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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Cambridge


On arrival, Cambridge is everything that you expect. Its streets are cobbled and winding, its buildings stone and ornate, and its people youthful and bustling. Long lines of commuting bicycles whizz past, posters for events are hung and stuck on walls and railings, and come evening merrymakers stumble out of old wooden doors and cosy pubs.

Punt going past King's College Cambridge

The University's Influence

If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might even glimpse famous sights such as King’s College School Choristers walking two-by-two in top hats, gowns, and purple jackets, or undergraduates jubilantly processing through the city to Senate House to graduate in black gowns, hoods, and mortarboards.

Cambridge's Multifaceted Charm

Yet there are many other sides to this small university city. Stroll from the station along the multicultural Mill Road and you’ll smell a feast of global cuisine. Walk on further and you’ll experience the tranquillity that Cambridge has to offer: follow the River Cam and meander through the lush grass of Lammas Land and Coe Fen in the south, before the Backs bring you alongside many of the old university colleges, and then Jesus Green and Midsummer Common, which take you up north where the rowers glide across the water.

The Legacy of the Red Polls

Most of this grassland is grazed upon by friendly cows. These Red Polls are entitled to munch upon the commons, a right that used to be widespread until the modern era and one that Cantabrigians are fiercely proud of. In these bucolic green spaces, along the waterway and amongst bovine companions, are the modern inhabitants of the city: the coffee-drinkers, joggers, and picnickers on flat-bottomed punts.

The Significance of Water

In fact, water has always been central to the history of Cambridge. Approaching the city by road takes you past the level, low-lying land and maze of watercourses known as the Fenlands (or Fens). It’s a naturally marshy ecosystem, rich in biodiversity though liable to flooding compared to the surrounding chalk and limestone uplands.

Ancient Settlements and the Fenlands

Since the first settlements some 3,500 years ago, locals have fought with the wetlands and attempts to tame and drain the rivers and creeks began with the ancient Romans in the 1st century and continued up to the industrial era in the 19th century. The Romans settled on Castle Hill, next to a river that passed through the Fens. Fenlanders built settlements on broad banks of silt and islands of peat, the largest of which was called Ely, the Isle of Eels, whose glorious cathedral was part of the Fen Five medieval monasteries.

Cambridge's Evolution

But while the Romans had built a causeway linking Cambridge to Ely, it was far easier to travel by the river, and with trade routes to the north of England and the European Continent, this made Cambridge an ideally situated inland port just 80 kilometres from London on the road to York. The market town gained the suffix ‘bridge’ as it was the last stop before the sea, but the river was originally called the Granta. Cambridge’s name in fact altered over centuries from the Anglo-Saxon Granta-brycge into Cambridge, and uniquely, the river was renamed the Cam in honour of the city.

Invasions and Constructions

Vikings used and expanded the river route after their invasion in the 9th century, building wharves, merchant houses, and a mint. They were followed by the Normans in the 11th century, who constructed a castle on the hill, though only the mound remains.

Cambridge's Steady Growth

Though suffering at various times across history from fire, plague, and flooding, the city’s story is generally one of steadily increasing prosperity. Its coat of arms succinctly captures its origin story: two sea horses support a bridge in the form of a castle which arches above three ships with furled sails. It was a city that bridged not just the river, but also the seemingly unnavigable Fens, and connected England to the world.

The Birth of Cambridge University

With the arrival of migrant scholars in 1209, the city’s architecture and rhythm subsequently became dominated by the university and the appearance of its many colleges, beginning in 1284 with Peterhouse, founded by the Bishop of Ely.

Modern Cambridge: A Hub of Innovation

The city’s past and future is intimately entwined with Cambridge University, making it a vibrant place to live and work today. Links with academic research have blossomed into industry. To the south is the internationally renowned Addenbrooke’s Hospital, a teaching hospital and major centre for trauma and neurological intensive care, as well as the Biomedical Campus, one of the largest research clusters in the world. While to the north is Silicon Fen, a collection of jostling high-tech software, electronics, and biotechnology companies, that boasts more than 5,000 firms – including Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon – and a revenue of more than £15 billion. Cambridge may be more recognisable for its brick chimneys and dining halls for now, but who knows what the future holds.

Set your own pace and explore the iconic sights with our self-guided audio tours of Cambridge.


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