Cambridge is associated with the university of Cambridge, so the assumption is that all old buildings in the city belong to the university. In fact, Cambridge has several buildings older than the university. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 and the oldest college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284. Most of the buildings on this page are older than this. I have included a couple of 14th century buildings. Most of the famous university buildings are much later. Kings College Chapel was started in 1446 and not completed until 1531. Queens College has the oldest gatehouse, dated 1448.
Click here for buildings since 14C.
Cambridge has no good local building stone. The earliest buildings were often made of a collection of material joined together with mortar, and sometimes reusing material from earlier buildings. Perhaps because of this, none of these buildings are exactly as they were built. All have been repaired or even rebuilt at times.
The buildings on this page are arranged in chronological order, so this is not a walk. The buildings are fairly widely dispersed throughout Cambridge with busy roads in between. I suggest that you visit these buildings when you are close to them, or make an effort to visit any building that particularly interests you, rather than tackling the whole lot at one go. There is a scale at the bottom of the map. A kilometre is just over half a mile. Click on the red on the map, or on the links, for descriptions and pictures.
|Before 12th century||12th century||13th century||14th century|
Roman tiles in St Peters Church
St Benets Church
School of Pythagoras|
St Peters Church
Old Court, Corpus Christi|
Click on the photos for a bigger version.
In Roman times, Cambridge was called Duroliponte. Archaeological digs have shown there was a Roman fortified town on top of Castle Hill. The walls ran along Mount Pleasant, and even today you can see that one side of the road is considerably higher than the other.
No Roman building survives above ground. St Peters Church, a tiny church on Castle Hill, is built of a mixture of material, and some of this is thin red tiles. These may be Roman tiles.
See below for more about St Peters Church.
The Saxons had a large settlement by the River Cam, which they used for trade, as it is navigable right down to the Wash and the North Sea. Various churches in Cambridge have the names of Saxon saints, such as St Botolph and St Edward, King and Martyr. St Clements dates from the time when Cambridge was under Danelaw. However, St Benets is the only one Saxon church still standing. Just its tower is Saxon, the rest is more recent.
St Benets church should really be written St. Bene't's church, but I have simplified punctuation for this website. Bene't is a contraction of Benedict, who is the patron saint of students. He founded monasteries.
The tower of St Benets is the oldest building in Cambridge. St Benets Church was founded in 1020, and the tower was built around 1050 or before. The church is listed Grade I. The listing description says that it is built of rubble with freestone dressings, and that it is the oldest church in Cambridgeshire.
The church is usually open to visit.
When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he subdued the country by causing castles to be built. These were motte-and-bailey - a form of castle situated on a raised earthwork (the motte) and an area (the bailey) surrounded by a protective fence. Cambridge Castle was built in the same location as the Roman town - an obvious location as it was on a hill overlooking the Saxon settlement by the River Cam. The first castle was built of wood. Edward I rebuilt it in stone, but it fell into decay, and now there is only the original motte left. You might be able to find a stone or two from the stone castle in the grounds of Shire Hall. Below is a much weathered gargoyle spout.
Castle Mound is the highest point of Cambridge, with a good view.
Castle Mound is open to visit. It is in the grounds of Shire Hall, at the top of Castle Street. Walk through the carpark to find the footpath to the top of the mound.
|Different views of gargoyle spout near Castle Mound|
The Round Church is really the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is one of the four medieval round churches still in use in England. It is listed Grade I. The church was built around 1130, the shape being inspired by the rotunda in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. It was built by the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre, who were probably a group of Austin canons. Initially it was a wayfarers' chapel. By the middle of the 13th century it had become a parish church under the patronage of Barnwell Priory.
A drawing of the Round Church can be seen on Richard Lyne's map of Cambridge, 1574 (below). He calls the church St. Pulcheur, which is presumbly a mis-hearing of 'Sepulchre'. During the 15th century the chapel was altered, including a polygonal bell-storey with Gothic windows. This can be seen on a print of the church in 1809 (R. Harraden & Son, Cambridge, and R. Cribb & Son, London, publishers). By the 19th century the church was in a poor state of repair. It was restored by Anthony Salvin, who replaced the bell-storey by a roof similar to the original roof. This was made necessary because the weight of the bell-story was too much for the walls to support. The 15th-century Gothic windows were replaced by windows in Norman style. So the top part of the church is not as old as it appears. However, the splendid Norman doorway is original.
By 1994 the congregation had become too large for the church, so they moved to the church of St Andrew the Great (near Lion Yard shopping mall), which is now known confusingly at 'the Round Church at St Andrew the Great'.
The Round Church is usually open to visit, although you will be invited to give a donation to the upkeep of the building.
The chapel is little altered. The roof is not original. It is dated 1400 and in fact, it used to belong to a different building and was moved here. You can see inside the chapel that there are not quite enough corbels for the roof. In fact one of the photos below shows the roof support cutting across a window.
