Geek Weekend: Cambridge
Welcome to the sixth in the series of the Geek Weekend on Pocket-lint. Every 2 weeks we've been bringing you a guide to a UK city designed specially for the discerning geek traveller, and with the summer sun high in a clear cobalt sky, what better time to visit the lush green East Anglian academic goddess that is the city of Cambridge? So, next time you're planning a trip up, just 50 miles North and a little East of London make sure you take a look back at this page.
There's been a settlement just north of the River Cam on and around Castle Hill for over 3500 years now. Iron Age man has been and gone, the Romans turned up and got things moving, the Vikings kicked them out a few hundred years later and the Normans made a beeline for this part of the UK as soon as they got themselves established 1066-style as well.
However, it was the students that proved the most formidable invasion force after they built a university there in 1209 having run from the townspeople of Oxford, proving that a distaste for young, free-loading, smart-arse academics is no new thing. 800 years on and they still have a firm grip on the city; making up for 20 per cent of the 110,000 population, in a place which is synonymous with science, invention, quality audio and a certain company responsible for computers with rubber keyboards and an odd little white vehicle that no one bought. It doesn't take a scholar to work out that there's plenty here to see for the geek at heart.
Places to Stay
With more listed buildings than you can shake a tree of sticks at, there's not a world of high tech hotels up for grabs in Cambridge, but there are a couple of interesting choices that cater quite nicely for both high and low budgets.
Located just around the back of Downing College and spitting distance from the University hub is the wonderfully small and English Regent Hotel. It's not trendy nor full of mod cons but it is crisp, comfortable and it does have free in-room and downstairs broadband internet access. Combine that with a delightful terrace over-looking the lovely green space of Parker's Piece and you get what is known in the business as a winner. Prices start from £100 per night and make sure to book ahead as there's only 22 rooms.
At the other end of the scale is the Cambridge Rooms scheme, which offers you accommodation in students' college quarters. The advantages are that it's cheap, it's very central and you're guaranteed to be sleeping in the bed of a genuine geek. As it happens you might well be kipping in Newton's old dorm or at least some inventor of something over the years. There's also a good chance of Wi-Fi, a decent cup of tea and a nice view. The drawback is that it's only available in holiday times - unless they and you don't mind sharing, of course.
There are a lot of Cambridge University colleges to visit, but the one that's simply a must for the geek tourist is Trinity. Why? Because it was where gravity was invented, so to speak. Trinity was where Sir Isaac Newton studied, learned and basically worked out the physics of the entire universe. Entry to Trinity is £1 and for that you get to see Newton's old manor, his statue in the chapel, the tree that dropped the apple onto his head and Neville Court; where he is said to have stamped his foot to listen to the echo and work out the speed of sound.
Whipple Museum of the History of Science
Imagine a university packed full of sciences. Now imagine the wealth of instruments they've been through in their laboratories. Finally picture the place where all of these have been collected since the year dot and you'll come up with something in your head that looks like the Whipple Museum of Science. Set in the centre of town, it's open on weekday afternoons, costs nothing to get into and houses one of the more weird and wonderful collections of sundials, models, pictures, prints, scopes - both tele and micro - and all the mathematical and electronic machines and apparatus that you could ever hope to see. Properly geeky and very good indeed.
Cambridge Museum of Technology
Not quite as broad as it sounds, but still worth a visit if you're into Victorian engineering, is the Cambridge Museum of Technology. It's set within the old city sewage pumping station and features serious amounts of pistons, cam shafts, cogs, wheels and generally heavy duty ironware. The curators' mission is to restore and preserve all this kit back to working order while housing the odd printing press and whatever else can be salvaged from the city's tech of years gone by. Admission is £5 when the museum is "in steam" and £3 when it isn't. So, hot and expensive or cold and cheap?
Cambridge University Museum of Zoology
Specimens, specimens and just a few more specimens - that is the raison d'etre of the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. The vast collection of flora and fauna is used for teaching and studies and is so impressive that it rivals any other academic institution the world over. Much of the material comes from the great 19th century global expeditions, including Darwin's trip on the Beagle, and you'll find Dodos, Tasmanian Wolf skins and even the odd ancient mollusc uncovered during the digging of the Channel Tunnel. Open Monday-Saturday most days of the year.
Location: 52.2033, 0.1204
Cambridge Arts Picture House
For lovers of film in the independent sense, there's only one place to head in Cambridge and that's the Arts Picture House. You'll be able to catch the majority of the mainstream here as well as the small movies that you can't at the multiplex. The bar at the bottom is there if you need but, ultimately, there's no need to be put off if you don't like what you see. Head upstairs and you'll be treated to all the furnishing that you'd expect including a nice, quiet auditorium.
If you happen to be in Cambridge between 16-26 September, then your luck's in. One of the better film festivals in the UK will be taking place and the Arts Picture House is the central venue.
