A Fascinating Tour of the Historic Heart of Trinity College Cambridge

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” ~ Sir Isaac Newton

Monday 25th June was an important date in my diary. My job was to take my younger son, William, to visit Trinity College Cambridge for an Arts Open Day. The invite had come via his school, and I was determined that he shouldn’t miss the opportunity to get an idea of what it might be like to study at one of the most respected universities in the UK, if not the world.

Trinity College – the Great Court and fountain

Until now, Will has not considered attending university; he wants to go to a specialist drama school after A-Levels. But he now has another option depending on his academic results at GCSE and A-Level over the course of the next two years.

The invite came as part of the university’s drive to take on students from more diverse and less privileged backgrounds than they traditionally would consider.

Trinity College Cambridge – Clock Tower

Trinity’s motto is Virtus Vera Nobilitas (Virtue is true nobility), a fitting slogan for all who aspire to achieve, no matter their circumstances.

I was hoping the experience would inspire William and create a belief that anything is possible regarding his future – if he is prepared to work hard. He has shown an incredible work ethic in year 11 and while studying for his GCSEs, to the point that his school have bestowed an award for his attitude to learning which will be formally presented at a special ceremony on 17th July.

Trinity College – the Great Gate from inside the Great Court

Trinity College – Dining Hall – presided over by Henry VIII!

There is no doubt that Will was impressed by Trinity, and he is absorbing the information he received during the visit. He would not be able to study drama there, but under the subjects encompassed in Arts & Humanities he could read History. Trinity only take around 10 – 12 students per year as undergraduates in History, so he would have to get top grades in history and across the board, as well as pass an entrants exam and interview.

History is probably his favourite after drama, and one of his chosen A-Level subjects.

I don’t have a glass ball with which to predict the future, but I do know that if he sets his mind to something he will move heaven and earth to make it happen.

“History provides an intellectual training and a stimulus to the imagination: it enables one to put expertise into its human context.” ~ Trinity College Cambridge

Whilst Will was involved in his history discussion subject, as a parent, I was permitted to have a tour of the college.

Trinity College Cambridge – view of the Dining Hall from Nevile’s Court beneath the Wren Library

Trinity College Cambridge – Bowling Green off the Great Court.

I would have been rather at a loose end in Cambridge for most of the day after I dropped Will off to register and attend the welcoming lecture, as no parents were allowed to accompany their children. My dad and step mum live near Colchester and so met up with me for a leisurely lunch on the terrace at Prezzo’s, watching the punts go by on the peaceful and serene River Cam.

River Cam

River Cam by Queen’s College, Cambridge

We then returned to Trinity for our tour of the college. It was the hottest day of the year so far, marking the start of the current heat wave sweeping the UK. I don’t think we could have asked for a more beautiful day to see the college.

Afterwards we strolled along past Gonville & Caius College, King’s College, Corpus Christi and Queens College before a much needed drink to cool off in The Anchor.

The Corpus Clock and Chronophage in Cambridge, photo taken at 3.13pm

There’s an amazing, if somewhat bizarre, clock on the route, the Corpus Clock:

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

A recording of the famous King’s College Choir inside King’s College Chapel from 2011:

Entrance to King’s College Cambridge

A university side street

Corpus Christi College Cambridge

Will loving the Cambridge vibe…

The Round Church (Holy Sepulchre) in Cambridge c. 1130

Short history of Trinity College Cambridge

Trinity College was founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, as an amalgamation of King’s Hall (founded in 1317 by Edward II) and Michaelhouse (founded by Hervey de Stanton in 1324).

1575 map of Trinity College Cambridge

Henry was hell-bent on plundering the monasteries, abbeys and church lands, (as touched on in a previous post about Tintern Abbey), and Cambridge University may well have suffered the same fate, but for the intervention of his sixth wife, Catherine Parr; who persuaded her husband to create a new college from existing ones rather than shutting them down.

Henry’s statue on the exterior of the Great Gate commemorates his forming of Trinity College.

Trinity College Cambridge – The Great Gate from Trinity Street

The Great Court

Just stepping inside the Great Court makes you feel intelligent! Perhaps it’s a sense of being part of something bigger than even the University of Cambridge and its constituent colleges such as Trinity, Corpus Christi, St. John’s and King’s – the act of higher education itself.

The centuries of learning that has taken place on this site has somehow seeped into the bricks and permeates the air with inspiration…

Trinity College Cambridge – the Great Court (Great Gate and fountain).

The Great Court was designed and conceived by Thomas Nevile (Master of Trinity from 1593 to 1615), who adapted buildings where necessary and added new ones, including the Great Hall in the early 1600s, to what is essentially still in daily use.

Unknown artist – Thomas Nevile (1548-1615), Master (1593-1615), Dean of Peterborough (1590-1597) and Dean of Canterbury (1597-1615); Trinity College, University of Cambridge

Print of the Great Court and Nevile’s Court of Trinity College by David Loggan c. 1690

Trinity College Cambridge – Dining Hall from the Great Court, adjoining the ivy covered Master’s Lodge.

