What I will miss about Cambridge, what I won’t miss about Cambridge

In 10 days I leave the University of Cambridge to start as Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester, which means I’ll be leaving the city of Cambridge in a few months to move back to the city of my birth. The Faculty of Education here has been a wonderful home which has deeply shaped me as an academic (I entered as a part-time sociologist and I leave as a full time educationalist) but the city has had a comparable impact on who I am and what I value. I moved here mainly for family reasons and was slightly trepidatious about whether I’d enjoy it but it’s been a wonderful home. I’ve had four happy years here but I nonetheless feel ready to leave. There are things I’ll miss about Cambridge but there are also things I really won’t miss:

What I will miss about Cambridge:

  • I feel a bit silly that the cows are at the top of my list but I really will miss them. I’ve grown incredibly attached to the multiple herds of cows which roam the city between April and October (particularly the Coldham’s cows, the Midsummer moos and the Granchester er…) not least of all because their leaving and return marks the change of the seasons. The return of the Coldham’s herd during the first lockdown solidified my sense that maybe the world wasn’t ending after all, even if it was going to change a lot.
  • My last four summers have been defined by the Jesus Green Lido. There are few things I enjoy more in the world than a meandering walk to the lido on a summer’s day for a long swim before an equally meandering walk home, often stopping to sit by the Cam for a while.
  • There are some incredibly beautiful green spaces either within the city or a short walk beyond it. Their beauty has become a bit faded to me after 18 months of daily walks but I’m going to be returning to Grantchester meadow, the Paradise nature reserve, Midsummer Common and Fen Ditton intermittently for the rest of my life. I’m particularly attached to Coldham’s Common after 4 years of living a few minutes away and I’m truly going to miss the early morning and dusk walks which have been such a feature of my life this year in particular.
  • Perhaps it mostly reflects changes in me but I’ve felt more comfortable inhabiting space on my own here than I have in other places I’ve lived. It’s only in the last four years that I’ve realised how much I enjoy sitting in cafes on my own, walking in nature on my own and just sitting in public space watching the world go by. There are a lot of other people doing that too. Perhaps they were there in other places and I just didn’t notice them.
  • Prior to the pandemic I was rapidly getting institutionalised into the university, pottering around the city over the course of the day between my office, college canteens, green spaces, coffee shops, college gardens and cinemas. In a strange way I’m glad this was disrupted because there was going to come a point where I got so used to that lifestyle that I wasn’t going to (willingly) leave. But it was an incredibly formative time of my life which I’m aware I’m going to look back on with nostalgia as I get older.
  • I’ve had a developing fascination with the urban sociology of Cambridge over the last four years. The fastest growing city in the UK (economically and, if I recall correctly, in population terms after Milton Keynes) is undergoing a profound transformation. I saw a view of the city from on high a couple of days ago and the ring of cranes surrounding it was startling. This is becoming a platform city which will be remarkably different in a couple of decades and I’ve been preoccupied by this transformation, as an endless ring of new developments come into being around it at the intersection between the life sciences, higher education and the tech sector. Many of the things I won’t miss stem directly from this but there’s been an intellectual pleasure in trying to understand how the place is changing as I’ve wandered round it since 2017.
  • I realise summer figures heavily in this list and that reflects my attachment to the climate here. In part that’s because I grew up in Manchester, one of the rainiest places in the UK, but also because summer in Cambridge can be so beautiful. The fact this has been a lacklustre summer where the temperature hasn’t risen about 26 has made it much easier to leave than it would otherwise have been. But some of my best memories of the last four years involve those seemingly endless summer days and the similarly endless blue skies which accompany them.
  • There have been numerous occasions when I’ve stopped to help people on the street and others have too. It’s possible I’m more likely to see incidents because it’s a small city which I spend a lot of time wandering around. But it’s affirming to experience these situations and realise that other people see there’s a problem too and have the disposition to stop and help. There were a few occasions in Manchester, Birmingham and London where I found myself calling ambulances or the police alongside someone who clearly needed help, while crowds of people walked past (deliberately?) oblivious to what was going on.
  • I really like the Homerton orchard. I’ve often left my office over the last few years to wander around it when I need to think or take a phone call I’m struggling to relax for. I’m planning to spend a lot of time sitting there over the next week or so as I finish clearing out my office.
  • While I found it impossible to reliably find what I was looking for in there (hence the Covid desk service was a bit of a life saver) I derived immense pleasure from days spent in the university library. At least until the pandemic hit. I’d never regularly used a library of this scale before and the capacity to find deserted alcoves amidst dark corridors (something which I loved about Senate House when I used to go there) always helped me focus. But most of all there is a sense of gravity to the knowledge stored there, stealing an idea from Terry Pratchett. The books have a weight to them and afternoons spent there always left me feeling reacquainted with my basically scholastic impulses. I’ll particularly miss the reading room with the comfy sofas, less so the unspoken tensions which permeate that room when it’s busy and some people are noisy.
  • The peculiar ecological niche which a city full of cat lovers generates for the cats they bring with them. I’ve interacted with cats all my life and I’ve never lived somewhere with so many extroverted cats who actively seek out interaction with humans on the street. This constant positive feedback sometimes produces incredibly imperious behaviour, as can be seen in the Burmese cat currently hanging out on Mill Road who sits in the middle of the street as one pedestrian after another stops to stroke him. Or the black cat outside the Alexander Arms who sometimes sits in the middle of the cycle gate confidently expecting cyclists to ride round him/her. See also the cat who wandered into Pets at Home at the Beehive centre and decided to come back daily to enjoy the selection of cat beds there.

