Ten Curious Cambridge Facts

Cambridge was founded in 1209 by students who were fleeing Oxford.

Three students in Oxford were hanged for the death of a woman. At this time the ecclesiastical scholars would have taken precedence and pardoned the students but they were not consulted. Fearing more retaliation from townsfolk, Oxford was shut down and students fled to Paris, Reading (London) and Cambridge. In Cambridge they started a new university. Cambridge University received its charter from King Henry III in 1231.  This let the university discipline its own members and gave it exemption from some taxes. It’s the fourth oldest active university in the world.

Left: A photo of Peterhouse, the first college of Cambridge. (Wikimedia commons)

Women weren’t fully accepted at the University until 1948.

The first women’s college at Cambridge, Girton college, was founded in 1869 and two more were founded before the century was out. Though women had now gained the right to attend Cambridge, it wasn’t quite the same as their male counterparts. While women could attend classes and sit exams, they weren’t allowed to actually receive a full bachelor’s degree until 1948. When women finally received their right to graduate with a full degree, not all colleges wanted to admit them. It wasn’t until 1988 that the last male-only college opened its doors to women. In a twist though, as of 2021, there are still two female-only colleges that won’t admit males.

Left: Girton College in 1895. (From the Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress)

Colleges aren’t for learning, they’re for living, eating and worshiping.

If you’re American you probably use the term college and university interchangeably. I attended the University of California State, Long Beach, but I would say I went to college, call Zoe my “college roommate” and say I studied in the college of Liberal Arts. Come here to Cambridge and try to use those terms interchangeably and you’ll get very confused looks.

There are 31 colleges as part of Cambridge University. To enter Cambridge, you must be admitted to one of the colleges. But today you wouldn’t choose them necessarily by what you want to study, because you won’t attend any lectures in your college. The college you belong to will do three things. It will provide you a place to live, a place to eat and a place to worship (remember the King’s college chapel?!). So, when choosing your college at Cambridge you’d think more of, where it’s located compared to your department’s buildings and maybe “how pretty it is.” I mean really, some of these colleges look like they’re straight from Harry Potter. In fact, the whole college system here reminds me very much of Harry Potter Houses.

Left: A photo taken in the inner courtyard of King’s College.

There’s a little girl’s ghost at the oldest pub in Cambridge.

If you head over to the Eagle Pub on Benet street in Cambridge and enter the RAF Bar, look up and to the left as you pass through the large doors. You should see a window on the first floor (second if you’re American) that is open. That window is perpetually open, in fact today it’s nailed open. Centuries ago, this window was in the room of a small girl. She was in the habit, as many children are, of desiring a night light.  Back then this meant burning a candle all night, which of course, inevitably led to a fire. Unable to escape from this window, or the room, the little girl sadly perished. To this day, it’s said they leave the window open to let the little girl’s spirit come in and out as she pleases. Even in the winter. Legend has it that the window was closed one time not so long ago by a new manager who didn’t know the story. Though the window was reopened when a guide saw that it was closed and raised a ruckus, the next day an electrical fire started in the kitchen and damaged a bit of the bar. Coincidence or ghost? I’ll let you decide.

Left: The window that’s always open, even in winter, at the Eagle.

You can see herds of cattles grazing in the center of the city.

For centuries it has been a common summer sight to see cows grazing in the center of the city. A holdover from centuries past when farmers used public spaces to graze their cattle, the tradition is now a win-win situation. The farmers pay a small fee to the city’s council for the opportunity to let the cows graze on Midsummer Common, Coe Fen, Coldham’s Common, Sheep’s Green, and Stourbridge Common. This brings in funding for the council and also is a fee-free/natural way to keep the commons’ grass mowed. The farmers get somewhere for their cows to graze and also get an “after hours” emergency service from the council should one of the cows say, fall into the river.

The cows return early every summer and move on in the fall. Most cows are shy and don’t really want to interact with the people, but by midsummer are pretty relaxed around all their two-legged companions.

Left: Cows hanging out on Sheep’s Green. (Note… cow sleeping, not dead).

Cambridge retrospectively renamed its own river.

Though the river that runs through Cambridge is now the River Cam, thus… Cam-Bridge… a bridge over the River Cam… It surprisingly didn’t begin this way. According to an article by Terry Macewan on historic-uk.com, the River Cam was actually originally the Granta and the town called Granta Brygg (Bridge). Over time, whether it was through different handwriting styles, or changes in the language, Granta became Cam… I don’t see it… but I wasn’t there. So once Granta Brygg morphed into Cambridge, they needed to rename the river to reflect the name. And thus, was born the River Cam.

