Filmed Tours of Cambridge

Discovering Cambridge

If you come to Cambridge, the first thing you will see is the town. You can walk around this ancient market town and if you get away from the busy market and tourist crowded fronts of the Colleges, you can discover some ancient streets where, especially in the evening, you can have a sense of how this town and its colleges must have felt over the centuries.

You will probably then go to the other side of the river to the backs of the Colleges and where there is arguably one of the most beautiful walks in the world along the "Backs". One way to see its many Colleges and stately buildings is from a high place. You might go up St Mary’s Church tower, but as a Fellow of King’s I can take you onto the roof of the famous Chapel of King’s College, from where you can look in all directions across the river, lawns and buildings.

Cambridge is such a maze that it often confuses visitors who ask "where is Cambridge University?" As there is no real centre or centralised administration, it is impossible to answer this, as many an exasperated taxi driver knows, dropping a visitor at the front of King’s College or near the Senate House. Nor is it easy to describe how it originated and how Cambridge works, for one has had to be at the centre of College and University life for at least ten years before the ancient machinery of power and delegated authority begins to become clear.

It is particularly difficult to understand because there are two parallel systems, the University and the Colleges, and very few people find it easy to see how they work together. You may also wonder in what ways are Oxford and Cambridge different from each other? Another question that may come into your mind is the relationship between the "town and gown", city and university

History and change

Cambridge is difficult to understand because it is so old (over 800 years as a University) and because the new is built over the old. Much changes, but much remains the same. By visiting it you have the pleasure of being in an old city. It was already over three hundred years old, for example, when it became the cradle of English Protestantism .
I have tried to explain this in various ways: How Cambridge University changes all the time – yet remains the same, or again Why Cambridge changed and yet remained the same. Sometimes I try to explain it as spiralling time in Cambridge, particularly when climbing to the roof of King’s and reflecting on time. At other times I think about the relationship with the river, reflecting on willows, change and Cambridge University.

The Backs, gardens and buildings

I have already given a brief introduction to the Backs of the Colleges, which are such a central feature of the University, contributing to relaxation and creativity at Cambridge. From the Backs you will see buildings which date from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, and the something of the diversity is explained in Cambridge University and College architecture from the Backs. Certainly, at almost any time of year, you will see the river filled with ‘punts’, though you may not know that punting is less than a hundred years old on this part of the River Cam.

Ghosts, pokers, vaults and hidden men

There is an outside world of Cambridge, but most of its treasures are hidden from visitors. Perhaps I can show you a few which I have found over the years and reveal to friends and students. Firstly there is the space above the famous fan vaulted ceiling in King’s College chapel, below the external roof, so we can go inside the roof of King’s College Chapel. Also in King's, at a meeting of the Philosophical Society, Ludwig Wittgenstein, apparently had a violent argument, and tried to strike another philosopher, Karl Popper, with a poker. This event was described in a book, 'Wittgenstein's Poker' but the poker itself was lost for several years. A Provost of King’s who was not only a great cataloguer of medieval manuscripts but wrote some of the most spine-chilling ghost stories in the English language was M.R. James. In fact Cambridge is filled with the ghosts of famous people, and they still influence present teaching and research, so it is worth remembering ghosts and great ideas in Cambridge. Many of the secrets are hidden by walls and privacy, others are hidden because people do not know they are there. An example which anyone can visit but few know about is Anthony Gormley’s buried man in Cambridge.

Colleges, clubs and conversations

The most distinctive and unusual feature of Cambridge, like Oxford, are the old Colleges. You can walk around some of these (often for a fee), but are unlikely to learn much about how they work or be allowed into their deeper recesses. It is worth explaining a little bit about them. If you want a general overview of one College, then there is a tour of King’s College. You may however like to look at different aspects of the College in shorter films.
It is worth trying to explain an institution which almost everyone finds really anomalous, a medieval community in the modern world. Here is one attempt to explain them: The nature of Civil Society and Trusts and trust. And here is another: Cambridge as a club.

The Colleges all have large dining halls in which the portraits of certain memorable people have been hung on the wall, like a Chinese ancestor hall: Ancestor Halls of Cambridge. These halls are where the dinners (something like Hogwarts in Harry Potter, filmed in an Oxford dining hall) take place. Eating together is a form of communication and central to the system: The role of eating together in Colleges and clubs. After particular dinners, the Fellows of the College and their guests may retire to have dessert and wine, and here ideas are freely exchanged and friendship is deepened by wine and conversations. Indeed eating and drinking are central to the most important part of life as I try to explain in beer and friendship. Such conversations in the many pubs and coffee shops around the city centre have often led to great ideas in Cambridge.

The most important point is that Colleges consist of people from many different disciplines which is shown in the room where they ‘combine’ for conversation and before meals, called a Combination Room (or Common Room in Oxford). To understand them is to start to enter into the mysteries of the system as I try to explain in Cambridge Combination Rooms and how they work. That in King’s College is filled with portraits and memories of deceased Fellows, including one of the most important economists of recent history: John Maynard Keynes at King’s College.
So if one is trying to understand the unusual intellectual creativity of Cambridge over the centuries, much of it lies in the preservation of this College system, which is equally important for the students as a place to feel part of a community. So it is worth understanding the relationship between intellectual creativity and the College system in Oxbridge.

