Cambridge Airport is a place on the edge. Its airfield straddles the Eastern city administrative boundary that snakes across it from Newmarket Road to Cherry Hinton. But the airport's physical border with the city is with East Barnwell, the mainly residential area at Cambridge's Eastern Edge. The whole airport site occupies the majority of the land earmarked for development as part of the Cambridge East Area Action Plan. 'Cambridge East', as the area has imaginatively been branded, is a significant development planned on the edge of the City. Much will be housing but it has also been muted as an alternative 'focal point' to the existing City Centre. As such, the airport and much of what surrounds it, has become formally temporary.
The airport and its periphery is a liminal zone awaiting a transition to a future post Covid landscape. Once this process is eventually over, it will join other areas where developments have already been built, are in progress or planned at the edge of the city. A similar development is planned at the Northern edge of the City which is to be located in the area adjacent to Cambridge North Station. Currently it is a mixture of waste ground, business park and industrial land. It's major feature is the Cambridge Sewage Treatment Works, perhaps making it the untimate brown field site. The new location of the sewage farm is in the process of being decided between three shortlisted places. One of these, coincidently, is not far North of the Airfield, at a site around 'Honey Hill near Fen Ditton. The three potential sites, like the Airfield and it's periphery, are places in a state of suspended animation. Once a decsion is made, the unlucky 'winner' will remain a temporary zone in the run up to and during development. Then once the new sewage farm is operational the site will have fully transformed into the ultimate liminal place.
The time felt right to make an anti-clockwise navigation of the airport periphery, in the early phase of the 'pending' period it had entered along with much of the wider Cambridge edge.
I started at the boundary of Romsey and Cherry Hinton, where the railway crosses the bridge over Coldhams Lane, at the confluence with Coldhams Brook. The mysterious but ubiquitous Nigel and Tape were there, marking the transition into the peripheral zone beyond the bridge.
Across the road, north of Coldhams Lane, the airfield was obcsured by hedge running most of the way along its Southern perimeter. Occasionally unsual lights and other bits of airfield infrasructure revealed themselves through gaps, hinting at a Whovian landscape beyond and sometimes resmbling unearthly and absurd beings. There was no sound from the other side of the hedge and no planes passed overhead as I traversed Coldhams Lane. The airport is, as far as I'm aware, still operational and Marshalls, the owner, still very much in business. The silence today was probably more Covid related than a sign of a reduction in activity reducing due to closure. Marshalls announced last year that it will be relocating and the land will be available for development from 2030. So this interim period is going to be a long one but, already, the Covid imposed silence presented a glimpse of things to come.
A report on the Blue Circle Site (as the area was once known) from 1999 says of landfill gas 'all three former landfills are known to be actively gassing and will be for many years'. While no significant risk was thought to be posed by this, and no indication given as to what 'many years' would consitute in the context of lasndfill gas, I noted the short posts dotted at various points in the ground and imagined they were still allowing gas to escape twenty years on, like static methane ambassadors.
I turned into March Lane, and towards the point where it terminates and gives way to a footpath that follows the perimerter of the airfield's Eastern Edge. Just before this, I was distracted by an another apparent path through a thicket of trees at the bottom of Teversham Drift, next to a fenced off electricity substation. This path, such as it was, quickly terminated at the edge of a field of agricultural land which is part of the area identified for development as 'The Land North of Coldhams Lane'. This sector of land is just to the East of the airport and presumably will eventually become part of 'Cambridge East'. The field, though lacking the liminal strangeness of the ex-landfill sites in the neigbouring 'Land South of Coldhams Lane', was in a similar state of stasis, a temporary calm before the storm of pending development.
The structure marked the point where the path turned right, to hug the Eastern perimter of the airfield. Here, a small bare branched tree, thickly colonised by some sort of ivy, stood like a stunted arboreal sentry, guarding the footbridge that passed over the small watercourse. This confluence was also marked by a number of other features on the airfiled side. A small yellow notice attached to the fence warned of CCTV operation. Just beyond this was a second structure, this time flat roofed, more recent and reminiscent of a prison outbuilding or the place that used to house the Fisons Social Club serving the old agri-chemical factory in Hauxton. In my memory, that was also in the middle of a field surrounded by a fence topped off with barbed wire and festooned with warning notices.
The perimeter fence featured a variety of sporadically placed warning notices as I contunued along the footpath. The penalty for unauthorised persons breaching the boundary was advertised as up to £1,000. At one point, the edge of the airfield, the boundary could be observed as a stretch of bare earth.
Across the road in between a gated off entrance to the Marleigh construction site and the Park and Ride was a half visible outbuilding or brick hut of some sort. It was sited next to a battered bit of beige concrete floor. I was tempted to cross the road to take a look but the traffic made it awkward. A site better left, maybe for a future walk taking in some of the environs the other side of Newmarket Road and one of the proposed sites of the new sewage works around an area called 'Honey Hill'.
