#LostCambridge – the demise of our city’s social venues


I’ve been doing lots of online research, and over the past 50 or so years Cambridge has lost too many community gems. 

This links from my previous blogpost on photographing Cambridge. It’s been an eye-opener spending time wandering around Cambridge looking up at the easily-missed tops of buildings. Have a look at my Flickr album here.

Lost cinemas and theatres

Have a look at the post here.

I can’t ever remember having gone to the Arts Cinema, but am sure my parents took me there to see something as a child. It has since moved from where the B-Bar now is to the building above the Weatherspoons. I can’t help but feel that the building is somewhat wasted as a mega-pub, not least because of the amount of trouble you get outside there on Friday and Saturday nights. That said, it is by far one of the cheapest and most convenient places to get a meal during the daytime in the more expensive part of town. Something all too easy to forget.

Mill Road has also lost its cinemas – the Playhouse now wasted as the Salvation Army’s shop (when you think about the alternatives it could be used as) and the old Kinema demolished and replaced by a building so non-descript and bland that I can’t even find a word to describe it.

Elsewhere, we had the Tivoli – turned into a pub and now undergoing reconstruction following a major fire.

There’s also the old theatre on Newmarket Road that is now Cambridge Buddhist Centre – have a look here. There are more photos here – and this article from 2010 when it briefly reopened.

We also lost – unbelievably the Theatre Royal on St Andrew’s Street. A theatre that according to this website had a capacity of ***almost 2,000 people****


See the building labelled on the top right, which is where Maplin/Sainsbury’s and some non-descript offices now reside. If you take the length of the two rectangular buildings just behind the Maplin/Sainsbury’s building on the top right, that’s about the lenght and the width of the existing Cambridge Corn Exchange. You could easily fit a big theatre/concert venue there – one that is 2 minutes walk from Drummer Street and Emmanuel Street bus stops/station.

Footprint of Theatre Royal St Andrews St GoogleMap

In the late 1990s when I worked for a bank, I would sometimes have to pop over the road to staff who worked there – me working on the other side of the road at the time.

Astonishing. Absolutely astonishing that we lost what could have been such a wonderful venue. Again, in a money-no-object world and given that Cambridge Assessment are due to move out of what is actually quite a nice building on St Andrew’s St/Park Terrace, I would flatten the non-descript buildings, keep the nice one and incorporate it into a new theatre or venue that is bigger than the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

[Quick update]

Compare the Ordnance Survey map from today vs one from the 1930s below

Old Theatre Royal New Theatre Comparison Map

The footprints of the old Theatre Royal/New Theatre match the Maplin/Sainsbury’s building and the offices behind it. My plan? When Cambridge Assessment move out of their current building next to it, flatten the Maplin/Sainsbury’s building & offices behind it, keep the Cambridge Assessment building and build a modern large venue on the site. 2 minute walk to Emmanuel St bus stops, not much more to Drummer Street, 5 minutes to Lion Yard car park, bike parks by Pizza Hut & not far from the railway station. Ideal site for such a place.

Note the one big barrier to this is the presence of the 70+ roomed accommodation block – South Court of Emmanuel College. Could that corner of the College be reconfigured after Cambridge Assessment move out so that the College doesn’t lose rooms, doesn’t lose a huge amount of income that it currently gets from the offices & shop rental, but can allow a large theatre venue to be constructed? Call me an optimist or a fantasist by all means, but I’d like to think there are enough passionate and knowledgeable people who could solve that problem – even though it might not be me who solves it.

Finally, there is the old Rex/Rendex-vous/Cambridge County Rink Cinema/old roller skating rink. One of the things people are not generally aware of is the roller-skating craze of the early 1900s.


Photo http://cambridgestuff.xillennix.com/cinemas/

This was a venue that hosted a number of great bands at the time according to this lovely booklet from i-SpySyd in Cambridge. (In reference to Syd Barrett, who lived for many years in recluse locally throughout my childhood).

From rollerskating rinks and dance halls, to shops

From a similar booklet by I-SpySyd  we can also see how what were once dance floors or rollerskating rinks became cinemas and finally shops. In Cambridge’s case, Waterstones occupies the old Dorothy Ballroom, and Marks & Spencer occupies the old Victoria Cinema. Then we have the crime against the city that is the continued derelict Odeon cinema/bingo hall.

photo (3)
The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

The old YMCA building also, according to i-SPySyd was a gig venue – one that’s hard to find photos of. Here’s a rare one by former councillor Colin Rosenstiel below.

