Designed for students, it’s also possible for tourists to visit many of the colleges that make up the heart of Cambridge.
This is just as well, as that’s why the town centre is packed full of tourists – as the vast majority are here to see just one, exceptional building.
King’s College Chapel
The granddaddy of Cambridge buildings, the chapel owes its fame to its huge size and decoration, and internationally thanks to its annual Christmas carols which are broadcast on TVs around the world as a representation of a typical English Christmas.
Such is the fame that this is also the busiest of the colleges to visit, although a visit is not really to the college, but just to the chapel and the grounds around it — but the chapel is grand enough to make up for that.
Entry is via a side door, around the far side of the building, and the interior is all you might have hoped for from seeing photos – huge spacious and so much stained glass windows streaming light into the space making it seem almost impossibly delicate in design.
There’s a long corridor off the side with an exhibition about the history and construction of the chapel, but either I struck lucky, or most visitors aren’t as inquisitive about side rooms as I am, so the space was quite empty.
There’s the magnificent wooden screen, and of course, the famous choir stalls now made famous by the Christmas carol readings and singing. Anyone can attend the Christmas Eve service, just turn up really early (like 5am) and tickets will be handed out for later that day.
In an odd way, the chapel is too grand, too impressive, too overwhelming. I stood and soaked up the decoration and read the history, but it’s practically a lifetime of study to understand the whole building.
Leaving is by another side door, and then out across the grounds to the far exit – which does give a good view of the chapel as well.
St John’s College
This is the one with the huge impressive Tudor style gatehouse with gilt decorations whispering of wealth and privilege beyond.
Unlike King’s which is all about the chapel, here at St John’s it’s mainly about the college, and you’re pretty much left alone to follow the signs and just wander freely about the place.
The signs petered out a bit halfway through, leaving me slightly worried I had wandered off the permitted route, but no one stopped me and sent me packing to the public spaces, so maybe I wasn’t as lost as I felt.
Like all good colleges, this one has a grand chapel, which would be magnificent anywhere, but after King’s can almost feel a bit of a letdown – especially as the gates are locked and you can’t actually go inside it.
What is marvellous to see though is the burial next to the chapel, and the effigy is still painted in its original colours, with the skeleton below. Such a rare survivor of the puritan’s whitewashing mania.
Elsewhere, it’s loads of courtyards, and spaces to wander around. Hardly any tourists here compared to King’s probably as they charge to go into St John’s and it’s not anything like as famous. Fame wins in tourist land.
One thing that is famous is the Bridge of Sighs, which is basically a covered stone bridge that you can look at from the outside, from a bit of a distance.
I was convinced that I was lost trying to get out — the lack of tourists meaning it’s rather difficult to follow the crowd, but at the far end of an empty path there is indeed an exit.
Unlike King’s College which just gives you the chapel, St Johns’ gives you a lot more to see, and the old courtyards and freedom to wander around is are a delight.
Entry to St John’s Chapel costs £10 – pay in the gatehouse.
You can imagine this as a smaller version of St John’s — but without the entry charge. You’re free to just go in and wander around.
Yes, it has a chapel, and quite a nice one and a relaxing break from the grandeur of the previous two. It’s also contemporary, in that there’s a modern work of political protest art in the cross, which is made from the wood of refugee boats.
Otherwise, the space is mainly a few small but pretty courtyards, being carefully manicured on my visit, and again very few tourists and the few that were there looked as if they were a bit lost.
The college is open most days — except during the main exam period (mid May to mid June). Entry is free.
Most of the other colleges are open, mostly to visit the Chapel only, or just a short walk around the grounds.
A lot of the colleges are also closed during the exam time, so if planning a day in Cambridge, avoid that time of year