A degree of intimate detail

Christopher Middleton joins a student-led tour of Cambridge for an insider's glimpse at the famous seat of learning.

One minute into our tour of Cambridge, we've learnt what connects the astonishing Corpus Christi College Clock (a gold-plated grasshopper atop a giant, serrated wheel) with a cup of tea.

"It's to do with the inventor," our guide, Lydia Brown, says. "Not only did John Taylor design this clock but he was a student at Corpus in the 1950s and went on to patent the thermostatic switch that turns off a kettle when the water boils.

"He also paid for the Taylor Library, which you can see through the window. With your library swipe card, you can get in there at any time of the night or day."

The same applies, it emerges, to the front doors of many of the colleges. Instead of having to shin over the walls at 2am, in best Brideshead Revisited style, students can cause fortress-like gates to swing open at the touch of a programmed piece of plastic.

And that's what is so interesting about this tour. As well as getting all the dusty historical dates and architectural details, you get lots of juicy, insider material.

Oxbridge Tours is not only run by students; its guides are all Cambridge undergraduates or postgraduates. Take Brown, for example; she is 24, studying for a masters in theology at Corpus Christi and earning £12.50 ($19.70) an hour taking the lid off student life for our benefit.

"It's twice the rate of pay I'd get doing any other part-time job," she says. "And the money comes in very handy; if you're doing a PhD here, you need to show you have £15,000 in the bank at the start of the academic year, or they won't let you start the course." Someone who knows plenty about the cost of student life is Christopher Dobbing, a 21-year-old politics student who set up Oxbridge Tours with his business partner (and student at Fitzwilliam College), Andrey Pronin.

"I'm in my final year at Pembroke College and I'm going to be leaving university with about £20,000 worth of student debt," Dobbing says. "For people just starting university, that figure could be two or three times as much by the time they leave.


"The way we look at it, guiding tourists is the perfect way for students to get work experience and to make a bit of money. With tips, they can earn enough to cover a week's accommodation and living expenses."

Not that guiding is meant to take the place of studying. Each of the 26 students hired by Oxbridge Tours is limited to four hours of guiding a week.

"It's not just because we want to spread the money around; it's because we don't want anyone to do so much guiding that they end up neglecting their academic work," Dobbing says.

He got the idea for Oxbridge Tours after going on a Blue Badge guided tour of Cambridge.

"All the other people in the tour group kept asking us about what it was like being a student here," he says. "They were clearly hungry for the inside story."

And there are plenty of tasty titbits. Not just about famous alumni (for example, Bill Oddie went to Pembroke, Lily Cole to King's, Christopher Marlowe to Corpus) but about what the college accommodation and food is like and the choice of pubs and bars for a quiet, or not-so-quiet, night out.

"That's the Mahal Restaurant, where they let you take in your own drink," Brown says, pointing to a courtyard beside the Mill Lane Lecture Rooms. "You have to do an awful lot to get thrown out of there; in fact, I've never heard of anyone being asked to leave."

As well as offering these personal insights, the guides are full of information on university finance, such as how Queen's College has benefited from funds via the company that invented Velcro and how Trinity College has bought a 999-year lease on the O2 Arena in London (formerly the Millennium Dome).

Then there are the anecdotes-cum-legends, about how Byron kept a pet bear while at Trinity, how William Pitt was only 14 when he came to Pembroke College and how, in 1958, a group of Gonville and Caius students hoisted an Austin Seven van onto the roof of the Senate House. Instead of sending the culprits down, the master of the college is said to have rewarded them with a crate of champagne.

"Rough rule of thumb here is that if your prank is intelligent, you won't get into too much trouble," Dobbing says. "That's one of the unwritten rules."

Emboldened by their success, Dobbing and company have expanded their operations to Oxford and have Edinburgh, Bath, Bristol and York in their sights, under the banner VarCity Tours.

They will also organise reconnaissance outings for parents and their teenage children who are contemplating an application to Oxford or Cambridge.

"A lot of my contemporaries are wondering how they're going to find a job when they leave," Dobbing says. "With any luck, if this business takes off, I'll have created my own."

Oxbridge Tours' 90-minute Walk of Fame tour through Cambridge costs £14 for adults, £11 for students, £9 for children. Phone +44 (0)22 396 9598; see oxbridgetours.com. The company offers river tours of Cambridge and walking tours of Oxford.

- Telegraph, London