The Eighteenth-Century Tourist Does Cambridge

A Concise and Accurate Description of the University, Town, and County of CambridgeNot the Grand Tourist, off (accompanied by his tutor or ‘bear-leader’) to sow his wild oats on the Continent and return loaded with art works and antiquities of all kinds to embellish the ancestral home, but the more modest traveller or holiday-maker, seeing the sights of their own country rather than venturing abroad. We know from Pride and Prejudice that it was possible to visit the great houses of England by application to the housekeeper – presumably the housekeeper’s finely tuned antennae were able to repel unsuitable advances from the lower orders, though the odour of Gracechurch Street was (thankfully) acceptable. But what sort of information was available in towns and cities for the would-be tourist?

Celia Fiennes’ travels – ostensibly for her health – took her to many of the towns of Great Britain, but it isn’t clear whether she had professional guides to point out the most important sights, or whether the members of her hugely extended family, with whom she mostly stayed, acted in this capacity when she was in their neighbourhood. Celia took in Cambridge on her ‘Northern Journey’, which began in May 1697: ‘ye buildings are old and Indifferent’. Trinity was the finest college, though not so large as Christ Church, Oxford. The University Library, however, ‘farre exceeds that of Oxford’, and she was especially impressed by the view from the roof (120 steps up), from which you could see Ely cathedral. (Cambridge might not have impressed her greatly, but it did much better than Ely: ‘Vermin at Ely’ has its own entry in the index, and she complains that ‘tho’ my chamber was 20 Stepps up, I had frogs and slow worms and snails in my Roome . . . but it cannot but be infested with all such things being altogether moorish ffenny ground which Lyes Low’.)

One hundred years later, visitors to the town and university had clearly become so numerous that the booksellers J. & J. Merrill (Joseph and John, buried in Great St Mary’s churchyard) offered A Concise and Accurate Description of the University, Town and County of Cambridge (the full title is considerably more wordy!), printed by John Archdeacon, Printer to the University. We have reissued ‘A New Edition, Corrected and Enlarged’ of 1790, and have added to it Robert Masters’ Catalogue of the Several Pictures in the Public Library and Respective Colleges, in the University of Cambridge.

The introduction explains that ‘few can be supposed to come [to Cambridge], who have not a relation or friend in that learned body, who will take a pleasure in showing them the place to the best advantage; yet as travelling is mostly performed in the summer, when the members of the university are in general retired from it, the stranger may often receive less pleasure and information, than he had reason to expect’. The university itself can be ‘done’ ‘in the best manner, and least fatigue, in a single walk, by beginning at St Mary’s church, or the senate-house: it may however be proper to take a servant from the inn, to look up the person that shews the next place, while the company are engaged in viewing the former’. (Don’t try this at the Travelodge . . . )

The guidebook gives an engaging history of the origins of the university, which makes it clear that we should not have spent all that time celebrating the octocentenary in 2009: the university was founded by ‘one Cantaber, a Spaniard’, in 270 BCE, and ‘restored’ by Sigebert, king of the East Angles, in 630 CE. Under the Normans, it became so famous that William the Conqueror sent his son Henry I (1068–1135) there, ‘who improved so much under his Cambridge tutors, that he ever after obtained the additional name of Beauclerk, or the learned student’.

The guide proper begins with the principle secular buildings of Cambridge: the Senate House, the Schools and Public [i.e. University] Library, the Botanic Garden (then on what is now Downing Street), and Addenbrooke’s Hospital – ‘a plain, modern, but commodious building of brick’. Next the colleges are described in order of their foundation, from Peterhouse (1284) to Sidney Sussex (1596) – the next college (Downing) would not be founded until 1800, and then there is a gap of seventy years until Girton and Newnham (and it’s safe to assume that very few visitors in 1790 would have conceived of the possibility of a college for women). After each college is a list of its alumni who became ‘Bishops and Eminent Men’.

There follows a list of the University officers, from the Chancellor (the Duke of Grafton) and the High Steward (the Right Honourable William Pitt – at that time Prime Minister) down to the Printer, School-Keeper (whose name was Marshall) and Marshal (whose name was Bore). It’s interesting to note the date of foundation of some of the professorial chairs: civil law, ‘physic’, Hebrew and Greek in 1540, Arabic in 1632. (And the Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy was the Casuistical Professor (aren’t they all?) from 1683 until the job title was changed in 1965.)  At this time Cambridge had no fewer than six members of Parliament, two for the university (of whom one was Pitt and the other the Earl of Euston, the Duke of Grafton’s heir – what a convenient arrangement), two for the town, and two for the county.

This list of worthies is followed by some arcana about Scarlet Days and Litany Days (on which the proctors are to attend in their congregation ruffs) and a list of the university prizes; on page 117 we rejoin the real world and consider the town (‘it being connected to the university’), which in Roman times apparently stretched from the ‘castle of Grantchester’ to the ‘castle at Chesterton . . . There is nothing, however, remaining of that antient city’.

The main roads and the extensive market are described in detail, as is Great St Mary’s church. ‘The other churches require no particular notice, except that of St Sepulchre, which is remarkable only on account of its form, it being perfectly round, and is said to have been a Jewish synagogue; but more likely was built in the reign of King Henry I.’ (Hooray, an accurate historical statement!)  ‘The air of Cambridge is very wholesome’, and all manner of fine food and drink are available locally or imported down the river from King’s Lynn. The local peculiarity of selling butter by the yard rather than by weight is noted, as is the great fair at Stourbridge, ‘formerly much the most considerable in England’ originally founded by King John to benefit the leper colony there, but handed to the town at the end of the thirteenth century.

The book ends with a quick review of the county – its agriculture and natural produce, its towns and the ‘seats’ of the aristocracy and gentry. In some ways most fascinating of all is the list of ‘post days’ (when letters could be sent to or be delivered from London, ‘Huntingdon and the North’, ‘Norfolk, Bury, etc.’ and Ely) and of the coaches and waggons which connected Cambridge with the rest of the country, including the start times, itineraries and prices. (The Birmingham Waggon, for example, sets out regularly once a fortnight from ‘the Pickerill, near the Great Bridge’, i.e. the Pickerel Inn on Magdalene Street, just north of Magdalene Bridge, still there and allegedly the oldest surviving pub in Cambridge.)

A list of the churches in Cambridge, with their patrons, follows, then the parishes of the county with theirs, and their distance from Cambridge. Almost the last item is an ‘Account of the Great Roads from Cambridge’, with the distances to other towns and cities: on the road to Edinburgh, Stamford 42 miles, Durham, 210, Coldstream, 286. Then, on the final page, are the ‘Directions to the Binder’ on where to place the plan of the town and the attractive engravings of some of the colleges, and a spot of advertising: ‘Lately published, price 6d., A General Table of All Cautions, Fees and Perquisites . . . in the University of Cambridge’, and ‘On two Large Sheets, price 1s., A List of the Chancellors, High Stewards, Vice-Chancellors, Professors, and other Officers of the University, from the Year 1500’. I haven’t been able to find out how much this book originally cost, but the eager visitor would have needed nothing else to take in all the sights, and might even have been able to dispense with the servant from the inn trotting ahead of him.


This entry was posted in Cambridge, History, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History, Travel and Exploration, Women's Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Eighteenth-Century Tourist Does Cambridge

  1. Pingback: If You’re in Cambridge … | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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