Great St Mary’s is an impressive Grade I listed church located in Cambridge that is famed for its fantastic tower views and lengthy history spanning over 800 years.
Known as the University Church, Great St Mary’s is the parish church for central Cambridge, and hosts a variety of performances and services throughout the year, while also welcoming public visitors.
In this Great St Mary’s Cambridge guide, we’ll be covering all of the following:
- Practical Info for Visiting Great St Mary’s Cambridge
- A Brief History of Great St Mary’s Cambridge
- How to Get to Great St Mary’s Cambridge
- Highlights of Great St Mary’s
- The Views from Great St Mary’s Tower
- Additional Tips for Visiting Great St Mary’s
Practical Info for Visiting Great St Mary’s Cambridge
Grest St Mary’s opening times for the shop and tower are as follows (as of Jan 2023):
- Monday–Saturday 10am-4pm
- Sunday 12 noon–4pm (Sunday varies depending on service times, please check)
- NOTE: The last Tower entry is a half-hour before closing
The cost for climbing up Great Saint Mary’s Tower for adults is £6 (as of Jan 2023).
Looking for somewhere to stay nearby? Here are some recommendations:
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A Brief History of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge
Standing proudly next to the city marketplace for over eight centuries, Great Saint Mary’s is a historic piece of Cambridge well worth visiting.
The foundations of the church were said to have been laid over 1000 years ago, around the year 1010, but it wan’t until scholars arrived from (now) rival city Oxford in 1209 that St Mary’s became the Cambridge University Church.
In fact, it was here at Great Saint Mary’s that many of Cambridge’s famous university happenings took place, with all sorts of events hosted on-site, from lectures to special celebrations and ceremonies.
Of course, Great St Mary’s looks significantly different today than it did back then. A great fire destroyed most of the building in 1290, but extensive rebuilding efforts began in 1478.
And over the years, the Great St Mary’s we see today eventually took shape. Works on the tower began in 1491 (which did not reach its present height until 1606), with subsequent additions including the west window in 1536 and the belfry in 1593.
Restorations continued into the 18th century (led by James Essex) and the mid 19th century (led by Gilbert Scott and Anthony Salvin a few years later), with the south porch getting rebuilt in 1888, and further restorations well into the 20th century.
Today, Great St Mary’s is perhaps best known for its glorious views 35 metres (or 114 feet) over Cambridge, accessible to the public via 123 steps that are guaranteed to take your breath away… literally.
How to Get to Great St Mary’s in Cambridge
Great St Mary’s is located in Central Cambridge, in close proximity to most of the most popular places to visit in Cambridge. The official address is as follows:
- The University Church, Senate House Hill, Cambridge CB2 3PQ, UK
Highlights of Great St Mary’s
Wondering what there is to see at Great St Mary’s in Cambridge? Here are some highlights:
Great Saint Mary’s Tower
Great Saint Mary’s Tower offers stunning views over the city, and climbing up is a must for every Cambridge bucket list. Standing 35m (or 114 ft) over Cambridge, this is THE place to go in the city for panoramic views.
There’s even lovely little photo windows up top so you can get the perfect shot!
Great Saint Mary’s Bells
Another surprise for visitors (when accessible) is the bell chamber, which is today home to thirteen relatively young bells cast in 2009 for the university’s 800th anniversary.
Unfortunately, the bell chamber was not accessible during our visit, but we can imagine how impressive it must be to see these bells up close!
Great Saint Mary’s Organs
Boasting not one, but two organs, another key highlight for visitors to Great Saint Mary’s is seeing these organs in real life.
Why two? Well, the organ seen today in the West Gallery dates back to 1698, and was used for over 200 years by the University for worship.
By the mid 19th century, this original organ was deemed too unreliable for use, hence why a second organ was built in 1869, with another replacement brought in in 1991.
Great Saint Mary’s Clock
Since 1577, there has been a clock at Saint Mary’s, but besides the beauty of the clock itself, what’s interesting to note are its chimes.
Known the world over as ‘the Westminster Chimes’, it’s a surprise to many visitors that the iconic chimes made famous by Big Ben actually originated right here at Great St Mary’s, where the melody was supposedly composed by two students shortly after the clock’s installation in 1793.
The Views from Great St Mary’s Tower
As mentioned above, one of the main reasons to visit Great St Mary’s in Cambridge is the view from its tower. Wondering what it looks like? Well…
On the West side of Great St Mary’s Tower, you get views of…
- Kings College and Chapel
- Clare College
- The Old Schools
- University Library
- Trinity Hall
- Senate House
- Wren Library
On the North side of Great St Mary’s Tower, you get views of…
- Trinity College
- Gonville and Caius College
- St John’s College
- Michaelhouse Centre
- All Saint’s Church
On the East side of Great St Mary’s Tower, you get views of…
- Holy Trinity Church
- Market Hill and the market place
- The Guildhall
On the South side of Great St Mary’s Tower, you get views of…
- The Guildhall
- Arts Thwatre
- St Edward’s Church
- St Bene’t’s Church
- King’s Parade
- King’s College
Additional Tips for Visiting Great St Mary’s Cambridge
Before we conclude this article, we wanted to pass on a few extra tips for visiting Great St Mary’s.
Wear comfortable shoes
123 steps may not sound like too many, but the steps up to the tower are incredibly narrow and can be tough to navigate even with regular shoes, so be sure to arrive with comfortable shoes that have a good grip on them.
Keep your ticket to get a discount at the Michaelhouse Centre Cafe
If you pay for admission to climb Great St Mary’s Tower, then you also get a 10% discount to the nearby Michaelhouse Centre Cafe. This discount can be found on the back of your ticket/welcome pamphlet, and is easy to miss, so be sure to look out for it and keep it with you!
This cafe is situated in a former church, with a tasty assortment of hot drinks, pastries, cakes, and sandwiches. We had a delicious cappuccino here, along with a nutty salted caramel coffee cake.
Check out the official website for information on musical performances
Great Saint Mary’s is well known in Cambridge as a performance venue, as well as a working church and visitor attraction. From choir performances to free lunchtime concerts, there are many opportunities at this church to enjoy some music in a beautiful environment. Be sure to check the church’s official website for details.
We Hope You Enjoyed This Guide to Great St Mary’s Cambridge!
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