Guest Feature: 10 Great Books to Read in Cambridge


For many, reading is an escape into another world, shutting out the reader’s physical environment. Sometimes, though, a place can so perfectly fit a book that reading in that spot intrudes on and enhances the experience.

Cambridge, England is a university town that has inspired authors for more than 800 years. Here are ten books and their perfect places to be read in that city:

The Double Helix and The Dark Lady of DNA, at The Eagle Pub

The Double Helix by James Watson

The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

The Eagle Pub is where Watson and Crick, discoverers of the double helix shape of DNA, used to socialize, and where they first announced their great discovery in 1953. A central pub with decent food, it’s the perfect place have a pint and read Watson’s own words. Since those words minimize the contributions of co-discoverer Rosalind Franklin, it’s worth it to also read Maddox’s excellent biography of her. If you tire of scientific discovery, you can look up and try to decipher the graffiti scrawled onto the ceiling by World War II airmen, leaving their signatures in awareness that they might not make it back.

Case Histories, at the Scott Polar Museum

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson had intended to send the characters of her acclaimed literary detective novel on a cruise to the Antarctic. Instead, she set the book in Cambridge, home of the Scott Polar Research Institute. After a 2010 refurbishment, the museum is now slicker and more brightly lit than when she visited there, but is still full of charm. Read Case Histories in the Memorial Hall entrance, on a wooden bench, underneath circular ceiling murals of the earth’s two poles.

Ghostwalk, at Trinity College

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott

Rebecca Stott’s atmospheric and critically-lauded novel Ghostwalk is set in present-day Cambridge, looking back at the possibility that alchemy-obsessed Isaac Newton was involved in murder in his seventeenth-century Cambridge days. Read it in Trinity College’s chapel, on a wooden bench in the shadow of a larger-than-life-sized statue of Newton.

Milton’s Paradise Lost, at Christ’s College

Paradise Lost, by John Milton

Milton studied at Christ’s College from 1625 to 1632, and is reputed to have sat to write under a certain mulberry tree in the Fellows’ Garden. A descendant of that tree still survives in that spot, and is the perfect place to sit and read Paradise Lost. For a more authentic experience, you could read the poetry of his university days, but no one will fault you for going with his masterwork instead.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, at St. John’s College

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) loosely based his fictional St. Cedd’s College on his alma mater, St. John’s. Pause to read leaning on the side of St. John’s Kitchen Bridge, facing the Bridge of Sighs and one of Cambridge’s loveliest buildings, which is sometimes called “the wedding cake” because of its elaborate and decorative design.

Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, at Christ’s College

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin studied at Christ’s College from 1828-1831. In a small garden in front of a sixties dorm in New Court, a life-sized bronze of Darwin as a young man occupies half a bench. Sit beside him and enjoy the journal from his youthful voyage around the world.

Period Piece, on Laundress Green

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat

Charles Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat wrote this charming and beloved record of her turn-of-the-twentieth-century Cambridge childhood. Read it on Laundress Green, a lawn alongside the river Cam, overlooking the author’s family home, now part of Darwin College. Watch out–picnickers aren’t the only ones on the grass. Cows have grazing rights here and it’s up to you to keep out of their way.

The poetry of Rupert Brooke, in Grantchester

Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke spent the early 1910s living an idyllic life in Grantchester, a picturesque village outside of Cambridge, accessible from the city centre by river or footpath. Sink into a green sling-back chair under the trees at The Orchard tea room, and enjoy a quintessentially English snack of tea and scones while reading the work of this quintessentially English poet in one of his favorite places. He often gathered here with friends such as Virginia Woolf, so feel free to read a Virginia Woolf book here instead, if you prefer.

Pet Sematary, at Magdalene College

Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

All right, I admit this is a bit of a joke. But, Magdalene College really does have the perfect spot for reading this Stephen King classic. In the northwest corner of its Fellows’ Garden is a small, shaded cemetery of beloved pets. Artful headstones tell of a few cats and dogs that have died over the past hundred and thirty years or so. It’s not at all spooky on its own, just sad and sweet. Crack that book open, however, and it’s the perfect place to magnify the chills.


Emily Winslow is the author of psychological suspense set in Cambridge, England, where she lives. Her latest novel, The Start of Everything, launches from Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, on January 8th 2013.

Read More at Anglotopia


  1. avatarJohn Norris says

    Some more ideas for Cambridge enthusiasts…

    There’s a book called “Beared Tit” by Rory McGrath which is largely an autobiography of his time as a Cambridge student as well as his passion for ornithology. It’s not as dull as that sounds, in fact its quite a funny read. Rory is fairly well known over here as a comedian and presenter of travelogues and history programmes.

    Another author to look out for is Alison Bruce who writes detective thrillers based in based in Cambridge. The actual books can be hard to get hold of but they should be available for Kindle, iPad etc.