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

 

‘My’ pubs in Cambridge

I’ve lived in Cambridge for just over twenty years now, and before that ten miles outside the city – I just washed up here because it’s where my last salaried job was. But I was cycling down Marylebone High Street in London one day in about 1999 when a fellow travel writer (working as a cycle courier) saw me, did a swift U-turn, and told me that he was moving to Cambridge because he had identified it as the best place to start a brewery. He then destroyed my electric drill constructing said brewery, but that’s another story. Richard turned out to be a very good brewer and a better businessman, so when in 2001 he suggested investing in a new pub company I was willing. That too was very successful – our first three pubs, in Peterborough and London, have since been profitably disposed of, and we had to wait ten years to see a dividend, but since then it’s ticked over very nicely. We now have three pubs in Cambridge plus the White Lion in Norwich (another city I’ll be writing about before too long).

The first of our Cambridge pubs to open, in 2010, was the Devonshire Arms, which used to be a Jamaican dive, with a massive sound system, sticky floors and no beer other than White Stripe – at that stage we pretty much did all the remodelling ourselves, and the amount needed here was massive! But it’s been a very popular and lively pub ever since reopening (although the clientele has got a bit more alternative) – definitely a real ale venue (mainly Milton ales, of course, but plenty of others too, as well as real cider, a Moravian lager, wines and malt whiskies), but there’s decent food (notably pizza). It’s in the so-called ‘beer quarter’ on either side of Mill Road, with other great pubs such as the Cambridge Blue, Kingston Arms, Alexandra Arms and the Live And let Live, as well as the Salisbury Arms (see below), which is a bit more towards the station.

The Dev was followed by the Haymakers in 2013 and the Queen Edith (the only pub that’s anywhere near the huge hospital complex…) in 2015, both of which have a similar offering.
Actually, I’ve been prompted to finally write this post in part by reading Brew Britannia by Boak and Bailey, which I mentioned in my previous post on Penzance – I wasn’t aware that Cambridge had played such a rôle in the real ale revival, with its first beer festival in 1972 and then annually from 1974 (when they offered 25 beers, including Schumacher Alt from Düsseldorf). I was at the 2018 festival a week or two ago, and I couldn’t begin to count the number of beers on offer, or the number of people attending. It turns out in the book that the Salisbury Arms was one of the first pubs to be run by CAMRA’s business arm, opening in 1976 – it has long since been spun off, and is now a very successful Pizzas Pots and Pints pub (along with the Carpenters Arms on Victoria Road and a few others in neighbouring towns) – this is a new brand developed by the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford, who also own my local, the Red Bull on Barton Road (which does good pizza too, with a very popular two-for-one deal on Mondays). I find it interesting that there are several new mini-chains of largely food-led pubs, such as the City Pub Group (Cambridge Brew House, the Mill, the Old Bicycle Shop, the Waterman and the Petersfield, all pretty decent). The Old Crown in Girton has just re-opened and is along the same lines (though a bit posher) – it’s owned by Greene King, the dominant regional brewery, but is now run by Stuart Inns, who also manage a select number of other posh pubs across East Anglia, such as the Greyhound in Lavenham and the Swan in Long Melford.

Greene King is unpopular, owing to its grasping way of doing business (driving competitors out of business) and the way it squeezes its pub managers and landlords; Suffolk’s splendid Adnams brewery only has one pub in Cambridge, the Castle Inn, which is very popular with all those who have sworn to avoid Greene King. The days when GK otherwise had a quasi-monopoly of Cambridge’s pubs have long gone – in addition to the Milton pubs, there are other Charles Wells places, such as the Elm Tree, which does an amazing line in Belgian beers (with a huge folder of tasting notes to help you choose). In fact the Elm Tree has been leased by Charles Wells to B&T, a smaller brewery in Shefford, Bedfordshire, but it usually has a beer or two from Charles Wells or Young’s (a historic London brewer), which merged in 2006.

The Elm Tree is very close to the Free Press, in an area called the Kite which was once expected to be cleared and replaced by a massive shopping centre; both pubs closed for a while. but the area survived and gentrified and the pubs are both very popular. The Free Press was for a long time Cambridge’s only non-smoking pub (and the best place to find mild), and I regarded it as my local when I was actually living ten miles south of the city. Again, it’s more food-oriented than it used to be, as its URL reveals, but that’s ok. (Actually, now-Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett cooked here way back before I ever came in.)

The other current trend in pub ownership is for them to be closed by the big pub companies and then re-opened in a community buy-out – this is usually because a village is about to lose its last pub (having already lost its shop, post office and bus service) and comes together to save it. Therefore this hasn’t happened in Cambridge itself, but it does apply to the Ancient Shepherds in Fen Ditton, the Hare and Hounds in Harlton and the Green Man in Thriplow, for instance. All well worth supporting.

