Last month we spent a few days in Cambridge. So, it seems, did everyone else. Back in the day I was a student at Cambridge University for three years but I was never there in August, the height of the tourist season. And, of course, tourism – both home-grown and international – has expanded massively in the 42 years since I graduated. I was, therefore, totally unprepared for the crowds we encountered during our visit.
Cambridge has a lot to offer the tourist. Here’s what Lonely Planet has to say about its attractions:
Abounding with exquisite architecture, exuding history and tradition, and renowned for its quirky rituals, Cambridge is a university town extraordinaire. The tightly packed core of ancient colleges, the picturesque riverside ‘Backs’ (college gardens) and the leafy green meadows surrounding the city give it a more tranquil appeal than its historic rival Oxford … The buildings here seem unchanged for centuries, and it’s possible to wander around the college buildings and experience them as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
I’ve got a lot of time for Lonely Planet. Their guidebooks are invariably well-written, and often encourage the more intrepid visitor to get off the beaten track and walk roads less travelled, which is the best way to get under the skin of a country or a city. But, based on what we experienced a few weeks ago, the words “tranquil appeal” seem sadly out of place in any description of Cambridge in August 2019.
We had a lot to pack into our visit, and so were out and about by 9am. At first all seemed well, the streets lively but not uncomfortably busy. Then, around 10am, the coach parties began to arrive.
Long crocodiles of visitors, up to 50 in a single group, descended on the historic city centre from all directions, following obediently behind their flag-waving guides. Soon the narrow medieval streets were crazily crowded, visitors jostling one another to get a view of – or even better, a selfie in front of – one of the city’s architectural gems.
“Tranquil appeal?” I don’t think so!
Lonely Planet is also unrealistic in suggesting that the average tourist can “wander around the college buildings.” Many of the colleges are doing whatever they can to keep the hordes at bay, barring their doors and placing stern messages outside warning the masses that THIS COLLEGE IS CLOSED TO VISITORS.
Others, Kings for example, take a different view and charge a pretty penny for admission. Of course, everyone wants to see Kings College Chapel up close and personal, so the college bursar must be raking it in.
I will confess that these attempts to deny or charge for admission don’t worry me personally. As a graduate of the university I can get in pretty much anywhere, and without spending a dime, so long as I flash my alumni card and behave myself.
But I’ve a lot of sympathy for the serious tourist, who maybe has travelled a long way and spent a small fortune to visit Cambridge, only to find that lots of the places he wants to see won’t let him in or will only do so in return for a fistful of dollars.
Tourism is hugely controversial in Cambridge. In 2017 over eight million tourist visits were recorded, in a city of just 146,000 people. The city is creaking at the seams. Tourists keep some shopkeepers afloat with their purchases, but other business owners complain that these are the “wrong tourists,” visitors who just don’t spend enough or buy the right stuff.
For Cambridge residents going about their normal daily business the crowded streets must be distressing. But tourism reportedly accounts for 22% of jobs in the local economy, and only the most hard-line critics would seriously consider killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Mass tourism is a mind-bending conundrum, but not one that is unique to Cambridge.
In another blog I wrote at length about the impact of tourist numbers on the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in the USA. There, as in Cambridge, the scale of tourism is in danger of destroying the very thing that tourists want to see.
As an habitual tourist I was, and am, part of the problem. I cherish the prospect of being a tourist again, in Cambridge, in Yellowstone, or elsewhere, but what will be the cost to the places I want to visit and those who live in them?
I don’t have the answer, but it seems plain to me that things can’t go on as they are.
In case you’re wondering why, despite my protestations about the Cambridge crowds, there are so few people in the photos that illustrate this post the answer is simple: Mrs P hates anyone getting between her camera lens and the focus of her interest. She’s been known to wait a long, long time for a clear shot, and when she can’t get one she gets very cross indeed. You have been warned!