Beyond London – A Tale of Two Cities
With the annual Oxford vs Cambridge boat race kicking off from London’s Putney Bridge on 24 March, there’s no better time to soak up the bubbling atmosphere in either of the competing university cities.Few sporting rivalries are more historic: Cambridge’s male team has won 82 times since 1829, narrowly ahead of Oxford’s 80 triumphs.When it comes to the sport of sightseeing, however, which city is the champion? Perhaps your decision should be based on which university claims the most famous graduate. Surely it’s Oxford, which guided the novelist JRR Tolkien and Christopher Wren to global acclaim? On the other hand, Cambridge University was home to Stephen Hawking and Ian McKellen, so it’s a tough call to make. This contest will clearly be a hard-fought race, but it’s time to pitch Oxford against Cambridge…
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Both cities have rivers running through them and are famed for punting (a punt is a long and narrow boat steered with a long pole), but the lush green banks of the River Cherwell make Oxford’s punting hard to beat. Some sections of the river are so densely framed by trees and bushes that you can really lose yourself in nature. Magdalen Bridge Boathouse is just one of Oxford’s numerous punt hire companies.
Considered to be one of the finest museums of its size in Europe, The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is unmissable. Founded in 1816 after Richard, VII Viscount FitzWilliam of Merrion donated his art and literature collection to the university, it’s now home to treasures of the ancient world, applied arts, music, fine printed books and more.
A DAY WITH A DIFFERENCE
Take a trip away from Oxford’s typical tourist trail with a jaunt around the Cotswolds. This picturesque part of the English countryside has been officially identified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which you can easily visit during a half-day (or longer) tour with Cotswold Exploring.
Cambridge can’t boast the beautiful Cotswolds, but for an equally pastoral afternoon, we can recommend paddling away from the crowds in a canoe. Offering more speed than a punt, renting a canoe from local company Scudamore’s allows you to journey to the tranquil village of Grantchester, as you explore the River Cam’s quieter stretches.
The driving force behind countless academic careers, it’s no wonder that great pubs cover both cities. Oxford is hard to beat, with a collection that includes The Eagle and Child. It’s been a public house for more than 350 years and regularly served JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. It’s a short walk from the university and the Ashmolean Museum, so take a break from sightseeing with a pint of one of its regional cask ales. The Perch has been a pub for more than 800 years, but a 2015 renovation has kept it feeling fresh. It’s a longer walk north, but you’ll be rewarded by the sight of its beautiful garden.
Cambridge isn’t far behind when it comes to great riverside drinking, thanks to pubs like The Mill. As the name suggests, it’s right next to the mill pond, so take advantage on a warm day with a drink on its grassy banks. Further north you’ll find The Mitre on Bridge Street, a classic British pub with a long history and, luckily, the more modern bonus of a decent food offering, too. If only fish and chips will do, walk north to The Architect. This big beauty of a pub is run by a pair of locals, who serve pies and battered seafood.
Oxford has a star Chinese restaurant in SoJo, an inexpensive spot near the station where you’ll find traditionally prepared Szechuan, Shanghainese and Cantonese dishes. On the High Street, there’s Quod, a classy restaurant with tall arched windows and an international menu. For something extra-special, take a stroll north along the river to Cherwell Boathouse. Inside a Victorian boathouse on the riverbank, expect British produce including Cornish fish and cheeses from around the UK.
For fine food, Cambridge is neck-and-neck with Oxford thanks to Cotto. You’ll find this high-end spot in The Gonville Hotel, where Cotto’s master chocolatier creates unmissable desserts. Pint Shop serves classic British bites, such as black-pudding Scotch eggs and gin-cured trout. It’s inspired by beer houses of the 1830s and has a beer terrace. Walk 20 minutes north of the station for the Old Bicycle Shop, which was Howes Cycles for 173 years. You’ll find bicycle parts as part of the décor.
RESTING YOUR HEAD
Positioned between Trinity and Magdalen Colleges, Holywell Bed & Breakfast is a 16th-century house providing a quaint, budget option (with just two rooms, try to book as far ahead as possible). Meanwhile, the equally central Tower House guest house facing Jesus College offers a more modern option, even though it’s housed in a Grade II-listed building. If you’re looking for a chic boutique hotel, Malmaison boasts good-looking, spacious rooms in what used to be a Victorian prison. We have a winner: when it comes to budget accommodation, Cambridge cannot be beaten.
Sidney Sussex College offers rooms on a bed-and-breakfast basis, which means you can stay at Cambridge University. Elsewhere, 5 Chapel Street offers a quintessentially English B&B experience and free bicycle hire, while The Gonville Hotel is a sumptuous choice with glorious views of the surrounding 25 acres of parkland.