The Sustainable Style Guide to Cambridge
I never imagined that I would live in Cambridge. I grew up between in the West Country of England and, briefly, the ‘New’ England of North America. So, rurality is both familiar and important to me and I have always felt that Cambridge is too close to London to feel truly wild. That, and it’s so uncomfortably flat. Yet I moved, quickly and somewhat surreptitiously, for my partner’s degree and so succumbed to the realities of life as an adult. Sometimes we must make sacrifices for the ones we love.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I quickly grew an interest in aspects of Cambridge life that I found to be particular and promising. It has an excellent reputation for cycling which, once tested, proved true. And being outdoors appeared to be important to the people of the Cam: the river that snakes its way through the city becomes a kind of forum during the summer and the market square throbs with life all week long, come rain or shine. More to the point, the city is unspeakably beautiful. If you head up Great St. Mary’s tower, college quads stretch as far as the eye can see, tipping into the rushing countryside in a jumble of architecture.
So, over the past year I can confidently say that I have grown a love for this intellectual city that goes beyond the world-famous university that it boasts. A hot spot for innovation (Cambridge is home to the UK’s equivalent of the Silicon Valley – Silicon Fen), it is alive with serious activity that is meted by a spirit of invention. And now, with a groaning tourist industry and ever-escalating competition in the fields of food and fashion, there are a myriad of hidden gems that marry a penchant for low impact living with exquisite décor and an appreciation of the fine and the beautiful.
The following guide is intended to serve as a taster of some of the most glorious sustainably-minded businesses and organisations that Cambridge has to offer. As my home, and now home to my business, StashRak, I feel proud to be able to send this little piece out into the world, in homage to the ongoing hard work of local organisations in making the world a cleaner, greener, and more beautiful place to be.
The University Arms that dominates one corner of Parker’s Piece has been recently refurbished in a multi-million-pound project executed by architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki. Integral to this project has been the creative input of Tristan Welch, Chef Director at Parker’s Tavern, which sits on the first floor of the hotel looking out over the large square of grassland outside, and it is this collab of big thinkers has contributed to making The University Arms the premiere place to stay in Cambridge.
Sustainability is at the heart of what the hotel is trying to achieve. They played host to a Cambridge Sustainable Tourism Conference this past year and Welch continues to be busy forging an identity for Parker’s Tavern that marries a luxury dining experience with responsible sourcing. The fact remains that the University Arms has had the benefit of major funding to aid its twenty first century rehabilitation project, but it has done so gracefully and with an awareness of the consumer and moral demands that it is facing.
Small touches illuminate the relationship of this Victorian building to the city in which it stands. The many individual libraries that populate the rooms of the University Arms have been selected by Heywood Hill in Mayfair, lending the hotel an atmosphere of quiet calm akin to the colleges around and more playful twists include the recitation of audio-books over the washrooms sound systems and the cocktails, which have been thoughtfully put together and labelled with the names of classic works of literature.
Further afield, The Ickworth Hotel offers the opportunity for a getaway in glorious surroundings. Ickworth itself is a National Trust property and can be enjoyed by all during the day, whilst the hotel offers you the opportunity to stay a little while longer. Their sustainable profile details the ways in which the hotel, a member of the Luxury Family Hotels group, is dedicated to reducing its environmental impact and includes reducing energy usage, incorporating recycling into every aspect of the running of the business, and sourcing locally where possible. It is geared towards being family friendly and welcomes furry friends, so take the team and get ready for a splendid adventure in the British countryside.
You have to be quick to bag a reservation at Alex Rushmer’s latest restaurant initiative, Vanderlyle. By paying upfront (£55 for seven courses) the business can be sure of how many people it’s feeding on a given night, thereby ensuring that they reduce food waste insofar as is possible. You announce any allergens and then you eat what’s on the menu. Ingredients are local and seasonal, thoughtfully put together and delicately arranged.
The Welch-Rushmer Rubbish Cooks project is now a monthly staple at Parker’s Tavern. On the final Monday of every month, guests are invited to be entertained in the splendid dining room of the University Arms and fed from the wasted, unwanted and disregarded. You pay £20 for a three-course meal (as at Vanderlyle you pay at the time of booking) and all of the proceeds go towards staffing and charity partners.
Finally, mention must be made of the ever-blossoming success of Restaurant 22. The revolving menu focuses on ingredients that are available on the day, presented as comforting dishes with familiar and excellently executed flavour combinations. It is a dining experience that offers heartfelt, heartwarming food in sophisticated environs with impeccably mannered staff.
Jim Ede’s Kettle’s Yard embodies so much of what I, and clearly, others, feel about art. Namely that there is beauty in the simplest of things, that care and attention to detail when choosing what to put into your home feeds the soul, and that the sharing of such projects makes for a rich collection offering. As the author of one Spectator article wrote in 1986, ‘every inch of this house, made out of the conversion of four small cottages, is a proclamation of how natural it is to surround oneself with beautiful objects.’ Following a refurbishment that was financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England, the gallery reopened with aplomb in February 2019, with a major building project carried out by Jamie Fobert Architects. The new space now regularly invites local crafters, educational groups, and history of art professionals to join in with making this space one of the most prominent art establishments in the South West of England, dedicated to learning and reflection.
