Walks index

Stories of Cambridge

Cambridge seems to attract stories. A good Cambridge story is fun, and doesn't worry too much about whether it's true or not! Here are some of my favourites, and whether I think they are true or not. Please email me to corrent me, or tell me more stories!

Things on buildings
Things in buildings
Around Cambridge
Stories told on punt tours

Things on buildings

In 1958, some students managed to get an Austin 7 on the roof of the Senate House [Status - true].

Austin 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House Austin 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House Austin 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House Austin 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House

Austin 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House

Cambridge night climbers are a long tradition. They are students who climb over the college builders at night, an occupation which is viewed with disapproval by the authorities. A book has been published about it, The Night Climbers of Cambridge.

In 1963, students floated a car down the river on punts, and tied it under the Bridge of Sighs [Status - true].

Auston 7 under Cambridge Bridge of Sighs Auston 7 under Cambridge Bridge of Sighs

In 2009, some 25 Santa hats appeared in inaccessible places, such as a pinacle of Kings Chapel, and the top of Pembroke's porters' lodge [Status - true].

Santa hat on Cambridge colleges Santa hat on Cambridge colleges

In 2019, 4 pumpkins appeared on top of the Old Schools. [Status - true]. There were four pumpkins on the roof, two on the balustrade in the centre of the roof, and then one on each corner. They all had scary faces carved into them too. In 2022, a couple of pumpkins were impaled on some of the roof decoration of the bak at the end of Petty Cury (previously Foster's bank).

Pumpkins on Old Schools Pumpkins on Old Schools

In 2020, a statue in St Johns acquired a Santa hat and mask. [Status - true]. It was 2020, after all.

Pumpkins on Old Schools

In 2022, a decorated Christmas tree appeared on the roof of the Senate House. [Status - true].

Christmas tree on Senate House Christmas tree on Senate House

In 2023, Henry VII acquired a feather duster and a college scarf [Status - true] This was in addition to his (permanent) chairleg sceptre. The scarf was a St Johns scarf (and the Henry VIII statue is in Trinity) so it was immediately removed!
In November 2023, the chairleg was replaced with a golden sceptre to celebrate the 75th birthday of King Charles III - newspaper story. The new sceptre was presenter by the Association of Pole-lathe Turners & Green Woodworkers.

Some houses in Cambridge have interesting features [Status - true] These are in Norfolk St and gwydir St.

Around 1973, garden gnomes also appeared in inaccessible places [Status - true]. I have no photographic evidence, unfortunately, but I remember seeing these, when I was a student (I think). One was on the top of a pillar in the Gibbs building, Kings.

Also 1973, Cats students grafitted other colleges. [Status - true]. St Catharine's College was celebrating 500 years since their foundation. The grafitti were very neat, small St Catherine coat of arms (a very pretty design of a wheel), obviously done with s stencil. But they got into trouble, naturally.

Things in buildings

Oliver Cromwell's head is buried somewhere in Sidney Sussex College. [Status - true]. Oliver Cromwell died naturally, but after the Restoration of King Charles II, Cromwell's body was dug up, hung from a gibbet, and beheaded. The head seems to have had quite a history of its own, but eventually came back to Cromwell's old college. The College keeps its exact whereabouts secret, as they don't want to deal with people who are too interested in Cromwell, either pro or anti.

There used to be a locked room in the Old Cavendish labs, where no-one could enter, because it was where Rutherford split the atom, and it's still radio-active [Status - true]. I was told this as a student (1071-1974), and assumed that it was a tall story, but recently read Vanishing Cambridge (published 2003) says "After Rutherford died in 1937, his room was locked and remained so until 1977, when it was thoroughly cleaned for fear of contamination from radiation."

