West Cambridge – Villenviertel or Bicycle Suburb?

I haven’t been able to travel far, of course, during the Covid-19 lockdown, but I have been able to get out on my bike every day, and I’m very aware that I live in a very attractive area. We have the Paradise Nature Reserve and Grantchester Meadows (too crowded at the moment, alas), but we also have lots of beautiful buildings on what are currently very quiet streets. Obviously Cambridge University and the colleges are architectural patrons of distinction and over the centuries have built many fine edifices – but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I was looking at my Pevsner (The Buildings of England – Cambridgeshire, the 1970 second edition), which caught my attention with its reference (on p.255) to ‘The Villenviertel of Cambridge’. It’s a distinctly Germanic concept; I can’t really think of any other English city with a ‘Villa Quarter’, but the western Berlin suburbs of Wannsee, Grunewald and Dahlem are defined by their lakeside villas (it’s a little-known fact that there are lakes in West Cambridge, but they are totally surrounded by houses and visible only from the air for most of us). Vienna and other cities also have their villa quarters, but in Britain by and large we had Metroland.

 Thinking about this, I came across this paper: ‘West Cambridge 1870–1914: building the bicycle suburb’ by Philomena Guillebaud (Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society XCVI), about the transformation of this same area from farmland to a ‘gentry housing’ area. ‘Bicycle suburb’ is an equally odd concept, given that the whole of Cambridge is a bicycle city now, and that this area is easily close enough to the city centre to walk. But it did mean that pretty grand houses could be built without stables (which would later have become garages) and that domestic staff did not have to live in if they could easily cycle to work – a hint at a social revolution there, perhaps.

 Effectively, the history of West Cambridge begins only in the 1870s when fields were enclosed and largely ended up in the hands of St John’s and a couple of other colleges; plots were then allocated for the construction of Newnham and Selwyn Colleges and Ridley Hall (from 1875, 1879 and 1877 respectively), and then for housing development. It’s widely believed that this was driven by the end of the requirement for college fellows to be bachelors, in 1877, but this was really just one factor. From the start of the twentieth century colleges were themselves building grand buildings on Grange Road to house students and staff, eventually followed by the university library and further colleges.

 Most of the houses were designed by London architects such as MH Baillie Scott, ES Prior, and then slightly later Edmund Kett, AW Rose and AL Champneys, who are still remembered as among the best architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The dominant style is probably Arts and Crafts, although there are plenty of Jacobean, Baroque and Georgian features too.

 Pevsner describes his Villenviertal as lying around Grange Road and Madingley Road, but, looking at the detail (pp. 241 and 255-6) the area described stretches from Millington Road in the south to Storey’s Way in the north. Since Pevsner’s time, Madingley Road has become a busy main road into the city and most remaining houses now have dense high hedges to cut themselves off; but over the years I’ve delivered leaflets along Grange Road and I’ve always been aware of some very fine buildings there. My favourite is no.11, known as Upton House, which was built in 1912 to designs by Algernon Winter Rose; it’s one of a quite a few Grade II-listed houses in the area, and I found that English Heritage’s web pages not only give useful information about individual listed buildings, but also cite others which give ‘group value’ – in this case nos. 4 (1898, by Baillie Scott), 5 & 7 (c.1893, by Edmund Kett). It’s also hard to miss nos. 60 and 62, both built by Champneys in 1906 as student accommodation for Trinity College, and no. 71 (1911, by AB Mitchell), with a plaque marking it as the home of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947), awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1929.

60 Grange Road
62 Grange Road

 

 

71 Grange Road

 

31 Grange Road

Personally I quite like 31 Grange Rd, described in passing as Victorian, but to me it seems a throwback to the Georgian style, with its bowed frontage.

