“Where did that come from?”: The bright ideas that changed Cambridge

Stevie Hertz 27 October 2014

Given its age, it’s unsurprising that Cambridge is seeped in tradition; from gowns to Latin grace, it can often feel stuck in its ways. But occasionally, inspiration strikes and ideas have come along that have changed the very fundamentals of the University. Though sometimes accidental and often illogical, these inventions have made the Cambridge we know and puzzle over today.


As a method of transportation, punting dates back to the Thames in the 19th century. But as a method of luring tourists and mucking around in May Week, punting came to the Cam in 1902. While it suited the shallow and narrow river, punting wasn’t popular until the 1910s, when Girton ladies adopted it as a method of flashing some ankle by steering wrongly and standing on the box, rather than in the boat.

Chelsea Buns

Invented – somewhat unsurprisingly – in Chelsea in 1730s (by the same people who claim to have invented the hot cross bun), the Chelsea bun migrated to Cambridge when the famous Fitzbillies was opened in 1921. Quickly becoming an institution, hundreds queued up for their Chelsea buns during the war. The owners attribute their long running success to undergraduates’ insatiable metabolism and the deep-seated hunger of rowers.


Original designs for the humble bicycle date back to 15th century, though they became mass-produced with the Penny Farthing in the mid-1800s. With solid iron tires and not a brake in sight, cycling then was even more dangerous than it is now, even without many one-way streets. Quickly a symbol of Cambridge, bikes also became an image of the emancipated woman. When the University was debating granting degrees to women in 1897, Cambridge students protested by hanging up an effigy of a woman riding a bike in Market Square, only to decapitate her and stuff her through the gates of Newnham. Never ones to waste a perfectly good vehicle, the bicycle survived.