Trinity College Cambridge – Lavender around the fountain in the Great Court.

The Great Court Run is a long running tradition; an all-out 400 yard dash undertaken by freshers around the court on the day of their matriculation dinner, (portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire about the British Olympic runners of 1924).

Trinity College Chapel

It was especially wonderful to experience the college chapel, built in the Gothic Tudor style, and Grade 1 listed like much of the college. The chapel construction dates to the mid 16th century by order of Queen Mary,  completed by Queen Elizabeth I.

The only part of Trinity College Chapel seen from Trinity Street

The chapel is on the right as you enter through the Great Gate. We were fortunate to hear choral undergraduates rehearsing. Their voices resembled a choir of angels, rising like ethereal vibrations into the vaulted ceiling, wafting peace and tranquility over us  mortals below…

Trinity College Cambridge – entrance to the chapel from the Great Court

Trinity College Chapel during a choral rehearsal

Beautiful windows inside the chapel

Trinity College Chapel – Royal crests on the ceiling

Marble statues of Tennyson, Newton, Bacon and other great alumni are placed in the entrance to the chapel.

Trinity College Chapel – Tennyson

Trinity College Chapel – Sir Francis Bacon

Trinity College Chapel – Sir Isaac Newton

The Wren Library

As the name suggests, Thomas Nevile also built the smaller, eponymous Nevile’s Court in 1614, between the Great Court and the River Cam.

Trinity College Cambridge – the cloisters of Nevile’s Court

Trinity College Cambridge – facing the Wren Library from the opposite side of Nevile’s Court

Its elegant cloistered space remained three sided until the addition of the prestigious Wren Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1676 and 1695 to house the college’s burgeoning requirement for books and keep up with Trinity’s growth and diversity of interest.

My dad admiring the Wren Library

View from the lower stairs at the back of the Wren Library over the River Cam.

I could have spent all day in there, but it is a place of scholarly reading and not generally open to the public. I was thrilled to see one of two of Shakespeare’s First Folios housed in the library, alongside a handwritten poetry book (which preceded paradise Lost), by John Milton – the only known example of his handwriting.  My eyes devoured original writings by Alfred Lord Tennyson, A.A. Milne and A.E. Houseman.

The Wren Library also holds Sir Isaac Newton’s own original copy of Principa Mathematica, (Will was stoked to see that and took a sneaky photo).

The Wren Library – Newton’s Principa Mathematica

There have been many notable and famous alumni across diverse fields of study and achievement: science, mathematics, politics, literature, music, history and philosophy.

“Cambridge has seen many strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk, it has seen Porson sober. I am a greater scholar than Wordsworth and I am a greater poet than Porson. So I fall betwixt and between.”
~ A. E. Housman, in Richard Perceval Graves A.E. Housman: The Scholar Poet 

Two British composers that had much success here included Sir John Villiers Stanford, who would go on to teach Trinity Alumni Ralph Vaughan Williams at the RCM as a post graduate.

“Stanford’s music the sense of style, the sense of beauty, the feeling of a great tradition is never absent. His music is in the best sense of the word Victorian, that is to say it is the musical counterpart of the art of Tennyson, Watts and Matthew Arnold.”
~ Ralph Vaughan Williams

Portrait of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the top of the stairs leading to the Wren Library

Stanford’s most well-known composition is probably ‘The Blue Bird’, set to words by Mary E. Coleridge:

“The lake lay blue below the hill.

O’er it, as I looked, there flew

Across the waters, cold and still,

A bird whose wings were palest blue.

~

The sky above was blue at last,

The sky beneath me blue in blue.

A moment, ere the bird had passed,

It caught his image as he flew”.

My favourite composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams is The Lark Ascending, for violin and orchestra, closely followed by Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:

Land and investments

Trinity is thought to be the richest of the Oxbridge colleges, with a landholding alone worth £800 million. Trinity is sometimes suggested to be the third or fourth wealthiest landowner in the UK (or in England) – after the Crown Estate, the National Trust and the Church of England. In 2005, Trinity’s annual rental income from its properties was reported to be in excess of £20 million.

Trinity purportedly owns:

  • 3400 acres (14 km2) housing facilities at the Port of Felixstowe, Britain’s busiest container port
  • The Cambridge Science Park
  • The O2 Arena in London (formerly the Millennium Dome)

There is so much history and greatness embedded within these ancient, sandy walls, but as you would expect, plenty of learning, debating, drinking, socialising and unabashed fun as part of atavistic university life.

I would be thrilled if he made it into their hallowed ranks, but either way, I’m immensely proud of him.

“I am looking forward very much to getting back to Cambridge, and being able to say what I think and not to mean what I say: two things which at home are impossible. Cambridge is one of the few places where one can talk unlimited nonsense and generalities without anyone pulling one up or confronting one with them when one says just the opposite the next day.”
 ~ Bertrand Russell, Letter to Alys Pearsall Smith (1893)

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