Around Cambridge

Cambridge has three hills which are completely flat [Status - true]. These are three streets called 'Hill'. One theory is that the centre of Cambridge used to flood regularly, and any area very slightly above the rest was naturally prized, and used for roads. There are two roads called 'Causeway' for example (Maids Causeway and Fen Causeway). However, the centre of Cambridge has naturally been reworked over the centuries and now the 'hills' are flat themselves, and on a level with the rest. Change the name? Perish the thought!

Another theory is that "hill" is a Cambridge name for an open space. I find this implausible, as there is no hint of this meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The third theory is my own. Rome was built on severn hills. Cambridge, being so flat, invented some hills to compete!

If you look at early maps, Market Hill is the oldest name, and appears on the Tudor map, and on plenty of maps since. The early maps have Peas Market (rather than Hill). Senate House Hill doesn't appear on any map I have, but then it's hard to fit in! But early maps mark Trumpington Street right up to the Round Church. Street names like St Johns Street, Trinity Street and Kings Parade arrived later. Now, it makes sense that the market was built on a slight mound, which didn't get as muddy. Perhaps this mound was even man-made. So that is the first meaning. Peas Market may have turned into Peas Hill, influenced by Market Hill. So that's the second theory. And once they wanted to name the open area outside the classical looking Senate House, then why not look to Rome for inspiration! Perhaps all theories are true...

Peas Hill

Peas Hill is between the Guildhall and St Edward's church. The Arts Theatre is here, as well. In Richard Lyne's map of 1574, it is described as Pease Market.

Market Hill

Market Hill is called this on the 1574 map. The market is the heart of Cambridge - it has always been a market town. Round the market, you can see the Guildhall, Great St Mary's church and a 17th century house at 5 Market Hill. The market is open 7 days a week. It sells fruit and veg, and many other items, with some change from day to day. There is a farmers market on Sunday.

Senate House Hill

Senate House Hill must be more recent than the others, as the Senate House was not built until 1722. The road from the Round Church to Trumpington used to be used High Street or High Warde, and then became Trumpington Street for the whole length, before acquiring all the various names it has today. Great St Mary's church is opposite the Senate House, with 3D maps outside.

The light post in the middle of Parkers Piece is called Reality Checkpoint [Status - true]. In fact, the name is painted on. Where the name comes from is more of a story. One theory is that since it comes between the part of town belonging (mostly) to the universtiy, and the 'real' town, this is where Reality starts. But I don't know which half is supposed to be more real! New lamp-posts have been set up to illuminate a very popular, but dark, area. Since there are six of them, it would be nice to call them by names as well, possibly Up, Down, Strange, Charm, Truth and Beauty. But I can't claim that as a joke, because we invented it! (A quark joke. And an old fashioned one, to boot!)

Back to Reality Checkpoint... The following was part of a display in the Hobb's Pavilion, during the 'Skipathon 2017' (a revivial of an ancient custom of skipping on Parker's Piece on Good Friday):

Reality Checkpoint

Reality Checkpoint also features in the qualifications necessary for the Bard of Cambridge, who stands for the Voice of the People. They would gain their title ("be chaired") after passing several trials (all creative!). They would hold their title for (at least) a year and a day, before passing it on to the next successful Bard. They also need to live within one day's walking distance of the centre of Cambridge (for sake of convenience, designated as "Reality Checkpoint" on Parker's Piece). This was taken from the Facebook page of the Bard of Cambridge.

I have been sent another explanation: "I must just explain the 'Reality Checkpoint'. This occurred in the early 1970s - the central lamp-post had always been a dull green colour, then the council decided to have it re-painted, picking out the fish and other details in bright colours. Some wag graffittied 'Do not adjust your mind, there is a fault with reality' - hence the 'Reality Checkpoint'. This itself was a play on the screen that might appear on televisions in the 1960s/70s: 'Do not adjust your set, there is a fault with the transmission'. " I don't agree with that explanation myself. The relevant word is "Checkpoint". That, to a baby boomer, would bring to mind Checkpoint Charlie and the like, on the Berlin Wall. You have checkpoints between two different areas. So making it the boundary between Town and Gown seems the best bet. There may be different reasons for the "reality" part - possibly they're all true! In the past, I have found the lamp-post comforting to orientate myself in fog.

