(james benedict brown) on the road

Cambridge: how things change

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 4 January, 2008

My new year involved seeing out 2007 and seeing 2008 in Oxford, before an long overdue social call on New Year’s Day. I left Oxford the following morning, arriving that afternoon in Cambridge to rendezvous with family for lunch, January sales and a poke around some newly acquired real estate.

I grew up in Cambridge, or at least half in Cambridge. Up to the age of sixteen my life had one foot in that city and one foot in the quiet landscapes of west Norfolk. I went to school in Cambridge from the age of five to the age of thirteen, but then rapidly removed myself from that city as I moved first to college and then to university. Arriving back in the city on Wednesday, I found it hard to remember when exactly I had last been there.

Growing up and moving away from your childhood hometown can make return visits unusual. As the bus from Oxford reached the city’s outskirts, and as we progressed along the Madingley Road into town, my eye caught sight of landmarks that recall deep and occasionally extremely clear memories. Despite the countless semestral commutes, the M11 motorway is no longer the recognisable artery it once was to me. The Møller Centre is far from being the dramatic architectural novelty that I remember it being; in fact it’s suddenly rather ugly to look at, still vastly inferior to the spectacularly successful modernist campus of the neighbouring Churchill College.

The tip of Grange Road where it meets the Maddingley Road, and the modern house that hides behind a diagonally formed fence at that junction both leapt from the darkest confines of my past. As the bus pulled away from the traffic lights (I don’t remember them) I caught a momentary view down Grange Road, towards the school where I spent so many years. I noticed not the line of trees on the left nor the narrow perspective of the houses and school buildings to the right, but the sudden appearance of new traffic calming measures and a brightly coloured ‘Citi’ bus approaching the junction. The Grange Road of my childhood had neither traffic calming nor a bus service, so regardless of the importance I place on more important memories and emotions, they somehow locked in my vision more rapidly.

Pubs have changed names, shops have been repainted and trees have filled out. The suddenly cold winter has, however, shed the leaves of these enlarged trees, and with the extra height of the coach I was travelling in, opened up several walled gardens to my passing gaze.

But it was in the city centre itself that the changes have happened on the grandest scale. The coach station is still in an awkward corner of Drummer Street, and the surrounding roads are still clogged with buses. But on St. Andrews Street (whose name I know well from my bank account paperwork, even though I haven’t visited that bank branch in six years) everything gets confusing. The city’s John Lewis has completely changed, moving out of a charming but confusing mess of old department stores and into a newly built building that corners with Downing Street. The old buildings have yet to be re-opened, but it seems that the city’s magistrates’ court is moving as well, and new arcades are planned. An entire precinct that was once the grotty Bradwell’s Court has disappeared and been replaced with a new line of shops.

I meandered through town, stopping at a few places to browse the bargains. It seems, however, that many of the larger shopping chains are openly abusing the enthusiasm of their customers with miniscule January sales that draw you in to a store that is crowded with many unreduced items. One of the few surviving Fopp shops pulled me in off the pavement and only released its tight grip on me when I had bought £20 worth of music (which, admittedly can be a lot of music in Fopp).

My lunchtime rendezvous was in the new John Lewis department store. I remember the old one fondy from regular visits to the various departments, each one shoe-horned into a completely inadequate and misshapen space on one of the many intersecting floors. The basement was a cosy den of lamps and white electrical goods, and a guaranteed source of those unusual or hard to find light bulbs. I think you had to go upstairs two flights and then across a bit to find children’s shoes – that was one building that consistently fooled my normally above average spatial awareness. And to find the televisions, sound systems and computers, you had to physically quit the building and walk thirty metres down the street to a smaller satellite shop. Pretty much every alarm clock, hifi and computer that passed through our household during my childhood came from that shop.

All those disparate places are gone. They’ve been replaced with a singular building of five storeys and a vast lightwell. It sits on the site of what I think was an old office building and a shallow arcade of shops. It’s hard to remember exactly; this must be the first time that I have returned to a city and been confused by such radical redevelopment. I didn’t even have time to get acquainted with the building site during construction. I just went away and came back to find it had all changed. Outside, the John Lewis name has replaced the city’s old and recognisable company name of Robert Sayle. Inside, it’s just like any other modern John Lewis in the country. Sheffield’s Cole Brothers will also be getting a similarly dramatic demolition and re-construction in the coming years.

The new building has to make some concessions to existing buildings. The shop stretches back behind a row of terraced houses, whose rear elevation can be viewed from three glass elevators that serve the shop floors. On the third floor above ground level the ascending elevators emerge above the roofline of the neighbouring terrace, and suddenly confused shoppers locate themselves. Waiting for lifts is now a scenic activity.

The top floor also features a ‘brasserie’ and an ‘espresso bar’. I may detest modern shopping developments for their blandness and car-centric facilities, but is true that it is now much easier for a wheelchair bound shopper to move about the entire store unaided, and the vast number of families with baby strollers proves that in-house car parking and plentiful lifts make life much easier. The brasserie was humming with a contented lunchtime crowd, but the beautiful roof-top view to the south was obscured by inexplicable net curtains. A highly paid interior designer will surely get shouted at soon for specifying composite granite tables, however. Within just a few weeks of opening, the brasserie’s tables are getting permanently marked by the rapid succession of plates, cups and glasses being set down and taken away – enough for the eldery couple next to us to comment on this to a bemused waitress.

The new John Lewis is just part of a major shopping centre development that has joined the disparate dots of the city centre’s shopping precincts. A new four storey mall, aspirationally named the ‘Grand Arcade’, will link the department store to the existing Lion Yard shopping arcade. The new arcade is not yet finished, but the view of the building site from inside the John Lewis store is a major draw for those shoppers (mostly men) left unattended while their partners concentrate on the actual shopping.

If there is one treat to be savoured, it’s the view from the new parking garage that has been opened as part of the new ‘Grand Arcade’. Cambridge’s skyline may not be as attractive as that of Oxford, but it has at least been suddenly re-opened to the public.

There has been a multi-storey car park on this site for as long as I can remember, but this is an entirely new construction that has lifted the parking spaces (and several hundred cars) above the shops of the new Grand Arcade. Lifting the parking accommodation skywards has created commercial space and allowed visitors a vertiginous ascent in their vehicles each time they come to shop.

Although you cannot see Oxford from Cambridge, I turned in that direction and watched the sun continue its slow descent towards the south-west. Cambridge lives on in my absence, and as I stood there considering all the changes that had happened during that time, I wondered to myself if I would be back before something else remarkable was demolished and rebuilt.


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