‘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.
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small town book shops, food and bicycle stores once boasted their wares while small scale shopping centres have in turn been replaced by their larger luxury counterparts.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.
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?
‘Oxford gave the world marmalade and a manner, Cambridge science and a sausage’ – Anon.