MP3 Cambridge Walking Tour
Tourism geek style gets no better than downloading your own personal guide and letting it lead the way as you play it back through your headphones. You can download two hour-long walking tours of the city for £5 which take in the colleges, the river, the bridges, the open spaces and a few of the more famous buildings as well. It also leaves an excellent opportunity to press pause and sit back for a cup of tea or lay about on the banks of the Cam whenever it takes your fancy.
If you'd rather have someone walking with you, then the city is currently running a Darwin Walk of Cambridge to celebrate the great geek's 200-year anniversary. Naturally - pun intended - the tour focuses heavily on Christ's College but for £10, you get a well tailored look at the place through the eyes of Charles as a young man, which includes his old room and study area. It's only running until 25 September 2010 on Saturday mornings at 11.15am. So, if this floats your boat, you need to get on the case some time around now.
There's all sorts of rumours about Newton and the Mathematical Bridge that you'd do best to ignore. The truth of the matter is that this structure spanning the Cam between two parts of Queens College - officially known as Wooden Bridge - works on a series of tangents coming off the arch to describe the bridge. Each of those are also joined by radial supporting struts and together it forms a solid piece of engineering. It also happens to look rather pretty.
One of the University's most famous alumni is the science geek extroadinaire that is Charles Darwin. He started the old Zoology game back in Christ's College where you can find him today; cast in bronze as a young man sitting on the edge of a bench in a quad in bow tie, with tails half covering a stack of books no doubt on the subject of the birds and the bees and possibly the Galapagas Turtle as well. You'll know him when you see him. Rather reminiscent of a young Michael Aspel.
California this ain't, but there's an incredibly proud tradition of technology running out of Cambridge. There's gadget industry heartland in and around the city and just south of the Suffolk countryside, which is why it's picked up the amusing moniker. You won't get much out of the workers at the various factories and offices unless you happen to meet someone just itching to give you a tour but, for the record, Silicon Fen is home to the audio excellence of Arcam, the mighty crackpot inventor that is Sinclair and the beloved Acorn Computers who later on formed ARM. Many other good names to be found here as well as branches of the likes of Microsoft et al.
The irresistible force that is Forbidden Planet has dropped its geek shop anchor in Cambridge. Whether you have a problem with chain stores or not, it's an excellent megashop of all things comic/cult and you'll be quite happy whiling away your hours in here from opening until they kick you out.
If you're sick of staring at the pinks of HMV and Game, then you're going to have a great time in Gametron. Independent video game stores aren't two a penny these days and, although you won't find so many copies of the big releases here, it's a hive of old school action including a wonderful 50p bargain bin packed with Game Boy titles and such. Trade ins accepted.
Computer shop with a difference, Reboot specialises in recycling thrown out and traded in PCs for an excellent selection of up to date reconditioned machines. Excellent service on offer with help for beginners and even custom building for those who know what they want.
Video Emporium Delivery
You may or may not have access to a DVD player where you're staying but, if you've had the sense to bring one with you, then don't you dare head to Blockbuster. Video Emporium is where it's at. There's over 5000 titles ranging from the new to the totally obscure and plenty of help from the staff to point you in the right direction.
C@mpkins Future Vision
Quirky camera shop that sells all sorts of bargain and more expensive digital cameras and telescopes as well. C@mpkins Future Vision - great name - still runs a developing service, in case you're still using film, and as with all small stores, expect a good level of expert advice.
Eating & Drinking
CB2 Internet Bistro
We could begin and end this section with CB2 but, just in case it's full up when you get there, we'll add in a few more. Live music, excellent decor, aspiring art on the wall, great food and drink, and, enough high-speed Wi-Fi for everyone to enjoy in each of the dining rooms. They've even got computers if you didn't happen to bring your own. Make sure to check out The Living Room every other Thursday for music from unsigned bands.
CB1 Internet Cafe
Internet cafe version of above with the emphasis on cafe. The internet access is still good but this place isn't about rows and rows of computers. Great decor, very bohemian feel and not a bad cup of splosh either. Busy in the afternoons which might have something to do with refills coming in at half price.
Jaffa Net Cafe
Not too far away from CB1 is the Jaffa Net Cafe. As the name suggests, there's good Wi-Fi available to all plus the cakes and baguettes are probably a touch better than above.
Gas Atom Simulator (Android - Free)
A lovely physics demonstration for your mobile phone showing the behaviour of an ideal gas exhibiting Newton's law of conservation of momentum and energy. Probably only fun for a day but it might mean you understand more of the blurb at Trinity. Not bad for impressing the odd science student either.
Darwin Quotes (iPhone & Android - Free)
An app of 90 quotes from the father of the theory of Natural Selection. You can pick your favourites, refer back to them and spoil all the Darwin Walks tour guide's material.
Origin of the Species eBook (iPhone & Android - $2/volume)
If that's not enough for you, then you may as well read Sir Charles's entire thoughts on the subject of Natural Selection as compiled during his voyages on the Beagle. Three books and a serious and well illustrated flick.
The true geekiest sights and sounds are often the hardest to find and there's no way that, in a city like Cambridge, this guide can have covered them all. So, whether you're a local or someone back from a visit, do let us know your tips and ideas in the comments of how to get techie in town.
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