No punting tour along the River Cam is complete without seeing St. John’s College, the Bridge of Sighs or the Kitchen Bridge.
A punting tour provides the opportunity to take in these wonderful sights without having to dodge crowds or fight the traffic. The relaxation of a punting tour adds a special element to the experience of seeing these wonderful Cambridge landmarks.
St John’s College
The formal name of St John’s is the College of St John the Evangelist in the University of Cambridge.
The origins of this beautiful college stem back to Tudor times, when it was founded by a joint effort between Lady Margaret Beaufort and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester.
The college was originally a religious hospital, the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. Beaufort and Fisher both wished to dissolve the hospital and found a college in its stead, and they worked together on developing the plans for their idea. Lady Margaret entered into a preliminary agreement with the Bishop of Ely that the conversion may go ahead, but the licences had not been completed before her death in 1509. Fisher had to overcome many legal obstructions to continue the project to its completion.
The final inhabitants of the hospital were transferred to Ely on 12th March 1511, and the college was officially established by Lady Beaufort’s executors through its charter on the 9th April 1511. The college opened in 1516, and the building work was completed in 1520.
As far as student numbers go, St John’s is one of the largest Oxbridge colleges. In 2018, it was ranked 9th out of 29 colleges in the Tompkins Table, which ranks Cambridge colleges based on undergraduate performance. More than 30% of St John’s students achieved first-class honours in 2018.
Unsurprisingly, the college has a long and distinguished history, with many exemplary students passing through its doors throughout the centuries. The college’s alumni include twelve Nobel Prize winners, twelve archbishops, seven prime ministers, three saints and two princes. Famously, St. Johns was alma mater to the poet William Wordsworth. Two prominent individuals who brought slavery to an end in the British Empire, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, also studied at St John’s. More recently, Prince William was linked to the college after taking a course in estate management that was run by the university.
The architecture and design of St John’s give it a distinctive charm and style, although it is equally famous for itsthe many legends and traditions that are associated with the college, such as its Fellows being the only non-royals allowed to eat mute swans.
St John’s next door neighbour, Trinity College, is the largest and richest college, and a friendly rivalry between the two has been ongoing since their foundations. The statue of the eagle atop the New Court is said to be turning its head away from Trinity in disgust.
Another draw to St John’s is its famous choir, as well as success in sporting competitions and its celebrated May Ball which takes place annually. Members of the college also founded The Cambridge Apostle and the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race began with a student from the college.
The college celebrated its quincentenary in 2011, with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh making an appearance to mark the event.
Bridge of Sighs
This bridge is no doubt the most famous bridge in Cambridge and once you see it, you will see why. This remarkable covered bridge can be found crossing the Cam at St. John’s, where it joins the college’s Third Court and New Court. Designed by architect Henry Hutchinson, construction took place in 1831.
The Cambridge Bridge of Sighs is named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. While they share very few architectural similarities, they are both covered. The Bridge of Sighs is a Grade I listed building and is one of the top tourist attractions in Cambridge. Queen Victoria was said to love the bridge, and stated it to be her favourite location in the city.
Throughout the years, students have used the bridge as part of a prank. The first incident occurred in 1963, when a group of students decided to punt a 1928 Austin 7 down the river, making use of four punts that had been joined together. They then hoisted the vehicle up under the Bridge of Sighs. Students repeated the prank by dangling a vehicle under the bridge in 1968, but were berated for “causing risk to the structural integrity of the bridge and to its appearance”. Fortunately, the bridge suffered no damage following the prank.
The Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was also an admirer of the bridge. He considered it to be a favourite spot of his as a student. He returned to have his photo taken there in 2000, after having it originally taken on the bridge in 1974.
Wren/ Kitchen Bridge
While it is not as well-known as the Bridge of Sighs, this is still a remarkable landmark in the city and another that can be admired while taking a tour of the river. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and it was built by Robert Grumbold, with construction taking place between 1709 and 1711.
The Kitchen Bridge has stood the test of time, with its high water marks telling tales of many floods that have taken place over the decades. It is the second oldest bridge along the Backs and is one of two bridges that can be found at St John’s College. The bridge is a real feat of construction as it wasit is was carved from a single block of limestone.
The name “Kitchen Bridge” came from the fact that when the New Court Building was completed in 1825, it had a dining hall but no kitchen. Therefore, the food for the students was prepared in the Old Court kitchens before being transported over the bridge.