What I won’t miss about Cambridge:

  • The absurdly over-heated property market which has left me spending 60% of my salary on a ramshackle house, albeit one which is relatively large and in a good location. The fact I know it’s remained significantly below market rates (possibly reflecting long-term underinvestment) underscores the problem. See also the fact that even with a decent deposit on my own house, I would be left with a mortgage close to my current rent if I were to have any hope of living somewhere I could comfortably walk to the city centre.
  • The cramped streets in much of the city which are rendered unusable if even a few bins are left out, squeezing out pedestrians in the face of locked up bikes and the endless parked cars in what is otherwise the most walkable city I’ve ever lived in by quite some way. It’s particularly irritating when the cars are parked on pavement, as they often are. See also the ever growing traffic. It often feels like the city can’t sustain its own physical growth, leaving crowded streets filled with trucks and vans, with pavements often blocked in the process.
  • The constant building work which accompanies an overheated property market, as owners extend and upgrade in order to maximise the value of their assets. There’s not been a single weekday in months which hasn’t been near constantly accompanied by the noise of building works. Then there’s the large scale building projects which are significantly changing Romsey, as well as the huge projects which are transforming the periphery of the city.
  • The vast majority of the cafes, bars and restaurants being so tiny. Their provision was one of the major things that changed between when I spent a lot of time here in 2004-2005 and when I moved here in 2017. I’ve loved having so many places I like within a 20 minute walk from my house, including a selection which are just a few minutes walk away. Mill Road is a brilliant place to live in this sense, even if the bridge reopening has so vividly detracted from the everyday feel of the area. But they felt cramped prior to the pandemic and I’m much less comfortable sitting inside then I would otherwise be now I’m double-vaccinated. Plus the peculiar inflationary micro-climate which has emerged at the intersection between rising commercial rents and gentrification makes this all worse, creating a situation in which myself and two others could run up a £25 humous bill last week. The fact we nonetheless did this suggests I’m part of the problem.
  • The endlessly circling light aircraft which accompany life in Romsey in particular. This hadn’t really bothered me until lockdown but if you live under the flight path, a few planes out for the afternoon can mean a near constant buzzing as they often fly at or lower than the legally mandated limit. Large aircraft never particularly bothered me (I lived near Birmingham airport for a decade) because they pass over once at a much greater height. But the light aircraft have started to feel like gnats in the sky. Occasionally they are effectively circling my house with a path I can mostly see from the back garden. See also the seeming rise in bikes with modified exhausts, including the lovely chap (I’m pretty certain it is one person) who must piss off hundreds of people round Coldhams Lane most summer evenings.
  • The extent to which the most unequal city in the UK often imagines itself as a bulwark for progressive values. Even amongst people who are actively campaigning against inequality, you occasionally encounter startling attitudes which suggest an obliviousness to the poverty and deprivation which are on their doorstep. Plus the fact that so many of the nice spaces in the city aren’t publicly accessible, which is somewhat obscene when you place it in a political economic context.
  • The number of people cycling on pavements in a cramped city, often in somewhat dangerous ways. Please don’t leave a comment saying ‘not all cyclists’ (etc) as I obviously realise this is the case but there are some and it’s a problem. A few months ago I got hit by someone who was riding at high speed down the middle of a pavement, next to a cycle path and empty road, unable to stop when I happened to take one step to the right. In a city where a quarter of the population cycle, it’s inevitable that some subsection of them will cycle in selfish and dangerous ways.
  • The pavement parking which become so much more pronounced over the last year. The endless parade of parked cars with flashing lights on Mill Road because the drivers couldn’t bring themselves to walk from a nearby street. See also the delivery trucks, though I’m more sympathetic to that given how many shops need to receive deliveries in such a cramped and busy street.
  • I mentioned how much I love the climate here but the unfortunate corollary is the sense that this part of the south-east is a frontier of climate change in the UK, with the hottest temperature ever recorded in the country and those many nights where I’m unable to sleep because these houses were not built for 20 degree overnight.
  • It’s just weird living somewhere where so many of your neighbours have PhDs and you constantly encounter colleagues in daily life. This isn’t a point about the dominance of the university because so many of these people are working in the life sciences or tech firms. But the narrowing of horizons which follows from being part of an academic couple has become much more pronounced here than I think it otherwise would have been. I’m hoping I’ll interact with a wider range of people in Manchester than I’ve tended to here.

This film my friend Milan Stürmer shot on Mill Road the last time we had a coffee outside Relevant Records seemed appropriate for this post:

4 responses to “What I will miss about Cambridge, what I won’t miss about Cambridge”

  1. Interesting reflections Mark – as always.. A pity we haven’t had the chance to get together more often – I certainly find my thoughts frequently returning to the conference you organised. I hope that as well as revisting Cambridge you might find time to visit the Library here again. .Good luck in the future. I look forward to following your sociological insights from Manchester. I wish more sociologists were as orientated towards a public explanation of contemporary social change.

  2. As a close to Cambridge resident, I identify with the reflections on the green spaces and cows. I haven’t been signed up to this blog long, and it feels like you are leaving just as I got to know you were so close by. I can see Ely Cathedral from where I live, and wonder if you have made it that far out of Cambridge? If not- please be my guest, I will take you to lunch and show you around before you leave. All the very best in Manchester!

  3. Thanks! I actually visited Ely before moving to Cambridge and I love the Cathedral. There was a point where we thinking seriously about moving there, though other stuff got in the way

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