Here’s a great British road trip that will take you from London to the world-famous university city of Cambridge, but the region has much more to offer than just the beauty of this ancient seat of learning.
This is an easy two-day tour that takes in some of East Anglia’s gorgeous little villages, the oldest Norman cathedral in the country and one of the Great Houses of England. You then have a whole day in Cambridge. But why cut it short? Spend a couple of days in the city. There’s plenty to keep you occupied.
You could extend it much longer than that by exploring the rest of East Anglia, in particular Constable Country where the famous painter did much of his work.
Buy my eBook Great British Road Trips and it will help you do that and give you hundreds of road trip ideas in Britain. Go to https://greatbritishroadtrips.co.uk/. It’s only £5.90 and it will also give you all sorts of ways to save money on a UK road trip.
This blog post, for instance, is taken almost word-for-word from the eBook. It will not only give you ideas on what to see and where to go in and on the way to Cambridge, but also give you clear directions on how to get there on the best touring routes.
A sleepy country village
Cambridge was originally just a sleepy little country village until 1209 when a dispute arose in Oxford between the scholars and the townsfolk. The scholars moved to Cambridge and founded what is now the third oldest university in the world – after Bologna and Oxford.
Concerned to avoid the same kind of conflict – student resentment at poor quality lodgings and townsfolk disturbed by riotous, drunken behaviour – the new campus was created around the idea of individual colleges that were built initially as fortified manors with their own chapel, dining hall, library and even a brewery.
Today there are 31 colleges, the most recent, Homerton, achieving full college status in 2010.
Things to see and do in Cambridge:
There’s no question that the best way to see Cambridge is on foot, but the only way to get into the colleges themselves is to take an official walking tour. Bit of a bummer, but the local tourist organisation has cornered the market. Get more details here . . .
You can, however, get a good look at the town by doing a walking tour on your own.
Kings College Chapel (pictured) is part of one of the oldest colleges in the town, founded by Henry VI in 1441. It is an example of exquisite design and fine English craftsmanship – especially the fan-vault ceiling. It was started by Henry VI and finished by Henry VIII during his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Halfway down the chapel you walk through a carved screen. Look for a carved letter A intertwined with an H. That didn’t end at all well for her, however.
Look also for Rueben’s masterpiece “The Adoration of the Magi”
Definitely, a must visit.
Other notable buildings:
Clare College – a beautifully proportioned building but not one designed by an architect, Instead, it was designed by a stonemason, Thomas Grumbold, and built by him and his brother, Robert, and bricklayer John Westley. It is the second oldest college in the city, after Peterhouse
Fitzwiliam Museum described by the Standing Commission on Museums & Galleries in 1968 as “one of the greatest art collections of the nation and a monument of the first importance”. Among the art collection are works by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio. There’s also a series of Rembrandt’s etchings, medieval manuscripts and a collection of autographed music by Handel, Purcell and other composers which has guaranteed the Museum a place of prominence among the music libraries of the world. The museum also features an extensive collection of ancient Greek, Roman, Asiatic and Egyptian treasures.
The Round Church. Formally called the Church of The Holy Sepulchre, it is one of the oldest buildings in Cambridge, dating back to 1130. It is one of only four round churches in England – most other churches are cross shaped.
Things to do
Hire a punt at the Magadalen Bridge (pron. “Mordlin”) and take your own cruisey view of The Backs. Go with Scudamores – they’ve been looking after the punters – punters, get it? – since 1910. Or Scholar’s Punting Co.
Granta Canoe and Punt Hire can take you on a guided tour if you don’t fancy DIY punting.
Cambridge University Botanic Gardens at the corner of Bateman St and Trumptington St. Generally regarded as second only to the famous Kew Gardens in importance. Plants from all over the world set in 40 acres of planting and greenhouses, lakes and streams dating back to its opening in 1846.
One of the streams is fed from Hobson’s Conduit, a man-made watercourse designed to provide the city with clean drinking water. It was paid for by a man named Thomas Hobson who ran a mail carrying business between London and Cambridge and when his horses weren’t on the mail run he would hire them out to students and townsfolk. Inevitably that meant the best and fastest horses went out first, thus placing a heavy workload on the poor animals. Mr Hobson solved that by saying to the hirers “This one or none”. Hence the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” – i.e. no choice at all.
The Cambridge American Cemetery is the only American WW2 cemetery in the United Kingdom.
The cemetery was first opened on 7th December 1943 as one of three temporary American cemeteries in the United Kingdom. After the war, on land donated by the University of Cambridge, it was chosen as the only permanent World War II American cemetery in Britain.
