I grew up in a seaside town and never quite managed to understand the contradictory balance between the desire for the tourist pound — a kind of savage, atavistic drive to harvest every penny that could be chiselled from the holidaymaker’s wallet — and the cold, clear loathing for every “grockle” that rolled in seeking rest and recreation.
When a small town takes collective, shared exception to a class or community of people, we’ve all seen enough movies to know that things get ugly. It was bizarre, confusing and it defined the place.
Cambridge, where I live today, isn’t like that. It’s far too polite. It is true that there are days in a normal summer when you can’t get through the main streets for the crush of people, that up to a hundred coaches a day drive right into the historic centre, disgorge their cargo and move off to fill up lay-bys and truck parks on the edge of town. Days when you queue for hours for a punt trip and the Cam takes on the texture of a particularly hearty soup, but we try not to complain.
Well, at least not in the hearing of our guests. In the common rooms and dining rooms of the city, though, there was plenty of closely reasoned whingeing. The centre of the city was designed with horses in mind. We’d grown to like cyclists, but eight million new bodies a year, thronging the pavements and not, it was darkly whispered, actually spending much money, was too much to bear.
Then the visitors stopped. The coaches no longer clogged the Backs. Today you can walk freely up St John’s Street, anonymous behind your face covering and not have to apologise to anyone for bumping them into the path of an undergraduate on a bike. There are fewer bikes . . . because, of course, there are no undergraduates.
This should have been the week of May Balls, but we shan’t be woken by fireworks at midnight or the sound of carousing students because they’re at home with their parents wondering how the hell it’s all going to work if they’re allowed back.
This morning, as I cycled past, there were people sitting on the lawns at the front of King’s College. Nobody’s done that in hundreds of years. The second undergraduate buttock touches turf, a half-dozen ex-military porters in bowler hats would be out to roust them from the hallowed sod. Today, the porters are hunkered down in the lodge, fully masked and trying to absorb the thousands of new rules they’re going to need to invent if the colleges are ever to reopen.
It has often been rumoured that attempts to have the historic centre of Cambridge designated a Unesco World Heritage site have been quietly scuppered by the university. The colleges didn’t, it is said, want to encourage people to regard a working university as a tourist attraction; they’d be happier with peace reigning around their ancient and hermetic institutions.
Well, now we’ve got what we apparently wanted. Peace, solitude and a return to being a quiet market town with a jolly good university and maybe just a few cars. We’ve cranked the clock back to about 1900.
And it’s bloody awful.
According to surveys commissioned by the town’s tourist body, that insane crush of eight million visitors kept about 12,000 people in permanent employment, more than 20 per cent of the town’s jobs.
Yet our location and the attraction of the university put us in a unique bind. Foreign visitors came in coaches or Londoners came up for the day by train. Vanishingly few stayed overnight. Now, with international travel a dim memory and the use of public transport discouraged, things look uniquely grim.
There are huge swaths of the country trapped in this odd dichotomy. Devon and Cornwall, entirely dependent on the tourist buck, have been putting up homemade signs effectively telling outsiders to stay the hell out of the village. In the Peak District and the Lakes, local police have locked car parks and toilets and driven walkers off the hills with drones.
It looks, on the face of it, like the worst and most stereotypical, pitchfork-waving little Englandry — and yet these places are justifiably terrified of the effects of a surge of city folk, desperate for fresh air and open spaces, overwhelming their scant facilities and bringing infection. It is incredibly difficult to bring together the two sides of the argument, the fear of incomers, the relief and ease brought by their absence and the desperate reliance on their presence to maintain anything like an economy.
Summer in Cambridge this year will be quiet and calm, and we might be able to squeeze in a few unusual opportunities to take advantage of our glorious surroundings, but I hope to God that, as soon as it’s possible to do so, we’ll welcome tourists back with a more hospitable and generous spirit. We’ve seen what life is like without them. It’s good to have the place to yourself, but not so you can watch it die.
Tim Hayward is an FT Food & Drink writer
A very different summer
Football matches without fans, the quest for the most remote cottage and yet more childcare... Over the next three days, FT writers share what they have missed — and what they haven't — during lockdown and why this will be a very different summer. Explore the series here
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