Our new series follows Graham St., made up of Sue Macleod and her stylist daughter Hannah, as they visit TOAST shops throughout the UK, wearing TOAST pieces. For this feature, they have travelled to the historical city of Cambridge, exploring its bookshops and famous riverside activities. To accompany the shoot, our regular writer Amy Bradford has recalled her time spent studying in this beautiful, iconic city and the best places to seek out.
In some ways, Cambridge is like Venice. Not just in terms of the romance of its buildings, or the boat-laden waterway that flows through the centre; it also seems to be a place mysteriously untouched by time. I was an English student at the university 20 or so years ago, and naturally, the details of the scenery have changed since then. Cafes, bars and shops come and go, but the big things the ones that, arguably, matter most, like atmosphere, a way of life have stayed the same. That sense of immutability was something I felt instinctively when I first visited back in 1993, and it's undoubtedly what made me want to return.
If reading this makes you wonder whether I see Cambridge through rose-tinted glasses, you'd probably be right. I'd struggled there from an inner-city state school, and could never quite rid myself of the sense of privilege I felt at being able to study in one of the world's great seats of learning. I was reminded of this often, at random, unexpected moments: crossing the Bridge of Sighs into St John's College one morning and hearing the distant strains of the choir singing in the chapel; standing in the Great Court at Trinity College on a cloudless day, suddenly realising that I had the whole place to myself, and that I could quite easily have travelled back in time without knowing it, so absent were any signs of the modern world.
Then there were the grand personalities one encountered from time to time. The indomitable Labour politician Barbara Castle doing a talk at King's springs to mind, as does an oration on Shakespeare by Germaine Greer at one of the Sidgwick Avenue lecture theatres; her rare appearances always drew a full crowd, even with a 9am start. (Put down your pens! she told her starstruck students. I want to stimulate your minds, not your notepads!)
One thing that will hopefully always be a feature of Cambridge, however many undergraduates pass through, is bicycles. Not much of a cyclist when I arrived, I quickly discovered that you really couldn't be a Cambridge student without one. Small cities with winding streets are best navigated on two wheels - carelessly wandering tourists notwithstanding and in any case, forgoing a bike here would be a bit like turning up at Hogwarts without a wand.
After even a short spell in residence, cycling-phobes are sure to be converted, though finding space to park can be a challenge. The most popular bicycle type? Hard to say; most students aren't precious about aesthetics, unless, like me, you get caught up in the Cambridge mystique. I eventually acquired a black Pashley Princess with a wicker basket and wheels that made a lovely ticking sound. It was and still is - impractically heavy, but it suited my quixotic vision of the city.
Then there are Cambridge's cultural bastions: bookshops and museums. As a student I spent most of my time in Heffer's on Trinity Street, which strikes a perfect balance between academic seriousness and engaging popularity. Tourists are just as likely to be drawn in by the Haunted Bookshop in St Edward's Passage (aka Sarah Key Books), where the focus is on illustrated and children's books.
The Cambridge University Press Bookshop, also on Trinity Street, is the oldest bookshop site in the country, although if you're expecting paperback novels of the kind published by Oxford University Press, beware; here you're more likely to find mind-bending tomes on astrophysics, psychology and Anglo-Saxon England.
Museum-wise, everybody knows the Fitzwilliam, but my favourites were always the Whipple Museum of the History of Science for its antique Copernican spheres and astrolabes (so mystifying to a humanities student) and the Museum of Zoology (just as much fun as London's Natural History Museum).
It would also be unwise to leave Cambridge without seeing Kettle's Yard part house museum, part art gallery, and much rejuvenated after a two-year restoration by Jamie Fobert Architects. It's the perfect example of a modern-rustic domestic interior, suddenly looking just the thing thanks to the lifestyle magazine phenomenon.*
Though it's easy to be seduced by the grandest of Cambridge's dreaming spires - King's College Chapel, for instance try to see them from the less obvious angles. Yes, King's does look lovely close up with a few punts gliding in front of it, but walk right to the rear edge of the Backs for a better view; there are sometimes cows grazing on the green, and the contrast between High Gothic and pastoral is quite surreal.
Similarly, seen from Grantchester Meadows (home to The Orchard, purveyor of classic cream teas and haunt of EM Forster and Rupert Brook) the chapel is a fantastic prospect, its perpendicular architecture startling against the flat landscape. It may be Ely Cathedral that's known as the Ship of the Fens, but from this perspective, King's could equally lay claim to the title.
If you feel compelled to try a local tradition like punting and it requires good balance and concentration here's something worth knowing. Punts of the kind hired out by Scudamore's and the Traditional Punting Company are much easier to navigate on the Backs than on the more rural stretches of the upper Cam the former are lined with cobbles, so your punt pole won't get stuck in river mud. The latter is worse than it sounds; it's easy to lose your balance and end up with a soaking.
As quintessentially Cambridge as it might seem, punting is in fact one of the city's more recent fads it only became popular around the turn of the last century. And while there's plenty of newness here to pique your interest not least, the small but lovely Toast store on Trinity Street it remains wedded to the old. Even the gossip is antique.
A Queen's College poetry professor once regaled me with a story about the laudanum-addicted Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who bribed the local pharmacists to ban him from their premises, only to pay them to let him back in again hours later. Who will be the subject of scholarly gossip 300 years hence?
Stephen Hawking, perhaps, who in my student days could be seen racing his wheelchair along the streets at top speed. Or the rapper Stormzy, whose scholarships for black students are encouraging the university to do a bit more for diversity. With any luck, it will be a mix of all three.
Styling by Graham St. Photography by Alexandra Mooney. Words by Amy Bradford.
*TOAST is collaborating with Kettle's Yard on a unique exhibition of five textile artists, who have re-worked our old garments and waste fabrics. The exhibition will be running from the 30th October to the 3rd November.