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!

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

Auston 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House Auston 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House Auston 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House Auston 7 on roof of Cambridge Senate House

Auston 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

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.

Pumpkins on Old Schools

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

Pumpkins on Old Schools

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 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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

There is a locked room in the Old Cavendish labs, where no-one can enter, because it's where Rutherford split the atom, and it's still radio-active [Status - probably false].

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 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.

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."

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."

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!

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

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

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

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

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 pesumably 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.

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.