Charming Historic Towns and Villages In and Around Cambridge

Despite England, the heart of Britain, being more than 8000 miles from my native Singapore, it has been a popular holiday destination for many Singaporeans since the start of the 1970s when its economy began to expand steadily above the international yardstick. This is due mainly to historic and other factors. It was a British colony from 1819 to 1963 , following its modern founding in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, a senior public servant of the British East India Company. Singapore achieved its independence through merger with the enlarged Malaysia, albeit for only a brief two years and was out of it as a separate new nation in 1965. There is also the sentimental side to its affinity with Britain. Many Singaporeans were educated there and so were their children and grandchildren too. This tradition will most probably continue for many more years to come. A case in point is my own family and our extended families. My wife, I and our eldest son had our tertiary education in England and so were several of our extended family members. Moreover, because English has been widely spoken in Singapore for a long time now, we feel more “at home” when visiting England and can readily appreciate the native culture, customs, way of life and to communicate with the local people comfortably.

With awe-inspiring affluence which compares well with other advanced developed countries, more and more Singaporeans have acquired a penchant for overseas travels both within and beyond the Asian region. A fast growing number of them can now afford to holiday not only in Britain but also in almost any other far away countries. The majority of them would prefer to take a group tour which would take them to better known cities and other popular tourist attractions. The more adventurous among them would opt for independent travels, which would, of course, be more expensive but would give them more freedom to plan their own programmes. An all time favourite destination for most Singaporeans is the University town of Cambridge, which is a must-see attraction when touring England. Apart from its worldwide reputation as an educational centre of excellence, Singaporeans’ partiality towards this place is perhaps due to the fact that many of their country’s prominent public figures, including its founding first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, are outstanding and respected alumni of this University. It also attracts many of the brightest Singaporean students to be educated there.

My wife and I had been to England many times over the past decades since our student days there in the 1950s, as well to the rest of Britain on three occasions. We have discovered that the chief delights of England lie in its patchwork of unsurpassed natural scenic beauty and the numerous historic small towns and charming villages with their well-preserved ancient churches and stately homes spread all over the land. It’s a pity that many Singaporeans visiting Cambridge would often give the countryside a miss because of time constraint. They would be quite content to have a fleeting tour of some of the best known Cambridge colleges before hurrying back to the more cosmopolitan life in London or off to other famed tourist spots elsewhere.

The quintessence of this unique university town is best savoured if one can devote more time to it. Also, with Cambridge as the base, it will be a delightful experience to discover the numerous historic market towns and unchanging villages within easy access from it. One of the most practical ways is to hire a car because most tour packages do not cover these out-of-the-way places, nor are they conveniently served by public transports. In our last trip to England some time ago to visit old friends in Cambridge, my wife and I rented a car from London’s Heathrow Airport and in less that one and a half hours we arrived there comfortably. We drove on the motorway at cruising speed and enjoyed the pastoral sights on the way.

We chose to stay at a 17th century inn in the quaint village called Horningsea, about three miles from Cambridge itself. During our stay there, we visited a number of historic market towns and ancient villages, all within 60 miles from this university town in different directions, which we had passed over in our previous trips.

The network of roads serving Cambridge and the places referred to above were excellent and well sign-posted, whether it is the motorway, busy main road or even the minor country road. Like in Singapore, the British drive on the left and their Highway Code is substantially the same as ours. Petrol stations, mostly self-served, are easily available along most routes. A good road map is absolutely necessary. We found the English drivers were generally courteous and considerate and this makes driving there a pleasurable and more relaxing experience. Their better and more considerate standard of driving did rub off on me and made me realise how badly in need of improvement is Singapore’s standard of driving.

Cambridge itself is always chock-a-block with traffic mainly with day trippers and consequently car parking at the city centre is most difficult and frustrating during the day. This is further compounded by the complicating one-way street system in operation. The best way is to park at the Backs along the River Cam, if one is lucky enough to find an empty parking lot. It is a scenic part of town overlooking the back of some of its famed colleges. From there it is an enjoyable ten minute’s walk to the centrally located colleges. It will take a couple of days to tour the various colleges founded in different centuries, from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Do not miss the opportunity to have a good look at some of the older and best-known colleges there, such as Trinity College’s Great Court, King’s College’s grand chapel and St John’s College’s Bridge of Sighs, and to admire their contrasting architectural styles and other special features. Of these, Trinity College is the best-endowed of them all, and its most illustrious alumnus is Isaac Newton, the mathematics genius of all time. Our eldest son graduated from there on a Singapore Government scholarship to prepare him for a public career in its prestigious Administrative Service.

Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After our happy reunion with old friends in this university town, our next stop was Granchester, a tranquil village at the fringe of Cambridge. It has many thatched and timber houses and is a favourite lodging place for both College dons and undergraduates alike. One of England’s most celebrated poets, Rupert Brooke, once lived in the Old Vicarage, where he composed some of his most famous poems. Our next destination was the old market town of Huntingdon, which is west of Cambridge. It was the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, one of the most powerful men in England. He ousted the hapless King Charles I by executing him and ruled the country with an iron fist as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658. Relics of Cromwell abound here, from his residence, his army headquarters to the grammar school where he studied. There is also a Cromwell Museum, which has a wealth of information about the life and exploits of this formidable soldier and ruthless statesman.

Kings College, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Kings College, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A short drive from Huntingdon is the village of Kimbolton, which has distinctive red-roofed houses. At its 13th Century Bishop’s Palace, Queen Catherine of Aragon, the divorced first wife of King Henry VIII, languished there as a prisoner during the last four years of her tragic life. This divorce led to England’s break with the Vatican, culminating in the setting up of the Church of England in 1533 with the King as its Head.

St Ives’s chief claim to fame is its 15th century chapel, which is one of the only four such medieval bridge chapels still extant in England. The bridge is astride the River Ouse, which used to freeze in winter and was a favourite place for ice-skating.

North of Cambridge is the breathtakingly majestic octagonal structure of the 12th Century Ely Cathedral, which was truly an engineering feat of medieval England. Dominating the small but charming city of Ely, which has many other buildings of historical importance, it is prominently visible from any direction in the flat landscape surrounding it.

Ely Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Ely Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Besides the above sights in Cambridgeshire, there are plenty of other equally fascinating small towns and villages in the neighbouring Essex County. One of the outstanding examples is Saffron Walden, a postcard-like market town with a superb array of splendid antiquated houses and buildings, some dating back to the Tudor era. It owes these marvellous legacies to the prosperous wool trade with continental Europe from the 15th to 17th centuries.

Just outside the town is one of the stateliest of stately homes in England, Audley End. Its approach is via an imposing bridge built over the River Cam. Constructed in 1603, it was the home of the first Earl of Suffolk, the all-powerful Lord High Treasurer of King James I. On the King’s first visit there, he was reputed to have said, half in jest perhaps, that the house was “too big for a king but might do for the Lord High Treasurer”!

Audley End House (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Audley End House (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A scenic drive from here took us to the ancient little town of Thaxted, where time seems to have stood still. It is especially noted for its 14th Century parish church and a truly impressive collection of half-timbered Tudor houses which are in an almost perfect state of preservation. The time-honoured Morris Dance still holds sway there and its annual festival attracts many visitors from all over the country. We were most awe-struck by a group of atmospheric farming villages, known collectively as the Rodings. Situated along the quiet River Roding, they all look like a replica of Thaxted, except for the surrounding rolling farmlands and woodland, which the latter lack.

The picturesque and unchanging scenes in these towns and villages that my wife and I visited had the magical effect of transporting us back to the England of the 18th Century. The conservation rules were strictly enforced and no incompatible modern developments were allowed to spoil their historic ambience. I am sanguine that if an 18th Century native in this region were to be resuscitated from his grave, he would have no difficulty whatsoever in recognising all the familiar landmarks of his days!

These places of interest are best traversed in a leisurely manner. One should take advantage of the beautiful and tranquil countryside, with its varied scenery, to make regular stops by the side of a placid river or at a particularly scenic spot in order to have a picnic or simply to gaze at a distant vista which will enhance one’s admiration of the wonders of mother nature. By so doing, one would also feel at peace with oneself and with the whole world and forget about the stresses and cares of the fast-paced city life, if only for the time being.

For Singaporeans and other visitors intending to visit this region, a good time to go is between April and June when the weather is most invigorating and the landscape is at its alluring best. At least four or five days should be set aside for a good motoring holiday. With more time, one can also take in the equally unforgettable sights in the nearby counties of Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

Lam Pin Foo

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