Left: A person self punts on the River Cam.

The oldest building in Cambridge could be over 1000 years old.

St Bene’t’s Church located across the street from the Eagle pub (yes the same one… so much history in one place!), was most likely build between 1000 and 1050 AD. The construction of the square tower is characteristically Anglo-Saxon so this dates it to before the Norman conquest of England in 1066. It absolutely fascinates me that things that are that old can survive virtually unchanged since then, though there have been some changes since then. Most notably, rebuildings in the 13th and 14th centuries. With the most recent changes in the 1800s.  

 It is still an active church to this day.

Left: The square Anglo-Saxon tower of St Bene’ts.

Punting for pleasure doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Have you heard of punting? Not kicking a ball across the football field, but the boat? The punt is a long, wide, flat-bottomed boat that was originally designed for moving cargo through the shallow rivers in the 1800s. According to CityStayUK, in the mid 1800s, it was determined that punts were a great way for people to tour through cities as they could hold a large amount of weight and were quite stable. Punting for leisure was actually first used on the River Thames and it wasn’t until 1903 when Jack Scudamore founded the first leisure punting dock on the River Cam.  If you come to Cambridge you’re sure to see the punts on the river and I highly recommend taking a guided tour. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave and it’s a warm day, self-hire a punt and learn to guide the boat yourself.

Left: Tim took a shot at self-punting when we first arrived in England. He was pretty good!

Parker’s Piece hosted the first Football Association game.

Today, football is a game played around the world. But in the mid 1800’s there was no Football Association or general rules for teams to follow. It was at Cambridge that these first rules for the sport were drafted and on Parker’s Piece where the first game was played. A monument in the park states “students established a common set of simple football rules emphasizing skill above force, which forbade catching the ball and ‘hacking’. These ‘Cambridge Rules’ became the defining influence on the 1863 Football Association rules.”

Left: The monument commemorating the creation of the football rules on Parker’s Piece.

There was a woman who helped discover DNA but doesn’t receive the credit.

It’s likely you’ve heard of Crick and Watson. Those two brilliant men who founded DNA, something that changed the world forever. And you might have even heard that they ran in to the Eagle (yes the same haunted pub) and announced that they’d found it. But did you know that there was actually woman who helped them in their work? No? I didn’t either. It wasn’t even until my most recent tour of Cambridge did I learn this. (And I’ve had been on several).

The woman was Rosalind Franklin. She was a 1941 graduate of Cambridge (receiving her title of degree in 1948 after they began giving them to women). It was the photo taken under her tutelage that showed the first x-ray of DNA. I don’t think I have the breadth of knowledge or time to explain everything she did. It’s likely she didn’t receive the Nobel prize for the discovery as the men did because she passed away before the award was given and Nobel prizes are rarely given out posthumously, but I think it’s still unfortunate that she doesn’t get the credit she deserves in general historical knowledge. Young girls today should know about all the important pioneering women, and Rosalind Franklin is one of them. You can read more about her inspiring life here.

Left: Though it keeps getting removed, people keep adding Franklin’s name to the blue plaque commemorating the discovery of DNA.

Bonus: There’s a whole other world around your feet.

Walking around the Center of Cambridge, make sure you sometimes look… down. That’s right. Because while you’re busy marveling the amazing buildings (I don’t’ blame you, this city is gorgeous), you are missing some adorable, Hamilton-pig-sized doors. The artists of Dinky Doors have created a whole little universe in the city and have dotted about the streets, 15 or so doors to another dimension. Hamilton has embarked on a quest to find them all and we will create a whole post on those in the near future too! Stay tuned. But in case you want to see them for yourself, head over to Dinky Doors and download the map for yourself! If you support them and join the club for just £7.50 you get a whole little downloadable book, map and history of these very creative doors. They’re awesome, def check them out.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dianna Hattori says:

    Very interesting information.


  2. Pree says:

    What a thorough post! And I’m sure it’s fun to see all these facts be put into place live, especially after living there for so long and getting acclimated to the surroundings 😊

    I kind of feel the same way about Vegas (lol, I know, not Milan, Vegas 🤣). I’ve been making multiple trips there in recent years, mostly cause of my best friend living there, but I like to think those trips have given me firsthand knowledge about things to keep in mind about the desert city in recent times (www.secondgendesi.com/vegas)


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