It is the final resting place of 3,812 men and women who gave their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic, the strategic bombing campaign over Europe, those who died in the invasion of Europe and who were killed in training exercises on British soil. The lives of another 5,127 men and women whose bodies were never recovered are commemorated on a Wall of the Missing.
In the 4,000-square-foot visitor centre, opened in May 2014, through interpretive exhibits that incorporate personal stories, photographs, films, and interactive displays, visitors will gain a better understanding of this critical campaign that contributed to the Allied victory in Europe during World War II.
Painters John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough captured images of quintessential rural Suffolk villages such as Dedham and Flatford. See for yourself rural scenes little changed from the pictures in the great London art galleries and museums.
In the setting for the majority of John Constable’s most famous paintings (the landscape artist was born and raised in East Bergholt, Flatford and Dedham) you can enjoy a quintessential British day out boating along the river and picnicking on the bank.
“Set by the River Stour, Dedham is in the heart of Constable Country. It was here that Britain’s greatest landscape artist went to school. The attractive main street is lined with Georgian-fronted houses, old inns and a large art/crafts centre. The magnificent 15th C. church was built from the wealth of the medieval cloth industry.
“Dedham is frequently rated as containing some of England’s most beautiful lowland landscape, most particularly the water meadows of the River Stour, which passes along the northern boundary of the village forming the boundary between the counties of Essex and Suffolk.” – Wikipedia.
“Of longer influence in Dedham was horse painter, Sir Alfred Munnings, who became President of the Royal Academy. His house in Dedham, Castle House, now contains a gallery of his work, and his studio.” . . . from Visit Essex.
For further details click here . . .
or for more on Dedham click here . . .
Other attractions along the way:
Imperial War Museum, at Duxford just south of Cambridge. Set in the grounds of a famous First and Second World War airfield, IWM Duxford is home to an impressive collection of over 200 aircraft including an iconic Spitfire, a legendary Lancaster and the fastest-ever Concorde.
Waltham Abbey. (Pictured). This is the oldest Norman church in Britain. Here King Harold prayed for victory against the invading Normans. His prayers went unanswered and having been killed in battle he is buried here. In particular, note the finely carved Norman columns. If you get the chance, contrast the interior of this church with Kings Chapel in Cambridge. Two different styles of ecclesiastical architecture.
In the museum below the Lady Chapel you’ll find a mammoth’s tooth – interesting especially to kids.
Audley End. As you tour the great houses of Britain you’ll recognise certain names that crop up all the time – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown the landscape designer (he got the nickname from a saying of his: “It has a capability of improvement”). Robert Adam, the architect, Grinling Gibbons for his exquisite carvings. At Audley End House the grounds were designed by Brown and there are “follies” in the gardens designed by Robert Adam. Along with the magnificent Jacobean house itself, Audley End is one of the finest grand houses in the country – no wonder, it was designed to entertain royalty. Indeed, James I remarked that it was “too big for a king, but might do for the Lord Treasurer”.
The Great Hall dates from the early 17th century and rises through two storeys. Look for the ornate carving on the Jacobean oak screen carved with grotesque masks and pairs of male and female half figures. The screen used to hide the servants from their masters.
Finchingfield. It has often been called the prettiest village in England – though it has to be said that there are a lot of other villages that would put their hand up for that title. Even so, it is worth the stop for a photo op, and perhaps lunch and/or a pint at the Fox Inn, a 16th century coaching house that serviced the coaches that ran between London and Norwich.
There has been a settlement here for centuries. In the time of William the Conqueror it was called Phincingfelda.
Somehow it’s the combination of duck pond, village green and cascade of quaint old cottages that give the village its particular charm. Roger Beckwith’s website also has a lot of useful info on the village and its surroundings.
Navigating out of central London is a nightmare no matter which way you are going. If you are hiring a car I really would suggest you hire from one of the suburbs, rather than in the centre of the city itself.
Since this is all about travelling north, if you take my advice you will hire your car out of London City Airport. From there it is real easy to get away to the north.
Leaving from London City Airport
Assuming you have collected a rental car at London City Airport follow these directions to get you on your way north:
From the rental car offices head westwards on to Hartmann Rd,
GPS 51.5036 0.0425 Turn r. on to Connaught Rd.
At the r/bout take the 1st exit to stay on Connaught Rd.
0.2 mi At the next r/bout take the 3rd exit on to Connaught Bridge.