 On the north side of Madingley Road, Storey’s Way is named after Storey’s Charity (now the Edward Storey Foundation), named after a Cambridge bookseller who died in 1692 or 1693 and left money to buy land in order to fund almshouses for the poor (it’s still active). It runs between Churchill, Trinity Hall and Fitzwilliam Colleges, splendid ensembles of twentieth-century architecture but beyond my remit here; more to the point are the lovely Arts and Crafts houses and gardens, several by Baillie Scott, that were built in the golden age before the First World War (the Rupert Brooke years). The first to catch my eye was no. 76 (1913, by Arthur Hamilton Moberly), which has a blue plaque in honour of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who died there in 1951 – a month or two back, on an earlier lockdown cycle ride, I found his grave not far away in the Ascension Burial Ground. Just north is Atholl Lodge, built in 1931, and now the Fitzwilliam College’s Masters Lodge; it’s not particularly highly rated but makes a nice statement with its distinctive corner turret on a bend in the road. It’s followed by several Baillie Scott houses, of which no.48, just before the next bend in the road, seems almost perfect to me. I have a newspaper article from 2016, when it was for sale – internally it’s apparently open-plan like a medieval hall, with the latches and window fittings etc all designed by Baillie Scott to fit his concept of the ’ideal home’ (similar to the ideas of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland).

 At the other end of Grange Road, Millington Road is a private road, with anachronistic gas lights, that was developed slightly later – there are seven fine houses by HC Hughes, notably no.11 (1922), as well as a classic example (no.26 – designed by Marshall Sisson in 1931) of the kind of flat-roofed Modernism that Pevsner had grown up with in Germany. While I was cycling around thinking about this piece, I came across a similar (but more Corbusieresque) example which I thought he’d missed – but of course he hadn’t (9 Wilberforce Road), although he doesn’t give a date or any other details. According to other sources, it was designed by Dora Cosens in 1937 – she was a student of Checkley at the university’s School of Architecture, then married (Thomas Hardy was at her wedding – he began as an architect, after all) and gave up architecture.

 Pevsner then mentions Barton Court ‘on the other side of Barton Road’, terrace houses (we’d probably call them maisonettes now) by Dry Halasz Dixon Partnership (1966-9) – as far as I can tell, this is now called Archway Court, and is on the same side of Barton Road as Millington Road.

 Just west is Grantchester Road  in the second edition, Pevsner added Nos. 2 & 2A and described them as ‘among the best recent houses in Cambridge’. They were designed in 1963-4 by Colin St John Wilson, who taught architecture at Cambridge and went on to design the British Library. Pevsner described its ‘cast-stone blocks of a pure white’ which unfortunately now look like grubby breeze-blocks – it may be wonderful in its use of internal space, but externally it really hasn’t dated well. Enough said.

What we’re building these days, alas… what the Americans would call a McMansion at 95 Barton Road
There’s good stuff on the other side of Cambridge too – 23 Queen Edith’s Way
25 Millington Road
23 Storeys Way

 

Return to Oxford

I’m in lock-down in Cambridge at the moment, but a few months ago I did make a flying visit to the other place, Oxford, where I studied many years ago.

 From the cultural tourism point of view, the most notable developments in Oxford recently have been the reopening of the Ashmolean Museum (in 2009) and of the Weston Library (in 2015). The Ashmolean, of course, is Britain’s oldest museum, founded in 1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities given to the University of Oxford in 1677 by Elias Ashmole, treasures acquired by him from the gardeners, travellers, and collectors John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger. It’s housed in the Cockerell Building (opened in 1845), one wing of which is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the university’s modern languages faculty, where I spent a certain amount of time as a student (as an undergraduate and in my glorious two-term research career). The £61 million revamp by Rick Mather dropped a huge concrete-and-glass box into the courtyard behind the original museum, creating a spectacular lightwell/staircase that provides easy connections to every floor and gallery, plus of course a new rooftop restaurant. The display space has also been doubled in size, allowing bigger and better temporary exhibitions – I’m very keen to see the current Young Rembrandt show, but of course it’s closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  I didn’t spend much time in the New Bodleian Library as a student, and just saw it as a drab pile that I had to pass frequently – built in 1937-40 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Wikipedia sniffily notes that it’s ‘not generally considered his finest work’, although it is listed as a Grade II historic building. It too has been hollowed out behind the original façade in an £80 million pound project to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material and better facilities for readers, including a digital media centre and 2.5km of open-access bookshelves. It also welcomes outside visitors for the first time; a new entrance from Broad St leads to a shop and café and spaces for free temporary exhibitions, which I strongly recommend. Journalists crowed that ‘the dreary old New Bod has become the Mod Bod’, but it is in fact now called the Weston Library.

 I’ve just seen that the University Museum of Natural History is next in line for a major revamp; in 2014-6 it was closed to fix its leaking roof (comprising over 2,500 Victorian glass tiles), and in 2020 the displays in the main court are being moved out in shifts (allowing the museum to stay open throughout) and reinstalled in new high-tech conservation cabinets. The new displays will, they say, ’address the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment’.