OldYMCA ColinRosenstiel

The old YMCA building before it was demolished to make way for the Lion Yard shopping centre. Behind it is St Andrew the Great, and to the far left you can just make out Christ’s college and Hobson Street where the tree and the minaret/tower are.

See also these photographs taken by the late Peter Soar as part of historic Cambridge Town was demolished to make way for the much maligned Lion Yard shopping centre.

Talking of old religious buildings…

160314 OldEdenChapelGraftonCambridge

I find this one absolutely haunting in the Grafton Centre. Over the past few days I’ve been wandering around the old Kite part of town just to try and get my head around what happened to this area when I was a baby. Note what it used to look like below, as the demolition men ripped the heart out of this community.

The Kite Area, Cambridge, 1980s Burleigh Street
The old Eden Chapel on the corner of Fitzroy Street and Burleigh Street. Cambridge, 1980s by Roy Hammans

The above is taken from http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/SLIDESHOW-Kite-Grafton-Gold-Street-Cambridgeslost-community-heart/story-22778319-detail/story.html#1 – note the photographs show that people were prepared to fight for their homes.


Only a few days ago from posting this blogpost, I found this old Sunday School chapel, now flats. I had no idea this place existed. Turned out it has a very colourful history – as @IwasID found here.

So…what does Cambridge have in their places?

This has been my longstanding question: Since the millennium, what addition to Cambridge’s entertainment life has there been other than the new bowling alley & cinema on the old Cattle Market site? I’m thinking in terms of significant additions. Even more so as Cambridge’s growth rate means that Cambridge will need to provide far more than it currently does – and have the transport infrastructure to get people to and from venues.

Recall I wrote this in 2015 about Cambridge Leisure – and that was based on anecdote more than anything else. What we have seen that is much welcomed is the conversion by a number of larger churches into community centres which are much more flexible than what they were in the past. The four that spring to mind are St Paul’s, St Philip’s, United Reformed Church and St Barnabas, all of whom have ripped out their pews and replaced their flooring with a much more versatile wooden flooring suitable for indoor sports & leisure. There has also been the growth of coffee-shop-style mini-gig venues such as Relevant Records, Hot Numbers and CB2. Huge achievements in themselves given the costs and work involved. Yet for the significant large scale improvements, these require the backing of larger, wealthier institutions as well as political support. At present I just don’t see that coming in the near future.

It’s a long read, but have a look at this 2013 Cambridge City Council document. Also this document from South Cambridgeshire which has probably been forgotten about.

My take is that transport and leisure have to go hand-in-hand. When I talk to people dependent on public transport, lack of availability, and high costs for what is there is incredibly prohibitive.

That’s why the city deal authorities really need to get it right on future infrastructure – and why I’m not just following, but scrutinising the whole process.


After a heavy post, I want to finish with this photo from what seemed like one of the funkiest boutiques of the time in Cambridge – long since demolished & now buried under the Lion Yard. This one’s from the Frank Bird Collection and was part of a photoshoot for the Alley Boutique in the old Falcon Yard. Does the woman in the picture remind you of South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen?





2 thoughts on “#LostCambridge – the demise of our city’s social venues

  1. …and because I’m a pest, I’ve tabled the following Public Q to Cambridge City Council

    I’ve been doing some research for the neighbourhood plans being developed by some of the residents associations following the recent Prince’s Foundation event that several of you attended. I’ve been going around photographing various parts of the historical non-Cambridge-University parts of Cambridge, learning lots about the history of our city and the unfortunate part this institution and some of its predecessor/sister institutions played in the demolition of some fine buildings and community venues.

    See my blogpost at https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/lostcambridge-the-demise-of-our-citys-social-venues/

    Given that Cambridge Assessment is due to vacate many premises over the next few years, will there be a strategy from the council and Cambridge Assessment on what to do with the vacant buildings? Because we have a huge chance to right some historical wrongs.

    Cambridge used to have a ‘Theatre Royal’ – with nearly 2,000 seat capacity. The footprint of the building is occupied by the Maplin/Sainsbury’s site & some offices behind & on top. Money aside, can we flatten the site and build a modern 2,000 capacity large theatre on that site (*but keep the nice Cambridge Assessment building) which will be a 2 minute walk from Emmanuel St bus stops, 3 mins from Drummer St, 5 mins from Lion Yard car park and 30 seconds from the pizza hut bike park on Parker’s Piece? Mindful of the growth of the city, I am calling for the city to get together and achieve this dream.

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