0.3 mi 51.5094 0.0406 Cross Connaught Bridge and at the next r/bout take the 3rd exit on to Royal Albert Way, the A1020 s/posted “Beckton / North Circ Rd (A406) / Dartford Tunnel (M25) / Motorways (M11) (M25)”.
0.7 mi Go str through 3 r/bouts and at the r/bout take the 2nd exit on to Royal Docks Rd. Follow road surface signs that say “A1020” and s/post to “N Circular A1020 (A404)”
Navigation checkpoint: Over to your right immediately after that turn you will see a large building painted in a geometric pattern in red, white and orange.
1.8 mi 51.5256,0.0723. At the r/bout take the 2nd exit on to the North Circular Road s/posted “N. Circular A406”
4.5 mi GPS 51.5828,0.0398 Move into the left hand lanes ready to merge on to the M11. Look for the blue and white sign on an overhead gantry s/posted “M11(N) / Cambridge / Stansted / Harlow”.
Take the M11 north
From anywhere else . . .
If you are starting from London suburbs – or, for instance, from London Heathrow or Gatwick Airport – the best option is to simply make your way to the M25, the London Orbital, the great ring road that encircles the city and follow it until you come to Junction 27, the intersection with the M11.
Coming from the west: GPS 51.6815,0.1135 From the south and east GPS 51.6771 0.1344 Exit on to the M11 s/p “M11(N) / Cambridge / Stansted / Harlow”.
A visit to Waltham Abbey
You can, if you so choose, take a visit to Waltham Abbey, the oldest Norman church in England.
To do that follow these instructions . . .
Make you way around the M25 to Exit 26 s/posted “Loughton / Waltham Abbey / A121”
From the west GPS 51.6780 0.0236 From the east GPS 51.6807 0.0401
At the roundabout take the exit on to Honey Lane.
1.3 mi GPS 51.6873, 0.0092 at the r/bout take the 1st exit on to Farm Hill Rd s/posted Waltham Cross (A121) / Chingford (A112).
Expert Navigator Tip: The Green Man pub will be on your r. as you make that turn.
3.1 mi 51.6875, 0.0046 Follow the signs to Waltham Abbey Town Centre. As you come into the town centre the Abbey is directly in front of you. There’s a very small carpark in front of it.
To continue north to Cambridge . . .
To make your way back to the M25 at Junction 26, follow the M25 signs through the town, which means that as you leave the town you’ll turn left in front of McDonalds.
GPS 51.6815,0.1135 Take the M25 east to Junction 27 and merge on to the M11 s/p “M11(N) / Cambridge / Stansted / Harlow”.
Giving Waltham Abbey a miss . . .
If you choose not to go to Waltham Abbey then follow the instructions on leaving London to the intersection with the M11. Take the M11 north.
14.5 mi GPS 51.8692, 0.1972 At Bishop Stortford leave the M11, taking an exit s/posted “A120 (E) / Stansted / Colchester” on to the A120. Follow the signs to Stansted and Colchester to merge on to the A120.
8.2 mi GPS 51.8593, 0.3710 Leave the A120 at the exit s/posted “Takeley / Thaxted / Gt Dunmow “. This exit takes you on to Stortford Rd, the B1256. Then follow the signs into Great Dunmow
Great Dunmow GPS 51.8730, 0.3622
As you come in to the centre of the village you will have Intercounty Estate Agents on a corner ahead of you and next to them is a black and white timbered building for Mullocks Wells estate agents. If you are very observant you will see a small B&W sign on the left that says “Saffron Waldon / Thaxted / B184” just before that turn. To continue north, turn l. at that i/s into Market Place.
For car parking in the village, instead of turn left as above continue along the main street. Look for White Hart Way on your l. and turn l. there.
Expert navigator tip: HSBC Bank is on that corner.
I had a very pleasant lunch at The Coffee Shop on the main street.
Continuing north . . .
Expert navigator checkpoint: Shortly after making the turn into Market Place you will be driving str. towards Fultons Chop House, which you will pass on the right. I.e. it will be on your left. .
Continue on to North St. At the far end of North St there is a r/bout at the i/s with The Causeway. Bear r. at the r/bout on to The Causeway. Just after that turn there is a park with a playground on your r.
Go through a r/bout and at
0.5 mi 51.8798, 0.3622 turn r. on to Lime Tree Hill B1057 s/posted “ St Mary’s Church / Finchingfield / The Bardfields / B1057”
6.7 mi 51.9488, 0.4375 Great Bardfield
Follow the B1057 str ahd on to Vine St.
