To the canny local historian, Castle Hill suggests a castle, but walk up it and you won’t see much of one (unless you stop at the Castle Inn, halfway up, source of a different kind of fortification).

Castle Hill is the only half-proper hill in Cambridge; people occasionally get off their bikes and push. It runs up beyond the river after Magdelene College (coming from the centre), at more or less the area of the first settlement of Cambridge, or Grantabrigge, as it would have been called then.

Near the top of the hill, to your right just before you reach the Shire Hall, there is an aggressive ten-metre mound – walk to the top of it and you will have some fine views back down over the city. And this is indeed the motte of the old motte-and-bailey castle that for centuries dominated the town, but now is no more.


The castle was built in 1068, just after the Norman conquest, as a way of supporting William’s campaign to capture York (three were built in the east of England that year, at Cambridge, Huntingdon, and Lincoln). The castle changed hands various times during the Anarchy (Stephen and Matilda) and the two Barons’ Wars, and was modified and fortified at various times, most dramatically by Edward I (towards the end of the thirteenth century), who rebuilt it in stone over a period of 14 years and at considerable cost, adding towers and gatehouses and the whole panoply of baronial oppression so beloved of the Romantic imagination.

Nice to think, then, that it fell into desuetude and was dismantled bit by bit, the stone being used by various of the colleges (notably, King’s and Trinity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries). The Castle dissolved, so to speak, into the University – and also the town, since the site of the old castle is now where Shire Hall, seat of local government, was built in 1932.

The walk up Castle Hill, then, and to the top of the motte earthwork, is a ghostly one, and a liberating one, and, if you like a view and are in the mood for a pint, a worthwhile one.


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