I return often to Cambridge and was there recently. Julian Glover, my partner, was talking to the History Society at Trinity about his new biography of Thomas Telford, the 18th-century roads, bridges and canals engineer. We spent the night at Trinity, and I had time to update my acquaintance with this fast-changing city.
‘Fast’ hardly does justice to the speed of change. ‘Silicon Fen’ may be a smart-Alecky sobriquet, but something huge is happening here, something very much of our time. Though the university nucleus remains reassuringly familiar, the river Cam sits at the centre of the biggest and most sustained expansion and boom I’ve ever seen in England. A new railway station, Cambridge North, has appeared in Chesterton, and Cambridge station itself has been passing through convulsive (and impressive) re-development as it struggles to keep up with the cars, taxis, buses, cycles and sheer growing volume of passengers, while huge new buildings mushroom all around. Transport pressures on the city and its surrounds are almost overwhelming; there is a building boom, a house-price boom, huge challenges with parking and access, and dreadful overcrowding on the trains.
It was on one of these overcrowded trains (standing room only all the way to King’s Cross) that Julian and I started talking about plans not only for the Cambridge area, but the whole east-west corridor through Milton Keynes to Oxford, of which Cambridge’s boom is a part. Julian was for three years the principal policy adviser to the transport secretary, and both the reach and the depth of his knowledge of the field are scary. He started mapping out the possibilities to me in his typically bish-bash-bosh way, no ifs or buts, no grey areas, but a powerful starting point for discussion. He began with the university town.
‘The problems getting to the station are ridiculous.