The chapel is usually closed, but opens at certain times for events, such as the re-enactment of Stourbridge Fair.
Jesus College Chapel
It may seem odd to include a college chapel among buildings that pre-date Cambridge University. Jesus College is not even the oldest college. That is Peterhouse, founded in 1284, and Jesus College was not founded until 1496. However, Jesus College took over the buildings of the nunnery of St Radegund, which means that it now has the oldest college building. The Chapel was founded in 1157 and took until 1245 to complete, but it has been much altered. The north transept (left of photo) is the oldest part, but it has been refaced in Victorian times. The cloisters are in their original position, but have been rebuilt.
This part of Jesus College is listed Grade I.
The chapel is usually open to visit - check with the porter's lodge first.
The School of Pythagoras is the oldest non-religious building in Cambridge. It is listed Grade I. It was built around 1200. The first Mayor of Cambridge, Hervey fitz Eustace Dunning, lived here in the mid-thirteenth century. From 1266 until 1959 the School of Pythagoras was owned by Merton College, Oxford. It is marked on the Richard Lyne's map (1574) as Domus Pythagorae or House of Pythagoras, as one of the Hospita Juristarum or hostels for law students. It is often said that no-one knows where the name came from, but if it was a hostel in 1574, it would seem likely that it housed students of Mathematics at some time. In the subsequent centuries it was also used as a barn, a school, and a headquarters for the society that became Cambridge’s Newnham College. After the Second World War it was rented by the zoologist and MI5 agent Lord Rothschild. It was purchased by St John’s in 1959, who use it as a drama studio. There are plans (2011) to transform it into an archive centre, removing unsympathetic modern additions to the building.
The School of Pythagoras is not open to visit, except by appointment. (The building is open by appointment on Wed-Thurs from 9.30-4.00. Please contact the archivist on email@example.com to book an appointment.) Since it is within the grounds of St Johns College, it is quite difficult even to see the outside. St Johns College charge tourists to visit the college, and will forbid any tourists entering during exam time. Even if you pay to enter, the School of Pythagoras is not on the marked tourist trail. It is on the far side of the river from the entrance. You are not allowed to cross the river by the Bridge of Sighs. So, after paying for entry, walk through the first three courts and then cross the river by the Old Bridge. Re-enter the college on the other side of the college, walk through New Court, then under the Cripps Building to enter Merton Court. The School of Pythagoras forms one side of this.
This building is called Cellarer's Checker. It is listed Grade II*. This was the office where the cellarer checked his stores and accounts. It is part of Barnwell Priory, an important medieval abbey which moved here around 1119, but this building is later, around mid 13th century. There is very little of this priory left - see first river walk for what there is. Click here for more on Barnwell Priory.
This building is not open to visit.
This church dates back to Norman times, but in 1781 it was largely pulled down, apart from the spire and tower, and rebuilt incorporating original features and using the same building materials, including some thin red tiles in the wall, which may be Roman tiles (see above). It is listed Grade B (equivalent to Grade II*). In the graveyard, there is an early gravestone. The church is usually shut, but if you manage to see inside, there is a 12th century font with a decoration of mermen around it. The mermen's tails are split, and they hold the halves in their hands. This building is not usually open to visit. There is more information about this church here.
Peterhouse is the oldest Cambridge University College, founded in 1284. Its oldest building is its hall, which was built in 1290. It is listed Grade I. It has been restored since (see listing) which means that it does not look that old.
The hall is within the college, and cannot be seen from the road. However, Peterhouse is usually open to visit (except in exam season) - check with the porters lodge if you are not sure. If open, it is free. To see the hall, walk through the First Court, under the Chapel cloisters, to get to Old Court. The hall is on your left. It is possible to see the other side (which does look older), but you need to walk through a couple more courts, tending to the left.
Corpus Christi College was established in 1352, and that was when Old Court was built. It is listed Grade I. There is a claim that Old Court is the oldest continually inhabited courtyard in the country (a claim disputed by Merton College, Oxford who say the same of their Mob Quad). In 1919 a roughcast rendering was put on the walls. You can see the back of Old Court from Free School Lane.
Corpus Christi College is usually open except during exams. Check with the porters lodge if you are not sure. Walk round New Court to the far left corner, then walk through the doorway into Old Court.
This building is not open. It is on private property, but you can see it from the road. Walk north along Church Street towards High St Chesterton. Ignore the locked gate called Chesterton Towers, this is a modern development. Further along there is a road leading to some garages. This is private land, but you can see Chesterton Tower if you look along this road.
Finally, I have tried to verify the dates and facts above as much as I could, but I may have made mistakes. If you spot any or want to correct me, please email me
© Jo Edkins 2010 - Return to Walks index