Clare college, Cambridge as seen from Garrett Hostel Bridge

Clare college on the left, is the oldest college along the Cambridge backs

Have you heard of the Cambridge Backs? Even if you have, do you know what (or where) they are?

Well, never fear, we are here to assist, entertain (we hope) and enlighten.

The Cambridge Backs (or just the Backs for short) are an area of central Cambridge, along the banks of the river Cam, occupied by some of the most famous and prestigious colleges that form Cambridge University.

There are seven Cambridge University colleges situated along the Backs. Going from North to South:

  • Magdalene College
  • St John’s College
  • Trinity College
  • Trinity Hall
  • Clare College
  • King’s College
  • Queens’ College

Just beyond Silver Street bridge at the Southern end of the Backs is Darwin College.

St John's college, Cambridge with the bridge of Sighs

St John’s – one of the largest and wealthiest of the Cambridge colleges, as viewed from the grounds of Trinity college, its neighbour and rival.

The backs, built on land reclaimed from what was effectively the flood plains of the river Cam, are now home to some eye-catching, inspiring, wonderful and in some cases, also rather famous examples of Cambridge architecture, best viewed while relaxing in a Punt, floating down the river.

Punts pass by the back of King's college Cambridge

Punting is a unique and relaxing way to view the Cambridge backs

What’s in a name?

The name, ‘the Backs’ came about because this area was referred to as the backs of the previously mentioned colleges. The river wends its way through the grounds of a number of these renowned educational establishments.

However in many cases there are now college buildings on either bank of the river. Nonetheless, the name has stood the test of time. As have the views.

The mathematical bridge at Queens' college, Cambridge

Queens’ college so called Mathematical bridge, at one end of the backs, Cambridge, joins the two sides of the college together

Outstanding scenery, amazing tranquillity

Yes, it’s a clich√© but the backs have to be seen to be believed. They are an area of outstanding beauty and (often) tranquillity in the heart of the bustling medieval city of Cambridge. Chances are, you will have seen some images of the backs already. The world famous view of King’s college, as seen from the backs, is arguably the most recognisable view of the city.

King's college chapel as seen from the backs, Cambridge, during winter

A world famous vista. The chapel of King’s college looms over neighbouring Clare college. Even during the winter, this is a wonderful sight

The Cambridge backs are characterised by wide open spaces, well manicured lawns, immaculately maintained old buildings, cattle grazing and, during the summer months, people sat relaxing, along the banks of the river, watching the world (and the punts) go by. New court, Trinity college and Trinity Hall college as seen from the Cambridge backs

What might have been?

However, the Cambridge backs as we know it today could have been a very different place. A scheme devised by famous landscape gardener to the stars, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, would have resulted in a much altered look for the area, even turning parts of the river Cam into a lake. We will never know how this might have turned out as his plans never came to fruition, as the colleges involved could not agree with each other and ultimately the plans were abandoned.

A college porter at Trinity watches the river Cam

A college porter at Trinity college keeps a watchful eye on things. In the background the river is busy with punts

You might think that it sounds like a lovely place to go for a stroll along the river. However, one does not simply walk along the backs. The land is privately owned by each of the colleges and there is no tow-path along the route of the river. The closest you can get, on foot at least, is by walking along the Queens’ road. However, this is often quite a distance from the colleges and when the trees are in leaf, the view is obscured by the greenery.

A view of Trinity new court and the Wren library through the trees

Pesky trees all but obscuring views of the new court and Wren library at Trinity college

So what is the best way to see the backs I hear you ask? Well, unless you happen to be a member of Cambridge University, with free access to the colleges, or you can fly, then really, your best option is by punting along the river.

St John's New court as seen from the river Cam

Yes, we could be accused of being somewhat biased but these are views that we never tire of seeing, nor do we ever tire of sharing them with visitors who join us on our punt tours, whatever the weather or the time of year. We’ve got loads more photos like this to illustrate the point on our Instagram feed.

The sky’s the limit

These days, thanks to advances in modern technology, we can give you a view of the Cambridge backs from above. This short 60 second video gives you an idea of some of the wonderful sights that can be seen at the colleges along the river Cam.