I met R at the top of Castle Mound, the agreed starting point for a Sunday afternoon random perambulation.
On the way, I had passed Heavy Metal Bike Man near Christ's Pieces and Disco Kenny in the car park next to Castle Mound. Bike Man was parked up in a side street across the road, partially obscured from the view of the pedestrians crossing between the Grafton and the Pieces. I'd never seen him static before. I guessed he was summoning the energy for his ride. Preparing to keep the demons out of the city, using the power of tinny distorted heavy metal blasted from a plastic bag on his handlebars. I wondered if he took a pre-ordained route, one which mapped out an occult pattern connecting sites of important psychogeographic significance. Meanwhile, Disco Kenny was, as usual, kinetic and not static. He was moving across the car park at pace, coming from the North of the city and heading towards the centre. Presumably towards the first pub and half pint, the first of several for the afternoon, where he would tell people that 'the world's gone mad'. His movements were as ritualistic and repetitive as Bike Man's, if perhaps more random. I wondered if their paths ever crossed, or if anyone had ever mapped their movements.
Encountering both of these figures on the same day, let alone within ten minutes of each other, was unusual and seemed significant. Maybe it was symbolic of a re-emergence of some sort of normality. Town was busy. It felt like the shadow of Covid had begun to retreat, but was leaving things not quite as it had found them. I was reassured by the presence of these two familiar characters. It felt like they were maintaining a sort of equilibrium during uncertain times. Disco Kenny and Bike Man are the most significant of a much dwindled cast of these types of local figures. When they have finally departed the world will have truly gone mad.
The mound itself is a significant site. It was identified by the London Psychogeographic Association (LPA) as an 'important place to cleanse the malevolent influence of the University which pervades the town of Cambridge'. The LPA linked the mound (or mount as they called it) to other similar structures in Lewes, Oxford and elsewhere, noting that all had largely been left undisturbed in the hands of municipal councils. That was in 1993. The mound is on the site of the Shire Hall (picture above as seen from the mound), the HQ of Cambridgeshire County Council. But not for much longer. The wheels are in motion for the Council to vacate the premises and lease them for use as a hotel. There have been concerns that the public right of way to the mound will be lost, despite reassurances from the Council that the new leaseholder will continue to allow public access to the ancient site. How that pans out remains to be seen. It seems that 'efficiency savings' are forcing the County Council headquarters to relocate to the far flung Alconbury Weald, off the A1, North of Huntingdon. Thirty years on from the LPA's 'The Ascent of Cambridge Mount Souvenir Programme', it seems that rather than the University, it is the ever ongoing expansion of 'private-public' spaces, as land and buildings are increasingly abandoned by municipal authorities and passed into the hands of private profiteers, that is the main malevolent influence these days.
I had brought the Cambridge Map and dice to use as a catapult. We spread the map open on peak of the mound. The square chosen by the dice was F5, at the centre of the map. It included Christ's Pieces, most of what is left of The Kite and Parkers Pieces, all significant spaces in their own right. It also included grounds of three colleges, Christ's, Jesus and Emmanuel, rendering a fair portion of the square inaccessible.
We headed to Christ's Pieces and to the Diana Memorial Garden, at its centre. There were more people around than we had bargained for. All seats in the Diana Memorial Garden, which is a small circular arrangement of four benches, some metal arches and some flowerbeds, were full. Instead, we headed to one of the three alfresco ping pong tables. One was not being used and we spread the map over it. We decided to head to the perimeter of the square and circumnavigate the border. I photographed the square with my phone for easy reference.
Christ's Pieces is significant perhaps for being the most central open green area for use by the public, in a City where the bulk of central green areas are behind college walls. Most use it to move between the town and the Grafton Centre. But there is a bowling green and tennis courts and its well used for sitting about on. Its a point at which Town rubs up perhaps most closely with Gown, if only in physical proximity. The other side of the wall on the Easterly side is Christ's College grounds. Emmanuel College is just over the road from the bus station, hidden behind its own walls. The recently reopened Christ's Lane, that runs along part of the border with Christ's College, linking to the town centre, contains a disappointing selection of retail outlets. These have replaced Bradwell's Court, a 60s shopping precinct, that no doubt at the time of its building was much maligned. But what has replaced it is certainly no better and of less interest. Christ's Lane, heading away from Town, turns into Miltons' Walk, named after the poet John Milton who was a student at Christ's College. The walk links the rather dull chain stores at the Christ's Lane end with, by stark contrast, the excellent Champion of The Thames pub at the other. At the other end of the bus station from Christ's Lane, opposite Emmanuel College, there is the bowling green and some of Cambridge's least salubrious public toilets.
