Cambridge in 60 Seconds: A city’s identity in jeopardy?

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Dusk begins to settle and Cambridge punts relax their weary wooden bodies in the after glow of a setting sun as the cyclical familiarity of another day floating along the River Cam comes to a close.

‘Cambridge has seen many strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk, it has seen Porson sober. I am a greater scholar than Wordsworth and I am a greater poet than Porson. So I fall betwixt and between.’ A. E. Housman

Strapping tour guides in straw hats glide their punts along the turbid waters of the river Cam into the shadows of turreted university buildings guarded by stony replicas of the scholars of old, emerald green grass reaches out resplendently beneath ornate window panes like nature’s royal carpet, willow trees dangle their leafy elbows across the water’s edge and intricately carved limestone bridges stretch from bank to bank like the river’s ancient sleeping servants. Flurries of cyclists with cupcakes in their baskets and book bags on their shoulders blaze past round churches, old museums and fire lit Tudor pubs whose homely seats once welcomed the bottoms of bright-eyed academics such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Watson and Crick, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson and Emma Watson while tea shops no larger than your grandma’s front room and fairytale bookshops remain hidden away in the secret alcoves of cobbled alleyways- year upon year, more and more are attracted to the once small market town of Cambridge by its famously quaint charms.

Antique alchemy writings scraping at the secret to the elixir of life and a mathematical nail-free bridge built solely on science by Newton himself, a sky-high King’s College steeple tarnished with a toilet seat by the secretive student climbers of the night, a stone ball bridge sculpture sliced like a cake for the sake of a simple student bet, a trail from Cambridge right through to Oxford boasting Trinity College as its sole proprietor and a bridge of sighs adored by Queen Victoria and characterized by the fearful pre-exam students who have crossed its stony path- an infinite number of myths spread like wildfire from the lips of locals and though only a thimbleful may actually be true, they have succeeded in enveloping the city in an enigma enchanting to outsiders.

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From market town to city, as well expected, it is not just Cambridge’s success and population that have grown in size; family run businesses have been exchanged with supermarkets, listless strings of chain shops and American cafés have cropped up where small town book shops, food and bicycle stores once boasted their wares while small scale shopping centres have in turn been replaced by their larger luxury counterparts. Despite the gaggles of tourists and their tripods that congregate in Cambridge for the high season, the local independent businesses for which the city is famed are facing extinction as multinationals like Starbucks, Costa, Primark and McDonald’s tighten their commercial grip on the streets of Cambridge.

The city is still home to the likes of H. Gee Electrical’s- an electrical emporium of plugs and fuses that for years on end have been served up in paper bags to loyal entrants by the eccentric Mr. Gee and his wife – and a myriad of locally run ethnic restaurants and stores that Mill Road has laid at one’s feet following the influx of international inhabitants; yet over 23 Cambridge pubs and numerous local organisations- such as 173 year old Howes Cycles of Cambridge run by five generations of the Howes family- have been forced to close in the past 5 years, or like the independent cinema the Arts Picture House, might soon well be.

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Winter and spring intertwine with timely delicacy in front of palace-like structures that are fit for a queen, but destined rather for academic royalty.

Is Cambridge losing its scholarly charm and local niche market to chain shops, department stores and luxury shopping malls, or is the capitalist leeching of multinationals merely an exaggerated threat distorted by extremist left-wing anti-consumerist activists? Are tourism and corporate organisations causing the unique personality of England’s small towns to disintegrate under waves of brand names and logos, or should we delight in the economic ease and elevated quality of life they foster? Ought we revel in the liberty of a generation free to journey unharnessed to the corners of the earth in a way their forerunners only fantasized about, or should we rather fear the effects travel, tourism & temporary inhabitation have on travellers’ paths, where holidaymakers’ tracks and footprints lie somewhat longer than they ought?

At the ripe old age of 89, Fitzbillies- Cambridge's emporium of sugary treasures- is every bit as vintage as the décor it displays; offering exquisite afternoon delights and ravishingly regal Chelsea buns on the aptly named King's Parade, it is has deservedly gained its reputation for excellency, but like most 89 year olds has witnessed its fair share of hardships, having closed down for 6 months just last year.

At the ripe old age of more than 90, Fitzbillies- a local Aladdin’s cave of sugary treasures- is every bit as vintage as the décor it displays; offering exquisite afternoon delights and ravishingly regal Chelsea buns on the aptly named King’s Parade, it is has deservedly gained its reputation for excellency, but alas -like most 90 year olds- has had its own fair share of hardships, having closed down due to bankruptcy briefly in 2011. ‘No! No! Say it ain’t so – not Fitzbillies? Why I tweeted a pic of one of their peerless Chelsea buns but a sixmonth ago’ tweeted Stephen Fry in cakeless dismay at news of the closure.

