Paddling time: 50-65 minutes
Start point: Fen Road, Chesterton
While the Backs takes all the glory for paddling in Cambridge and with good reason, the stretch downriver from Jesus Green to Chesterton has plenty to see with riverside pubs, wide open parks, rowing boatyards and one of the city’s landmark buildings.
This tour can also be done in reverse, starting at Jesus Lock, but for convenience and especially if you’re travelling by car, we’re going to begin at Chesterton and paddle upriver towards the city. There is a free car park with around ten spaces along Fen Road, where you can set up right next to the river. If it’s full, try Fen Road itself or the residential streets leading off it. Enter the water here and head right, immediately passing a row of large waterfront houses. At this point the Cam is at its widest as it passes through the city and beyond, which is handy as this stretch can be busy with rowing traffic, so keep to the right and watch out for anything approaching from behind.
On the opposite bank from the put-in and looking to the east is the vast Stourbridge Common. On a clear morning, this is the spot to be to capture an uninterrupted view of the sunrise. It’s criss-crossed by pathways and is hugely popular with dog walkers, runners and cyclists. Often you can see cows grazing, bringing a touch of the countryside to the city. As you begin the paddle, ahead is the Green Dragon footbridge and on the right bank, the gardens of the Green Dragon pub, the first of several waterside pubs along this route and a great place to stop on your return trip. Continue onwards for a few minutes and you‘ll spot Cantabrigian Rowing Club on your right, the first of many boathouses on this route.
The end of Stourbridge Common marks the beginning of Riverside, a residential street raised above the water level atop a high wall. The nicer views are on your right where you’ll see Logan’s Meadow and fast approaching, the white skeleton-like structure of the Chesterton cycle and footbridge. On the right hand bank is an unusual-looking multicoloured structure which you might mistake for a piece of public art. In fact, it’s a swift tower, with 150 boxes to encourage birds to nest.
Dominating the skyline on your left is the chimney of the city’s former sewage pumping station and now the Cambridge Museum of Technology. At 175 feet high the chimney is among the tallest buildings in Cambridge. Keep an eye out for the place next door. It’s OtherSyde – a quirky entertainment venue which is home to an escape room, open air bar and restaurant with a terrace overlooking the river which is packed nightly in summer. If you’re going for an early paddle then check out the coffee at Kerb Kollective, a street café at the foot of the steps leading to OtherSyde.
The peace and quiet is swiftly broken as Riverside passes underneath the brutal-looking Elizabeth Way bridge, carrying four lanes of traffic in and out of the city centre. Thankfully, the route quickly returns to green as the landscape of Midsummer Common opens up on your left. This is the home of many public events including Strawberry Fair, the annual 5 November fireworks display and the Cambridge Half Marathon.
The opposite river bank is lined with college and city rowing club boathouses, while the riverbank alongside Midsummer Common will have houseboats, moored nose to tail. Sticking to the left hand side of the river, you may easily miss the unassuming grey-bricked building on your left, just before a footbridge. In fact, this is Midsummer House - the only two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Cambridge. For those on a smaller budget, try the Fort St Georgepub next door! Or for an alternative riverside pub with a terrace overlooking the water, the Boathouse pub is immediately opposite.
We’re approaching the turnaround point now. Before we reach Jesus Lock, paddle underneath the decorative Victoria Road bridge. Unlike the two wilder commons earlier in this paddle, the much more manicured Jesus Green with its wide tree-lined avenues will be on your left. The 90m-long Jesus Green Lido sits alongside the river; behind it is the site of the Cambridge Beer Festival, one of the largest and longest-running events of its kind in the country and held every May. Being so close to the city centre, this a hugely popular park and as I wrote in my guide to The Backs, Jesus Green is a great place to pull up on the river bank and break the journey. The lock here is the obvious place to spin around and return down-river to the start point. Alternatively, extend your journey by portaging round the lock and combine this paddle with Tour #1 and take in The Backs, too.
All craft paddling The Backs, including paddle boards, are required to be registered with the Cam Conservators, who look after the River Cam between Mill Pond and Bottisham Lock to the north of the city. Membership of British Canoeing will suffice, but in addition the Cam Conservators require your membership number to be displayed on your board. Think about a temporary solution if you’re paddling this tour as a one-off.