Expert navigator tip: Look for the stone cross in the middle of a grassed island on the r/h side of the road.
At the T intersection at the end of Vine St, turn l. on to Bridge St to follow sign (on the r/h side of the road) to “Finchingfield 2m / S. Bumpstead 7”.
Driver warning: A little further along the road narrows sharply. Beware of oncoming traffic. Indeed, in many of the villages along this road you will have to stop to allow oncoming traffic right of way in the narrow streets.
1.6 mi GPS: 51.9683 / 0.4504
It has often been called the prettiest village in England – though it has to be said that there are a lot of other villages that would put their hand up for that title. There has been a settlement here for centuries. In the time of William the Conqueror it was called Phincingfelda.
Park in front of The Fox Inn or nearby and look to your r. across the duck pond and up the hill with church at the top. You’ll get a shot from there that is the sort of pic that has appeared around the world as an example of the unspoiled English village with its pond and village green surrounded by Georgian and medieval cottages. The village has often been used in films, tv programmes and commercials.
From Finchingfield to Cambridge via Audley End House and Gardens . . .
This route will take you back towards the M11 to Cambridge, but along the way you may care to stop at Audely End House and Garden.
In Finchingfield bear l. on to the B1053.
Expert navigator tip: As you make that turn you will have a stone cross on your l.
Follow the B1053 to Great Sampford.
3.5 mi 51.9923, 0.3915 Great Sampford
Expert navigator tip: As you make you way down the B1053 through Great Sampford you will have the Red Lion Inn on your r.
Turn r. at the Y i/section just past the Red Lion Inn on to the B1051 s/posted “Haverhill 8 / S. Walden 7 / B1053”
2.6 mi 52.0133, 0.3477 At the crossroads turn l. s / posted “S. Walden 5 / Radwinter 1/2 / B1053”
Follow the B1053 through Radwinter and into
4.9 mi 52.0227, 0.2466 Saffron Walden
The town takes its name from the spice saffron. In the 14th century crocus bulbs were first grown and the trade flourished until the end of the 18th c. It takes between 85,000 and 140,000 crocus flowers to produce a pound of saffron. So expensive was it that during the reign of Henry VIII adulterating by mixing with inferior spices was an offence punishable by burning at the stake or being buried alive.
At the Y i/section bear l. on to Audley Rd, the B184.
Go str through the i/section with South Rd and Fairycroft Rd. (Audley Rd is that much smaller lane ahead of you).
0.4 mi 52.0204, 0.2399 at the sloping T i/section turn l. s/posted “Audley End House” on to the B1052.
Expert navigator tip: There is a stone monument topped by a cross on your r. as you make that turn.
Just after that turn, go past the Duke of York Inn on the l. and a short distance later bear r. at the small r/bout on to London Rd.
Go str through a small r/bout s/posted “Audley End House”.
At the second small r/bout shortly after bear r. on to Audley End Rd. Follow Audley End Rd 0.8 mi to your destination
1.0 mi 52.0196, 0.2185 Audley End House
To continue on to Cambridge . . .
Once you leave the grounds of Audley House turn r. on to London Rd, the B1383.
At the Y i/s bear r. s/posted “Cambridge / Gt Chesterfield / B1383”.
Expert navigator tip: If you don’t want to go into Audley End House, just after that r/h turn you get an excellent view of the house itself.
4.5 mi 52.0745, 0.1966 from Audley End at the r/bout take the 1st exit s/posted “Stansted / London / Newmarket / Norwich / Cambridge (A1301)”
Go through two r/bouts (pass under the A11 in between them) following signs to Cambridge A1301.
Expert navigator tip: If you want to visit the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, turn l. along this stretch of road on to the A505 and follow it to the airfield.
8.0 mi 52.1714, 0.1128 after passing through Stapleford and Great Shelford you will arrive at the end of the A1301.
There are traffic lights at the i/section. Turn r. on to High St, the A1309.
0.7 mi 52.1807, 0.1162 at the traffic lights cont. str. ahd on to Trumpington Rd, the A1134.
Expert navigator checkpoint: About 100yds after the lights look for the Bolliwood Spice restaurant in a white building set back from the road.
From here on just follow the City Centre signs.
You will reach a point where you can go no further on Trumpington St. At that point you will see signs to parking in Grand Arcade on your r.
52.2037 0.1206 The Grand Arcade Car Park entrance in Cambridge.
Returning to London.
Easy. Just rip straight down the M11. It’s about 40 minutes to the intersection with the M25.