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.
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.
[January 2021 – I wrote above that the history of West Cambridge effectively began in the 1870s, but this has just come up – a Romano-British cemetery has been discovered at 23-25 Barton Road.]
4 thoughts on “West Cambridge – Villenviertel or Bicycle Suburb?”
There’s a thing! Yes, my father’s aunt once had a flat-roofed house with leaky windows…. agreed.
Nearly bought the modernist one in Millington Road once upon a time, but (practically speaking) – flat roof is a problem – as were all the windows… but yes beautiful for sure
Love the modernist ones. Had never spotted them in my cyclings round Cambridge. Must look out for them next time! (Great to look at, but a nightmare to insulate, I expect…)
I wanted to write something for the Bauhaus centenary. Oh well – maybe next year?
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