The Wren Library is bright, despite its complete lack of electric lighting. Even on this cloudy day, its huge glass windows allow more than enough sunshine in for the eight or so researchers and librarians lucky enough to work here, and the fifteen visitors allowed in at a time. It smells of old books, of leather and parchment, of culture, of knowledge, of power.

Wren Library from the outside, as no photos are allowed inside the building.

Here is a collection of wisdom perhaps unmatched on the planet, and while I am not allowed to explore the shelves, the display cases house a rotating exhibit of some of the library’s highlights. I smile at a first folio of Shakespeare, one of 234 in the world. I get goosebumps at the handwritten manuscript of Winnie the Pooh. And I get chills at the first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia with his handwritten notations in the margins, edits to be made for the second edition the following year.

So many greats have been memorialized here in this town, one of the most prestigious in the world, home of Nobel laureates and poets, philosophers and world leaders. This is Cambridge.

Literally meaning a bridge over the River Cam, Cambridge existed as a river port from ancient times, founded by the Romans in the year 70. Its location on a wide river (today it is narrow and shallow) meant ships could sail to the middle of what became England, convenient for trade. However, Cambridge’s status as a center of learning didn’t begin until 1209 when the first students arrived, overflow from Oxford.

In 1284, Peterhouse was founded as the first college in Cambridge. (Today there are 31 colleges containing roughly 21,000 students under the umbrella of Cambridge University.) Clare and Pembroke, colleges two and three, were founded by women, though it wasn’t until the 1860s that women were allowed to attend, and not until 1948 that the university allowed women to graduate, a source of shame to this day.

Gonville and Caius College

There are really two ways to see Cambridge today. One is via punting on the Cam, either with a guide who is experienced both in the city and in punting (basically guiding a small boat with a pole), or via a walking tour. I opted for the latter, and signed up for a free (tips are of course greatly appreciated) tour through Footprints. Lasting about two hours, our guide Sonya took us through the highlights of the city, all the while explaining much of the history and some fascinatingly funny tidbits. For instance, she explained that there are two types of spikes on many of the towers around the college campuses. Those pointed up are to prevent birds from landing and discoloring the stone. Those facing down are to discourage the student climbing clubs from practicing their art – although the towers of the King’s College Chapel were topped with both orange traffic cones and Santa hats in recent years anyway.

Punting on the River Cam

The University is a bit unlike what we know in the United States. Sonya explains that applicants to Cambridge apply to a specific college. Should they not be accepted, they can be put back into the “system” and selected by another college. Failing that, they don’t get into Cambridge. Each student in a given college lives with his/her fellow college-mates, eats there, has a faculty mentor there, but takes classes at his/her department campus elsewhere in the city. (Faculty, conversely, can either be part of a department, a college, or both.) Grades also, are a bit different, being posted publicly on the side of a building or, in the case of the math department, being shouted out loud from a balcony. What a chilling experience!

College campuses are, for the most part, not open to the public. For many, this means a fully closed campus; for others, it means a purchased ticket can get you in. Our tour looked into several colleges to give us an idea of what they would consist of, and I was astonished at how much they really are a blend of old and new. Sometimes there is a stark dividing line, as the Cam is for Queens’ College (plural since it was founded and funded by multiple queens).

The new and old halves of Queens’ College

Visiting the Wren Library got me onto a small portion of the Trinity College campus, a stunning lawn flanked by old buildings along the river. Trinity was founded by Henry VIII in 1540, and the land grant to fund it (colleges were given land to lease to provide for funding) was so large that today Trinity is a top ten landowner in the UK. (A couple other colleges both here and at Oxford join it, along with the Church and Royal Family.)

Trinity is perhaps most famous for Sir Isaac Newton, who came here in 1661. The window of his room is visible from the front entrance of the college – and Sonya of course pointed it out – along with an apple tree planted from seeds from the famed one of his “discovering” of gravity. Newton revolutionized education, and from then on, math and science became the focus, rather than Latin, classics, and theology.

Unable to get in for free – unless I wanted to attend a religious service at the chapel – I did pay £9 to enter King’s College and visit the famous chapel there. Founded in 1441 by Henry VI before he had a rather untimely end leading to the War of the Roses, the college itself contains broad lawns and a collection of lovely old buildings, but the highlight is the chapel, which was ultimately built by six different kings.

King’s College

The inside is stunning, with incredible stained glass that survived both the Reformation and Oliver Cromwell, a rare thing indeed. An amazing vaulted ceiling that can rival any cathedral holds up the roof, and side chapels contain exhibits on the history and construction of the place. While I hate paying entry for religious sites, it was well worth the price.

The interior of King’s College Chapel

Our tour ends shortly after we visit what was the home of Cavendish Laboratory from 1874-1974. (It now has a new larger site in West Cambridge.) It seems so many of the world’s top scientists came here at one time or another, and the place totals 22 Nobel prizes over those years. Even some of the local pubs advertise which scientists celebrated which discoveries with a pint at their establishment.

Cavendish Laboratory

It’s hard to put into words how amazing it is to be in the presence of such a place, a city built around knowledge and learning (after a time as a river port, of course). Old castle-esque college campuses from centuries past sit alongside state-of-the-art modern facilities, but all for that same basic purpose. Cambridge is what a college town is at its essence, celebrating those who have come before, encouraging those who will come after, and inspiring visitors who just want to bask in the radiance of the best minds in history.

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