The pranks beloved by Cambridge students

What did Cambridge's most famous resident – brilliant physicist/cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking – say to footballer/model/international celebrity David Beckham when they met at the university city's Varsity Hotel?

"I'm always being compared to you as a British icon," the author of A Brief History of Time and motor neurone victim explained through his computerised voice synthesiser. "Sometimes you rate higher and sometimes I do."

We know this because Chris, our guide on a gentle three-hour cycle through one of Britain's most picturesque cities, has stopped by the River Cam and pointed out the Varsity (its rooftop bar, he says, is also the best place to enjoy a sunset beverage).

Hawking, who lives outside Cambridge at Granchester (where the Old Vicarage once home to poet Rupert Brooke is now owned by novelist Jeffrey Archer), is often seen around the city in his motorised wheelchair, Chris tells us.

Usually the world's most famous scientist is at official functions (in 2008 he opened one of the city's newest attractions – the Corpus Clock designed and funded by the British inventor and entrepreneur John Crawshaw Taylor – known to locals as "the weird grasshopper clock").

Or he's on his way to his present college, Gonville and Caius – near the university church, Great St Mary's, the official centre of the city.

Gonville and Caius (pronounced "keys") also figured in one of the city's most famous student stunts.

"Cambridge is nowhere near as grown-up as people think," Chris explains. He cites the infamous incident in 1958 when engineering students reassembled an Austin Seven car on the roof of the esteemed Senate House (where Cambridge students graduate each year).

In the dead of night they built a hoist between the Senate House and neighbouring G and C, lifting parts of the Austin to the roof. Task completed, they removed all evidence of how they'd done it. The city woke the next morning, astonished.


Likewise, residents have been kept amused for decades by "The Night Climbers of Cambridge" – athletic students who scale the university's most illustrious buildings under cover of darkness (a tradition dating back long before alpine climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young documented his nocturnal scrambles in 1895).

Perhaps the most dramatic stunt came in November 2009 when the Night Climbers put santa hats on all four spires of the King's College Chapel, a death-defying climb – and the first time in the chapel's 563-year history the spires had been conquered.

Chris conjures up lots of amusing anecdotes about Cambridge's lighter side during our tour, tailoring his commentary for my two sons, 14 and 12. ("Don't tell anyone, but I'm enjoying this a lot more than I thought," the younger one whispers.)

The tone had been set when we mounted our cycles at the meeting point near Jesus College.

"This is one of the few city bike tours in Europe where you'll have to avoid the cow pats," Chris told us. "We'll start by cycling to the city outskirts so you can see how compact Cambridge is. And that will take us through centuries-old commons where cattle still graze in the heart of town."

The 15-minute ride out to Stourbridge Common on a bright autumn morning had been idyllic. With its flat topography, on the edge of the Fens, Cambridge is arguably the best city in Britain to see on two wheels.

Twice a year over four evenings, Chris explains, this stretch of the Cam hosts the "bumps races" – when the best rowers from the colleges race against each other in single file, with each crew trying to catch and "bump" the boat in front without being "bumped" by the boat behind.

The four of us ride back along the Cam, past the Goldie Boat House and stretches of river bank lined by weeping willows, to begin our introduction to the university colleges.

Outside St John's, we learn how Cambridge University dates back to 1209 with the formation of Peterhouse College. Now there are 31 colleges, all co-educational apart from Newham which is the only women-only college left in Britain.

We spend the most time outside Trinity, founded in 1546 by Henry VIII whose figure adorns the impressive gatehouse (we have the Night Climbers to thank for the chair leg which has replaced the spectre the monarch originally held).

Chris points out Sir Isaac Newton's study. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge for 33 years – a title later later held by Hawking. But "Newton's tree" outside his study isn't the one that dropped that history-changing apple on his head, merely a sapling of the original from his home in Lincolnshire.

The story my sons like best concerns Prince Charles, a Trinity graduate who was awarded a relatively lowly 2.2 BA in 1970.

His bodyguard, forced to attend the same lectures, was awarded a more respectable 2.1. Much to the Prince's embarrassment, Chris says.




Cambridge is 101 kilometres north of London, 80 minutes by car via the M25 and M11 motorways.


It is also served by a frequent rail service from London's King's Cross and Liverpool Street stations. There are also rail connections from Scotland and the North via Peterborough and regional services from Birmingham and the Midlands.


Cambridge Bike Tours ( runs a series of daily cycle tours (except Tuesdays) from £20 per person (including cycle and helmets). Private tours arranged by request.

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.