You might imagine that in a university city as renowned as Cambridge, the student population is pivotal to its cultural life. “Not remotely,” says Cambridge-based arts journalist, Harry Sword: “It’s bizarre; they live a closeted existence. Cambridge University is a boiler room in terms of the amount of work they’re given, and they have sophisticated entertainment networks in each college so it’s a very self-contained world.
“People forget that over 100,000 people were born and live here, regardless of the university,” Swords adds. From the independent enclave of Mill Road to the annual (sponsor-free) Strawberry Fair music festival, a dedicated minority of those locals work doggedly to maintain the city’s bohemian edge.
In 2010, Cambridge was dubbed “clone town” due to its large concentration of chain businesses but on the fringes of the city centre – where rents are less ruinous – its DIY collectives plough on. Tight-knit, frequently interlinked groups – such as experimental music promoters Bad Timing and Crushing Death & Grief – and the artist-run space Aid & Abet are, says Donna Lynas, director of Wysing Arts Centre, “Making things happen in ad hoc social spaces where people can just get on and do things.”
On the wider music-front, Cambridge’s love of drum’n’bass endures, most visibly at veteran night, Warning, and it has produced a stream of notable hip-hop and d’n’b artists, including Dirty Dike and Commix. Simon Baker, who runs the Green Mind gig promotion agency – which brings touring guitar bands to Cambridge – says the indie, folk and rock scene is thriving: “It’s the healthiest I’ve known it in 20-odd years.” Compiling the Soundcloud playlist for this feature, Baker struggled to limit himself to just 40(!) tracks.
The Portland Arms
“Legendary in Cambridge,” declares Harry Sword, who writes about music for the Quietus and Vice. “It’s a traditional pub that has kept its regulars but it’s also a successful venue and supportive of everything from folk and indie or live hip-hop to weird electronic stuff.” It has been this way for decades, too. “The Soft Boys did a live album there in the 1970s,” says Green Mind’s Simon Baker, although the days when the separate rear venue space was “small and sweaty, a bit stuck together with gaffer-tape” are gone. In 2012, it was modernised and extended to a 200 capacity. Now it even has air-con.
• 129 Chesterton Road, theportlandarms.co.uk
“It’s a bistro-cafe but it has a basement room that holds about 50, where you’ll find a lot of folk and experimental music,” says Baker. “Also the Golden Hind pub has an upstairs room that Cambridge Folk Club use (ticketed gigs, Fridays); they’ve had people like Boo Hewerdine play there.”
• 5-7 Norfolk Street, cb2bistro.com
This student-friendly pub (“It’s near Anglia Ruskin University and they tend to go out more,” says Baker), is a craft beer hub: expect to find Magic Rock, Moor and Wild Beer brews on tap. The event space hosts art, poetry, comedy and underground music nights: from psych rock or queer punk gigs to DJs spinning out-there electro. “Lots of experimental stuff happens there. If you get 50 people in, you’ve got a busy room,” says Baker.
• 2 Norfolk Street, cambridge.pub
The Corner House
This “oasis in the middle of a retail park,” as Baker describes it, is “primarily a pub but it does loads of live music, including punk and local bands stuff. Jo [Tomkins] who runs it has been in bands and she really takes care of it. It’s a great little space.”
• 231 Newmarket Road, cornerhousepubcambridge.com
Relevant Record Cafe
“It’s somewhere to have a coffee and buy vinyl,” says Wysing Arts Centre’s Donna Lynas, “but then it also has various grassroots events running.” These include DJ nights – spanning genres from ambient to leftfield hip-hop – and gigs that tend to be jazz or folk. There has been the odd outbreak of gnarly garage-punk, too. Baker also recommends monitoring the Unitarian Church and St Philips on Mill Road, which are used for gigs: “I’ve done acoustic stuff at the Unitarian, like Sivu and, years ago, Omar Souleyman played there.”