Like it’s fellow recent refurb, the Heong Gallery is a place of contemplative cool. Caruso St John Architects worked on the project from 2013-16, using reclaimed Cambridge stock bricks to focus on building a public space that would facilitate the movement of people around works of art. The inventive and forward-thinking roster of curatorial feats has included exhibitions from Yoko Ono, Ai Weiwei, and Stephen Chambers. Open now is a Barbara Hepworth feast on the Divided Circle, which echoes the recent Kettle’s Yard exhibition on Richard Pousette-Dart, a Hepworth contemporary who was also fascinated by the form of the circle, as was Ede, who placed a spiral in each room of his house for the most sophisticated Where’s Wally of all time.
As in any great British city, there are countless secondhand clothing shops to peruse to your hearts content. Feeling brave? Head to Burleigh street for a charity shop marathon. Looking for designer labels? The end of Mill Road will have you covered. In this segment, we round up three of the best spots for shopping luxury clothing in a low impact way.
If you only have time for one stop, let it be Fantasia (the full title of which includes the addendum ‘& Friends: Unusual & Unnecessary Items’). Don’t be fooled by the ancient, slightly retro, exterior. Pamela Wesson, proprietress of Fantasia, has curated an exceptional collection of vintage and other oddities. Find sumptuous silk gowns, beautifully constructed wool coats, and fabulous accessories hidden amongst hilarious hand-written signage. So-called ‘better labels’ that we spotted in abundance include Burberry, Aquascutum, and Dries van Noten. Pack light: the store is over-brimming with treasures.
For the designer-eyed bargain hunter, Scope on Burleigh street has a rail of luxury labels that have been sourced from near and far. They promise ‘weekly deliveries from London’ darling, and all proceeds go towards the very good cause of promoting disability equality. Another charity shop worth visiting (and with instagram potential) is Save the Children, hobbited away on the quaintly decorated Magdalen St and within easy access of the city centre.
Though we advocate choosing used first, Trotter & Deane is one company that takes sourcing seriously and deserves mention for providing a seriously exceptional service. This independent menswear brand stocks day to night outfits and accoutrements that are lovingly designed. Ask any member of staff where the item comes from and they will be able to tell you. In a dream world, my partner would shop here exclusively.
Cambridge’s sprawling market is a good place to start if you’re looking for package-free, locally sourced. Seven days a week – rain or shine – cast yourself back to a different age by trawling the vendors and collecting your weekly bits.
But if you’re looking for an experience that is less hurly-burley and more hoity-toity, consider heading out to The Gog. A 20-minute cycle outside of the city, along a reasonable cycle path will land you in a wondrous palace of locally sourced farm to consumer focused goods. Treat yourself to a scotch egg or a sausage roll in the farm café next door.
Closer to the city centre, the unobtrusive Cambridge Farmers’ Outlet sits on a corner of Hills Road. The overabundance of flowers and foliage that populate its windowsill year-round are a welcome sight during these gloomy months. Inside, the staff are delightful, pleasant, and knowledgeable and can help you pick up the bits and pieces that you require.
Finally, for Newnham locals and/or passersby on their way home from an outing to Granchester, The Meadows Shop promises to support ‘good food and good farming’. The delightfully positioned grocery store stocks an almost curated collection of bits and bobs that are delightful to eat. From cheeses to chutneys, your gift-hamper shopping will be sorted and Saturday evening complete. Be sure to check their facebook page for updates on opening hours as they vary according to season.
The Meadows Shop is also stockist of Jack’s Gelato, a Cambridge staple whose Bene’t Street location oscillates between being a glowing beacon of delightful treats in winter and a hubbub of activity in the summer. I have seen the queue stretch to the Cambridge Chop House – on such an occasion, I recommend that you head out to the Meadows Shop for your Jack’s Gelato needs. Jack makes all of his ice creams in small batches, utilising ethically sourced ingredients for his primary flavours. His humble beginnings as a street food salesman, peddling his now-famous ice creams around the city by tricycle, make him one of Cambridge’s most worthy sustainable success stories. And the ice cream is second to none too, served up in delightfully aesthetic surroundings.
If you can’t muster the strength to walk out to Granchester, take a turn about Jesus Green and finish your walk with a cup of something hot at Stir (to be accompanied by a chunk of their famous sourdough bread). If you are a local, they deliver loaves by bike all across Cambridge on Tuesday and Thursday. Forget the Birchbox, buy yourself (or a loved one – Christmas is coming) a weekly sourdough delivery. As it promises, it is truly the ‘social hub of the community’. On weekdays the café is overflowing with families, students, and independent coffee drinkers. The throng is worth it and adds to the sense that locality is still important to people and finding business that bring everyone together will be important to establishing local, sustainable trade networks.
I never imagined that I would live in Cambridge. But with every new road that I walk, every secret byway that I discover, and every new flourishing of small business I find myself enchanted. It is a love affair that may have an end date but is so blissful for now. And my partner is Dutch, so I’m just going to have to get over the flatness.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)’ by Rupert Brooke