Viewpoint Posted on December 7, 2019

The ugly word ‘overtourism’ made it into the O.E.D in 2018. The uglier fact has been with us for longer. London taxi drivers have been complaining about visitors who ‘bring their sandwiches’ (and spend nothing) for years. Because the crowds usually gather in very specific places (other than ones used as film sets) they can be seen as local problems. Is St Mark’s Square, the Spanish steps, the Charles Bridge in Prague, or, nearer to home, Kings Parade in Cambridge just a nightmare for the locals? The coffee shops are unlikely to complain. Local residents feel powerless. Nor are the obvious suggestions – ‘go somewhere else?’, ‘discover your own beauty spot’ likely to gain much headway. By the time you start ticketed time-limited visits the spontaneity and magic have long gone. But the traffic has come to stay.

I was invited to talk the other night to The Friends of Queens’ Green in Cambridge. (The plural ‘queens’ is correct, by the way: two Tudor queens founded the college.) My subject was the trees on the Backs – the parklike space so-called because the river Cam flows past the backs of seven colleges. Historically the riverside was taken up with kitchen gardens, orchards, workshops and washing greens, while the river was a busy commercial route crowded with barges. Just behind Queens’ was a little port with warehouses on common land – the one part of the Backs not owned and controlled by a college. The city owns Queens’ Green and apparently has designs on it. A bus station has been mentioned. It is a very sensitive area; hence the Friends.

Whatever the plans for Queens’ Green, Queens Road is the only road west of the river, across from the colleges, and thus an integral part of the Backs. Inevitably it serves as part of the only sort of Ring Road Cambridge has. The traffic along it is constant. Furthermore at one point it has what everyone calls the ‘iconic’ view, the view that serves as a symbol for Cambridge, for King’s, sometimes even for universities in general: across the meadow known as Scholars’ Piece, and the river itself, King’s chapel, a great gothic vertical, flanked by the handsome horizontals of Clare College and the classical Gibbs building of King’s.

The trouble with a view is that it works both ways; the traffic sees the chapel and the inhabitants of the colleges see the traffic. The traffic lights by King’s Back Gate aggravate the problem; much of the time, and all night, from the colleges the brake lights of cars and lorries are all you see. Double-decker buses, it has been suggested, would give an even better view. Thus the Backs are being degraded from a private and tranquil green garden to a public spectacle.

One partial answer, and one I have been proposing for years, is more tree-planting. Weeping willows to frame views at certain points along the road and the river would alleviate the problem. As parkland, Scholars’ Piece needs two or three big specimen trees. Categorically no, say the advocates of tourism. The view is public property. It brings in money. Not to the college, the university or its scholars, though, looking for tranquillity. The problem won’t go away.

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