History Faculty

The History faculty library on the Sidwick site leaks because it was built the wrong way round [Status - fairly true]. This building is listed grade II*. The listing says "The concept of the design was that its hub should be the library, 'the motivating element of the Faculty'. Between its design in 1962-3 and the start of work a failed land purchase forced the building to be turned through ninety degrees, which proved problematic for the building's innovatory ventilation system. This and subsequent problems with falling tiles (accredited to the contractors) in the early 1980s ensured controversy for the building, now largely appeased."

Downing college library [Status - true]. Downing college has many classical buildings, and this looks like the rest. But it is a modern building, and if you look at the front, you will see a radio telescope among other, more traditional, academic symbols.

Downing library Downing library

3 St Marys passage [status presumably true}: St Marys Passage runs alongside Great St Marys church. 3 St Marys Passage looks as if it has 3 stories. But actually the top floor is an attic (like number 1) and the two widows either side of the centre one are dummies.

Spikey postbox

[status true}: This spiky postbox is on Riverside. I noticed that it didn't have a monarch's cypher on it (saying which reign it dated from). I posted it to the "Odd Things Around Cambridge" group on Facebook, with an explanation found online "The cylindrical design of pillar boxes arrived in 1879. Boxes manufactured by Handyside & Co between 1879 and 1887 omitted the 'VR' cypher from the front and are known as 'anonymous' boxes. The early ones up to 1883 had the aperture near the top of the box. Later ones positioned it lower down. This cypher oversight was corrected from 1887."
It has, of course, a Dinky Door by it, for converting emails to letters.
The group gave some reasons to explain the spikes:

[status - you decide!]:
I've heard that it used to be in a college, and the spikes werere to deter students climbing it after hours.
Another explanation for the spikes was to stop people using it to display their wares for sale.
I thought the spikes were to deter birds who might leave behind.... gifts.
I was told by Allan Brigham [local historian] it was next to the gasworks and it was spiked to deter people from using it to climb over the fence.
One of the tales I've heard is that the box was once positioned on Mill Road, before the road bridge over the railway was built, so there was just a level crossing at the time. The post box spikes were supposed to deter people from climbing over the gate.
The other tale I have heard that the spikes were to stop a swan sitting on there that attacked people trying to post letters.
The story I heard to explain the spikes was that there'd been a craze for people vaulting over post boxes back in the day and that this was to deter them...
[and, my favourite,]
I was told as a young impressionable child that it was to impale potential invading Germans paratroopers.

Coin marks off Mill Road [Status - true]. There is a large building on the corner of Mill Road and Covent Garden. It's becoming a Co-op, a supermarket. It used to be Sally Annie - the Salvation Army charity shop. before that it was Finefare, a supermarket. But earlier still, it was a cinema. Children used to queue down Covent Garden waiting for the film to begin, holding their entrance fee. They gouged holes in the wall with a coin, by twisting it round and round.

coin marks in Covent Garden

Footpaths in Cambridge are closed for one day of the year to prevent them becoming public rights of way [Status - true]. This is normally described for the colleges, and the day is Christmas Day, but here is photographic evidence of this happening elsewhere. This was on the gate of the Gwydir Street entrance to the Mill Road cemetery:

Closed gate to Mill Road cemetery

The notice said 2015, when it was actually 2017!

Downing gate

Above the entrance to the Downing site [Status - true]. The motton says "Hinc lucem et pucula sacra" which means "Out of here comes light and sacred draughts". The lady in the middle holds a sun and a cup to represent these. She is labelled "Alma Mater Cantabrigia", which means "Bountiful mother Cambridge". If you look carefully at her, she is indeed bountiful - she's lactating! It is the old university emblem. A book published by Cambridge U. Press in the late 1600s that has that seal on its title page, complete with milk. Source of the motto is unknown..
People used to call her Leaky Lizzie.