Other Cambridge pubs worthy of note are the Maypole (known for its great range of beers and for its very affordable cocktails – the only true city-centre pub mentioned here, although the Champion of the Thames is a fine traditional boozer too), the Portland Arms (known for live for music) and the Punter, which doesn’t offer a huge choice of beer but does good food in a pleasant setting, as well as the Blue Ball, the nicest pub in Grantchester and the nearest to Cambridge (my ‘other local’ in a way), which didn’t do food under its previous, rather grumpy, ownership but now offers a few decent dishes. I wanted to like the Thirsty Biergarten, a summer pop-up in a churchyard, but over-priced pasteurised ‘craft beers’ and a food van are really not my thing, though young people seem to like it. Nor am I interested in NOVI, which used to be the Fountain Inn and now is a trendy modern venue serving espresso, craft beer and cocktails. Two pubs have just opened at Cambridge’s main station (yes, we have two stations now, and with luck a third in a few years), but I’m not too bothered. It’s not that I’m dead set against craft beer and keykeg as such, but I can’t see why they cost 20-25% more than cask ale, or why people pay those prices.

2for1 pizza and a pint at the Red Bull, Barton Road (whoops, all gone!)
No comment needed

Cambridge, my cultural centre

I love living in Cambridge (the one in England), certainly not for the scenery but for its good transport links and for its cultural life. I would always choose to live in a university town, but it has to be said that for quality theatre or opera an evening out in London is usually required. Nevertheless there’s plenty of good music to be heard, with half a dozen amateur orchestras appearing at the university’s West Road concert hall (which has lovely warm acoustics) and lots of lunchtime concerts in chapels across the town.

Cambridge’s art scene is even better, with a world-class collection of old and modern masters at the Fitzwilliam Museum (also owned by the university) and the quite wonderful Kettle’s Yard, now closed for refurbishment before its 50th anniversary in 2017. Once home to Jim Ede, a very influential curator at the Tate Gallery in the 1920s and 1930s who was friendly with all the most important British artists of the time, the house itself became his (and his wife Helen’s) artwork with his remarkable collection of works by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones, Joan Miro, Constantin Brâncuşi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth displayed alongside perfectly chosen furniture, wall-hangings, plants and even arrangements of pebbles. Upstairs in an attic room there’s a superb collection of drawings and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a wonderful French artist who moved to London in 1910 and died in the trenches in 1915 aged just 23. Integrated into the house is a gallery (built in 1970) that hosts touring shows of contemporary art (usually too avant-garde for me, but I go anyway).

Just inside the entry to Downing College (on Regent Street), Edwardian stable buildings have been converted into the Heong Gallery, opened earlier in 2016. Small but perfectly connected (we’ve already had shows by Ai Weiwei and Richard Long), it’s open on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday only (free).

The Heong Gallery

It’s also worth heading out to Huntingdon Road to track down the New Hall Art Collection, housed in Murray Edwards College (which was in fact known as New Hall until some wealthy donors acquired the naming rights in 2008). As a women’s college, they set out to build a collection of art by contemporary female artists. Most of it is hung in the public areas of the college and can be seen from 10am to 6pm daily. A Self-Guided Tour booklet is available from the Porter’s Lodge, and free tours take place on the first Tuesday of the month at 6pm, and the last Wednesday of the month at 1pm, lasting 45 minutes. I particularly like paintings by Maggi Hambling, Fiona Banner and Charlotte Hodes and ceramics by Claudia Clare; there’s a statue by Barbara Hepworth outside, and there are also paintings by other significant artists such as Ana Maria Pacheco, Gillian Ayres, Miriam Schapiro, Sonia Lawson and Eileen Cooper.

The New Hall Art Collection

 

Constellations by Charlotte Hodes (1992)

The Cambridge University Library is also (until March 2017) celebrating its 600th anniversary – it’s usually worth the short walk out west to see what’s on in its exhibition room, and while Kettle’s Yard is closed the library’s entrance hall is also one of the places where pieces from its collection are on display.

The Open Studios scheme offers a great opportunity over three weekends in July to visit artists in their studios, dotted around the city in ordinary houses that you would not otherwise know housed such creativity. Many are members of the Cambridge Drawing Society, which puts on shows twice a year (currently at the Leys School on Fen Causeway) – these show off the frankly amazing technical skills of Cambridge’s artists.

On a bit of a tangent, I should mention that the Old Divinity School (actually opened in 1879 – see below) has been lovingly restored by St John’s College; it’s across St John’s St from the college, and is used for concerts and other events. And for a dose of true Cambridge culture you could of course visit the three pubs that I own a share of – more on that in a future post!

The Old Divinity School