 Not all of Oxford’s museums are doing so well – just last month three paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci and Salvator Rosa were stolen from the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Christ Church itself had recently been in the news because cases of fine Burgundy and Pouilly Fumé had been disappearing from the cellar. Hmmmm, I wonder if there could be a connection.

 Architecture old and new

In fact though, every time one returns to Oxford after a few years away, there are plenty of new and converted buildings to catch the attention. At my alma mater, New College, the stylish new Clore Music Studios were completed in January 2019 and the Kimbel Wing (fantastic accommodation for the disabled in the original Morris Garage, where the first Bullnose Morris cars were assembled in 1912) was opened in March 2019 (I’d love to see my nephew living there one day, but that’s another story). More recently, the plans for the new Gradel Quadrangles, which received planning permission in June 2018, were greeted with general approval and even excitement – crammed in behind Savile House, where I lived in my final year, they’ll allow New College to provide rooms for all its students.

 In the future I’d like to wander north of the centre, where there’s all sorts of interesting new architecture, starting with the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, in and around the old Radcliffe Infirmary between the Woodstock Road and Walton Street. The Observatory itself is now the focal point of Green Templeton College, a new graduate college founded in 2008. The former St Luke’s Chapel (built in 1865) is a venue for events, and not to be confused with the Freud café in the former St Paul’s Church on Walton St, built in 1836. There’s new accommodation for Somerville College here, and the Jericho Health Centre and the University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, the Mathematical Institute and the Blavatnik School of Government (by Herzog & de Meuron) have also opened; the new Humanities Building was granted planning permission in 2010 but has been delayed by funding issues, with construction now expected to begin in 2021 (leaving aside any Covid-19-related complications). I love good modern architecture (and thankfully Oxford and Cambridge can both afford to pay for it), and I especially enjoy projects that fit in new buildings among historic sites like this. A little further north, colleges such as St Anne’s also have similarly striking new buildings to be examined.

 Other small projects caught my eye too, for instance the McCall MacBain Graduate Centre (part of Wadham College), opened in 2012 in the former Blackwell’s Music Shop at the rear of the King’s Arms (I’ll get to pubs later, don’t worry, but the KA is also owned by Wadham). I have no idea what the Oxford Ice Factory building was when I was a student (1978-82) but it now houses the Oxford Foundry, an entrepreneurship centre opened in 2017 by the Saïd Business School, aiming to build a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs to leave society and the planet in a better state. It too has a nice café, naturally. And just a couple of blocks west, at the corner of Hollybush Row and the new Frideswide Square, the Jam Factory, opened in 2006, is a restaurant-bar-arts centre in the building where the famous ‘Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade was produced from 1903 to 1958. Immediately to the east. ie slightly nearer the city centre, I wandered around what used to be an area of breweries and other industries straddling various side-channels of the Isis (Thames) – not an area I’d ever known before, but there are still traces of the former Lion (Morrell’s) and Eagle Steam Breweries, now incorporated in fairly pricey residential developments. Immediately to the east again, Oxford Castle and the old prison are well known as a fairly upmarket regeneration area, with posh hotels and restaurants.

 Just a few pubs

And so to the pubs – I headed first to the Turf Tavern, which was my local for some years. It’s expanded, now stretching almost all the way back to New College tower, and has got more touristy, with more emphasis on food. It’s still hard to find and still has skull-bashingly low beams though. They claim that both Bob Hawke’s Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds and Bill Clinton’s ‘not inhaling’ marijuana both took place here in the 1960s; they may be right about Bob Hawke (he was later Australia’s most charismatic prime minister ever), but I’ve met people who knew Clinton at Oxford and the ‘not inhaling’ seemed to take place at private parties. They also make much of the fact that the Harry Potter crew hung out here after filming, which is probably true – some scenes were shot in New College and, for what it’s worth, Emma Watson’s father was a student there with me.