Downing gate

Maid's Causeway was originally called "Coarse Maids Way" because it was used by local prostitutes [Status - not exactly]. "Cambridge Street-Names" by Ronald Gray and Derek Stubbings says "A red light district existed in earlier times around Napier Street, to which Maids' Causeway led; it was renamed by some wag 'Coarse Maids Way'". So that was not the origin of the name, merely a subsequent joke.
"Down your Street" by Sara Payne says "Local legend connects the maids of the Causeway with the inhabitants of the almshouses built in 1647-8 by Elizabeth Knight at the end of King Street. But Catherine Hall, the archivist of Conville and Caius College, disposes of this theory in her article in the Cambridge Civic Society Newsletter about the street. She says that it was called the Causeway in 1634, 18 years before the Knight and Mortlock almshouses were built. Mrs Hall's theory is that hte maids were dairymaids and country-women oif all ages coming into work, or to the market, from the suburb of Barnwell or beyong. She thinks it is more probable that the Causeway, built with money left for that purpose with money left for that purpose in his will by Stephen Perse, existed mainly for the benefit of the aged poor of the town "toiling up the hill away from the amenities of shops, market and parish church".
I have a problem with this! Stephen Perse died in 1615. There is a famous Tudor map of Cambridge (click here to see it) which labels this road "Barnwell Cawsey". The map was made in 1574, well before Perse died, and showed there was already a causeway here. Perhaps Perse paid to improve it. What is more, maps carried on calling it Barnwell Causeway until 1798. Baker's map of 1830 shows this area starting to be developed. It named the part closest to the roundabout Maids Causeway. The rest of the road is called Brunswick Place and Sun Street. It seems odd that a road name in early 19C should be called after almshouses or a will in 17C!
So I have three theories, neither of which have any evidence! The area around Maids Causeway was originally called Dolls Close. They think that Doll was the name of the farmer who owned the land before it was enclosed, but perhaps it was a Cambridge joke to transfer the dolls into maids.
My second theory depends on the fact that they didn't have pretty street signs in 17C. Perhaps the street had two names. The "official" name was Barnwell Causeway, because it led to Barnwell Abbey. But many people called it Maids Causeway, because of the most famous "maids" in the vicinity - the nunnery of Saint Radegund in Jesus Lane.
My third theory is that Maids Causeway is called after the nuns, but the name was invented in early 19C by someone who knew about St Radegund, and wanted to give the modern developement a historic name. After all, Malcolm Street, also early 19C, was called after Malcolm IV of Scotland, a benefactor of the nunnery.
I disagree with the statement that this street "existed mainly for the benefit of the aged poor of the town". This road led to Newmarket! It also led to Stourbridge Fair, only there for a few weeks each year, but very busy when it was open.


When Queen Mary saw the tower of the University Library, she said "What an errection!" [Status - unknown]. The queen in the anecdote varies. Or it could be a king. Or a prime minister... You need to see the tower to understand the joke. If you still don't understand it, then it's a grown-up thing, I'm afraid.

Queen Victoria visiting Cambridge and crossing the river, saw toilet paper floating down the river due to Cambridge' inadequate drainage system. When she asked what they were, a quick-witted university don said that they were scrolls with poems in praise of the queen, written by students! [Status - unknown]. And unlikely, quite frankly. I mean to say, what if she had insisted on getting some out and rereading them? There is an alternate story that she was told that they were notices forbidden bathing, but that seems equally unlikely.

Hobson's Choice (meaning no choice) comes from Thomas Hobson, a Cambridge carrier [Status - true]. Click here for more on Hobson.

After they had discovered the secret of DNA, Crick and Watson wandered across to the Eagle, and told everyone that they had discovered the secret of life. [Status - possibly true]. Or perhaps, it ought to be true... Click here for more on Crick and Watson.

