Punting Sights – St John’s New Court

St John’s New Court and its spectacular Bridge of Sighs are icons of Cambridge to both University of Cambridge students and to the wider world. 

The New Court at St. John’s College is an important building in the history of the University and was the answer to increasing demands during the 1820s for accommodation within the College.

Seeking more space to accommodate the growing number of students, St John’s took the step across the river and built on the marshy west bank of the river Cam which had, to that point, provided a natural western boundary for the east sited University Colleges.

St John’s New Court was the first University of Cambridge building built on the western bank of The Backs, starting a trend.

Despite the St John’s original intention for another copy of Second Court, plans were drawn up for a fashionably romantic building in the Gothic Revival style.

The new buildings and bridge were designed in 1827 by the architect Henry Hutchinson, a former pupil and business partner of the famed Gothic Revivalist Thomas Rickman. The entire build project of both New Court and New Bridge was completed in 1831, just a few months before Hutchinson’s death.

New Court has a tall three-sided Gothic Revival design, closed on the fourth side by two seven-bayed cross-vaulted cloisters meeting with a picturesque gateway facing the river.

New Court has an impressive four levels of well proportioned student accommodation. The roof has battlements and is fantastically pinnacled. The main portal has an impressive fan vault with an octagonal pendant, and the interior of the main building enjoys ribbed Neo-Gothic plaster ceilings.

Being the newest part of the College, and despite its ornate and fantastical appearance, the expansion was given the factual but uninspiring name ‘New Court’.

However with its trendsetting west-side location alongside its tiered and turreted symmetrical appearance, students and town folk alike affectionately awarded New Court the nickname “The Wedding Cake”. One look and you’ll certainly see why!

The 19th Century New Court today stands on an expanse of grass lined by trees when viewed from the river.

The Imperfect Symmetry of St John’s New Court

St John’s New Court is outstandingly symmetrical in its Gothic Revival design and this certainly makes the building’s aesthetics pleasing to the eye.

Some would have it that New Court, the 19th century extension to St John’s College, is so perfectly symmetrical that students were originally not allowed to open their windows unless the counterpart on the other side of the building was opened too.

In a further rumour, Hutchinson was understandably proud of his creation, and it is said that he once dashed up a staircase to reprimand an undergraduate for spoiling its symmetry by sitting too close to one of its windows.

Both of these rumours are, needless to say, likely to be local myths. Amusing, but sadly not true!

There is one exception to the symmetry, making the building imperfect before any windows, clocks on towers (see below) or loitering students could ruin the symmetrical aesthetics.

The eagle over the main entrance turns its head away from Trinity and towards St John’s, setting the rumour mill grinding again for gossip on evidence towards a (non existent) College rift.

The Legends of St John’s Clock-less Clock Tower

The St John’s New Court clock tower has no clock! The imaginative source to boundless apocryphal stories, myths and rumours.

The tower of the beautiful New Court enjoys four blank faces, that is to say there is no clock. There are varied easily dispelled legends to explain this, mostly involving the legendary St John’s & Trinity rivalry!

There are plenty of variants on these local myths, most likely proliferated and embellished by the unresearched punting tours in the later twentieth century.

No St John’s vs Trinity Clock Tower Race

Easily disproven, St John’s New Court clock tower was completed much later.

By much later, New Court was built 400 years after Trinity’s tower. That’s over two centuries after Trinity added the first clock and bell to their tower and over a century after the replacement double chime clock was put in place.

Disappointingly, there was evidently no race to build the final or tallest clocktower in Cambridge – or at least not involving St John’s versus Trinity.

No Chiming Clock Limits in Cambridge

Easily disproving another tall tale – there are no limits on chiming clocks within any particular radius in Cambridge.

In fact, if a statute ever had existed limiting the number of chiming clocks in Cambridge, there are many Colleges in breach of it!

Perhaps a local bylaw might be in order to this end, if the College’s keep setting up new chiming clocks. See Corpus Christi’s latest masterpiece on King’s Parade!

No Evidence for Architect Decree

There is a wildly inaccurate claim that Henry Hutchinson felt that a clock would spoil the Neo-Gothic aesthetic in some way or to some how ruin the symmetry.

The gossip mill has it that he commanded the clock never be installed, although this is as unlikely as the aforementioned loitering student or unsymmetrical window opening myths.

Poor St John’s College

Another theory is that the College was rather short on finances during the early 19th Century when the New Court was completed. This theory states that there had been plans to add a clock, but the money was never made available.

There is evidence that this theory could be a mistaken association as the very same misfortune happened to St John’s a mere 38 years later during the build of its Chapel. This sounds extremely unlikely.

The later build of the new St John’s Chapel (1866-69) went ahead when former member of St John’s offered a large sum toward building the Chapel tower. The College did not insure the young man’s life and when he was killed in a railway accident they were left with a potential belfry tower and large debt.

The going rate at the time for a good peal of eight bells with hanging machinery was a whopping £1,300 – prohibitive for St John’s at the time.

Cambridge’s Unsolvable Mystery

The truth is that we really don’t know why the New Court clock tower never received its clock. The mystery continues so if you are a member of a secret society with the answer – please let us know!

St John’s Bell Chimes at Trinity

Trinity chimes for two – there’s no mystery here. 

Trinity College has a clock that strikes twice every hour, once for Trinity and once for St John’s.

Trinity’s notable clock is renowned for its hourly double-strike. The clock was installed in the eighteenth century by its then-Master, Richard Bentley, a former student of St John’s.

Bentley set a mandate that the clock chime first on a low note (the Trinity chime) and then on a higher note (the St John’s chime) for his alma mater.

St John’s College ‘Wedding Cake’

Cambridge’s sublime Wedding Cake provides an especially breathtaking and magical experience to behold at sunrise or sunset.

The spectacular romantic design of New Court landed it the popular name of ‘The Wedding Cake’ amongst both town and gown alike. New Court is most magical in twilight with its fantastical beauty best appreciated at dawn and dusk.

For the ultimate experience, you can see both if you can get tickets to the notorious St John’s May Ball. You’ll need to make it through to dawn and the survivors photograph after partying from sunset through the night with the city’s young and gifted attendees all night through!

Alternatively, (a shameless plug here) join us on the river for sunset that evening on our Fireworks Punting Experience to see St John’s grandiose choreographed firework display as thousands of pounds go up in smoke with New Court as a backdrop!

St John’s New Court Best Bits

  • St John’s claim the fame as the first westside College on the Backs
  • Imperfect symmetry – the eagle turns!
  • No clocks or bells here. There’s still time
  • This Gothic Revival architectural masterpiece is shrouded in rumours, myths and gossip
St John's New Court - The Wedding Cake