourist information office is on Peas Hill, not far from several of Cambridge’s colleges, including King’s College. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday during the winter; and the same hours plus 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays and holidays from Easter through the end of October .

— Geoff Ziezulewicz

When the weather is warmer, check out the Mill Pond area in Cambridge. You can rent a punt boat from here or just sit at a dockside pub and watch the world float by.

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