Punting Sights – The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs connects the original sections of St John's College with New Court at the University of Cambridge via crossing the Cam. It is without a doubt one of England's most magnificent bridges.
The bridge is best observed from a punt on the Cam, or from its sister bridge, the Wren Bridge if you have access to St John's College. It is always one of the most talked-about and admired locations on our punting trips, and it is a definite favourite of both our guides and our visitors.
St John's College was more than three centuries old when it became Cambridge's first College to expand westward with student housing into The Backs. The Bridge of Sighs was constructed to connect the magnificent New Court to the older buildings of the College.
Hutchinson created a bridge design true to the romantic Neo-Gothic style, the very height of architectural fashion at the time. It’s certainly one of the most loved features in Cambridge.
The Bridge of Sighs itself has tracery openings – stonework elements that are traditionally used to support the glass in a Gothic window. You’ll notice that the bridge does not have any glass!
This bridge's eye-catching gothic style has made it popular among photographers and filmmakers. It has appeared in thousands of photographs, multimedia projects, and even blockbuster films, most notably The Theory of Everything (2014) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).
This Victorian Gothic bridge was College designed and built. It was built in 1831 and is the only covered bridge that crosses the Cam River.
A Moniker Question – The Bridge of Sighs
In typical Cambridge fashion, most people refer to this Grade I listed bridge by the moniker ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, despite this not actually being its official name!
The bridge's official name is the more mundane 'New Bridge,' which corresponds to the recently finished St John's New Court (another fantastically mundane name from the College). So, how did the bridge get its more trendy moniker?
In October 1843, Queen Victoria famously visited Cambridge with her husband Prince Albert. The royal visit was treated with great excitement in the city, since it was the first time a reigning monarch had been to Cambridge in nearly 120 years.
The Queen and Prince were greeted by huge crowds, decorations everywhere, and a triumphal arch set up in Trumpington Street along their route to Trinity College, where they were to stay the night.
The following morning Victoria and Albert were taken on a tour of several colleges, including St. John’s.
The fellows of the College were particularly pleased to show Queen Victoria the ‘New Bridge’ – which had been completed only 12 years before – and the led her onto the Wren Bridge to get a good look at the newest bridge across the Cam.
Victoria was reportedly quite taken with the sight and is recorded to have remarked that it was the most ‘picturesque view in Cambridge’. After clearly stating this was her favourite view in the city, she went on to say that the bridge itself reminded her of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.
Now, if you’ve seen the Venetian Bridge of Sighs you’ll know that it obviously looks nothing like the impressive St. John’s bridge. The original Venetian Bridge of Sighs is not anywhere near as ornate as Cambridge’s beauty!
If you consider the comment, there could be some good reasons behind Queen Victoria making this comparison.
Many suggest that it could simply be that Victoria was looking for a suitable complement for the bridge and not being about to think of any views that were directly analogous simply picked one that she thought people would know or at least recognise as a compliment.
Another possibility is that, since her eyesight was famously pretty bad for much of her life (her own private physician, Dr James Reed, incurred the wrath of Queen Victoria by diagnosing her with cataracts in later life), the Queen simply couldn’t see the bridge very clearly.
All in all, the reason for the nickname is likely either due to royal manners or poor eyesight. Either seems plausible and in reality, nobody knows!
Either way, not wanting to offend the royals, possibly because of the fitting atmosphere on the river at this point, the comment was held in Cambridge as a new epithet.
The tall buildings that rise on either side of the river Cam at this point create an atmosphere of romantic menace, allowing punters for a few aquatic seconds to imagine themselves as gondoliers in fair Venice. This is possibly a further reason why the bridge’s name stuck.
Student Pranks – The Bridge of Sighs
Believe it or not, rebellious students have suspended a car from the underside of this bridge not once, but twice!
In 1963, an Austin 7 was punted down the river on four punts lashed together for the first time. The car was then hauled up and ropes were used to suspend it from the bridge.
If a stunt is impressive, it is worth repeating. Students did, indeed, recreate the stunt with a Reliant Regal three-wheeled car in 1968.
Fortunately, neither incident resulted in bridge damage. It would have been a startling sight the next morning on both occasions!
Bridge of Sighs Myth Buster
Whilst a good story, the bridge is sadly NOT called the Bridge of Sighs because it leads from bedrooms inside the New Court to the horrors of the examination rooms.
This common myth is easily debunked as at Cambridge, examinations are not taken inside your College. The bridge leads to the Third Court which, amongst other things, provides accommodation for some of the Fellows’ who live and work in St John’s College.
Anyone claiming that it’s where you sit exams is basically suggesting that John’s students take exams in Fellows bedrooms! This is definitely not how the university works.