Visit to Cambridge, 2nd July 2022

Some 30 of the Martham Local History Group travelled 80 miles to visit Cambridge on Saturday 2nd July.  The city grew because of its river and trade, giving the world modern football, some of the greatest scientists of all time, and of course its university – founded by young students training for the priesthood who had fallen out with the townspeople of Oxford.  Cambridge is still as crowded as any modern medieval city but small enough to be seen on foot. We were warned about the bicycles, and our plucky coach driver Simon kept his patience and to time. We first visited the Fitzwilliam Museum and then Pembroke College, many people going on to the beautiful botanical gardens, or other museums like the Polar Museum nearby.

One of the finest of the UK’s regional museums, the Fitzwilliam collections are important for three good reasons.  First, they vary (paintings, ceramics, textiles and samplers; arms/armour; arts from Asia, Cyprus, Egypt and north Africa; and manuscripts).  Second, they are well curated.  Third, there is a very personal feel about each of the collections.  The guides were excellent and knowledgeable, showing us their particular favourite treasures. 

Many of us had never visited a Cambridge College.  Pembroke is one of the oldest Cambridge colleges, founded in 1347 by the Countess of Pembroke, Marie de St Pol.  The college is small with a single court, chapel, hall, kitchen and buttery, library, Master’s lodgings and students’ rooms.  The original chapel is now the Old Library.  The chapel is the first completed work by Sir Christopher Wren and there are many other architectural features.  Pembroke was attended by Thomas Bowman, vicar of Martham from 1759 to his death in 1792.  Bowman was a poor scholar who came from a family of leather workers.  He made a friend of the poet Christopher Smart, also a ‘sizar’ (ie waited on the fellows as a servant).  Thomas Bowman was a musician and composer of songs and hymns, served Martham for over 30 years and in later years carried out a ‘missionary’ role preaching in Buxton and North Norfolk. The current Master is Chris Smith (The Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury PC MA PhD), the former Culture Secretary, who was responsible for ensuring that museum entry is free entry.

Some of us visited the botanic gardens, home to 8,000 species and over 40 acres and only a short walk from the Fitzwilliam.  Founded in 1762 it is certain that Charles Darwin knew the gardens: his close friend and professor of botany, John Stevens Henslow (between 1825 and 1861) influenced the young Darwin and supervised the move to where the garden is now.

Others visited the Polar Museum, established a century ago in 1920 as a memorial to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN, and his four companions, who died returning from the South Pole in 1912. When Scott's last words, "For God's sake look after our people" were made known to the British nation, the response was tremendous.  The museum is full of intriguing things: the Shackleton memorabilia is particularly famous.  It is 8 minutes from the Fitzwilliam. Admission free.

There are at least five other museums to see in Cambridge, like the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences; the Museum of Zoology; Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the Museum of Classical Archaeology.  Perhaps the most famous is Kettles Yard with its fine collection of personal art and objects set in a lovely home.  All these are free, within easy walking distance, and a reminder of culture on our doorstep.  Sadly, you have to book a long way ahead to see Kettles Yard, a very popular place with excellent exhibitions – next time perhaps!

Peter Lavender

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(Above: slipware plate from the Fitzwilliam Museum)
(Below: Pembroke College, Cambridge, front)


(Above: the Director's House in the Botanical Gardens)
(Below: the Polar Institute)