Although it looks a static, conservative and elitist kind of system, it is constantly changing, adapting and in many ways dynamic. This can be seen from a film about King’s College made in 1984 by a Cambridge student, Sofka Zinovieff. The Cambridge portrayed already looks old and one realises how much has changed – and yet remained the same: Fragments of King’s.

Intellectual resources in Cambridge

Because of its long history, wealth and intellectual eminence, the Colleges and University provide impressive resources for those who visit and study there. You might like to go on a longer tour of Cambridge: laboratories, libraries and museums. Or look at museums in Cambridge University and their role. It is even richer in terms of libraries, combining the University Library, College libraries and Faculty and Department libraries, as well as area studies libraries. In order to understand the last categories, and how Cambridge is organised for teaching and research, it is worth knowing a little about how Faculties and Departments are arranged.

Science and Technology in Cambridge

Cambridge has long been the most important academic centre for science in the world, with its more than 80 Nobel prize winners and figures such as Newton, Darwin, Crick and Watson and Stephen Hawking associated with it.
As a consequence the Cambridge tourist board organises free science walks round the city, the laboratories and the Colleges. You might like to join one. I went with a professional tour guide, Susan Francis, round the University and then round some Colleges.

The most famous centre for science from the later nineteenth century through to the 1970s was the Old Cavendish Laboratory where many of the fundamental break-throughs, from the discovery of electrons and the first splitting of the atom, through to the elucidation of DNA, occurred. Simon Schaffer is the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge and works in the Old Cavendish building. He explains what happened from the origins through to the move away to the New Cavendish. In a first tour he talks outside the Old Cavendish Laboratory about the Founding, Maxwell, Rayleigh, and Bragg. He then goes inside the building and talks about the era from Rutherford through to the discovery of pulsars and modern computing. If you want to see smaller parts there is a short outline of computing in Cambridge and a short history of astronomy in Cambridge.

I am not an expert, but have tried to explain a few of the moments of the history of science in Cambridge and aspects of its development, to visitors. Here are a few short films on the subject, which I hope may be roughly right, if not always precisely so. Starting with another visit to the Old Cavendish which overlaps with Simon Schaffer’s tour, but this time in the company of the Nobel prize winning astronomer Antony Hewish. I had the privilege of working for many years in one of the rooms which had been part of the Old Cavendish astronomy territory. Many of those who worked in this building, including Rutherford, used to take the lift up to the top of the building. Although it is a rough introduction it is worth mentioning some of the stories I heard about DNA, pulsars, atoms and science in Cambridge. Famously, it was in the Eagle pub in Cambridge where Crick announced the discovery of DNA. There are many other important discoveries and areas of work. One is in biology and zoology and is associated with Charles Darwin. Another is the pioneering collaborative work by Robert Edwards on in vitro fertilisation. Another is the site of the technology that more than almost anything else has changed the world, and where I witnessed the modern revolution in computing. Very briefly, it is worth thinking about Babbage, Turing and Wilkes: history of computing in Cambridge. My own collaborations with multimedia experts is part of the interdisciplinary work which is behind the projects that I have done. Widening out again, Cambridge has been particularly famous since the days of Newton, described in Isaac Newton and blue skies research, on the nature of thinking on a grand scale which was allowed by the protection of a great university. It has sheltered and supported many brilliant minds, one of the most strange of whom, the man who unified Einstein and quantum theory in one equation, is described in Paul Dirac, his equation and his radio.

Students at Cambridge

Cambridge is above all a teaching institution. This is how it began and how it contributes to the world. At the heart of the system is a supervision system which dates from the founding of the University which creates an intensity of teaching which, when it works, is unsurpassed. Few understand the origins, nature and purpose of the supervision system. Not only is Cambridge distinctive for teaching, in the eighteenth century it devised the modern examination system. The method of examining is worth understanding for all those contemplating studying in Cambridge, how they began and how they work.

One feature in the wider context of teaching is the historically intellectually free atmosphere of the University, where for centuries the challenging of accepted ideas has been important. This distinctive feature of academic responsibilities and freedom is a central part of life in Cambridge.

Another feature is that the students live in the Colleges or in hostels nearby, and this gives them an integrated social and intellectual life, so it is worth noting how students live in Cambridge. Because of its high reputation, beauty, and the teaching system, many people would like to come to Cambridge, and though this is now no doubt a little out of date, it is perhaps noting something on foreign student admissions to Cambridge.

Xu Zhimo

Most of this description is the view from the inside of Cambridge. It is refreshing to end the other way round, by considering briefly the visit in 1921-22 of one of China’s most famous poets, Xu Zhimo. I was involved in the placing of a memorial stone at King’s College and am currently designated as the ‘Keeper of the Stone’, so here are four short films in relation to him, explaining why the stone is here. The first shows the installation of the stone in 2008. In the other films I reflect on Xu Zhimo, King's College and Cambridge: Xu Zhimo’s stone by King’s College Bridge, The bridges of Cambridge and Xu Zhimo and Xu Zhimo’s willow tree and ‘Saying Goodbye to Cambridge’.