TAKE A PUNT
We brush up on our history with a trip to Cambridge, once home to queer pioneers such as Enigma code breaker Alan Turing
When it comes to worldfamous British destinations, Cambridge is without doubt near the top of the list, and with staycations the new normal, my bestie Olivia and I jumped at the chance to visit the legendary city.
Experiencing the best of Cambridge means one thing: punting. We join a group punt with The Traditional Punting Co. and, as luck (and lockdown) would have it, end up enjoying a boat to ourselves. Our private chauffeur is sweet Torin. (They say you can find love in unexpected places, and that day I found it in the form of our punting tour guide.)
Our dashing companion aside, punting is definitely the choicest way to explore the city for anyone wishing to immerse themselves in Cambridge’s vivid past. While every street corner is steeped in history, the canals offer a unique perspective that allows us to avoid both tourists and crowds. As the punt glides down the River Cam, we lose ourselves in the imposing heritage of quite possibly the most prestigious university in the world.
Made up of not one, not two, but 31 different colleges, the seat of learning stands out on our visit — not just for its stunning architecture, but the number of Pride flags draped from students’ windows. Earlier this year, students at Jesus College were ordered to take down their flags for “safety and maintenance” reasons. (Can you hear me eye-rolling?) Now, students from all the colleges are proudly flying the rainbow in what feels like an act of defiance. We love to see it.
But Cambridge’s queer history runs much deeper than the Pride flag ‘scandal’ of 2021. Indeed, some of our greatest queer pioneers were once residents. Following our punting adventure, we head out on the ‘Turing Trail’, exploring the life of incredible code breaker Alan Turing. For those unaware (shame on you), Turing was an English mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code, thereby accelerating and aiding the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Despite shifting the course of history with his remarkable accomplishments, Turing was dealt an unfortunate hand when it came to other areas of his life. Growing up as a young gay man in the early 20th century was not easy; homosexuality was still illegal and punishment if outed was severe.
Turing was convicted of gross indecency in
1952 and stripped of his security clearance. He was given a choice: prison or chemical castration — he chose the latter. Two years later, Turing was found dead by his housekeeper after a suspected suicide by poisoning — although theories suggest foul play.
It was fascinating to walk the streets that were once frequented by such a brilliant yet tragic icon of the LGBTQ+ community. A blue plaque hangs proudly on King’s College, where Turing studied, acting as a reminder of how society has attempted to right the wrongs done to such an important figure of British history. It’s almost impossible to think of Turing, the man responsible for saving millions of lives, being vilified for something as inconsequential as who he loved.
“As the punt glides down the Cam, we lose ourselves in the imposing heritage”
We stroll past several colleges on the trail, many with connections to other boundary-pushing queer minds: writer EM Forster and socialist, poet, philosopher and early gay rights activist Edward Carpenter both studied at Cambridge — each a trail-blazer in their fields. We also pass Newton’s Apple Tree. Although nobody can say for certain if the mathematician Isaac Newton identified as gay, there is evidence to suggest that he might have had an interest in men.
Given the city’s impressive track record of iconic LGBTQ+ individuals, you’d be forgiven for thinking a modern gay “scene” is prevalent. Although Cambridge strikes me as a safe and open-minded city as young gay couples walk the streets hand-in-hand, with nobody batting an eyelid; in terms of gay bars, pubs and clubs, there is little to be discovered. It could be a product of lockdown’s shadow, but much of the culture exists as monthly nights, and the city lacks a regular, openly queer venue. But maybe this isn’t an insight into Cambridge’s shortcomings after
“My preconceived notion of a stuffy, sleepy city couldn’t have been more wrong”
all, but more an indication of how progressive and welcoming the city is — there is no need for such places.
For our two-night jaunt, we stay at the University Arms, which we simply can’t fault. The classic British interior evokes everything you might want from a hotel in this historic city.
Architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki reinvented the hotel in 2018, creating a seamless marriage between venue and interior. It offers 192 rooms across four floors, yet never feels intimidating in size. The beautiful Edwardian interior is adorned with bespoke writing desks, ottomans and chandeliers that are playful yet authentic to the period. We stay in the Tennyson suite — suitably neighbouring the Turing suite — which was filled with gorgeous natural light from dawn to dusk. One of the largest rooms in the hotel, it is spacious yet none of it is wasted, and the attention to detail is just right. Treat yourself to a long, relaxing soak in the luxurious claw-foot bath while the sun sets. You can thank me later.
On the second night of our stay, we are treated to a three-course meal at the hotel restaurant, Parker’s Tavern. The menu, a “whimsical re-imagining” of British classics, has something for everyone. I opt for classic fishcakes made with sorrel that swim in a light, lemon butter sauce for starters. Pie of the day is chicken, perfectly portioned, before the grand finale – what else, but Eton Mess. As head chef Tristan Welch says, “Think you know Eton Mess? Think again, sis”, with his inimitable twist on a classic. If you want to stay in a prime location that almost feels like a natural extension to Cambridge itself, the University Arms is the place to be.
If you’re looking for a getaway bursting with history yet brimming with a young and fresh outlook, then I can’t recommend Cambridge enough. My preconceived notion of a stuffy, maybe even sleepy, city couldn’t have been more wrong. The student culture infuses a vibrancy into the destination, as the countless bars and restaurants cater to a more genteel crowd. As city breaks go, Cambridge has it all.