Walks index

Stories of Cambridge

Cambridge seems to attract stories. A good Cambridge story is fun, and oesn'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 at jo.edkins.walks@gwydir.demon.co.uk 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

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

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!

Senate House Hill
Senate House Hill
Market Hill
Market Hill
Peas Hill
Peas Hill

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 scratched on (it used to be neatly 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.

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!

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)

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.