An early local politician called John Mortlock was corrupt [Status - true]. But local politicians like him for some reason! Click here for more on Mortlock.

While an undergraduate at Trinity, Lord Byron kept a bear in his rooms [Status - true]. A letter to Elizabeth Pigot, 26 October 1807 said "I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, 'he should sit for a fellowship.'" He did this out of resentment for rules forbidding pet dogs like his beloved Boatswain. There being no mention of bears in their statutes, the college authorities had no legal basis for complaining.

The master of Selwyn keeps a banned dog as a very large cat [Status - true]. Cats are allowed in the Master's Lodge but dogs were "technically" banned. However, since a Master owned a Basset hound, the college "tongue-in-cheek agreed it could stay as a large cat". See story here. There are various varions of this story in different colleges or even universities, but this version is up-to-date.

The architect of the Fitzwilliam museum died in Ely cathedral [Status - true]. From Cambridge News 24 Apr 2016: "[The Fitzwilliam Museum's] original architect, George Basevi, plunged to his death at Ely Cathedral [in 1845], falling through the floor of the bell chamber while inspecting repairs."

[Status - true] In September 1715, King George I made a gift to Cambridge University Library. John Moore, Bishop of Ely, a voracious collector of books, had died the previous summer leaving an outstanding collection of over 30,000 books and manuscripts, and George was persuaded to reward Cambridge's loyalty by presenting these volumes to the university, more than trebling the size of the library overnight. This led to a witty poem, and a riposte.

King George, observing with judicious eyes
The state of both his Universities,
To Oxford sent a troop of horse; and why?
That learned body wanted loyalty.
To Cambridge books he sent, as well discerning
How much that loyal body wanted learning.

by Joseph Trapp (of Oxford)

The king to Oxford sent a troop of horse,
For Tories know no argument but force;
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent,
For Whigs admit no force but argument.

by William Browne (of Cambridge)

Master of Trinity's hat - In a Cambridge newspaper May 14th 1904 [so status presumably true}: It is little known that the Master of Trinity College has the prerogative of remaining covered in the presence of the Sovereign and on one occasion when Queen Victoria visited Cambridge he kept his hat on. The Queen apparently did not notice the circumstances and he began to feel uncomfortable. At length he said; "Your Majesty has perhaps wondered that I should be so far lacking in respect, but Lord Kingsale in Ireland, Lord Forester in England and the Master of Trinity have a right to keep their hats on in the presence of their Sovereign". "Quite so - ahem - but not in the presence of a lady" was the Queen's freezing reply.

Thomas Gray

[status possibly true}: There is a large building, part of Peterhouse, next to Little St Marys church (the other side from Little St Marys Lane). The top window on the end has a metal bar across. This is supposed to be placed there by the poet Thomas Gray when he was in Peterhouse. He was afraid that his fellow students might set fire to the building while drunk, so he kept a rope tied to the metal bar as a fire escape.

Thomas Gray wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751. Wikipedia says that he is supposed to have changed his college from Peterhouse to Pembroke after his fellow students played a practical joke on him, by starting a small fire, which made him climb down his fire escape rope, only to fall into a tub of water that the students had placed there.

Click on the photo for a large version. The iron bar is in front of the top left window.


Yarn bombing [Status - true]. These examples were in Jesus Green, the lamp posts in the avenue, and the fence of the tennis courts. Yarn bombing tends to be temporary...

Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green

There is also yarn bombing on Jesus Lock bridge, with a more serious message. This was there Christmas 2019:

Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green

This is by the tennis courts on Jesus Green, Boxing Day 2023 (and later):

Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green Yarn bombing on Jesus Green

The Coronation of King Charles III in 2023 was celebrated by decorating the spikey letter box on Riverside. The Dinky Door by it had its own mini crown.

Yarn bombing on letter box Yarn bombing on letter box Yarn bombing on letter box

Autumn 2023, the same pillar box has a marine theme. And the Dinky miniature...

