The summer of 2009 Dick and I walked the Cambridge Ring Road. Our initial motivation had been to generate a map of all the advertising billboards on the Ring Road, so that they could be easily subvertised systematically in one fell swoop, should the need arise. Our inspiration was the deluge of stickers printed simply “BOLLOCKS” that were swamping Cambridge town that summer of the octocentenary of the University. “University of Cambridge – 800 years of BOLLOCKS” indeed! We walked the Ring Road incrementally over the three summer months of the year, culminating in an archetypal pink, blue and purple autumn equinox sunset. As we walked we researched other psychogeographical projects, in particular Iain Sinclair’s book “London Orbital”.
In “London Orbital” Sinclair walks around the M25, the motorway that entirely encircles London. The M25 is possibly the world’s longest Ring Road, clocking in at 224 miles in circumference, and makes our Cambridge Ring walk of 9½ miles look quite meagre. The walk set us thinking about Ring Roads, what are they? How do you identify them? Follow or use them? What is the point of them? The Collins Dictionary definition is “A main road that bypasses a town or town centre”. So in many ways the M25 is a classic Ring Road. It skirts the outer reaches of London, passing through and by places that hardly seem to be London at all. If you go anywhere via the M25 you could easily miss London completely, a strange and not entirely unpleasant thought! Except that Ring Roads, by their nature, tend to be circular and not technically going anywhere anyway. The M25 was purpose built, under the auspices of Madame Thatcher, as part of the Tory road building programme of the 1980’s and 90’s. The same government policy which galvanised a generation, and inspired the famous road protests of Newbury, Fairmile, Claremont Road and Twyford Down.
The Cambridge Ring is identifiable at roadsides by a black capital letter R in a box, or in words on road signs, however we found there is often some confusion, due to one-way gyratory systems, like around Mitchum’s Corner where all the signposts point Ring Road in every direction! Far from being intentional, our Cambridge Ring is largely cobbled together from old existing roads. Some of it runs through the busiest tourists traps in town, Queens Road is part of the Ring. A street which seems to be more coach carpark than functioning road as it inches its slow course along the Backs (or “Kings Backside” as it was traditionally known in pre-Victorian times). In other places, like Newmarket Road, the Ring becomes busy dual-carriageway and exhausts anyone walking with its endless lines of noisy aggressive traffic. This sensation is closer to the one Iain Sinclair describes in “London Orbital”, where huge swathes of nature and history have been swept away, obliterated for the convenience of motor vehicle transport. Our own Newmarket Road too has wrought devastation of this kind; walking clockwise around the Ring we see the left-side of the road lined with trim little Victorian terraces, across the road their opposite numbers have been demolished sometime back in the last century to widen the road. The sad little houses look out on to a unbroken view of chain store out-of-town shopping centres with their vast barren acreage of car parking facilities. Luckily, Cambridge’s oldest entire building St Mary Magdalene’s twelfth century leper chapel is on the left-side, quietly snuggled down in a ditch just past the dual-carriageway railway bridge, opposite Coldham’s Common.
In other places, like Perne Road, the Ring is clearly the main route for anyone leaving or entering the town, often in long drawn-out exhaust fumed nose to tail-backs. The walking is heavy going, lonely pavements staring off into the distance. Progress is slow, the next roundabout indistinguishable on the flat horizon.
As we walked we soon found that advertising hoardings were a pretty rare thing in Cambridge, we found only four locations actually on the Ring Road, all of them in the ‘Town’ side. There were no billboards to be found anywhere near the historic centre of the University, by contrast there were more than four on Mill Road alone, Mill Road butts up to the Ring, but is not Ring Road, and its not university, its out beyond ‘Reality Checkpoint’ on Parkers Piece, (or Pisser’s Park, even) it’s the bohemian townie street where students fear to tread…but that’s another story entirely.
Our next project is to cycle the Ring Road, as far as possible sticking to official “signed primary cycle network” paths. It’ll be interesting to see just how cycle-friendly Cambridge really is.
Unfortunately, this psychogeographical projects has been stalled because I have lost access to a lot of the material through the upheavals of the past 5 years. I hope to resume soon.
(The course of the Ring Road is marked in black. The locations of the billboard hoardings are marked by red Xs. They are at Perne Road, Victoria Road, Newmarket Road(2) and Barnwell Road.)