Author: Harrison Brewer

The 2023 Congress began with a series of tours through Cambridge, each uncovering a lesser-known facet of the ancient university town. As we ambled through the meadows littered around the city centre, our guide, Anna, highlighted how the grass was left to grow wild during the pandemic, resulting in tufts of tall grass and splashes of wildflower sprouting up around the commons. It was a fitting metaphor for Cambridge, a city shaped through the cross-pollination of its many residents. During the academic year, Cambridge is the classic British student city, bustling with professors and undergraduates. In the summer months, tourists descend on its colleges and chapels. On weekends, residents of the market towns surrounding the city move inward. In late June, when Congress was taking place, the Midsummer Fair comes to town, a tradition dating back 809 years. For all its historic rites and rituals, Cambridge is constantly in flux, adjusting to new communities coming in and old ones moving out.

Whilst the city’s inhabitants remould year after year, Cambridge’s walls, boundaries, and thresholds present a very real and physical delineation between ‘gown and town’. Our guide commented that ‘the best greens are behind the walls’, referring to the colleges’ quads and meadows, kept in pristine condition by brigades of gardeners, porters, and janitors, but inaccessible to the tourists and travellers that come to visit. Private lands juxtapose public commons in a quirky union that dates back to the creation of the colleges that make up Cambridge’s academic landscape. Now these institutions are some of the largest landowners in the city. Yet, there are still living examples of land held in public good, one of which being Midsummer Common, a sprawling verdant space butting up against the river Cam, facing a bank of boat houses.

Midsummer Common, like the city itself, is characterised by this phenomenon of cross-pollination. Dating back to the historic notion of the commons, land held in the common good, Midsummer Common is shared, used, and looked after by, and for, the people of Cambridge. By that same grace, the common becomes the bustling, brash, and boisterous home of the Midsummer Fair, an annual fairground organised and managed by some of the UK’s traveller population. Each year, the tranquil green space becomes a hubbub of activity and its fair share of controversy as resident, student, and traveller come head-to-head over four days. The fair coincides with an uptick in anti-social behaviour, crime, and the traditional ‘grabbing day’, where young boys pick up and carry off young girls as part of a cultural courting ritual. It was clear to me that our guide did not approve, nor did some of our group, and I myself was taken aback by the brazen snatching, more reminiscent of the Greek myths taught at nearby lecture halls. Yet, it sits alongside the many odd and unusual traditions perpetuated by Cambridge’s colleges and students each year – Latin speeches, anachronistic dress codes, infamous drinking clubs, and antiquated calendars. Cambridge and its residents are constantly evaluating what is seen as traditional, and therefore permissible, and shedding what is not.

There were two places we visited that underscored the dichotomous and ever-changing nature of Cambridge’s urban fabric. One was the Grafton Centre, a shopping mall first designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, later famed for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, before budgetary constraints required a more muted design to be proposed. Opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1984, the Centre became a symbol of the opening up of the city centre to the wider public, bringing commercial activity into what was up until then little more than an educational enclave of privileged students. In 2016, the Centre was bought for £99m and renovated for a further £30m but the 2020 lockdowns saw sales fall rapidly and the Centre was sold for a second time in 2022 for £61.4m, resulting in a 50% loss in value over five years. The Centre is due another renovation, this time to accommodate Cambridge’s burgeoning knowledge sector in the shape of research facilities, improved active travel connections, and a reduced commercial offer. As we wandered through, the Centre was sparse, shuttered stores lining the walls, alluding to the tough economic times of the post 2010s. The Centre, just as the city, is having to adapt to the changing wants and needs of the wider Cambridge area.

The second point of interest was a famous Cambridge pub, beloved by students and locals alike, known as The Lock. Due to a leasing dispute, the building went unoccupied until a group of squatters took up residence in 2020. The squatters eventually achieved legal status to the irate displeasure of the landlord (according to our guide). The building was now in disrepair, apparently due to the aggressive outburst of the landlord who took a sledgehammer to the pub in a desperate attempt to dislodge the squatters. When we saw the structure, a clothes rack lined with jackets, shirts, and trousers stood on the corner with a makeshift sign reading ‘clothes swap – take what you need, leave what you want!’. Around the corner, one wall had the squatters’ legal rights outlined in white ink. Another wall was plastered with the statement ‘solidarity not charity’. The building was a stark example of the clash between private interest and public need – a much-loved community asset that was co-opted into unofficial social housing. Residents were warring over the rights to the City and that fight was far from over.

In what was a brief hour and a half, we managed to squeeze in a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing the urban character of Cambridge. A war between public and private interest, between permanent and transient communities, was being waged right in front of us. 

Our final stop, in the centre of Parker’s Piece, a wide green to the south of Cambridge’s city centre, was a tall lamppost with the words ‘Reality Checkpoint’ emblazoned on one side. The post commemorated the unofficial point where ‘town’ met ‘gown’ and the city’s residential outskirts met its ancient scholastic centre. Cambridge is a city of dichotomies and of liminalities. Yet precisely because of these lines drawn in the sand, Cambridge was revealed as the unlikely success story of a city that is managing to engage with its contradictions, a living example of how cohesion, commonality, and constancy can be achieved through planning, partnership, and innovation.