As Cambridge colleges expanded along with Cambridge University, so the space available for townfolk and visitors shrank


How spaces, buildings and facilities previously open to Cambridge townfolk has been reduced over the decades as a result of colleges and Cambridge University expanding its functions. Is it time they gave some back to allow for wider pavements?

In my studies of Lost Cambridge, one thing that comes up time and again is the loss of buildings and spaces that were previously available and open to the public.


From the Cambridge Seven Hundred by David Poole, the above is a map of Cambridge prior to the foundation of the colleges. Professor Helen Cam’s authoritative History of Cambridge the town covers the violence that characterised the early conflicts between town and gown – one the King ended up favouring the latter, as Professor Cam writes in the medieval Cambridge chapter.

The period of history that most interests me is the period from when Florence Ada Keynes arrived in Cambridge – in the late 1870s. Fortunately for me, Charles Henry Cooper wrote the excruciatingly detailed Cooper’s Annals of Cambridge (volume 1 digitised here) which came to an end in the 1856 as it hit the present day of the author (the final volume, 5, digitised here).

The importance of hotels and inns as public meeting spaces

The story of three important hotels in central Cambridge that are no longer with us reflect what has happened over the past century or so.

  • The Hoop Hotel
  • The Bull Hotel
  • The Central Hotel

Clockwise from top left, the Hoop Hotel (via Cambs Cricket History), The Bull Hotel (in Spaldings 1913 via the Cambridgeshire Collection) & the Central Hotel (via the Museum of Cambridge).

The Hoop Hotel in the first half of the 19th Century held numerous political meetings and candidate selection meetings, as the report via the British Newspaper Archives, below shows.

320629 Meeting Hoop Hotel candidate selection 1832

In the early 20th Century we find the Cambridge Labour Party holding a meeting at the Central Hotel on Market Square.

130314 Cambridge Labour at Central Hotel

….which would also become an entrance to the central air raid shelter completed in 1939.

390915 Air Raid Shelter Cambridge Guildhall Central Hotel

I’m assuming that wine is still stored in there!

390915 Air Raid Shelter Cambridge Guildhall Central Hotel_2

In the case of the Bull Hotel, it became popular with US servicemen in World War 2. It later became a college to train service personnel – as page30 of this Alumni Cambridge publication shows.

Shortly afterwards, the building was incorporated into St Catherine’s College next door, and ceased to be accessible to the public.

The old County Hall – now part of Christ’s College

One road that has huge potential to become something wonderful is Hobson Street. I can’t see that happening until we get underground tunnel mass transit that would enable the pedestrianisation of more of Cambridge. At the moment the road is mainly a bus and taxi thru-route.

Yet as this post shows, in 1913 the old county hall was completed to give the Cambridge County Council a new home. After the First World War they would find that these premises were too small as the demands of wartime increased the scope of the shire councils. Prior to the construction of County Hall, a methodist chapel stood on the site.

St John’s College clears the west side of Bridge Street

St Johns College Bridge St 1903

The above map of Cambridge in 1903 shows St John’s College and the town buildings to the north/north-east of it.

The main road running north west to south east is Bridge Street. The Western Side of Bridge Street used to contain homes, workshops and a pub or two. In the late 1930s it was all cleared to make way for the large 1930s-style buildings that are there today.

391007 StJohnsBridgeStreetNewBuildings

Thus another part of Cambridge that was part of the lives of townfolk was taken out of their access for ever.

Crowded Cambridge

One of the things that I’ve pondered in the face of Cambridge’s transport issues and the ‘tourist hell’ of the summer that makes the place not a nice place to go to with the crowds, is how to expand the pavements.

What many residents and those of us that grow up here tend not to see is the inside of the colleges. With all of the old, high walls out of habit you just walk past them and not take much notice because until very recently, the culture of Cambridge University and its colleges was that townfolk were as welcome as the bubonic plague. If you were not a member then you were not welcome. (Yes, I have had that said to my face and over the phone in my late teens/early adult years). But that’s nothing compared to all of those small businesses that got their businesses repeatedly trashed by badly-behaved undergraduates over the centuries. Turning around centuries of ill-feeling is not going to happen over night.

Should the Greater Cambridge Partnership and other transport funding pots be used to buy up some of the college and private land aside the main routes into town so as to widen the pavements?

Below is one of the gardens of Sidney Sussex, which I took upon leaving a talk hosted there.


On the other side of the wall on the right hand side is Jesus Lane, and on the left is Sidney Street where Sainsbury’s is. 

Given how crowded the other side of the wall is, and how narrow the pavement is on Jesus Lane, I can’t help but feel that the pavements could be widened and these walls moved back without significantly reducing the beauty of this space.

Opening up some of Cambridge’s hidden gems through pavement widening

The high wall on Jesus Lane puts off people from walking down the pavement that actually leads onto one of Cambridge’s finest historical buildings – All Saints Cambridge decorated by William Morris. I wrote about it here. Would wider pavements and better signposting help sustain a masterpiece that, fifty years ago was at risk of demolition as church congregations collapsed? (Something I wrote about here).

There are other areas that can be considered – Emmanuel College’s front gardens and the walls either side of Emmanuel Street. Jesus Colleges walls on the north side of Jesus Lane. Widening the pavement on the King’s College side of King’s Parade by narrowing the area of the grass lawn – parts of which used to have buildings on them! Even the land clear by St John’s mentioned above could be used for pavement-widening.

When I look at it from an issue of fairness, I compare how many people benefit from the existing set up vs how many would benefit from the pavements being wider. Take the wall of the garden of the Master’s Lodge at St John’s that backs onto Bridge Street. Would it be more fair for the public that walk up and down Bridge Street to widen the pavement and move the wall back, or more fair on the Master of St John’s to keep the wall where it is?

My take is that as Cambridge continues to expand – in a large part driven by Cambridge University and its colleges, the greater the pressure there will be on existing landowners to free up some space for the widening of pavements.





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