Captivating Cambridge: Scones, Cathedrals, and Punting, Oh My!

"Wear your tennis shoes. It's a 6 mile walk round-trip."

Nothing about this text surprised me. If the first 24 hours in Cambridge were any indication, 6 miles of walking was going to be a light day. But in the early morning haze, before my daily coffee walk could offset the lingering effects of Greene King IPA, I was still a little puzzled.


The night before, MJ told me that we were starting the day with tea and scones at a place called The Orchard. I distinctly remembered her describing what promised to be the finest scones I'd ever tasted. I distinctly remembered her describing the clotted cream and the different varieties of local jams. I distinctly remembered her describing The Orchard itself, and how we'd take our tea among the apple trees. And I distinctly remembered her describing the pub we would hit afterwards for some midday fortification.

I did not remember her describing a 6 mile trek.

As we set off through the fens, along the same path I'd partially walked the day before, it all started coming back to me. Somewhere between clotted cream and afternoon pubbing I had managed to tune out the distance involved. Not that it mattered, because even at a distance of 60 miles, it still would have been worth every step.

The Orchard was exactly as MJ had described it: A charming tea room in the village of Granchester, whose peaceful apple orchard has been a popular destination for locals and Cambridge students since 1897. In that time, The Orchard has been visited by everyone from Stephen Hawking and A.A. Milne, to King George VI and his grandson the Prince of Wales.

From my shady lounger beneath an apple tree, time seemed to move a little slower, giving way to a cat nap which rivaled my snooze the day before in the Botanical Garden. On the other hand, my tastebuds were moving at Warp 6 thanks to the deliciousness on my plate that was even better than advertised. Whether you're wearing a Nobel Prize, the Crown Jewels, or a worn out pair of Toms, at The Orchard you come for the atmosphere, but stay for the scones.

After a short stroll to The Green Man - your run of the mill pub that predates the Civil War, found in your run of the mill building that predates the Revolution...

We wandered back to town, past your run of the mill game of adult bumper ball soccer...

And your run of the mill family of swans...

Before ending at your run of the mill giant skillet of mashed potatoes.

Call it your run of the mill Cambridge afternoon.

The next morning we took a short train ride to Ely, a town whose history reads something like a collection of credit scores. Founded in 673, the village was destroyed by Danish invaders in 870, and then rebuilt by the Bishop of Winchester in 970. All of which makes me wonder how American historians manage to sit through conferences with their U.K. colleagues. It must be such a drag listening to them toss around all of that three-digit-year history so nonchalantly. But I digress...

The Ely Cathedral is older than both Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey and is no less majestic than its illustrious counterparts. The history of the Cathedral reads a little like the town itself: Built in 1083, the building suffered a calamity in 1322 when the central tower collapsed into the sanctuary below. The tower was rebuilt in the shape of an octagon, this time using enormous wooden beams. This no doubt gave the Cathedral the distinction of being the first and largest Tinker Toy building on the planet.

Climbing to the top of the tower is both terrifying and thrilling. There's a few spiral stone staircases which are barely wider than the average human, doors that would cause my 5 year old nephew to duck, and the general knowledge that the wooden beams suspending you in the air are roughly 800 years old. If you can manage to block all of that out, however, the views from the top one of a kind.

Safely back on solid ground, the next few days were a collection of little moments which all seemed to fit in the category of quintessential Cambridge. Such as...

The pub that we entered by hopping a wall in a cemetery...

The mini-donuts and fireworks at "The Big Event"...

The elusive Hot Numbers Coffee Stout...

The risotto with a view at Galleria...

And the view from Great St. Mary's Church.

But of all the quintessentially Cambridge activities, there was one written in Sharpie at the top of my to-list: Punting.

One part wooden jon boat, another part Venetian gondola, punting along the River Cam has been a tradition in the city for over a hundred years. In a place like Cambridge, that's still a relatively young tradition, but one look at the number of punts gliding down the river and it's clear this is arguably the city's most popular attraction.

It's certainly one of the most entertaining.

Think of it like the Cambridge version of the Living with The Land ride at Epcot. Except instead of the narrator talking about hydroponic gardens, the punt captain is telling a variety of tales about the city and its famous colleges. Deciphering whether those stories are actually true or not is half the fun, and becomes even more entertaining if you've brought the proper provisions. Like, for example, a Chelsea Bun and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

When MJ asked what I wanted to see when I joined her in Cambridge, my answer was pretty simple: I wanted to see her Cambridge. The city that has become part of her identity, the city that she loves more than any other, and the city that she longs to return to the moment she leaves. From Market Cake and life changing scones to a magical piece of cheese and punting, I came away from Cambridge with a great sample of what makes the city special. And yet, it was still just a sample.

Enjoy Your Stay