A University city synonymous with students, punting and incredible architecture, Tilly-Jayne Kidman reflects on city life in Cambridge. Irresistibly charming streets, rich history, a buzzing independent food scene and green spaces make this a dream staycation destination.
Of all the cities I have had the pleasure of visiting during my twenty eight years on earth so far, none have quite the curious magic and charm of Cambridge. Perhaps it's the familiarity and the nostalgia, or perhaps it's the winding cobbled streets and majestic buildings steeped in history.
I take a sip of my freshly blended fruit smoothie picked up from the Cambridge market, one that, unlike neighbouring towns, has fortunately remained very much alive. Here you'll find an eclectic offering of flavours. From zesty Caribbean cuisine, to the best vegan waffles you could possibly feast your eyes upon and truly incredible Chinese food. The market, to me, has always felt to be the beating heart of the city. This medieval market square has been the focal point of Cambridge since the Middle Ages, when boats would sail from King's Lynn to the city, bringing a wealth of luxuries including fish, salt and wine. Today, you can enjoy organic local produce as well as your 'Cambridge University' hoodies, an essential for all tourists- so it seems.
With the sun shining in my eyes, ever so slightly blinding my view of the market stalls, I meander around the square and pick up my weekend essentials. That is of course a fresh bunch of eucalyptus complemented with a few rogue stems of gypsophila, a delicious focaccia (still warm and ok, I actually brought two) from the baker and enough local fruit and veg to suitably fill up my tote bag. It's almost 10am, and the square will soon be filled with enthusiastic tourists and an abundance of coach trips. I duck and dive the endless "are you heading on the water" questions from enthusiastic young men in blue waistcoats. They work on commission and filling up boats for the mandatory Cambridge punting experience is the name of their game. I smile, shake my head and seek sanctuary down one of my favourite city streets, Rose Crescent. Home to smaller boutique style shops including independent womenswear store Elegant Atelier and some more recognisable names including Le Creuset. One must always be on top of their east iron saucepan game, after all.
I've always adored the aesthetic of Cambridge, and thankfully, the grand architecture expands beyond the exclusivity of the University boundaries. A slightly arrogant, yet irresistibly beautiful neoclassical building stands proudly in the city centre. Home to over half a million artefacts and art from around the world, the Fitzwilliam Museum is another city focal point. Collections are diverse, from sculptures to ceramics, coins, and paintings spanning from the Egyptian era right up to modern day. Art fanatics can revel in the works of Monet, Rembrandt. Cézanne and Canaletto, to name but a few.
I'm lucky enough to find a seat and take refuge from the bustling Saturday streets in what is a Cambridge institution. Fitzbillies. A trip to Cambridge city is never complete without tackling sticky fingers from hastily grabbing one of their world renowned Chelsea buns. My vegan diet does not allow for this sweet treat anymore, but a breakfast complete with avocado, sourdough, field mushrooms and air dried tomatoes (no, i'm not sure either) hits the spot. Relaxing into my chair, with a new book picked up early this morning from Heffers (who, it must be stated, have been joyously selling books to Cambridge students and dwellers since 1876) in hand, I take five and in true Cambridge style, enjoy a slower pace of life. I watch as students pour in and out, tourists feast on said famous buns and swathes of bicycles fly past the café window. Full up on my air dried tomatoes, I grab my fedora and head back into the wild. I'm asked whether I will be planning a trip on the water today. Sorry blue waistcoats, not today.
My first experience of punting is a memorable one, as is common for those who endeavour to successfully punt themselves up the River Cam. It will be easy, a fresh-faced younger teenage version of myself bellows. Easy it is not, dear reader, I have newfound respect for the waistcoats, punting is no mean feat. Superior arm strength is a prerequisite, as is balance and a sense of direction.
Three things I came to learn on that fateful day that I, along with my peers, do not possess. Nevertheless, it's all in the name of fun and an inaugural chapter in growing up with Cambridge as your home city, even if my Mulberry Bayswater bag never made a full recovery from that quick dip.
I grab my phone, hidden under spring greens and strawberries and confirm dinner plans, Cambridge has never exactly led the way for independent businesses, in fact, it was labelled as one of the UK's least diverse high streets just a few years back. The good news is it is slowly improving, and the indie restaurant scene has played an enormous part in creating a more vibrant Cambridge. Some of the best eats are a stone's throw from the city centre, situated on Mill Road, a street that is home to some of Cambridge's best independents, from record shops to world class falafel.
Off home I go, focaccia in tow.
Need to Know
University Arms: Home to 192 rooms and 12 suites, this city-centre hotel is quintessentially Cambridge, from the décor to the extensive library of classic novels, in-house restaurant, Parker's Tavern, is well worth a visit.