The next gate bore a warning to vehicles fitted with CB transmitter installations. They were forbidden to be used. I wondered how widely CB (Citizens Band Radio) was used by anyone in the contemporary world or if this sign was a throwback to the early 1980s, when CBs were popular for a few years. It is hard to remember what the appeal was, but I suppose people didn't have Facebook then and had to waste their evenings doing something. CB was populised by American TV and Films with a particularly Southern bent like Convoy and The Dukes of Hazard. But the banter on the CB (at least in Cherry Hinton) was normally pretty low key to the point of inanity. But unlike social media a lot less infested with paranoia and pointless and hostile 'debate'. Maybe this was because Brexit, Covid-19 and QAnon had yet to be invented. Or maybe it was because you could only speak to people within a three mile radius and there was a significant chance you might encounter them in real life. Another appeal of CB radio was probably that, at least initially, it was illegal in the UK. The wavelength used by the American imported radios was already reserved for model aircraft flyers. These days, it seems CB use is mostly confined to truckers, farmers and cabbies, as well as being fitted as standard on some Harley Davidson motorbikes. But is still apparently prone to interfering with flying machines if the sign was anything to go by.
I carried on to Gate E, where the atmopshere altered. I had reached the main nexus of buildings around the head office and left behind the expanse of the airfield and its strange parephenalia. The first building was a modern affiair with an overabundance of black glass. But most were from an earlier age. The main buidling is the impressive modernist building by Harold Tomlinson that dates from 1937. It's grade II listed, but whether that will save it from demolition, or if a mysterious but convienient fire might break out just before the planning application needs to go in, remains to be seen. Hopefully the facade will at least stay put, even if what sits behind it has to be luxury flats or extortionate serviced accommodation.
Beyond the row of Marshall buildings, it felt like I'd left the Airport behind. I still wanted to follow the remainder of the perimeter but it was lost for now somewhere behind a row of houses and could not be accessed. These were 1930s vintage pebble dash vintage dwellings. There was something slightly other about them beyond the unusual dark beige concrete door frames that each carried the name of a flower. The buildings themselves displayed very little in the way of floral qualities, but they were impressive in their solidity while at the same time emanating a sort of spectralness.
Leaving these thoughts behind, I headed up the passage, with its slightly disconcerting graffitti free and newish looking corrigated iron fences.
The third flat roofed municipal structure was the Church of Christ the Redeemer.If it wasn't for the large red crucifix adorning the only white painted wall, on the otherwise 60's brown building, it could have been taken for an office or a workshop on a fading trading estate. But the presence of the white wall and the cross produced a feeling that the building was of two halves. The half with the cross resembled the sort of backwater rural church hall that might be found in the most remote parts of 'Goob Country' East Anglia. Meanwhile the other half resembled a small block of shetered accomodation from the fringes of a small town suburb. The fairly expansive and aging tarmac car park, with its pot holes and puddles, was empty. This was Sunday, but a Sunday in the Covid-era. The church's website confirmed they are now in 'interregnum' which was presumably a reference to the pandemic and the explanation for the empty car park and dearth of worshippers. Or maybe it was a reference to some pause in activity before a revelationary or cataclysmic religious event. The location of the church on the airport periphery meant, like its neighbours, it was now part of a ten year interregnum pending the arrival of Cambridge East.
I passed the back of the library, where one of the window apertures appeared to be containing what appeared to be a giant brain.
I passed along Peveral Road, heading south past a parade of post war council houses of the type my Nanna lived in. Eventually, I came across a gate which at first I thought must interface with the airport. But it was an allotment, part ot the Whitehill Allotment Society. 1960s estates like this often featured allotments so this should not have been a surpirse, but I couldn't work out the geography. Later, when checked google maps there was no mention of it. On the Ordnance Survey map a blank area with a footpath was clearly visibale as the allotmets, but not marked as such. It sat between the end of The Westernings and the Barnwell Business Park,which is to the south of Peveral Road.
As I pondered this, a man passed by riding a horse and trap taking his kids for a ride. People riding horse and traps had become slightly more common site during the earlier lockdown when traffic was at an all time low. Normally they are confined to Chesterton, in near proximity to the travellers site at the end of Fen Road, adjacent to the previously mention sewage treatment works. But during lockdown I had seen someone ride around Elizabeth Way Roundabout. I witnessed another rider heading down Trinity Street, towards Kings College, a place as far removed from the site on Fen Road as it was possible to get in Cambridge. Now the traffice had returned, as the rider who passed me was experiencing. Drivers showed little patience as they overtook him, not making any attempt to slow down, wait or give sufficient room hen they overtook. The rider hugged the kerb, but thiswas not enough for any acknowledgement or thanks from the drivers. Why they were in such a hurry on a Sunday afternoon was anyones guess. But a sign that some of the worst aspects of the old normal were returning. The horse and trap people were representaive of the brief period where it seemed that there might be an opportunity for positive change out of the Covid-dystopia. That feeling feels like a distant memory, lost about the time the drive through McDonalds reopened up at the end of the road. This prompted serious traffic jams along Newmarket Road and Barnwell Road as those desperate for a happy meal were prepared to sit in a quie for hours to get one.
I'd not heard of any queing for Pets at Home or any of the handful of other businesses here. These were either retail warehouse type outfits, motor dealers, a hand-car-wash and the Ex Servicemens Social Club just inside Barnwell Drive. Above Pets at Home a behemothic building that I could only describe as coming from a retro-futurist Eastern Europe reached into the sky. I hadn't noticed this before and had no idea what it was for. Presumably part of the Airport since a windsock on a pole stood next to it. The resembled a giant grandstand built for viewing an as yet to be invented sport.