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Historic England guide explores Cambridge past and present

A view of Cambridge in 1946
A view of Cambridge in 1946

Cambridge: Unique Images from the Archives of Historic England by Simon McNeill-Ritchie puts one of England's finest cities in the spotlight.

Punting on The Cam, circa 1950s
Punting on The Cam, circa 1950s

The photographs that appear in the guide are taken from the vast Historic England Archive – ranging from the 1850s to the present day – and some were taken by the author himself.

Though not a resident of Cambridge – he is currently based in Bath – Simon is a part-time student: a history PhD candidate at Clare College and has been coming to Cambridge now for seven or eight years for his studies.

A regular member of the Wandsworth History Society, he has published a number of books, a DVD and several articles about aspects of local history.

Simon told the Cambridge Independent: “I’d done some other books for Amberley, the publisher, on London when I was living there – so one on Battersea, another on Putney and one on Wimbledon. I then moved out towards Bath and was still in touch with Amberley.

Ladies bathing place, Cambridge
Ladies bathing place, Cambridge

“We were looking at towns and cities that I thought I would be able to research and cover and, because I was studying at Cambridge, Cambridge was actually a relatively easy one to do for me, even though it’s a long way from my home.”

Simon continued: “The way we work on it [this type of book] is ideal if I can immerse myself in it – in which case it needn’t take so long.

“We have online access to the images but, as you can imagine for Cambridge, there were hundreds, so it’s a personal selection. I’m trying to find themes that I think reflect the nature of the city.

“From then it’s a question of finding images of different aspects of that theme. Obviously one of the things I looked at were colleges because that does seem to be a part of the attraction – it’s a question of finding good quality images on the Historic England website, but ones that gave a fairly broad coverage of the colleges.”

Bridge of Sighs, St Johns College
Bridge of Sighs, St Johns College

Discussing the contrast between many of the older university buildings and some of the – arguably far less attractive – mid-to-late 20th century efforts, Simon said: “It is an extraordinary journey. I learned as much from this as I hope any reader will.

“This is not a detailed history book of Cambridge, but hopefully there’s enough interest in it to go along with the photographic images – which I think are very striking. Some of the buildings are quite brutal and I think actually Cambridge was proud at one stage of leading that sort of postmodern architecture.”

Simon added: “I’m glad to see that subsequent modern buildings are closer to the harmonious and less aggressive style than some of those earlier attempts.” He notes, however, that these buildings are still of historical value:

“Actually, because they are such important examples of that particular type of architecture, they have merit in itself. They may not be our taste today, though.”

The Fountain, Trinity College
The Fountain, Trinity College

Simon very much enjoyed the experience of writing the book and compiling the photographs. “Cambridge is very rich in all areas so I was really spoilt for choice,” he observed. “There are some lovely old photographs of, say, St John’s and the colleges on the Backs in particular.

“It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to put in a few aerial shots too because I think that provides a perspective on the city that you wouldn’t get at street level.

“I liked taking my own photographs, even in the Grand Arcade. I like the contrast between some of the older photographs and what else is going on in town. While I think the university is a big part of the city’s draw worldwide, when people get there, they find there’s a lot more to it than just the university.”




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