Family travel is a lot of fun but sometimes it’s important to spend some one-on-one time with your children and with my eldest son having just started secondary school I was keen to take some time out of both of our increasingly busy schedules to get away from it all, just the two of us. We contemplated jumping on the Eurostar and heading to Paris but going abroad felt a bit too much effort for what we were both determined would be a relaxing and stress-free weekend. So we put a few more local cities in a hat, and Cambridge was the one we pulled out.
A quick search of child-friendly hotels brought us to The Gonville Hotel - a boutique both enough to the train station to walk, and right in the middle of town, it ticked lots of boxes. When we arrived to find the hotel’s classic Bentley parked outside, Finn’s eyes lit up, and after we’d paused long enough to take enough photos to WhatsApp his car-mad friends back home in London, we checked into our generously proportioned twin room (complete with kids pack and free cookies) and readied ourselves to explore the city.
The Gonville Hotel has a classic Bentley which offers guests guided tours of the city
There’s no denying that Cambridge is stunning. The historic colleges pepper the city centre, making it a delight to explore, a postcard-worthy view around every corner. But what would I find for us to do that would both satisfy my grown-up desires for a weekend away, and Finn’s tweenage interests?
Having consulted the concierge, we put a few items on our itinerary for the weekend. Number one? A punting trip down the River Cam. Our hotel sold tickets which made decisions easy and we headed off to the other side of the city to jump in a boat. Private punting trips do not come cheap – around £100 for a couple, and probably best reserved for special romantic weekend away. We jumped on a group tour which was perfect – only 9 in our boat and it’s a fabulous way to see the city without moans of sore feet or boredom.
Ducking under the Bridge of Sighs on our punt
Our guide was great: a talking guidebook with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his city, but funny enough to have Finn in giggles at a few points of the journey. You sit so low in the punt that you come face-to-face with a number of ducks and geese as you sail off down the river. A great first activity.
Dinner out is easy, you can go as high or low end as you choose. Cambridge has all the usual chain restaurants, we enjoyed burgers at Bill's – Finn’s choice. And he was great company - it’s lovely to see how one child transforms into a different person without their usual sibling company. As we ate we looked through our guidebooks and planned our one full day in the city and since there’s no escaping the learned atmosphere in this prestigious university town we decided the morning would be our chance to geek out.
If you have a child who has an interest in rocks, minerals, sparkly things and fossils, then the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences is a must-visit destination. With complete dinosaur skeletons and more ammonite fossils than you could ever believe existed, let alone could be collected under one roof, it was an 11-year-old wanna-be archaeologist’s dream. It felt rather like a smaller and slightly more eccentric Natural History museum to me, but really, whatever your child’s interests, there’s a museum to match in Cambridge. And although it had not been the intention to touch on academia at all on our weekend free from school and homework, the discussions about University – what it was, how colleges worked, and what you could study – seemed to light a spark of interest in Finn for what lay ahead, at least in terms of being able to study only the things he found interesting and drop all the boring stuff!
In the afternoon we were treated to a drive around town in our hotel’s fabulous Bentley, by the charismatic concierge Elliot Murray, dressed in full uniform. It was both fabulous and hysterical – as we drove down roads barely any other cars took we became the tourist attraction ourselves, waving like royalty as we three-point-turned outside King's College, photographed by countless tourists in our amazing classic car.
Views of King's College from Great St Mary's Church tower
A few other highlights not to be missed included a climb of Great St Mary's Church tower (a lot more fun than it sounds, the spiral staircase is very tight and the view superb at the top), a visit to Parkside Pools and a jog along the river (my choice this one, but one Finn agreed after all had been quite fun. Especially since it earned him tea at the new Japanese bakery Soboro later in the afternoon). Lunch at the Copper Kettle was also fun – a great spot right opposite King's and a celeb favourite judging by all the signed pictures on the wall. Most exciting – the photo of a dressed down and heavily disguised Daniel Craig who had dropped in for a full English breakfast recently. Hey – if it’s good enough for 007, it’s good enough for us.
Such an easy trip from London (just 46 minutes on the train) Cambridge was a fabulous family mini-break destination and the ease of travel made it genuinely relaxing and simple. As we arrived back at King’s Cross station on Sunday afternoon Finn was desperate to get home and compare photos with his dad and brother, keen to have had the better weekend no doubt. But while I was eager to delay a return to sibling competitiveness I had to agree his photos were fantastic and Cambridge had not only been a lot of fun, but a very photogenic destination too.
FAMILY TRIED AND TESTED CHEAT SHEET
When to go: Cambridge is good any time of year, but if you want to avoid the crazy crowds, go in spring or autumn
Where to stay: The Gonville Hotel is well situated between the train station and the main centre of town, so most things can be reached on foot – their Bentley trips are also unique and memorable.
What not to miss: The view from the Great St Mary's Church tower is worth every one of the 123 steps to get up there and offers a wonderful overview of the city.
What to avoid: Some of the prime tourist destinations can become literally crawling with tourists as the day goes on. Get out early in the morning to explore the stunning colleges and get an early punt in. Then head to the museums as the lunch time rush starts to gather.