This year my family and I went international for the holidays and spent Christmas in Cambridge, England. We saw the sights around this scholarly city and had plenty of festive fun!
We left Atlanta late at night the Friday before Christmas, after waiting for our flight in the Delta club lounge, which is probably the best way to kill a few hours before a long flight. It was the most comfortable wait in an airport I’ve ever had.
Our flight put us in London about mid-day. Rather than navigate the Tube and trains with a bunch of luggage while jet lagged, my brother Ryne, who lives in Cambridge, sent a car service to pick us up and drive us the hour and a half north to Cambridge.
Ryne met us at the hotel and, in order to fight the jet lag, we set right out to exploring Cambridge. Our first day of exploring took us to the Corpus Clock, which is accurate once every five minutes, and into The Eagle, the pub where Watson and Crick regularly lunched and where they announced they had discovered the structure of DNA. The Eagle is also home to the “RAF bar” where the ceiling had been graffitied by WWII airmen.
We marveled at King’s College Chapel, the commonly used icon of the city, before ducking down a small alley holding a quaint little rare and used bookshop that my brother knew I would love, and also where he bought my Christmas gift — a Latin version of Winnie the Pooh called Winnie Ille Pu.
Then we shopped around the local stalls at the Market Square before heading to Ryne’s apartment and learning the joys of Christmas Crackers, the traditional British holiday gift that makes a popping sound when it’s opened. Crackers work like a wishbone, where two people pull on separate ends of the cracker, and the person holding the larger end wins. Inside the Christmas cracker is colored hat that your required to wear no matter how humiliating, a sad little toy, and a cheesy joke that you must groan at.
A Day Trip to London
Even though there’s so much to see in Cambridge, we didn’t want to wear ourselves out on it. So we took a short trip into London for a Christmas market and a show.
The Underbelly Christmas Market on London’s South Bank was our first stop. The market had delicious food, traditional treats, mulled wine, hand crafted gifts, and most importantly, the Rekorderlig Cider Lodge, pop-up serving up my favorite brand of cider.
That afternoon, we saw a Sunday matinee performance of The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre where the animals of Africa make their home among the theatre’s rococo decoration. The Lion King has continuously been performed at the Lyceum Theatre since opening in London’s West End in 1999.
After the show, we walked around the fabulously decorated Covent Garden before stopping for dinner at a traditional British pub. Then it was back to the train station by way of the Covent Garden Tube station — one of London’s most ridiculously designed Underground stations. The station is only accessible by lift or by a 193 step spiral staircase that is supposed to be for emergency only. This station can get so congested that it is actually better to take the stairs up and out, despite what the signage tries to tell you.
Punting the River Cam
For our second day of exploring Cambridge, we stopped by Mathematical Bridge, which was by our hotel. The bridge is so-called in part due to a lot of legends misrepresenting the structure as being built by Newton or being put together without screws, but more likely due to it’s being made with all straight boards creating an arch. In other words, Mathematical Bridge was made using math, like all other bridges. Still, it’s a picturesque scene.
We then decided to get lost wandering down the little alleyways that make up Cambridge before heading to Newton’s apple tree, or at least a descendant of it. This tree grows by the main gate of Trinity College, where Isaac Newton lived when he studied here.
After messing around at Newton’s apple tree, we were off for a Christmas Eve punt on the River Cam. “Punts” are flat-bottomed boats designed for use on small or shallow rivers. “Punting” is the act of boating on a punt, where the “punter” propels the boat by pushing off the river floor.
Punting has been a popular activity in Cambridge since the early 1900’s, and there are more punts on the River Cam than on any other river in England. Because the Cam runs through the backs of the colleges (the “College Backs”), it’s a popular activity for tourists who get to experience punting and see the private colleges all at the same time.
We booked a private punt so it was just us five, which is the way to go for a peaceful ride and more personal tour from the guide. The tour lasted about an hour and we got to see the iconic view of King’s College Chapel, The Bridge of Sighs that looks nothing like the one in Venice, the elaborately designed dormitories of Trinity College, and the Mathematical Bridge again.
After our punt, it was time for a quick bite to eat. We decided on Fitzbillies for a sandwich and their famed Chelsea bun, which is basically a cinnamon bun stuffed with raisins and covered with honey.
Now that we were fueled up, we started the trek to my one castle of this trip — Cambridge Castle! Up Castle Street and past The Castle Inn is Castle Mound, the site of Cambridge Castle, one of three castles built in 1068 by William the Conqueror. A motte-and-bailey style castle, all that remains now is the motte (the mound). We climbed the Castle Mound and got a gorgeous view of Cambridge from the highest point in the city.
That night, we opened our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve like the Royal Family does, not because we wanted to be like the Royal Family but because Ryne had to work Christmas Day.
Christmas Day Lunch
We took our time waking up on Christmas Day. With Ryne at work, the only thing we had planned was a lunch for Kevin, my parents, and me at The Granta, which has been hosting Christmas meals since 1799. Every year, you can reserve a table at the pub and choose from a set 4-course menu of foods like duck, steak, salmon, prawn, mince pie, and Christmas pudding. Our table was set up with Christmas crackers for each of us, and after cracking them open, we donned our paper crowns and spent the next three hours sipping mulled cider and enjoying our feast.
Lakenheath RAF Base
On Boxing Day, Ryne showed us around RAF Lakenheath. During World War II, Lakenheath served as a decoy airfield while the neighboring Mildenhall airfield was operational. False runway lights and plywood aircraft lured German forces away from Mildenhall, causing Lakenheath to be bombed on five separate occasions. The U.S. Air Force assumed administrative control of the base in 1951, and Lakenheath and Mildenhall are the two main U.S. Air Force bases in the UK.
Beyond seeing the building where Ryne works and driving around the base, we did what we do at every base we go to — we found the airplanes on sticks. The 48th Fighter Wing that calls Lakenheath its home has flown 18 different aircraft since activating in 1941. The base has three of these 18 — an F-4 Phantom II, an F-111 Aardvark, and an F-15 Eagle — displayed near the Post Office. Another, an F-100 Super Sabre, is displayed by Gate 1.
Back Across the Pond
The next day, we were on a long flight back home, but not before I managed to make friends with a £1,652.15 Harrods bear. For some reason my whole family advised against buying him. Oh well, there’s always next Christmas!
Where did you spend your Christmas? Let me know in the comments!