• 260 Mill Road, relevantrecordcafe.co.uk
“Essentially, it’s an off-licence – it used to be a Threshers – with a bit of seating,” says Alex Rushmer, the Cambridge-based chef and 2010 Masterchef finalist. “The co-owner, Sam Owens, has a four-tap growler system for refills of mainly UK craft beers and an amazing selection of small-producer wines. There’s a different food truck at Thirsty every night, and Sam also runs a beer garden, Thirsty Riverside at Cambridge Museum of Technology [winter season starts 27 October], where there’s loads going on from DJs to open-air cinema.”
• Beer from £7 a litre, 46 Chesterton Road, wearethirsty.co.uk
“This bar is on Mill Road, which is where lots of independents have opened because it’s cheaper. Its cocktails are amazing,” says Vicky Fenton, who runs a mobile bar, the Spirited Mare, and the annual Wild Wood Disco (30 June 2018). “It’s small, so the windows get all steamed up and it’s not often I leave without a wobble in my step. Last time, I was on negronis but I’m adventurous here because everything on its hand-written menu is interesting.”
• Cocktails from £6.95, 196 Mill Road, 196bar.com
An Edwardian-style, 23-tap craft beer and gin palace, Pint Shop also serves cracking bar snacks (chips and curry sauce, scotch eggs etc, from £3.50) and, in its restaurant, ace small-plates such as fried squid with saffron aioli and charcoal-grilled flatbread kebabs. “It’s a city centre favourite and the covered beer garden is cosy in winter,” says Heidi White, founder of foodPark, a collective of food trucks that serves lunch in various Cambridge locations weekly. “I’m into Pint Shop’s brewery collaborations, such as the dry-hopped pils, Appalachian Green, created with Marble Beers, and new gins are always being added.”
• Pint from £3.60, 10 Peas Hill, pintshop.co.uk
Calverley’s Brewery Tap
For those who like their beer with a side order of industrial grit, Calverley’s opens its 12-beer brew-tap each weekend (down by the railway tracks off Mill Road), with local food trucks swinging by to line stomachs. “The recent cranberry sour was excellent with Wood Fired Food Co’s spicy salami pizza,” says White, who in summer runs foodPark’s popular night market.
• Open Thursday and Friday evening and all day Saturday, pint from £3.50, 23A Hooper Street, @BrewerySam
Hot Numbers roasts its own beans which, at two Cambridge stores, underpin the city’s best flat whites and single-origin pour-over coffees – served alongside wines from Thirsty and craft beers from the Bacchanalia bottle shop. The Gwydir Street store also hosts jazz gigs, vinyl-listening sessions and, says White, serves an A1 brunch menu: “It’s rare to find a good brunch in Cambridge served weekdays and, as well the usual avo on toast (£5.90), it does exciting dishes such as kimchi and feta eggs with a great gochujang (red chili paste) tomato sauce (£8.90).”
• Coffee from £2.20, Dales Brewery, Gwydir Street, hotnumberscoffee.co.uk
Steak & Honour
“FoodPark was a game-changer,” says Rushmer of the Cambridge street food event series, which incubated burger dons Steak & Honour. You can still spot its vintage vans around Cambridge but last year it also opened this permanent diner. “It makes use of local Riverside beef and a Cambridge bakery for the brioche buns,” says Rushmer, “so they’re hot on provenance and their veggie burger, called check the pulse, is tremendous.”
• From £7, 4 Wheeler Street, on Facebook
Zhonghua Traditional Snacks
Renowned among local fans of Chinese food, this friendly, no-frills cafe does a fine line in noodle soups, dumplings and filled bao buns. “A good dumpling is a thing of beauty but it’s not easy to pull off. Like bao, it’s easy to get disappointing versions but Zhonghua’s are great,” says Harry Sword, who writes about food for Munchies. Rushmer agrees: “Whether you want a bowl of noodles at 11am or 11pm, it’s fast, cheap and always delicious.”
