In one direction, beyond the newly-planted trees and man-made lakes of the country park, the new “contemporary” houses of the Great Kneighton development are being filled as quickly as they are put up. To the right, the chimneys of the post-war Trumpington council estate, planned for “the working classes” after World War II, are just about visible.
In the foreground, the diggers and dumper trucks are busily preparing the ground for the new community square – to be known as “Hobson’s Square” – which will include a five-storey building with a community centre at the bottom of it. A solitary worker in his high vis jacket and Caterpillar boots guards the gates to protect pedestrians and cyclists from construction traffic.
To the left rises the monolith that is Addenbrooke’s Hospital, which one of our interviewees likened to ‘Mordor’ – the fictional land in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that’s surrounded by looming mountains. And through the middle of it all thunders the newly-built guided busway at speeds of up to 55mph, ferrying people 1.5 miles to the station and on through Cambridge to St Ives and Huntingdon in one direction and to Trumpington Park & Ride in the other. We are not the first people to stand at this wind-blown spot. Excavations of the Great Kneighton site before the building work began uncovered prehistoric activity dating back more than 5,000 years. Archaeologists unearthed a Middle Bronze Age landscape of field systems, enclosures and settlements covering large areas of the site that dated back to 1,500 BC.
By the time the Domesday Book was written in 1086 AD, the village of Trumpington boasted 37 households, four manors and a mill. By the early 1900s, the population had swelled to around 1,300. Back then, the village still boasted a vibrant agricultural community – with three working farms and a blacksmith. Even in the lifetime of some of our older interviewees, life in the village was lived at a much slower pace. Cows used to cross Trumpington High Street four times a day to be milked. Sheep grazed on the field outside Bidwells. Today, the road that cuts through the centre of Trumpington is a main artery carrying traffic from Cambridge out to the M11 and beyond.
When I first moved to Trumpington almost ten years ago, there were around 7,000 people living here. But it still felt like an outpost on the very edge of Cambridge, surrounded by farm land. It was a place that people drove through on the way to somewhere else. A place with a village hall and a residents’ association, a war memorial and a few stray thatched cottages dotted along the frequently grid-locked main road. A place with no obvious village heart or soul. A place where you felt you could almost drop off the edge of the map and nobody would notice!
Ten years later, things are changing so quickly it’s hard to keep up. I can see pitched roofs and cranes from my daughter’s bedroom window where once there were just fields. The sound of skylarks has been replaced for now with the constant beeping of reversing trucks.
The first phase of the building work is almost complete – bringing hundreds of new homes and thousands of new residents to this once sleepy village on the southern tip of Cambridge.
And now, as the new residents move in, a new phase begins. A period of adjustment when we all get used to living side by side – residents who have lived here for generations like the Pemberton family, the Haylocks and the Warburtons; people who have just moved in from far-flung places like Mexico and South Africa and Iceland. And others still who have moved here inbetween times, drawn to the area by work or studies, or the proximity to the M11, as I was. We jostle together uncertainly in the recently expanded aisles of Waitrose. We swerve around each other as we cycle along the well-used path alongside the new guided busway. We nod to each other as we bypass the “No Public Access” signs to walk our dogs or jog along the criss-crossing paths of the soon-to-be-opened country park.
We are told in the marketing brochures of Countryside Properties that “Great Kneighton is an exciting new community which is taking place in one of the most sought-after areas in Cambridge”. And the hype seems to be working. You can see the posters at the station and even as you leave Stansted airport. The houses on the new development are selling for up to £2 million a piece – and prices have risen there by as much as 25% over the last year alone. There’s been a housing boom in the rest of Trumpington too, pushing prices up in some of the streets that are not used to being described as “sought-after” at all. In fact, until quite recently, Trumpington’s estate – with its mixture of council housing and private homes – was regarded as a bit rough. A bit “Trampington”, according to some of our interviewee’s friends! Yet before our very eyes, Trumpington is becoming a property hot spot that has estate agents fighting to sell even the most modest homes.
As I cycle through Trumpington, along the narrow pathway past the allotments and the community orchard and the chicken coops on the way to my daughter’s school each day, I find myself musing about what exactly this “exciting new community” might look like? What would it take to entice people like me and my ten-year-old daughter, teenagers like Tom Warburton who have grown up on Trumpington estate, or newcomers like Georgie Morrill and David Willsher to use the much-vaunted new amenities that fill the pages of the Great Kneighton’s marketing literature. The new 120-acre country park? The new sports pitches and children’s play areas? The new community square? Is it a case of “build it and they will come”? Or is there a more complicated dynamic at play here?
Will the community square become the place where we all come together as they want us to believe? Will it become a place for meeting and socialising, for concerts, community days and street parties? Will there be market stalls and independent retailers, as Georgie and David would like to see? And is that compatible with the need for affordable shopping options that other residents are hoping for?
Will we as residents have a say in the make up of the square? Or is a community square that is predominantly a commercial space actually an oxymoron?
Certainly, some of the existing Trumpington residents are sceptical about the new public spaces being created around them. Their own experiences have shown that the most sustainable common spaces are those that are organically grown and community led, like the allotments or the Pavilion or the community orchard, which are all run by local residents. They observe with a wry nod of recognition that the guided busway is used as a super fast bicycle route into town, rather than as a bus route. And they admit that some residents are already ignoring the “No Public Access” signs to explore the paths of the soon-to-be-opened country park. Short cuts have always been part of the landscape, even during the time when most of these fields were privately-owned Pemberton family farming land. And we will probably always find our own ways of navigating the space around us.
Although the wheels of the community consultation process have been turning quietly in the background, I don’t feel it has been public enough. If you had consulted 18-year-old Tom, for example, maybe he would have told you he’d like to see a skate park. If my daughter Jenna and her classmates at the nearby primary school had been consulted, maybe they’d have said they wanted a playground with monkey bars and a cake shop. For me, a cross between Plaça Reial in Barcelona and the pavement cafés of Paris would be just fine, thank you very much! Understanding that not every desire can be matched, for me it’s important that we retain some sense of ownership over this common space, some unplanned space left over that we can explore for ourselves.
As I’ve criss-crossed the paths between Trumpington and the Great Kneighton development over the past 12 months, listening to residents new and old while researching and writing this series of articles, I’ve discovered that there are quite a lot of cracks in our common ground. There are things that people were only happy to talk about off the record – disquiet about the way the 40% affordable housing has been placed alongside privately owned homes; unease about whether the new houses are going to alleviate the city’s housing crunch; safety concerns about the path alongside the guided busway; unhappiness about the different marketing names for parts of the area.
The question I have is this: how do we pull all the strands of shared history and differences together to create a common space that we can all enjoy? How does a privately built square become a public space? How does a proposed community garden become a “place that people love”?
It’s a conundrum that’s no doubt perplexed people for many centuries. And I don’t pretend to have the answers.
For me, as a local resident, it’s important not to paper over the cracks in our common ground in magenta, or even in the calico that’s favoured by the interior décor of the developers’ new homes. Perhaps what we need is a giant-sized chess set in the middle of the square modelled around the local knight Sir Roger de Trumpington – a place where we can throw down the gauntlet and play out our differences? A place where we can all find some common ground, whichever direction we prefer to look in.