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Cambridge University Library

Cindies, Curry King and kitsch: what I learned about Cambridge from studying there

Cambridge is the home of the country's second-oldest university, many examples of the UK's most stunning architecture, and at least three Pret A Mangers. Before I started studying there, I knew little about the city other than its illustrious reputation – but there's a real city under all the myth. Here's the insider knowledge I picked up from three years living in Cambridge.

The university library is truly a sight to see

In the 1930s, Giles Gilbert Scott designed the Cambridge University Library, and John D. Rockefeller, who was bankrolling much of the library's construction, persuaded Scott to add a really big tower. As a result, the city is now overseen by a monumental construction that strikes fear into the hearts of many a student. It is majestic, inspiring awe and horror...

...however, both Scott's and Rockefeller's eyesight might have been going a bit during construction, because the library is also really, really ugly. It looks like the evil lair of a two-bit cartoon villain who might poke a death ray out of it at any moment. So, if you ever feel inadequate as a student, just remember that the bloke who designed the red telephone box and the House of Commons can make mistakes, too.

Clubbing: good luck

Cambridge has four main nightclubs – aside from Atomic on Station Road, a mostly LGBT-focused club - and they're all fantastically bad. They also change names about once a year, though nobody cares (Cindies hasn't technically been called Cindies for decades and is currently called Ballare, but it's still Cindies to almost everyone in Cambridge). Vinyl, formerly known as Kuda and commonly called Life (are you confused yet?) has just had a new retro redesign and now contains enough neon lights to trigger an epileptic fit. Fez has a vaguely Moroccan decor and is inexplicably sticky. The music and the vibe of the clubs, however, are all interchangeable, and you'll have fun at any of them if you're with the right people. Just make sure you lower your expectations.

Your money will disappear faster than you ever thought possible

Thought not being in London would save your wallet? The colleges may have subsidised food and accommodation, but the £6 club entry, the constant stop-offs for a cheeky Nanna Mexico or Aromi and the unbelievably pricey end-of-year ball tickets (which can run as high as £200) will have you living on beans halfway through term if you're not careful. The first time you get charged £6.50 for a Bulmer's on a pub crawl, you'll vow to never drink again – at least, never outside the college bar. Whatever you do, save some money for Jack's Gelato in the summer, though.

You'll get used to the city having two faces

For tourists and parents, Cambridge is a mystical experience rather than a liveable city, with breathtaking architecture, fancy formal dinners and students swanning about in the evenings in suits and gowns. But for you, Cambridge consists of traipsing to the bathroom for water because your room doesn't have a sink, wondering why the bathroom smells slightly like vomit, and then downing a bowl of cereal and jogging so you won't be too late to that 9.00 am.

Take advantage of the student theatre

Cambridge has an amazing array of student-driven theatre, sending dozens of shows to the Fringe each year. Its biggest theatre is the ADC, which hosts the term's blockbuster shows, and its other main theatre is Corpus Playroom on King's Parade, an intimate, low-ceilinged space that features small-cast plays. Meanwhile, the New Cellars in Pembroke College hosts a range of content, including some of the most demented theatre I've ever seen in my life (and, occasionally, plays featuring free alcohol). Individual colleges also have their own theatres and productions, which are, at times, the most underrated shows in the university.

The best gems are found outside the centre

Dare to venture a bit outside of the university-monopolised city centre, and you'll find some of the best places in Cambridge. The cluster of charity shops by the Grafton centre lead out onto East Road, which takes you up to Cambridge's superstores: the 'big' central Sainsbury's seems like peanuts by comparison. Meanwhile, Mill Road is fantastically eclectic, with some of Cambridge's best restaurants and shops (shoutout to Ohayo and The Sea Tree) and situated near Kelsey Kerridge, Cambridge's best gym. Anglia Ruskin University also has a cool campus and its own theatre, as well as a tricked-out radio suite used by Cambridge's student radio stations.

Adjusting from Cambridge is hard

You'll complain about Cambridge so much while you're there. The workload is stressful; the nightlife is mediocre; the city's expensive; tourists swarm at the first sign of sunshine; you either bike everywhere and have to worry about it getting stolen, or you're a pedestrian and have to dodge kamikaze bikes all the time. If you're a humanities student, you can't even get a decent lunch on the Sidgwick site after lectures (and no, the sandwiches at the Arc do not count).

But as soon as you're not in Cambridge anymore, you'll start to miss everything: the cute little market, the beautiful, quiet grounds of the colleges in the evening, the constant events and shows, laughing at its kitschy traditions, secretly quite liking some of the kitschy traditions, getting lost in the sweet little residential streets at the weekend, the self-avowedly terrible swaps at Curry King (for the uninitiated, swaps are when two societies go out to dinner together – they're uniformly a mess).

I've been away from Cambridge for a year and I miss it. Enjoy all its weirdness and stupidity while you can.

Dani Cugini, University of Cambridge English graduate

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