"Even sights we thought we were familiar with surprised us with how little we actually knew"Emily Lawson-Todd with permission for Varsity

When you think of the Cambridge’s art scene, your mind probably wanders to the prestigious paintings and sculptures hanging from the walls of college formal halls and encrusting their towering artifices, the masterpieces lining the winding corridors of the Fitzwilliam, the frames dotting the white rooms of edgy independent galleries on King’s Parade and the colourful images flowing from student zines, societies and exhibitions.

Intrepid explorers (Grace's friends) on an epic adventure (finding hidden art in Cambridge) Grace Cobb with permission for Varsity

But how much art goes unnoticed on the city streets, tucked in between libraries and novelty shops, trodden under our feet and inscribing the bricks above our head as we rush between lectures, classes and cafes, not stopping to take a second look at the hidden statues, miniature figurines, colourful illustrations or intricate engravings which beckon from out of the corner of our eyes? Created in pursuit of making this creative underworld come alive to busy students and locals as well as tourists, I tried and tested a new self-guided tour of Cambridge’s hidden art scene, which goes well beyond the Dinky Doors we all know and love. Linking together everything from underground statues and political vandalism to flowers sprouting from the pavement, the tour brings you into encounters with art intertwined with stories of Charles Darwin, Quentin Blake, Stephen Hawking, Soviet physicists and literal May Ball fossils to shed light on the complex lives and histories of the masterpieces which fill the dark backstreets of the city.

“It’s impossible to walk away from this tour without seeing your usual route in a whole new light”

Upon discovering the tour and recruiting two of my most obliging friends – unsure of what exactly they had got themselves into – we assembled outside Fitzbillies on a sub-zero-degree afternoon, ready to be led to eight mysterious locations via clues texted to us by a man we’d never met. What could possibly go wrong?

Luckily, this review is not about to take a dark turn, as we quickly found ourselves looking down at a dinky doorway rather than being dragged down a dark alleyway. We were in fact safe in the experienced hands of Murray Jacobs, Cambridge Green Badge Guide and founder of tour company Hidden Cambridge. Mainly taking the conventional route of leading guided tours around Cambridge himself, he has nevertheless dabbled in some eccentric themes – including Britain’s only tour for dog lovers and their dogs – but combining a self-guided treasure hunt with the (virtual) presence of a knowledgeable tour guide is experimental even for him.

“It’s worth becoming a tourist in your own city for an hour – you might be surprised with what you find”

Despite being advertised as “self-guided”, this isn’t entirely true – OK, there’s no-one standing in front of you rephrasing Wikipedia pages and reciting the same poorly-landing jokes, but having to decipher clues before hunting down each artwork ourselves (and getting slightly lost somewhere in the midst of Downing Site along the way) made it far more interactive than any traditional tour. The anticipation of the next challenge pinging through on my phone and sending us trekking to another obscure corner of town was far more thrilling than being another sheep shuffling behind a high-vis-jacket-clad shepherd. We were never quite alone though - luckily our trusty guide was willing to throw in a few clues, which (despite damaging our egos slightly when we accepted the help) saved us from pacing over the same three metres of pavement for half an hour.


Mountain View

‘Black-gowned and unaware’: Cambridge’s literary history in another light

Considering how the majority of the spectacular art we discovered would have otherwise remained completely obscure to us, taking the time to rediscover the concealed masterpieces within the city’s walls provoked a real sense of how blind students and locals can become to the displays of talent and skill, historic significance, and moving personal stories embedded into Cambridge’s architectural soul when we assume we are familiar with the fabric of the place we live. It’s impossible to walk away from this tour without seeing your usual route, a dingy old backstreet or even the busiest spot in town in a whole new light.

Even sights we thought we were familiar with surprised us with how little we actually knew (I’m looking at you clock of doom), and rather than churning out generic trivia, the tour shares detailed, unique insights which will might just answer some of those fleeting questions about strange sights on the streets that cross your mind on your post-2am-Gardies trek home. Through detailed biographies, article links and moving stories of how the art has interacted with the city’s past, the tour ensures you can’t help but realise how Cambridge’s constant creative production is far from being confined to institutions, organisations or the walls of the Fitzwilliam, but that artists are making their mark everywhere you look.

If you can face receiving very bemused looks from students shuffling into their faculty building as you squint at its bricks and scribble down a clue, and being toppled over by pedestrians as you crouch to inspect a pavestone, then it’s worth becoming a tourist in your own city for an hour – you might be surprised with what you find.