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A local magpie on the treetops feasts his eyes upon a bird’s eye view of a castle-like university city.

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The expertly arched walls of the well-aged King’s College chapel enrapture passers by with its acoustics & the harmonies of some of the highest class choral singers there are.

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Tailcoats, ties, deckchairs, scholars and straw hats- from Newton to Darwin and Hawking, the intellectual hub of academia provided by a city boasting one of the world’s most prestigious universities has fired up the mind of many a Cambridge graduate and promoted the city’s image as an elitist land of scholars and high achievers in top hats.

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Bustling from morning until noon whilst lightly wafting with the smell of freshly picked flowers, sweets, Singaporean noodles, home-grown vegetables and handmade bread- the market caters for local, national and international needs and still marks Cambridge’s lively centre as it did centuries ago.

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Independent local businesses tighten their purse strings & come up with imaginative cost-effective marketing methods such as ‘Bikevertising’ to promote their small-scale services by appealing to the local love of biking.

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Cambridge-mad boating enthusiasts wait as long as 5 years to be given the opportunity to moor their canal boats on Cambridge’s homely ivy-green banks.

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Bridge over the river Cam- the city's many bridges have given Cambridge its name and notoriety, but none more so than the mathematical bridge [pictured], said to have been built by sir Isaac Newton himself with out a single screw or nail, or so the legend goes...

Bridges over the river Cam- the city’s many bridges have given Cambridge its name and notoriety, but perhaps none more so than the Mathematical Bridge [pictured], said to have been built by Sir Isaac Newton himself without a single screw, or so the legend goes…

'Very quietly I take my leave. As quietly as I came here; Quietly I wave good-bye. To the rosy clouds in the western sky.' So the famous Chinese poem by Xu Zhimo goes, enticing thousands of Chinese visitors to witness Cambridge's picturesque visions for themselves.

‘Very quietly I take my leave. As quietly as I came here; Quietly I wave good-bye. To the rosy clouds in the western sky.’ So the famous Chinese poem by Xu Zhimo goes, enticing thousands of Chinese visitors to witness Cambridge’s picturesque visions for themselves.

‘Oxford gave the world marmalade and a manner, Cambridge science and a sausage’ – Anon.

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30 thoughts on “Cambridge in 60 Seconds: A city’s identity in jeopardy?

  1. Unfortunately every Western town and city faces the same threat from chains and mega corporations. Rare and lucky and visionary is the community heart that can survive suburban shopping malls, coffee chains, and high rises and avoid freeways through its centre.

  2. Interesting write up, how do these old towns keep their old world charm, yet cater to the world? I recently visited Stratford Upon Avon, and found they seemed to have the balance right, hope Cambridge manages it ready for a visit from me.

    Jim

  3. “Globe Drifting” – I like that! What an interesting life you lead, thanks for sharing. Some similarities between us =
    1) I am Hungarian / Austrian / Check / maybe a lot of gypsy too, raised in Budapest and immigrated to Canada at 17.
    2) Been continent drifting since 1980 in a boat with a wife and German Shepherd Dogs. (Kids? No thanks.) Getting older but we are still on the boat, now icebound in Ontario.
    Living on the edge but not too far out to be uncomfortable.
    Ain’t life grand when you can make it into an adventure outside of the box….. Big Thumbs-Up To Ya!
    You have an awesome blog.

  4. I’m really glad you stopped by my blog as it introduced me to your site. Your writing is really beautiful and these photos are stunning. Great post 🙂

  5. What an incredible piece about one of the most esteemed schools in the world! I’ve never been to England but a bunch of stuff I love is from there. Great photos, great writing, great work!

  6. as cold and gloomy london seems to be from your pics, you are actually making me miss the city 😦 would love to return to london in near future. i really miss the food market and book shops.

  7. As a Cambridge local I can definitely see a shift, with the old shops being slowly replaced by the chains you mentioned – it’s a big difference to twenty years ago when I was a child. That’s why it’s so important to keep going to the independent shops and appreciating their charm as I fear they may disappear one day too sadly. Really interesting post and photos too 🙂

  8. Just found your blog! Great piece on Cambridge, covering lots of avenues. Was there in 1996 and bought some great early science books (including Isaac Newton) at the venerable G.David bookstore. I hope the shop has not succumbed to the commercialization which you so vividly portray. Thanks for following my blog!

  9. I grew up in Cambridge, and left when I was 16. Thank you for this delicate glimpse – back into my childhood!

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