Why Cambridge Is the Best City for Literary Lovers - and Autumn the Best Time to Go

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by Kate Wickers, The Telegraph, October 31, 2018

There is, perhaps, no better place to be on an autumn day than gazing down upon AA Milne’s handwritten manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh in the blissful scholarly peace of St. John’s College in Cambridge.

The city is rich in literary associations, with the ghosts of famous authors such as Tennyson and Hughes lurking not only in the university colleges but also in the pubs, parks and the cobbled lanes of Cambridge’s snug historic centre. Here are the best ways to unlock the literary legacy of this pretty city.  

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Browse for books

There are treasures to be found at G. David (davidsbookshop.co.uk), established in 1896 and Cambridge’s longest-running family business. While a first edition of Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ has been known to pass through, this isn’t a stuffy place. It is popular with collectors and rummagers alike (journalist John Simpson was recently spotted happily rummaging) and there’s a labyrinth of rooms to explore. At the back of the shop you’ll find the real treasures – antiquarian and fine bound books that smell of knowledge. Hard to resist is a 1926 1st Edition of Winnie-the-Pooh for £600.

For those afraid of things that go bump in the night, you’ll be relieved to learn that the Haunted Bookshop (sarahkeybooks.co.uk) isn’t actually haunted. The idea of a resident ghost was a ruse from a bookseller who used it as a bit of a marketing stunt, adding intrigue for visitors (it was a particular success with Americans). Specialising in children’s books, you can pick up a limited edition of ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ at the Haunted Bookshop for a casual £1,200. The shop is worth a visit for the nostalgia alone, with everything from 'Bunty' and 'Biggles' to 'Just William' lining the shelves.

Wander the stacks

There are more than 100 libraries in Cambridge, including the Wren Library at Trinity College built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1676 (trin.cam.ac.uk). Church-like, with lofty ceilings and immense arched windows that flood light on to ornate wooden book stacks, the library is home to some rare editions of Isaac Newton’s notebook and Shakespeare’s early works.

The beautiful Parker Library at Corpus Christi College (corpus.cam.ac.uk) is blessedly still something of a secret, having only recently opened its doors to the public after 500 years. You don’t need to be an expert in medieval and renaissance manuscripts to be bowled over by the collection here, and the vibrantly illustrated Bury Bible is an exemplary piece of art in its own right. Several of the pages found here predate the year 1000AD. Some look new, others bear the scars of bookworms and rats, but they all rather induce goosebumps.

Follow famous footsteps

Head out on a tour with guide Angela Brown (tourcambridge.co.uk) for a plethora of unusual anecdotes that bring long-dead writers back to life. Learn about cheeky Ted Hughes, who studied at Pembroke College, and how he snuck into other colleges in search of the best dinner. See where Dickens gave public readings, visit Sylvia Plath’s lodgings, and explore the church gardens where T.S Eliot sat for inspiration.

You can also pay a visit to the room where the chronically-pyrophobic poet Thomas Gray lived in 1734, complete with homemade fire escape  – an iron frame fixed to his stone window, strong enough to attach a rope. His fellow students once raised the alarm and poor Thomas shimmied down, straight into a barrel of cold water.

Channel your inner student

You don’t have to be enrolled to hang out in 1815 The Union Bar (1815-bar.co.uk), home to the oldest debating society in the world, where past speakers include Winston Churchill and the Dalai Lama. It’s tucked away behind the Round Church and by day remains quiet (you may find the odd wannabe novelist scribbling away), so you can sink in to one of the large squashy armchairs, order a coffee and remain undisturbed.

You can’t visit Cambridge without a punt. For the pure romanticism of it, hire a private punt from Let’s Go Punting (letsgopunting.co.uk) and settle down on comfy cushions with a dreamy tome. The poems of popular 20th century Chinese poet Xu Zhimo are a great choice, rich with descriptions of Cambridge and its famous willow trees. Xu Zhimo’s memorial, located behind King’s College, is visited by thousands of Chinese poetry groupies each year.

Join fellow enthusiasts

Cambridge plays host to two literary festivals a year – one in spring and one in winter – and often boast an impressive line-up of some of the world’s best writers. The Winter Festival (November 23-25) is typical of its eclectic style, promising everything from humorous evenings of conversation with broadcaster Graham Norton to serious discussion with warfare writer Max Hastings (cambridgeliteraryfestival.com).

The essentials

Where to stay

The Varsity Hotel, located by the River Cam, and just a swan’s glide from the centre, gives a nod to its scholarly locale with the odd portrait and Conran-designed floral wallpapers and plush furnishings. The hotel’s showstopper is an expansive roof terrace offering views of St. John’s and Magdelene Colleges. If you’re keen to avoid the chill, unwind in the Jacuzzi of the Glassworks Spa and watch the punts go by. Double rooms start at £149 with breakfast; see here for the full review.

Where to eat

For the best views of Cambridge after dark, head to Six, The Varsity and look out over the city's beautifully lit concentration of church and college spires. Chic decor (think red leather stools at a marble bar) is combined with a crowd-pleasing menu that includes seasonal dishes including local roasted mushrooms on brioche and apple crumble with crispy pork belly (sixcambridge.co.uk).

Where to drink

Hidden behind a modest door on Market Square, this members-only club (phone ahead to be placed on the guest list) takes inspiration from the American speakeasy bars of the prohibition era. Try a cocktail with a literary theme such as the Winnie-the-Pooh – an autumnal blend of honey liquer, spiced rum and apple juice (12aclub.com).

 

This article was written by Kate Wickers from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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