Cambridge Curiosity Cabinet: How to spot Victorian fakery

Sian Avery 6 February 2015

Whether you’re an architect or a five-year-old, anyone can get some kind of kick out of the quirky and archaic shapes and layouts of this university’s architecture. The closer you look and the more background knowledge you amass, the more of the world you appreciate. One satisfying way of looking at the buildings around us is to get a one-up on the pesky Victorians, who had a thing for copying old styles and pretending their buildings were older than they were.

The gothic style we are so used to around Cambridge, with its spindly pinnacles, solid, slightly menacing masonry, and emphasis on vertical lines, evolved throughout medieval times until it reached its peak with the intricate forms of buildings such as King’s chapel, finished in 1515. Gothic buildings were the grandest and most impressive in the city, until the Victorians came and decided to build a new wave of neo-gothic buildings, designed to look like they had been built centuries earlier in an age of hand tools and feudality.

Cambridge is built from dozens of types of stone and brick, but the most characteristic is the golden limestone that so many fancy college buildings are made from. This golden stone comes mainly from two quarries, called Ketton and Ancaster, with subtle distinctions in look and texture. Ketton limestone is golden but punctuated with the occasional pink brick, while Ancaster limestone is characteristically tiger striped with more orangey bands, and has no pink.

Ketton limestone in Downing, with its surprising pink hues. Credit: Guy Lewy

Ketton, with its pink highlights, was in fashion while the older college buildings were being built, with vast quantities dug up for Downing, the first of the new wave of colleges built after a long founding-less hiatus between 1600 and 1800. Downing seems to have used up all of the Ketton, after which tiger-striped Ancaster fell into vogue with the Victorians and their anachronistic visions of the past. So if you see something that looks old and gold, take a closer look. If, like Downing, the frontage of Emma, or Caius’ Michaelhouse, there is pink, you are looking at a genuinely old building built in the days of horses and monasteries and codpieces. If like St John’s chapel, the Pitt Building, or the frontage of King’s college, it is tiger striped and pinkless, it is not what it’s claiming to be and would have coexisted with the steam train.

Tiger-striped Ancaster limestone on the front of the old Cavendish Lab on Free School Lane. Credit: Guy Lewy

There is no need to belittle the Victorians for their copying of old styles, as the newer buildings are quite pretty in their own right.  But it is amusing to know that the frontage of King’s is 300 years younger than the chapel behind it whose style it mimics. Maybe now you know this you’ll see the history of our streets slightly differently.