New College cloister – as in some Harry Potter film or other

 

 

 

 

New College Great Quad – as in some Harry Potter film or other

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The KA (see above) is largely unchanged except for the addition of an attractive room with leather sofas next to the back bar (which lost its male-only status just five years before I came up); I found that it’s been a Youngs pub since 1991 – I have no idea what it was in my student days but would be happy to hear any ideas. The White Horse was closed for a mini-refurb over New Year but is probably not greatly changed (there’s not room to do anything much with it); and the Welsh Pony (famously basic when I was there, with amazingly cheap fry-ups) closed as a pub about twenty years ago and is now a generic seedy bar. The Bird and Baby (Eagle and Child) and Flamb and Lag (Lamb and Flag) are still there but both indelibly linked to Tolkien and CS Lewis and thus of no interest to me.

 I was intrigued to see that the local Wetherspoons (I wouldn’t drink there either, due to the founder Tim Martin being a berserk Brexiteer who made himself even more unpopular by his reaction to the new coronavirus) is called  The Four Candles – I wasn’t sure why, until someone told me that Ronnie Barker was a pupil at the Oxford High School for Boys, and the pub is now in that building (which was the History Faculty in my day). Or is it the Fork Handles…? If you don’t know the sketch you should look it up at once.

 I didn’t get there, but I was delighted to learn that the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road, which was my own secret pub in my final year, is now fully vegetarian – no idea what the beer is like, but I look forward to visiting as soon as possible. And we used to love going out to rural pubs such as the Plough in Noke (now closed, I believe), the Boat by the canal in Thrupp (great for bar billiards) and the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, which a friend visited fairly recently – it’s now community-owned, with good local beers, good-value meals, and a plaque stating that Evelyn Waugh ‘wrote, drank and loved here’  – which I hadn’t known. Apparently Waugh stayed here regularly with a male lover, and then honeymooned there with his first wife (who was also called Evelyn, confusingly; she left him for another man, and I can’t blame her), before spending time here to write books including Vile Bodies.

 From Oxford to Adlestrop

And finally – I’ve just read Oxford by Edward Thomas (of Adlestrop fame), which I can’t particularly recommend, it’s stuffed full of quotations and allusions to show how well educated he was (Hertford College, don’t you know) and the footnotes (in the 2005 Signal edition) don’t explain them all. The introduction stresses his Welshness, even though he’s known as a writer specifically about English countryside and nature, which is of some interest as I’m updating the Rough Guide to Wales at the moment. In fact he writes about a visit by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, now remembered mainly as a train), who ‘for three days read aloud his glorious book to large audiences’. My last blog post was largely about Jan Morris, whose Oxford is a definitive account and a  wonderful read. Thomas does mention pubs and taverns quite a lot, and cycling, and also bonfires, which were very common in the college quads in his day but must have been extinguished quite soon after. In his opinion, the major change in his day from historic times was the advent of organised sport (especially rowing) – fives was the exception, which had been popular but had died out by his time – but it has now been revived, of course. Long country walks, not necessarily to pubs in Noke and Beckley, were also popular.

 Adlestrop, incidentally, where his train stopped unexpectedly on an Edwardian summer’s day, is north of Oxford near Stow-on-the-Wold (which I visit from time to time), in a location now best known for the Daylesford Organic Farm. But my next objective is to finally read Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (published in 1911), another classic Oxford tale which I think will be more fun than Edward Thomas.

Skopje – beyond surreal

Rebecca West would be appalled. I spent the first three months of the year reading her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – well, I did do quite a bit of work too, but it really is a monster of a book, over 1,100 pages (originally in two volumes), and one of the great travel books. Actually a large part of it is taken up with musings on the roots of fascism (it was published in 1941), the history of ideas and human nature, but it’s also a detailed account of three journeys through Yugoslavia (except for Slovenia, which she may have seen as too civilised for her tastes). In any case, she makes it clear that Macedonia was her favourite part of Yugoslavia, because of the beautiful souls of the people, largely a side-effect of centuries of mis-government by the Ottoman Turks and brutalisation by anyone else who got a chance, notably the Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians.

It’s a serious book, but there are some very funny bits, notably this description of what she calls ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe’, right in the centre of Skopje – ‘of turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod’. This was the Officers’ Club, embodying the domination of the mainly Serb army, and particularly offensive to the Muslim population as they’d torn down the beautiful fifteenth-century Karlizade or Burmali mosque in 1925 to make room for it. It was badly damaged in the massive earthquake of 1963 and left unrepaired, although after the break-up of

Yugoslavia the city’s Muslims campaigned for the mosque to be rebuilt. In 2013 a Greek company was given permission to rebuild it as a hotel, also providing a new office for the mayor and a wedding hall. As of April 2019 there’s not much sign of progress.

