We were officially allowed to travel within the UK again when lockdown restrictions eased on 12 April. I was in no rush to go anywhere; I love London, and all I really wanted to do was go to a pub and see my friends again. But once the pub novelty started to wear off and my friends made other plans, I felt a need to get out of the city and travel again. So I booked myself a quick and easy trip to Cambridge for the first day of a three-day weekend at the end of May.
That Saturday started off rather poorly. Just the day before, I’d had a flat tire replaced on my bike for the second time in a week – so as I hopped on my bike to get to King’s Cross station, I was paranoid it would happen again. Sure enough, I had only just made it to Hyde Park when Harvey started making some funny noises. I kept telling myself, “This can’t be real,” but it was. The back tire that had been fixed the day before easily gave way as I tested how full of air it was. I tried to at least make it to Oxford Street by standing and pedaling, but Harvey’s clanging wheel sounded like cries of pain, and I had to dismount and walk/run the rest of the way to the station.
Thank goodness I had left early enough to walk the rest of the way to King’s Cross and still grab breakfast. But as the train pulled out of the station, I had a sinking feeling in my gut: if I could be so unlucky as to have three flat tires in the span of ten days, I thought something even worse was going to happen that day.
That sinking feeling contributed to my initial underwhelming impression of Cambridge. I had been feeling quite stressed out about a lot of things for the past few weeks, and I just wanted a fun, spontaneous day out – so I hadn’t booked anything in advance despite Covid capacity limitations. As a trainload of people streamed out of the station and towards the city centre like we were leaving a football match at Wembley, we passed the botanical gardens, a sight that had been included on the “things to do in Cambridge” list I’d looked up the evening before. My heart sank as I headed over and realised I needed to have pre-booked tickets to enter, and I was worried the whole day was going to be full of disappointments.
Luckily, I was wrong. Cambridge turned out to be a lovely town to explore, even with the colleges closed to visitors. At every turn I was greeted with stunning architecture or quirky hidden gems. Students and families alike covered every available green space, soaking up the first proper sunshine we’d had all month.
I popped in for a look at Great St. Mary’s, the University Church, before heading to the River Cam. That’s where Cambridge really took my breath away.
I stood on the Garret Hostel Bridge and watched a few punters go by on the river. The sun was shining, swans were swanning, all the trees were the bright green of spring, and I just felt at peace.
I walked around Trinity College, peeking through the locked gates at the immaculate campus.
Soon I found myself outside of Kettle’s Yard, a free gallery that had also been included on the Cambridge to-do list. I was able to book entry on the spot and spent time admiring the pantings of Alfred Wallis. His fun depictions of ships off the coast of St. Ives brought back fond memories of my trip to Cornwall last year.
After Kettle’s Yard, I spent more time wandering through the winding streets of town, popping into an arts and crafts market, and hailing down a cycling ice lolly salesman to get my hands on a spicy pineapple popsicle.
As I strolled along Jesus Green, it became clear to me that no trip to Cambridge would be complete without a spot of punting. The prices I had seen online were outrageous, and I was worried that as a solo traveller, it would be hard to get a spot on a punt that was probably reserved for households, but it seemed worth it to ask.
I was crestfallen when the first punting company told me they were selling tickets in groups of three on this busy bank holiday weekend. But I carried on up the river and managed to get a late afternoon spot for only £25.
At this point it was past 2:30 p.m. and I still hadn’t had any lunch. I had been imagining myself enjoying a huge plate and pint in a pub, thinking I could get away with not booking if I ate late enough. But Cambridge was so full of people, it was looking like I’d have to do what I do every weekend in London: get some takeaway and eat it on the grass.
Since it was still almost 90 minutes to my punting session, I decided it was at least worth asking if a seat was free at a pub I’d passed earlier, The Punter. Miraculously, there was a table available in their beautiful garden. As I sat enjoying my pint of Punter Blonde and halloumi burger, I couldn’t believe how much my luck had turned since that morning.
Finally, it was time for my trip down the river. I hung out the side of the punt taking photos as our guide regaled us with tales of the town.
The river was packed with punts at this point, with some passengers wilder than others. Drinking on the punts was encouraged, and some groups even had their own oars to help the punter steer. There were a few collisions, but I didn’t mind. Gliding down the river was pure bliss.
By the time I got off the punt, it was nearly 5 p.m. I walked further up the river to Midsummer Common, where I was greeted by Cambridge’s local grazing cows.
As I made it back to the town centre, all of the shops were closed, and the parks were filling up with more and more students. The queue at Sainsbury’s went around the block as people waited to buy booze and barbecues.
I went for one more stroll south of the turning point of my punt journey. A pub called The Mill was offering takeaway pints and the grass was full of students basking in the evening sun.
I returned to London, relieved to see that nothing more had happened to Harvey (though we had a long journey home from King’s Cross).
Cambridge was just the sunny, happy, relaxing trip I needed post-lockdown. I experienced beautiful sights, ate good food, and spoke to so many friendly people in one day after months of hardly speaking to anyone.
PS: The bike shop fixed Harvey’s third flat tire for free.