How to deface a national treasure

Once lauded as one of the most charming historic cities in England, Cambridge is being ruined by architectural monstrosities and ill-thought-out traffic schemes

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

They didn’t know what they were doing, those wandering scholars of yore. Around 1208 an unknown number of clergymen left Oxford for Reading, London, East Anglia — even Paris. An Oxford woman somehow died, one or more scholars were summarily hanged, and many clerks, under the glare of King John, calculated that life may be better spent elsewhere. Perhaps those exiles who took root in Cambridge were en route to the Isle of Ely before finding that, within the gentle curve of the Cam, there were prospects aplenty for a new academic life.

The eight centuries since then have been a tale of ups and downs, riding high in Elizabethan times, and mothballing under George III. Still, by the early nineteenth century, Cambridge had grown little over the preceding half millennium. Unlike moneyed Oxford — Arnold’s “city of dreaming spires” which was to Wilde the “the most beautiful thing in England” — Cambridge could seem to William Morris “rather a hole of a place”, later dubbed by Frederick Raphael “the city of perspiring dreams”. 

The arrival of the railway in 1845, and marriage for college fellows in 1882, saw appreciable growth of the city’s footprint. Although it evaded the incursion of large-scale industry in the twentieth century, the push for post-war residential growth was inevitable, and proper. In recent generations Addenbrooke’s Hospital, the “Silicon Fen” Science Park and the growing West Cambridge site of the University have both extended the limits of the cityscape and required appreciable growth of residential areas. Cambridge’s population, now more than 150,000, rivals that of Oxford.

It is only recently that the wheel has turned at pace. In 1952, Nikolaus Pevsner admired the “supreme confusion” of Cambridge’s roofscape, trilling his happiness that he could “walk through a town for a whole mile without being hurt by the sight of a single building”. This, he said, “can happen in only three towns in the whole of England” (with characteristic coyness, Pevsner doesn’t name the other two). 

But civic and commercial growth was unstoppable. Although the Cambridge geographer Gus Caesar warned in 1965 that the city could become “an industrial duplicate of Harlow or Stevenage”, progress stops for no academic. Fifty years later, the reviews were in: Owen Hatherley’s Guide to the New Ruins of Britain (2010) marvelled at Cambridge’s “inverse correlation between national esteem for a place’s qualities and the actual pleasure one can take walking through it”. Three years later, David Jones wrote a barnstormer of a book, Hideous Cambridge: A City Mutilated: over 270 pages it laments decades of harm ignorantly wrought upon the historic cityscape.

What then of 2023? To get a sense of contemporary Cambridge, let us approach the city along its oldest, grandest route: Trumpington Street. It is a beautiful entry, with Peterhouse and the Fitzwilliam Museum on the left, and a delightfully organic mix of historic housing on the right. Pembroke College and the Pitt Building flank us as we near King’s Parade — the high street of medieval Cambridge. There we glide past King’s and its spectacular chapel, on to the university’s ceremonial heart, Senate House and Great St Mary’s, where the lanes lead us round a clutch of medieval colleges — Caius, Clare, Trinity, Trinity Hall and St John’s. 

But our progress is not, in fact, so rosy. I don’t mean that King’s Chapel is currently covered by scaffolding to install solar panels as a sop to climate change activism (which is still not good enough for Just Stop Oil, whose militants sprayed orange paint over the neo-gothic screen of King’s in October). More importantly, as we wander we are poleaxed by a bright yellow “anti-terrorism” barrier (above), which blocks access to one of the most beautiful street façades in Europe.

The tale of this awful interloper needs to be told

The tale of this awful interloper needs to be told. After the insane barbarism of that one-man, one-truck terror attack in Nice, in 2016, counter-terrorism advisers cast about for gestures to make. Come 2019, the “strategic director” of Cambridge City Council, Suzanne Hemingway, had a proposal: although “there is no specific terrorist threat that is active against Cambridge … King’s Parade is our highest-risk street and approach from the south is potentially the area someone could carry out a vehicular attack”.

Normal bollards, the sort the rest of Cambridge and most British cities make do with, were deemed insufficient: could they withstand a “large lorry at speed”? As Joan Whitehead, leader of the County Council’s Labour contingent, added, “We can’t go on with a wing and a prayer that no one will drive at high speed down Trumpington Road into King’s Parade.” 

Thus, in an act of supreme care, people needed urgent protection from the theoretically possible threat of some maniac mowing down students, dons, local citizens and tourists in a truck. Or rather, the theoretical possibility that someone would commit to doing that, but would call the whole thing off if it meant mowing people down on any other similarly populous street in central Cambridge. 

So, on this impossibly thick reasoning of a “King’s Parade or nothing” threat, the grotesque barrier was introduced in January 2020 for a maximum of 18 months. Having installed it for a mere £70,000, the Council was delighted with its clean sheet in vehicular terrorism: it “achieved its objective of keeping the area safe through 2020”. But dig a little deeper and the mask slips: more importantly, the barrier “helped people to move around freely in a traffic-free space”. More on that soon.

The locals, of course, loathed the barrier. When consulted in December 2020 and January 2021, the majority of 500 respondents were in favour of its removal. More than half disagreed that their lives had become safer and 70 per cent of 300 cyclists — who are funnelled through a narrow gap — felt their experience had worsened. No fewer than 83 responses used the word “ugly”, and more than 200 “remove” or “get rid”. 

Worse, a cycle safety expert told a council hearing that the barrier would fail a risk assessment. It was too narrow for a one-track cycle lane and just 45 per cent of the width of a two-way route. With grim irony, the barrier increased collisions with pedestrians on pavements. Nevertheless, in 2021 it was approved in perpetuity. 

