Secret Cambridge by Andrew Sargent
It is difficult to write something fresh about a place which is as well known and loved as Cambridge. The run of colleges along The Backs are a vital part of our national heritage, and King’s College Chapel is familiar the world over from the televised Christmas Eve broadcast of Carols from King’s.
Friends asked me to justify offering a new book. The answer is that, while a small slice of the town is a national treasure visited by millions every year, most of its long history passes them by. The focus on the colleges means that much else is hidden in plain sight; more is tucked away and forgotten. I studied and lived in Cambridge for fifteen years, and was aware that even in that time I barely scratched the surface.
Secret Cambridge is probably unique in its approach. It explores the whole town, not just the famous colleges, and it takes in the whole story of Cambridge from its Roman origins to the present day. But it is not just a history: it also looks for the places where events happened, and traces the surviving physical clues to the past – things you can see and touch. It will be as stimulating for Cambridge residents who want to know more about their town as for visitors.
There was a town here, beside the Cam, a thousand years before the first scholars made it their home. That town continued alongside the growing university, the two becoming increasingly intertwined and their relationship becoming ever more complex. It is easy not to appreciate today, but for much of history Cambridge was a transport hub. It was an important river crossing and the last bridging point before the fens and the sea. It was also the highest navigable point for seagoing vessels, a place where cargoes could be transferred between road and water. The city arms still show three ships riding at anchor beneath a bridge.
The Roman conquerors were quick to recognize the strategic importance of this crossing point, and a bridge was soon built. A small settlement sprang up on the bluff overlooking the crossing to service passing travellers, while a suburb grew up on the opposite bank along what is today known as Bridge Street. This settlement – barely a town – appears in itineraries under the name Duroliponte. In the fourth century AD the hilltop town, though not its suburb, was surrounded by a wall; its course is preserved in the street plan.
Despite this Roman history, the settlement disappeared in the succeeding ‘Dark Ages’ – this was true of most British towns. There was no Cambridge at this date, although archaeology has discovered a lot of rural activity within the area of the modern city boundary. The settlement by the river crossing reappears in the documents in 875 when the Viking army over-wintered there. Notably, this was the first use of the place name Granta Brycge. In other words, someone (perhaps King Offa of Mercia) had built a new (presumably timber) bridge at this important location, and it would be reasonable to imagine a small settlement of entrepreneurs had sprung up around it. From this point onward, the town grew. About 50 years later, Edward the Elder, King of Wessex and son of Alfred the Great, cemented its importance by creating a burh (a fortified place) which became the administrative centre for his new shire. The oldest building in Cambridge, the 11th-century tower of St Bene’t’s church, is a relic of the thriving late Saxon town.
The conquering Normans left their stamp in the form of the castle motte (or mound) which commands the view from the top of Castle Hill. Meanwhile, the Norman town prospered, in common with many market centres across the region. What marked Cambridge out was the annual Stourbridge Fair. Originally granted by King John as a fundraising venture for the leper hospital on Newmarket Road, it developed into the most important fair in England, attracting merchants from across Europe.
The game-changing date was 1209. Oxford University temporarily suspended itself in protest at an unusually severe outbreak of violence by the townsfolk, and its scholars scattered. Most subsequently returned to Oxford, but a group decided to settle in their quiet fenland haven. At first they were probably unnoticed, but gradually the tensions between the civic and academic communities grew. As the conflict intensified, nobles, and even the King himself, were pressed into service in support of one side or the other. The university gained the upper hand, and it was only in the 19th century that relations began to be normalized.
Today the name Cambridge immediately brings to mind the many beautiful and venerable colleges. The early scholars, however, lived simply in rented lodgings. In the 13th century the friars and monks built their own monastic houses in the town where members of their orders could study. The foundation of the first college, Peterhouse, is reckoned from 1284 when Bishop Hugh de Balsham of Ely established a band of scholars in some buildings beside the church of St Peter without Trumpington Gate (now called Little St Mary’s). Even so, it was many years before the small community could afford to erect any new college buildings. Other wealthy and powerful donors followed the Bishop’s lead, resulting in the dramatic remodeling of the town centre which created the Cambridge we know today. A road named Milne Street which ran parallel to the High Street (now St John’s Street-Trinity Street-King’s Parade) was swept away; many houses were bought up and a church was demolished to make way. Unlike today, these first colleges were for graduates only; undergraduates were left to find accommodation around the town. The need to control their unruly behaviour formed part of the drive for students to live in colleges.
One of the most striking features of Cambridge is the way the countryside seems to wind through the town. It is possible to follow the river from Grantchester to Fen Ditton walking only a couple of short sections on the pavement. This gives the town a unique atmosphere. Inevitably, it is in part a legacy of the university and colleges’ stubbornness which forced most suburban development to the east of the historic core.
Today both town and university are growing. The university must add new facilities if it is to maintain its remarkable position as a world leader. As the fields of West Cambridge succumb to these pressures, this flexible town looks towards a new phase in its colourful life.
Andrew Sargent's new book Secret Cambridge is available for purchase now.