• Dishes around £5-£7, 13 Norfolk Street, on Facebook
“It does a really good slice of Sicilian-style pizza, which is thicker and slightly spongy, almost like topped focaccia – and they’re very generous with the toppings,” says Rushmer. “It’s my on-the-run snack option. There are three shops so you’re never far from good pizza.”
• Pizza from £4.50, 1 Bene’t Street, 3 Peas Hill and 30 Fitzroy Street, aromi.co.uk
“When it’s good there’s nothing better than Turkish food. It’s primal: bread, meat, fire,” laughs Sword. With its proper ocakbasi charcoal-grill, Merhaba delivers on all fronts. Sword loves its pide, lamahcun and, in particular, the iskender kebab, an Istanbul special of chopped pita covered in doner meat, tomato and yoghurt sauce and melted butter.
• Mains from around £7.95, 181 East Road, merhabarestaurant.co.uk
Mee and I
“As students in Cambridge, Dojo’s was where we’d go for a massive bowl of noodles. It was legendary,” says Rushmer. “Now the Dojo’s team runs the pan-Asian Mee & I.” The menu runs from sharing plates of Korean ribs, gyoza and Vietnamese beef rolls to bowls of tonkotsu ramen. Rushmer is addicted to the chicken katsu bao: “It’s an awful lot like a McDonald’s McChicken sandwich but in a very satisfying way.”
• Mains from £8.95, 45-47 Castle Street, meeandi.co.uk
In the mid 1980s, the police closed a squatted venue in Cambridge, which led to a mass protest by the city’s bored youth tribes. In the aftermath, a panicked council backed the launch of a new venue: Cambridge Junction, opened on Valentine’s Day 1990 by John Peel. Today, this social enterprise comprises three venues that cover all bases in music, dance, theatre, spoken word and comedy. The Junction is a favourite, says Simon Baker, with big acts looking for somewhere to warm-up for large tours.
• Clifton Way, junction.co.uk
Wysing Arts Centre
This rural campus nine miles west of Cambridge is many things: artists’ studios, gallery space, community cafe, recording studio and label (Wysing Polyphonic). It also commissions work, which is often developed on-site, as part of its artist residency programme, and shown globally. Wysing is currently home to Andromedan Sad Girl, an immersive installation of sculptures and wall paintings evoking a “lost pre-symbolic civilisation”. “I tend to go there for the annual electronic music festival,” says Harry Sword. “It’s strange because the grounds are interesting and it’s a peaceful place in which to experience challenging music. The audience is an unusual mix, too: the arty crowd, clubbers and, because it gives free tickets to the neighbours, the odd farmer wandering around looking bemused.”
• Fox Road, Bourn, wysingartscentre.org
Cambridge Arts Theatre
We may be approaching panto season but examine this theatre’s listings and there’s still plenty of intellectually provocative stimulation, be it David Starkey’s forthcoming Henry VIII: The First Brexiteer? (12 November) or People, Places & Things (21-25 November), acclaimed in its run at the National Theatre. Also in Cambridge, look out for In Situ, a group which focuses on taking cutting-edge performance out of the theatre and into unusual spaces.
• 6 St Edward’s Passage, cambridgeartstheatre.com
Aid & Abet
Artists Sarah Evans and David Kefford are focused on stimulating audiences, debate and forging new relationships by engaging people in the process behind contemporary art. “They have studio space near Cambridge station and events happen in their studios [and at various other locations], so it’s all about how you bring an audience into a studio-based practice in lots of experimental ways,” says Wysing Arts Centre director, Donna Lynas.
• Unit 1, Block 2, Meade House, Mill Park, aidandabet.co.uk
The Alchemical Landscape
“There are some underground things coming out of the university,” says Lynas, such as this group who – via public talks, off-beam art happenings, film screenings and such – examine the artistic representation of the British landscape and, specifically, the haunted language and symbolism in which it is steeped. Says Lynas: “The east of England has a flat and melancholic landscape, which people are interested in. This group looks at it from an occult-magical position.”