Since the coronavirus quarantine restrictions are starting to be lifted and all we’ve done since March is wander around the village, we decided to grab our face masks, throw caution to the wind and treat ourselves to a day trip to Cambridge.
About an hour north of London by train, on the River Cam, is the city of Cambridge, home to the prestigious University of Cambridge. The university dates from 1209 and hosts several famous colleges including King’s; famed for its choir and towering Gothic chapel, Trinity; founded by Henry VIII and St John’s; with its 16th-century Great Gate.
With its theatres, shops, markets and university museums, you could easily spend several days exploring this city. It has lots of independent cafés and restaurants, boutique clothing shops and imaginative gift shops, plus punting, parks and a vibrant city market. When it’s fully alive it is almost guaranteed that there is something for everyone in Cambridge.
Being a university city, Cambridge has very good public transport links. A regular train service from London and several park & ride carparks coupled with a comprehensive bus network, makes getting to and around Cambridge easy.
Last time we visited Cambridge, before the lockdown, it was a hive of activity. The streets were full of people, kamikaze students on bicycles rode up and down the streets, restaurants and cafés overflowed with diners and the city centre had a vibrant atmosphere. Well the lockdown put an end to that! Now most of the people have gone. Although the shops have started to reopen you cannot just browse and the city centre is a pale imitation of its former self.
We drove to Cambridge and parked in the Madingley Road park & ride, which is just over a mile from the American Cemetery. The cemetery is dedicated to American servicemen who died during World War II and is worth a visit but we didn’t go there this time.
The good thing about the park and ride is that it is close to the city and you can park your car for free. The idea is that you park your car for free and pay for the bus ride into the city but at Madingley Road a local bus route runs along the side of the car park. You can park your car then skip through the fence and get a local bus into the city. Not only is the fare cheaper, the bus will drop you nearer to the centre of Cambridge.
The bus dropped us in central Cambridge so we walked north, past Corpus Christi College and Kings College, towards the city market. The absence of people was striking. Unlike a few months ago, the streets were almost deserted.
Many of, the smaller independent cafés and boutiques were open but the souvenir shops and restaurants were mostly closed, I guess that’s because there aren’t enough tourists for the restaurants and souvenir shops but Cambridgites still need to shop and buy takeaway coffee in paper cups.
Almost every open shop had a sign out the front asking for only one person or only two people in the store at a time to comply with social distancing rules. The buskers and walking tour operators didn’t appear to be doing much business. In fact they looked quite lonely. Disappointingly the museums were also closed but that’s probably also down to a lack of foot traffic and the difficulty of enforcing social distancing rules around exhibits.
One of the benefits of the restrictions is that, if you look, there are some very good bargains to be found in the smaller independent stores. While we were mooching our way to the market Rosa spent some time inside one of the boutiques and came out with a lovely dress that was very reasonably priced. Of course, being a woman she has nothing in her wardrobe that she can wear so she desperately needed a new dress. (I’m not complaining; the only reason I didn’t buy anything was because we didn’t pass an open menswear shop.)
The city market was trying to put on a brave face but the foot traffic hasn’t come back yet so about two thirds of the stalls were empty. The fruit and veg stalls and an artisan bread stall looked like they were doing a reasonable trade but they certainly weren’t rushed off their feet. Similarly the florist was open but we didn’t see anyone buying.
The clothing stalls haven’t reopened yet, same for the bric a brac stalls, coin dealers and other nick knack stalls, so browsing was a bit of a disappointment. They probably think that there’s not enough tourists and foot traffic in general to make opening worthwhile. I can see their point, there are few things more depressing than sitting in your shop all day and nobody comes near you. But, if you don’t open people can’t browse and if they can’t browse they won’t buy.
We spent about half an hour looking around the market including waiting in the queue to be served at the fruit and veg stall and waiting in another queue to buy a loaf of bread. Other than the time we spent waiting in queues, we only spent about ten minutes, tops, looking at the rest of the market. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t anything to see so we headed off to find somewhere to have lunch.
Meet Carolina, the greeter at the Eagle pub in Bene’t Street. With a big smile on her face and wearing a shield to protect her from the virus, Carolina took our name and phone number, just in case it was needed, and explained the one way system inside the pub. Then she escorted us to our socially distanced table and left us with a menu each.
The dining area had six tables, each at least two meters from the next table and patrons were spread out to maintain a safe distance between diners. Whenever a customer finished their meal and left, a staff member immediately wiped down the table, chair back and chair seat with disinfectant, ready for the next customer.
The Eagle is a Greene King pub that serves standard pub grub. A few minutes after we sat down, a masked staff member arrived to take our order. I ordered bangers and mash while Rosa ordered a beef burger and chip, then I went to the bar to order drinks from the unmasked bartender standing behind a big Perspex screen. After about fifteen minutes our meals arrived.
While the meal wasn’t gourmet food, it was certainly edible and, unlike some of the other places, at least the pub was open and it served food and the prices were reasonable.
After lunch we took a walk down to the river. The punting business was open and there were a few boats on the river but nothing like the number of boats or people that there was this time last year. The ticket sellers were working hard trying to sell to anyone who walked past but, unfortunately, the people just weren’t there. On the plus side, although the weather was a bit overcast, the river bank is a lovely area for a leisurely stroll. We spent most of the rest of the afternoon enjoying the peace and quiet of the river before walking up to the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Unfortunately the Fitzwilliam Museum, like all of the other museums and most of the tourist attractions in Cambridge, was closed. It’s a pity because the Fitzwilliam Museum is a must see place if you visit Cambridge. It is doubly disappointing that the visitor destinations are closed because if other businesses can work out how to open safely and socially distance their customers then it must be possible for a museum to introduce a one way system so that visitors are socially distanced.
Since the museum was closed all we could do was wait at the bus stop for the bus that would take us back to the park and ride, and hence our car, to arrive.
On balance our visit to Cambridge was a pleasant day out although we were disappointed that more places haven’t opened yet. With a bit of imagination and effort social distancing can be managed but if shops and venues don’t open because there aren’t enough people and people don’t go there because not enough is open then it creates a vicious circle.
We understand the need for the restrictions and we fully support the very slow, cautious way the restrictions are being lifted. We always wear our facemasks in public and we are careful to keep a safe distance from other people. But it does take the fun out of shopping when most of the shops are shut and all you can do is window shop unless you intend to buy something. You daren’t go into a shop that is open to browse because you will be stopping someone who wants to buy from entering the shop. While we fully support the restrictions and do our best to comply with them, that doesn’t mean that we like them and we are really looking forward to the restrictions being just a memory.
Hopefully Cambridge will be back to its former self by Christmas, once the restrictions are lifted. But in the meantime, we all have to be patient.