In fact West would be spinning in her grave if she had any idea of the further architectural desecration wrought upon the long-suffering city of Skopje in the last few years – the notorious Skopje 2014 project has seen some of the world’s ugliest and most grandiose buildings constructed along the city centre’s riverfront. Beyond kitsch, beyond surreal, beyond Ceaușescu’s most fevered dreams, they’re simply appalling – I’ll just let my photos below do the talking. One might think they were trying to create a European Las Vegas if there were any casinos, and if Batumi hadn’t got there first. The city was largely flattened in a massive earthquake in 1963 and rebuilt in communist concrete – one can understand a reaction against that, but this was not the way to go.

What’s more they are decorated with and surrounded by an incredible array of statues – they’re not all awful, but their sheer number is exhausting. I thought Bratislava’s riverfront exemplified the Central European love of public statuary, but this is on another level. I hate to think how many hospitals all this could have paid for. Not only that, but the city also has a fleet of red double-decker buses that look like the illicit lovechild of a London Routemaster and a Tonka Truck. And not one but two ‘galleons’ set on concrete blocks in the river. On the other hand, there’s a large traffic-free area and plenty of cycling, so they must be fundamentally good people.

The Museum of Macedonia

The bazaar area has kept its dignity and its authenticity, and is what most visitors most enjoy here; just above, the Mustapha Pasha mosque (built in 1492) is the most interesting of the city’s mosques. Large chunks of the city’s museums are currently closed awaiting restoration, with just a few rooms displaying a fraction of their collections. It has to be said that the modernist communist architecture of the Museum of Macedonia and the Museum of Contemporary Art actually looks pretty good compared to the monstrosities down by the river, while others are beautifully housed in former baths and markets. The M of M has a propagandist display on how the Macedonians of northern Greece were driven out in the 1940s, and a good ethnology display with a huge array of traditional costumes as well as pots, pans and farming implements, which show that Macedonia is part of the cultural continuum of central Europe that I’m familiar with from working for so many years in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and elsewhere (see my recent post on Bratislava). I also went to the City Museum (with some good Roman relics and a room on the 1963 earthquake), the National Gallery (in fifteenth-century baths that make a great space for temporary shows), the Museum of Contemporary Art (also largely empty – part of the impressive worldwide response to the earthquake was to create this museum and donate a Picasso, a Calder and other art works, but these are not currently on display), and I also popped swiftly into the Mother Teresa Centre (she was born here) – the M of M costs about £1.30, the rest are free. I’m informed that the Archeology Museum has lots of Neolithic and Bronze Age relics and a particularly good collections of ancient coins, all well displayed – but the building is a nightmare.

It’s said that Pristina is Europe’s ugliest capital – it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to Skopje.

Time for a beer

One plus is that you can find a decent pint in a couple of places, courtesy of Pivnica Temov aka Old Town Brewery, founded in 2009, who now have a couple of outlets, the original slightly ramshackle place at the top of the old town,and a lively bar right on the main Macedonia Square. They do IPA and a double IPA, stout (I think they spell it staut), porter and weissbier, all unfiltered and unpasteurised and using only the four basic ingredients of barley, hops, yeast and water. My limited sampling indicated it was just fine, and the food was good too.

Then I want home by a different way and found a load more laughable statuary jumbled together – it’s too much for anyone to take in.

What’s in a name?

The long-running fight with Greece over the country’s name has finally been resolved, and it is now officially North Macedonia – an admission that South Macedonia exists and is part of Greece (and a small East Macedonia also exists and is part of Bulgaria). Perhaps Upper Macedonia would have been better, along the lines of Upper Hungary, which is now Slovakia. It’s annoyed some nationalists, but really the country couldn’t go on for ever as FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The particularly huge statue of Alexander the Great (the second most famous Macedonian after Mother Teresa, and she was ethnically Albanian) is still officially called Warrior on Horseback to avoid ruffling Greek sensibilities (and the national flag was also changed to placate the Greeks).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Archeological Museum
The Public Prosecutor and Financial Police
Statues on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Let’s squeeze in some more statues
Statues on the National Theatre
A ‘galleon’ and another view of the Officers’ Club
The ‘Warrior on Horseback’