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England’s Cambridge University

Cambridge, England

Cambridge University is mixed thoughtfully into the charming town by the same name. With illustrious alumni ranging from Isaac Newton to Prince Charles, history everywhere, and romantic gardens lining its river, it’s the epitome of a venerable English university.

Complete Video Script

Cambridge is famous for its prestigious university, and it’s the epitome of a university town, with stately colleges, and distinguished alumni ranging from Isaac Newton to Prince Charles. Proud locals love to say: DNA was first modeled just over there, the electron was discovered in that very lab, and the atom was first split just up there.

The university dominates — and owns — most of Cambridge, a historic town of about 120,000 people. It’s compact and everything’s within a pleasant walk. The town is built along the sleepy Cam River, which is lined with esteemed colleges. And fronting the colleges is the main street, with most of the commercial energy.

As you stroll notice how peaceful the town is. Lots of bikes weaving through lots of pedestrians.

Your sightseeing revolves around the school, its traditions, and [its] quirky spirit. For example, this clock was unveiled by the late Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking. The grotesque grasshopper that relentlessly pulls time forward periodically winks at passersby. The message? Time is passing, so live every moment to the fullest.

England’s greatest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, have been rivals since the 1300s. We’ll visit Oxford later. Each has the same basic heritage and design — no main campus; instead, the many colleges are scattered throughout the charming town center.

By catching one of the many guided town walks, you get an insider’s look at an urban mix of what locals call “town and gown.”

Guide: In medieval Europe, it was the church that was in charge of higher education. And here in Cambridge we have 31 colleges — all with the same design: You have a beautiful green court; set around the court are the buildings where the students eat, sleep, pray, and study.

Many colleges welcome the public to browse around. At their historic front gates, you’ll find a porter’s lodge. The porter delivers mail, monitors who comes and goes, and keeps people off the grass.

Colleges have centuries of heritage, and you feel that in their exquisite libraries. Here in Corpus Christi’s Parker Library, that college’s literary treasures are proudly on display, such as letters from Anne Boleyn (before husband Henry VIII lopped off her head), and a first edition of Newton’s groundbreaking treatise, Principia Mathematica.

The exclusive putting-green quality of the courtyard lawns is a huge deal here — generally only senior professors can walk on the “courts,” the centerpiece of each college campus.

One of the powerhouse colleges at Cambridge is King’s [College], which has a central courtyard to match its esteemed reputation.

The 500-year-old King’s College Chapel, built by Henrys VI through VIII, is England’s best surviving example of late Gothic architecture — with its emphasis on vertical lines, it’s called “Perpendicular Gothic.” This is the most impressive building in Cambridge, with the largest single span of vaulted roof anywhere — 2.,000 tons of glorious fan vaulting. Here, you can enjoy the most complete collection of original 16th-century, Renaissance stained glass in existence. With the help of this closed captioning — handy if you can read Latin — you can wander through the entire Bible. And the Adoration of the Magi, a masterpiece by Rubens, adorns the altar.

Trinity College, just next door, was founded in 1546 by Henry VIII. It’s the richest and biggest in town. Cambridge has produced nearly a hundred Nobel Prize winners. And about a third of them were Trinity graduates.

The great mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, who both studied and taught at Trinity, famously clapped his hands and timed the echo to calculate the speed of sound. Huh…1,120 feet per second…or…761 miles per hour — at this altitude.

The colleges that face the Cam River each have garden-like backyards that combine to make the riverbank feel like a lush and exclusive park.

A beloved Cambridge tradition is a romantic and graceful glide past these colleges in a traditional flat-bottomed punt. Skilled locals make the ride look effortless.

Guide: So, this is Trinity College, and this is the Wren Library.

You can hire a boat to enjoy a witty narration by a student as you’re poled past fine college architecture.

Guide: Yeah, these are called the “Backs” — the backs of the river. There’s eight colleges along the river. And, so this area is called the Backs because, quite simply, it’s the back of those colleges. The only way you can see the backs of these colleges is along the river, so the best way to see the backs of all the colleges is by punting.

Or, for a little levity and probably more exercise than you really want, why not rent one yourself? The punts are tougher to maneuver than they look.