The decision is symbolic of a broader disregard of public safety in Cambridge. In recent years it has been a case of do as you like: cyclists and silent scooters hurtle the wrong way down one-way streets at will, mostly without lights. Delivery drivers on electric bikes ferry ever-greater volumes of takeaway food by the fastest route possible — careering through pedestrian spaces, speeding over footbridges and taking pavement corners on the inside. At least it’s only a few people injured every day.

Covid suddenly stirred our sluggish councillors to a new pitch of energy. Children’s playgrounds were taped up, swings were chained into submission and finger-wagging signs fell from the sky. Lurid scarlet two-feet-wide stencils were grafted on roads and pavements across the city with a message for the passerby trying to take in some fresh air: “COVID-19: Maintain social distance”. 

It is almost four years since these scars marred the historic landscape of Cambridge and yet no effort whatsoever has been made to remove them. Instead, these ineffective knee-jerk blots on our communal civic fabric leer at all and sundry, a brutal decoction of how civic authorities feel towards the historic city in their trust. Cambridge is a space that can be urgently and effortlessly defaced in the short term, but there is neither impulse nor desire to heal the harm.

Meanwhile, the council’s main hobby horse is what may loosely be termed “green issues”. Loosely, of course, because they form an incoherent and often self-denying mass of feel-good ideas. It’s cars that rankle councillors most. To reduce their usage, ever more complex restrictions are imposed on where vehicles can be driven. Like the barrier, the “temporary” Covid- era road blocks, also installed without consultation, have in turn become permanent blockades. 

This doesn’t result in people jumping on (unreliable or non-existent) buses, but in ever more cars forming ever longer queues on the ever fewer roads they can travel. It’s not just an eyesore, but a well-drilled exercise in air pollution. 

If we turn back to the cityscape, where is Cambridge’s chief communal space? Historically, Market Square is that locus classicus, as central as central can be. But it is now permanently filled with the tired and ugly furniture of day traders. We locals want to support independent traders, but the availability of quality produce decreases, as many stalls have moved into the ubiquitous trades of lunchtime food and faux-university tat. 

Meanwhile a corner of this woefully underused square hosts a sorry composite of boiled sweets, like some half-remembered Jeff Koons composite that has lost its helium. This is the “memorial” to the eccentric mice-in-mouth street entertainer Walter “Snowy” Farr (1919-2007), who won an MBE for charitable fundraising. Having met the man, I can see his moustache twitching at this unsympathetic monstrosity. 

Cambridge has never had grand stores: a few well-established retail chains have had a hold on the city centre for generations, but many of the bigger names are absent. While some sensitively-handled retail spaces survive — Green Street and Magdalene Street in particular — they are few and far between. Meanwhile, challenging business rates and over-zealous college bursars have caused many shops to fall vacant, especially those that hosted independent traders. 

When I arrived in Cambridge 20 years ago, there were four or five solid second-hand bookshops, all independent. There is now one, but what a beacon of light David’s, on St Edwards Passage, is. It is one of the most pleasant places to spend time in the city, if not the world. But other established names have slowly fallen away: the bookshop Galloway & Porter closed in 2010, Brian Jordan’s music shop in 2013, and A.E. Clothier’s clothiery (!) in 2017. 

When in 2010 the New Economic Foundation calculated which city had lost most of its individuality as a retail space, Cambridge won the title of “King Clone”. Since then, Petty Cury — a thoroughfare first recorded in 1330 — could now be almost anywhere in Europe, such is the architectural destruction and retail homogenisation it has faced. But at least there are two phone repair shops and a Tesco. Three-fifths of the retail outlets in the city’s largest shopping centre, The Grafton, now stand empty. Grim figures for a complex that was built on the site of the controversially-bulldozed residential community known as The Kite in the late 1970s.

Perhaps it can be repurposed as public land that serves the community more effectively?

Perhaps it can be repurposed as public land that serves the community more effectively? After all, it is not hard for good things to happen architecturally. Pembroke’s development of the south side of Mill Lane, funded by a resounding donation from Ray and Dagmar Dolby, looks destined to do some good to a long-suffering street. Destruction, too, has its place. The dystopian box of Bradwell Court (1962) was pulled down to make way for the rather more palatable Christ’s Lane, and the awful behemoth of Park Lane Car Park (also 1962) was recently demolished, albeit to make way for a similarly vista-destroying 230-room, four-star, five-storey hotel.

Where does the council stand on all this, you may wonder? Where indeed. While the Labour-led city council squats somewhere in Guildhall, the county councillors no longer reside in splendour up on Castle Hill. Still labouring under their absurd 1970s motto corde uno sapientes simus (“with one heart let’s be wise!”), they have fled to a low-profile location somewhere beyond Huntingdon near RAF Alconbury. The cynic might think this a strategy to discourage visits from the public, but then again, the council largely works from home.

What then of the city’s highest and most historic site, Castle Hill, the turf-covered rubble of William the Conqueror’s castle (1068), built on the Roman road Claudius carved out in the 40s AD? Insultingly, both Shire Hall (1932) and its monstrous excrescence The Octagon (1974, with en suite nuclear bunker 1989) currently lie abandoned. While they could become a wonderful museum and community space, the council is instead finalising a deal for a 250-room hotel. So Cambridge is now a county town that hosts neither the council nor its archives. 

The site’s new developers, Brookgate, are the masterminds that revamped the city’s railway station site for £725 million. Once branded a “lower-rise version of Leeds”, the area certainly needed uplift; but the result was more identikit brick-clad, glass-and-concrete cereal boxes. While locals rightly denounce the site as “soulless”, the police have been left to tackle the rise in pop-up brothels, drug use and antisocial behaviour on the tiny strip of park the developers presented as communal space. 

We must do better. Most people who live in or who visit Cambridge love it. No one wishes to spoil it. But where is the will and what are the means to preserve it? 

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