Monday, 7 November 2016

A Weekend in Cambridge

In a bid to sometimes look a little closer to home for travel inspiration, I've been ticking off lots of locations in the UK on my travel bucket list. Cambridge has been languishing on the list for a while, but being somewhat awkward to get to from Bristol, it kind of got shunted down the list in favour of other, more accessible places to visit on a weekend. But we finally committed to the four hour drive and booked a break in the city for half term, spurred on by the temptation of a visit to the mythical Gloucester Services en route and the romantic notion of punting on the river Cam in the autumn sunshine.



There's a lot to be said for hauling your tired ass out of bed early on a Saturday to get a head start on the traffic and choosing your route carefully; we were on the road by 8am and opted for a traverse through the Midlands and down the other side which worked out pretty well. After a breakfast pit-stop at the aforementioned services - seriously, you HAVE to visit this place; it really is very special - we pulled up at our hotel just in time for lunch.


When it comes to budget friendly, totally adequate accommodation for a short break, I don't think you can fault a Premier Inn or Travelodge. Yes, the quality can vary and we've stayed at good ones and not so great ones over the years but when you get a good 'un they can't really be beaten for providing spacious, comfortable and convenient city break accommodation.


We stayed at the Cambridge Leisure Park hotel, located within a pleasant complex comprising shops, chain restaurants, a cinema and the Cambridge Junction music venue - I'll admit that I had a middle aged moment on realising our hotel's proximity to said establishment, but we didn't hear any noisy disturbances during our stay. But it's worth bearing in mind that due to the central location of many Travelodge/Premier Inn sites, noise can be a factor - we found this particularly true of the Travelodge in Windsor; great location but there is definitely a 'noisy' side. It's always worth requesting a quiet room when you book. 


Located about 15 minutes walk from the centre of town and with parking available across the road at discounted rates, we were able to offload our luggage and hot foot it into town with ease; there's also a frequent bus service that stops outside the hotel, taking in the train station before dropping you off in the heart of the city. 


Compact and easy to get around, we started our exploration with a wander through some of the main colleges, soaking up the inimitable vibe of this historic university town. You can certainly feel the weight of all the big brains that have found a home in the town's beautiful and atmospheric colleges. I have to say I was harbouring a hope that being immersed in academia for the weekend might up my IQ level by some form of osmosis, but I came away feeling like I really should read all those classic books I've been meaning to read one day, and finally get someone to explain the theory of relativity to me.


You can wander into many of the colleges free of charge, but be aware that on graduation days not all of the colleges are open to the public. We took a stroll through several, including Christ's, Emmanuel, Magdalene and Queen's. Some of the bigger ones, such as Trinity and Corpus Christi, charge entrance fees, plus you'll have to pay to take a look around King's College Chapel.

We also enjoyed just following our nose a bit, stumbling upon pretty Georgian terraces and picturesque squares. The area around Bridge Street makes for a pleasant wander, and we enjoyed admiring the quirky buildings around the Backs. 



No one goes to Cambridge without taking to the water at some point during their visit, but be prepared to shell out a few quid to experience the institution that is punting. We were quite shocked by the price for a 45 minute escorted tour along the river - yes, you do get to hear the history of the colleges as you glide by and you don't run the very real risk of falling in the water as you do if you're the one punting, but the price for a family of four was prohibitive for us. 

So, deftly handing the mantle of punt operator to the other half, we took on the challenge of an hour's self-guided voyage up the river. It was half the price of a tour and hugely enjoyable (well, I enjoyed it, reclining in the boat, taking in the glorious scenery; the other half's experience was perhaps not quite so relaxing.)



It's the quintessential Cambridge experience and a lovely thing to do in the sunshine, taking in highlights such as the stunning King's College, Wren Library and Bridge of Sighs...not to be missed.

Cambridge has great shops too, but we didn't really explore that side of the city, save for visits to some of the city's bookshops - don't miss Heffers if you like nothing better than spending an afternoon inhaling that lovely new book smell and generally gazing at floor to ceiling book shelves. Heffers has that particularly special vibe you get at independent-style book stores and also sells some wonderful gifts, games and other nice stuff.


As you'd expect from a university town, there are myriad options when it comes to eating out. Keeping to our budget requirements, we had brought our handy Tesco Clubcard tokens to give us two free meals out during out stay, so we were confined to the perfectly satisfactory but rather pedestrian options of Pizza Express and Cafe Rouge. You'll find all the other big restaurant chains too, as well as plenty of cute cafes and the must-visit Fitzbillies, a Cambridge institution with queues out the door and legendary Chelsea buns - we took a box away to enjoy on our drive home.



So, that's Cambridge, Hay on Wye, Harrogate and Edinburgh crossed off the UK bucket list now...but where to next? I'd love to hear your suggestions for must-see places to visit in the UK - feel free to leave me a recommendation in the comments box. 




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