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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of The Backs in Cambridge

What is The Backs?

The Backs is a stretch of riverside land in Cambridge that offers scenic views of some famous university buildings.

View of King's College from The backs

The Backs History

The Backs is the area running behind a number of famous central colleges and buildings, alongside the River Cam. It offers perhaps the single most recognisable view of the city: this vista graces countless photographs and paintings of the university, and the wide lawns and majestic silhouettes of the Backs can arguably best be appreciated either from a punt (a long, flat-bottomed boat) or from one of the public footpaths lining the opposite bank of the river. The Cam is crossed by a number of bridges along the Backs, with some open to the public and others accessible only to members of the associated college. St John’s Bridge of Sighs and Queens’ Mathematical Bridge are particularly famous examples, but don’t despair too much if you find visitors barred – many students at other Cambridge colleges have received the same treatment!

The stretches of college land that comprise the modern Backs were originally reclaimed from an important commercial section of the river, and were historically used for grazing livestock and cultivating produce. An abandoned 18th-century project would have turned the area into a lake, but in the modern period the various colleges have generally kept their land on the Backs open, in recognition of the aesthetic value of the area. More recently, colleges have experimented with the somewhat controversial practice of allowing the usually immaculate lawns to grow into more environmentally friendly meadows, and plans are under consideration that would create a wildlife corridor in the area as well. The Backs has not entirely lost its traditional character, though. It’s far from uncommon to see cattle grazing on the college lawns here, an especially curious sight when juxtaposed with the grand old buildings in the background.

This area is another gem for those interested in exploring Cambridge on foot and offers some of the best views of the river available to the public anywhere in the city. The area is generally far less crowded than King’s Parade on the other side of the colleges, and from the riverside the main buildings of these historic institutions can be fully appreciated.

Digging deeper into the history of The Backs, in the 16th century, this space primarily consisted of pastures, gardens, and orchards owned by the university colleges. These serene scenes of The Backs were dramatically transformed following a consultation in 1772 with English landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown, who developed a 'wilderness' on the college side of Queen's Road, a unique attribute that endures to this day.

A significant plan was proposed by Brown in 1779 to convert The Backs into a country-house style parkland, centered on King's College's Gibbs Building. However, this plan, which involved the removal of college boundaries, morphing the river into a lake, and planting trees to screen the other colleges, was never realized.

The Backs faced a considerable challenge in 1979, when numerous elm trees succumbed to Dutch elm disease. The Backs Committee was formed to manage this issue and maintain the landscape. Despite their cease of operations in 1994, their work was instrumental in preserving The Backs' beauty for future generations. Recognizing its historical significance, English Heritage listed The Backs as a Grade 1 Historic Park in 1995. Despite numerous changes and challenges, The Backs remains an iconic piece of Cambridge and stands as a tribute to the city's rich history.

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