Yarn bombing on letter box Yarn bombing on letter box Yarn bombing on letter box Yarn bombing on letter box

Herons [Status - true]. From time to time, graffiti of herons appear round Cambridge.

heron graffiti heron graffiti heron graffiti

Paving stone art [Status - true]. A German artists and stonemason, Ekkehaqrd Altenburger, surreptiously installed this paving stone around 1998. Although he put it right in front of Kings College Chapel, nobody objected or tried to stop him. He said that they thought he was a council official, and the slab has been there ever since.

Paving stone art Paving stone art

Dinky doors [Status - true]. In 2019, miniature doors appeared in Cambridge. I have moved these to their own page.

Decorations on the outside of a pub [Status - true]. This is (was!) called dArry, and is in King Street, near the bend, opposite the back of Sidney Sussex college. The painted short side is round the corner from the main front. The traffic cones seem permanent, rather than the usual student prank. Presumably they are a substitute for a hanging basket of flowers.

dArry decoration dArry decoration

Cloud pictures [Status - true]. From time to time, cloud pictures appear round Cambridge. These were made on St Valentine's Day 2019, near the Elizabeth Way roundabout:

cloud heart cloud heart cloud hearts cloud smile

The Town Musicians of Bremen [Status - story, but the sign is there!]. This sign is for a vet in Clarendon Street. here is the story:

A donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster (or hen), all past their prime years in life and usefulness on their respective farms, were soon to be discarded or mistreated by their masters. One by one, they leave their homes and set out together. They decide to go to Bremen, known for its freedom, to live without owners and become musicians there ("Something better than death we can find anywhere").

On the way to Bremen, they see a lighted cottage; they look inside and see four robbers enjoying their ill-gotten gains. Standing on each other's backs, they decide to scare the robbers away by making a din; the men run for their lives, not knowing what the strange sound is. The animals take possession of the house, eat a good meal, and settle in for the evening.

Later that night, the robbers return and send one of their members in to investigate. He sees the Cat's eyes shining in the darkness and the robber thinks he is seeing the coals of the fire. He reaches over to light his candle. Things happen in quick succession; the Cat scratches his face with her claws, the Dog bites him on the leg, the Donkey kicks him with his hooves, and the Rooster crows and chases him out the door, screaming. He tells his companions that he was beset by a horrible witch who scratched him with her long fingernails (the Cat), a man with a knife (the Dog), a black monster who had hit him with a club (the Donkey), and worst of all, the judge who screamed from the rooftop (the Rooster). The robbers abandon the cottage to the strange creatures who have taken it, where the animals live happily for the rest of their days.

The Town Musicians of Bremen

Stories told on punt tours

Click here for a splendid collection of legends told on the Cam by punt tours. None of them are true. I knew some already:

The sphere on Clare College Bridge is incomplete because the architect was not paid in full so he held the missing segment hostage while waiting to be paid and he never was. (This is one of the balls decorating the bridge. It's certainly true that a bit is missing from one. It's the kind of thing in Cambridge that once it happens, it gets left, especically if there are good stories about it. See Henry VIII's chair leg.)

You can walk to Oxford on land owned solely by Trinity College. (The college varies. I also heard that you could walk back again on land owned by some Oxford college, name also varies. It's certainly true that the colleges still own a lot of land. Cambridge Science Park is on Trinity land, and St John's Innovation park is on land owned by ...)

Isaac Newton built the Mathematical Bridge without any bolts but it had to be taken apart and when it was reconstructed the builders could not work out how to put it back together so added the bolts. The Mathematical Bridge was built after Newton died, and the current one is the third version, built in 1902.)

My favourite of the remainder are:

The sphere on Clare College Bridge is unfinished because it keeps the entire bridge unfinished and therefore exempt from taxes.

Isaac Newton built the Mathematical Bridge without any bolts but then discovered gravity, realised the bridge was mathematically impossible so returned and added them in.

King's College Bridge is the only place in the UK that it is still legal to duel.