Could you take the training to tell Cambridge’s secret history?
A walk around the streets of Cambridge with an official Green Badge tour guide is an eye-opening experience. That unassuming double garage down a back street in the city centre? It’s where the circus used to house its animals when it rolled into town. Look up and you will spot two circular holes in a 900-year-old tower. “Owls”, my guide Peter tells me confidently.
“The church used to be overrun with rats and the only way to keep them from scurrying over the monks’ knees during prayers was to attract predator birds to live in the building.”
The story of Cambridge is a tumultuous one of Romans, religion, plague, ghosts and queens, famous lovers with towns named after them and even ancient earthworks coming back to crumble the homes built over them.
The stories are marked into the buildings and the landscape, but you have to know where to look. Even if you have lived in the city for decades, there will be history to unravel that listeners have never heard before. And my two knowledgeable companions, Frankie McGhee and Peter Hains, two City of Cambridge Green Badge tour guides, reckon they could keep going for hours and never run out of tales to tell.
Frankie says: “There are so many stories about Cambridge. One of my favourites is about the rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford University, which you can see on the university crest.”
She points it out above the door of the Whipple Museum. “The two universities’ crests are very similar but on ours, the book in the centre is closed and on Oxford’s it is open. We like to say in Cambridge, we’ve learned everything so we’ve closed the book,” she chuckles.
Turning from the museum, Frankie points to a lopsided house at the end of the road. “That house has fallen victim to the history under our feet,” she explains.
It is built on the site of an ancient trench called The King’s Ditch, which was several metres deep and dug around the city to fortify it against attack in the 1200s. “You can see part of the building has sagged into the ditch, which runs underneath.”
Meanwhile, Peter explains how Cambridge came to prominence because of the plague. “It killed off all the priests who had tended the sick and dying,” he says. “So they needed to train up a lot more priests quickly. You’ll find many colleges were founded around the same time.”
They happily skip between stories from hundreds of years ago to ones within living memory.
Perhaps most Cambridge residents know the story of Watson and Crick announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 to lunchtime patrons of The Eagle pub on Bene’t Street in the city centre. There’s a renewed blue plaque on the wall of the pub commemorating the moment and also remembering Rosalind Franklin whose work they relied upon to come up with their theory.
But other tales may not be so familiar. In the same pub’s cosy RAF bar where Allied airmen socialised, the walls are scrawled with the names and serial numbers of the pilots who drank there. And among them, there is something altogether more startling.
“Can you see those lines on the ceiling drawn in lipstick?” asks Peter.
Squinting up, I can see the outline of what I soon realise is a nude woman. “They wanted to remember her fondly,” he smiles.
He is also happy to show the fireside seat where the ghost of a young airman likes to sit. And on the way out, Frankie points to an upstairs window left open 24 hours a day, whatever the weather, so that the spirit of the child who died in a fire at the old coaching inn is never trapped inside.
Now Peter and Frankie are highlighting a rare opportunity to train as an official Green Badge tourist guide for the city of Cambridge. The training course only comes up once every five years and will run later this year. An information evening about the course runs next week.
Peter says: “After I retired as headteacher of a local secondary school, I inquired about doing the course as I thought I would enjoy learning about Cambridge and meeting new people. But I was told I had just missed the training and would have to wait another five years. I waited patiently for the next training course and can honestly say learning the stories and becoming an official guide has been enormously satisfying.”
Frankie, who previously worked in the Cambridge Tourist Information office, adds: “My job gave me a real interest in the city and I knew about the Green Badge guides so I looked into training and started before I retired. I enjoy meeting people from all over the world and creating a walk tailored to their interests. I can do a traditional walk covering the highlights of Cambridge for tourists, or if you are a local I can still surprise people with secret history that they never knew about. I find I learn something new about Cambridge every day and then can add it to my repertoire.”
Guides not only go through rigorous training to ensure they are all telling factually correct stories but also get tested on their knowledge regularly.
On our stroll around the city, Frankie took us to Free School Lane where there was plenty to tell - some of it much less obvious than other stories.
At one unassuming house, she revealed that a romance led to the naming of a city on the other side of the world.
“Alice Bell lived in this house and spotted her future husband looking down from that window,” Frankie points out.
Twelve-year-old Alice took a fancy to a man who came to knock at the Bell family’s door. It turned out to be a cousin, Charles Todd, who had come to live in Cambridge and was paying a visit to his relatives.
Frankie’s story goes that Alice hid behind a sofa while Charles talked to her mother. When he explained that he was unmarried, Alice jumped up from behind the sofa and said: “I would marry you”.
Roll on several years, and when they met again as adults Alice proposed. They then moved to Australia where Charles became the postmaster general of South Australia and oversaw the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, connecting Adelaide and the rest of Australia, through Darwin, with England, by means of a single wire, in 1872.
One of the telegraph stations, which was at the site of a watering hole, he named Alice Springs, after his wife. The small white house where she grew up is close to the start of Free School Lane.
Frankie and Peter say the training for this role is rigorous and ensures that everyone gets their history right. Stories are checked and must be remembered in fine detail, because visitors have to be able to trust the quality of their tours. Registered Cambridge guides are the only guides permitted to guide within King’s College Chapel. They also run tours that take in many of the colleges if the colleges are not being used for teaching or events.
Chris Weeds, who is running the training course, says: “Good tourist guides enjoy meeting a variety of people and are quickly able to engage and inform whilst adapting the tour content and approach to suit the individual visitors. If you have an interest in history, an ability to be flexible and an enthusiasm to share knowledge with others, then tourist guiding will suit you well and if you have a second language, even better!
“We are delighted to be holding a training course starting in September 2024. Training will be in the city on Thursday evenings and on Saturdays and lead to a professional qualification as a Cambridge Green Badge Guide accredited by the Institute of Tourist Guiding.”
To find out more, without any obligation, come to a drop-in session on Saturday, 10 February, from 10am to 12pm, in the Upper Hall, St Paul’s Church, Hills Road, Cambridge, or email the training team on email@example.com