Travel Report: Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge.
Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge.
May 2019. Another town, another pretty church. Like so many I’ve visited over the years, Great St Mary’s in Cambridge has its own unique story. Sat snugly between the University Senate House and Market Square, the crown built the church in 1205 to serve Cambridge University. As with just about every church in history, it was all but destroyed by a devastating fire. The blaze took place in 1290, although it wasn’t actually rebuilt until 1478. That second structure is what visitors can see today over 540 years later! I arrived here on a wet May afternoon with my old friend Irish Mike, who works in Cambridge and lives in the nearby village of Barrington.
As a parish centre for university scholars, Great St Mary’s often played host to historical lectures, degree ceremonies and grand city celebrations. Queen Elizabeth I famously came to see the place in 1564. Unfortunately, her visit was a total disaster!
Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge.
When she arrived, The Queen found herself in the middle of a large construction project. In fact, the entrance had been reduced to little more than a mud pit and she was unable to enter. Consequently, it took over an hour for workers to lay down sand bags so she could get inside. She also fined the church for failing to ring the bells for her arrival. One of the purposes of her visit had been to leave an official donation. Needless to say the church didn’t get the money they’d been hoping for.
The late, great Stephen Hawking was a visitor here during his student days. Following his death in March 2018, Great St Mary’s held an official funeral service. Thousands of well-wishers lined the Cambridge streets that day, while the actor Eddie Redmayne gave a reading for the service. Redmayne won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Hawking in the acclaimed movie The Theory of Everything.
Hawking is one of many notable people honoured within the church. Some have plaques on the wall, others received busts and grand tomb inscriptions on the church floor between the pews.
One of the joys of a visit here is to climb the one hundred and twenty three steps (114 feet) up the bell tower. Local authorities began work on the tower in 1491, although the project wasn’t completed until 1608. Traditionally, the bells ring out to mark royal coronations, marriages, births, military victories and the beginning of university lectures.
What To See & Do Cambridge.
While it’s free to enter the church, you’ll have to grab a ticket to climb the tower. You can get them from the fussy woman at the gift shop for £5 per person. Family tickets go for £15. On the way up, you’ll see the bells themselves, along with the tower clock, which dates back to 1577.
The ringing is known locally as The Cambridge Quarters, greatly inspired by London’s Big Ben. The narrow, steep climb had both Mike and I a little out of breath that day. Thus there was a modest sense of victory as we finally came out onto the viewing platform at the top!
The resulting views over Cambridge are wonderful! To the east you’ve got Market Square, Holy Trinity Church and The Guildhall. Even on a crappy day like this, it’s impossible to deny the city’s elegance.
To the south you can gaze out over King’s Parade, King’s College and King’s College Chapel, along with the churches of St. Edward’s and St. Benet’s.
As we were enjoying the views, Mike found himself approached by an eccentric German woman. She was visiting Cambridge as a tourist and had plenty of questions about the church and its history. Mike did his best to address her queries, after which she asked him to take a photo of her. As he lined up the shot, she whipped out her travel mascot, a bright yellow soft toy duck! A quirky end to another delightful Cambridge sight.
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