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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge

What is the Bridge of Sighs?

The Bridge of Sighs is a famous Cambridge landmark built in the 1830s and named after a bridge in Venice.

bridge of sighs cambridge

Bridge of Sighs History

This is one of the most beautiful and iconic architectural landmarks in Cambridge. Named after the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (or ‘Bridge of Sighs’) in Venice, the crossing links the campus buildings of St John’s College, which traverse two sides of the River Cam. The bridge is distinctively neo-Gothic in style, representing a classic example of Victorian architecture. When viewed from the comfort of a river punt on a sunny day, it’s a striking and remarkable sight.

St John’s College had been established for more than three centuries when the construction of the bridge took place in 1831. The buildings that the bridge now runs between (what the college calls ‘New Court’) did not in fact exist until the mid-1800s. Before then, all of the Cambridge colleges had their grounds on the east side of the river, and the creation of the bridge marked a new era in the university’s development. This was the first time a college had expanded onto the west bank of the river, moving into the verdant space now known as the Backs. St John’s New Court was designed in 1827 by Henry Hutchinson, an architect who keenly subscribed to the then fashionable neo-Gothic style. You can see evidence of this in the features of the bridge, such as its pointed arches, ornamental stonework, and the antennae-like finials which stick out above the bridge. Though beautiful and grand features in themselves, the finials also serve a practical purpose: they are designed to discourage misbehaving students from climbing on top of the bridge.

This, however, did not entirely prevent students from finding ways to make mischief on the bridge. In fact, on two separate occasions in the 1960s, students pranked the college by suspending a car beneath the crossing. Though the bridge survived both incidents, it’s likely that the students, themselves, got suspended!

We turn now to the question of why this is called the ‘Bridge of Sighs’. While its nickname derives from that of another well-known bridge in Italy, the Cambridge version does not bear any significant resemblance to its namesake. It’s thought that the student-given title relates more to the experience of punting beneath it, than it does to the bridge’s appearance. Indeed, when passing under the gorgeous archways, between the mighty structures of St John’s College which lie either side of the riverbank, one is certainly put in mind of gliding along the narrow waterways of Venice, if only for a brief moment.

You may recognise the Bridge of Sighs from a number of Hollywood movies. For example, it features in the 2014 biopic of the Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, as well the 2007 Elizabethan period drama, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The bridge was also used as a filming location for the video for Pink Floyd’s hit 1990s single ‘High Hopes’. The iconic Victorian bridge was also, reportedly, Queen Victoria’s favourite place in the whole city. Who knows, it might even become yours too.

Dive deep into the city’s rich history with our comprehensive Cambridge audio tour.


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