R and I noticed a lack of young people drinking Thunderbird and cheap cider, which was probably the activity we most associated Christ's Pieces with from our youth. During that era, I once saw Roland Gift from the Fine Young Cannibals meditating under a tree here. He was stoically ignoring the approach of a man we only knew as 'How Do You Feel?', a tramp of the proper tradition. He had a wild beard, a knackered old jacket and had Bob Dylan lyrics as, apparently, his only means of communication. There were none of his kind here today. They seemed to have disappeared at some point in the late 1990s, before which they were ubiquitous users of the Pieces.
The amount of people of Christ's Pieces was off-putting, with the spectre of Covid almost unconsciously making us avoid anywhere crowded. We headed across to Parkers Piece, a wider expanse of green space. Parkers Piece currently has a ferris wheel located at its centre. A sort of lesser version of the London Eye. We were intrigued enough to give it a go. Not intrigued enough to ask what extras were included with the one first class 'carriage' which was distinguished by being painted black rather than white. The experience was slightly unnerving at first It felt much higher at the top than it looked from below. At the top, the wheel stopped for a few minutes. Instead of taking in the panorama, I was distracted by the sight of some orange robed figures below, possibly Hari Krishna people which are quite a rare sight these days. I haven't been hawked one of their publications for some years.
The wheel went around three times, which was unexpected, but on the other hand one rotation didn't allow enough time to take in the panorama. Being local, most of the views were of no surprise. But I spotted two large square white roofed buildings, still apparently under construction and surrounded by cranes. They appeared to be somewhere between Mill Road and Marshalls Airport. I still haven't managed to figure out exactly where or what they are.
Back on the ground at nearby Reality Checkpoint we considered our next move. Reality Checkpoint is a four lamped post at the central point, where the two paths that cross the Piece meet. It is a well known local landmark and significant in the psychogeography of Cambridge. It is said to signify the point where Town meets Gown. For Cambridge University students it marks a transition from the University/College to Mill Road, a place much more accociated with 'Town' and a marked shift away from the 'Gown' University environment. Another persistent rumour is that the post has always provided a useful marker for drunk or stoned people who could recognise the lights as they crossed the Piece and so be roused from whatever otherworldly state they were in. In those circumstances, no doubt it serves as a useful reminder that the Police station is just across the road and to act straight.
'Reality Checkpoint' was scratched or painted on the post persistently for years. Yet more rumours have it that students and possibly staff from Cambridge College of Arts and Technology (CCAT), on nearby East Road ('town' side), were responsible for the upkeep of this. Each time the Council painted over it they reinstated 'Reality Checkpoint'. These rumours are probably enhanced by the attendance of Syd Barrett at CCAT before he did Pink Floyd. The lights were apparently also a beacon during the 'pea 'souper' fogs of the 1950s. The name was finally made official and painted on permanently in 2017.
We found he post had been adorned with ribbons, which along with the staring red eyes of the fish, gave it a strange ritualistic air.
We headed away from Reality Checkpoint and the Wheel, which now, again, seemed much less significant in height then when we were up there.
To contrast the view from the wheel, we headed onto the roof of the Queen Anne multi-storey car park across the road. The view itself was much less impressive than we had hoped. It seemed to be impossible to get to the highest point where a profusion of mobile phone masts and other antennae were sited, on what looked like a small tower. We made do with the other side, where the stairwell door deposited us. The deserted scene looked frozen in time from the 1970s, if you ignored the few cars that were parked this high up. We saw no people, though there was evidence of skidding and fast
driving which seemed out of kilter with the limited space available. I
imagined dangerous late night car meets, or maybe moped meets took place here, along with associated clandestine activities.
Pedestrian access was limited, at least officially, to certain designated areas and the ramps between floors were off limits. The pedestrian depicted in the warning sign looked like a person from the era when the car park was built, judging by the slightly flared trousers and cuban heels. The person also looked to be adopting a strange hand gesture, as if the recipient of a 'back-hander'. This made me wonder about the origins of the car park. It was opened in 1971, after delays caused by lack of finance and because it went against the County Development Plan for the area. Obviously the lack of finance was somehow resolved and the planning issue somehow ceased to be a preventative factor. It still stands as one of few buildings in Cambridge that approach 60s/70s Newtown architecture, not quite brutalist but the nearest thing we have. The only other comparable buildings I can think of are other car parks, including Park Street ,which is of similar vintage and soon due for demolition to make way for a hotel.
We came back down a different stairwell and upon reaching the ground floor encountered a tea set, that had apparently been unpacked from a plastic bag and laid out on the floor. with some care. Rather it was a mixture of bits of different tea sets. The arrangement was odd but apparently deliberate. There was no sign of the people responsible and the purpose remained ambiguous. It looked like they may have been disturbed and left the scene in a hurry before anybody saw them, judging by the teapot on its side.