I went to lunch yesterday with a couple of our students, at Hotel du Vin, just opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum (to which we repaired for a digestive stroll and contemplation of some paintings, of which more, perhaps, tomorrow). We discussed possible eating venues in Cambridge (they are Spaniards, and like a good lunch), and we struggled to come up with more than a small handful. The conversation drifted to hotels; they are staying in the Hotel du Vin and said that it was pretty good; others they have used have been less satisfactory for one reason or another.
Why is there not a wide choice of fine restaurants and hotels to choose from in Cambridge? It is not exactly a poor town – I read yesterday that house prices have risen faster in Cambridge over the last seven years than anywhere else in the country, and Cambridge is now listed as the third most expensive town to work in in England.
I developed a theory for my Spanish students that the University was to blame. It was, I suggested, and had been since its earliest days, a succubus, squatting on the town. For many centuries, what was not done in College might as well not have been done at all. The Colleges employed all the cooks, all the housekeepers, all the potential hoteliers. Those residents who might have been expected to eat in town could just as well eat College – the Colleges can do a pretty good High Table if they put their minds to it. Perhaps the Colleges were the missing restaurants?
And so on. It is perhaps partly true. Cambridge, more than any other town, is dominated by its university, with consequent severe distortions in its geography, its sociology, its economy. Towns which rely on tourist trade (as my Spanish students knew feelingly) were similarly unusual places, unsatisfactory for local inhabitants in a variety of ways.
But it is also true that Cambridge would not be prosperous without its university. It is not in a prosperous part of the country. Its recent explosive growth has been down to the highly-professional industrial base it has been able to attract, solely because of the research profile of the university.
So we might like to think that we suffer as we sit in our adequate-at-best restaurants, imagining the swan being shouldered to High Tables all around us. But the restaurant trade (if not the hotels) will probably be quick to pick up on quality. And the swans are a fiction.
Here is David Dimbleby, talking about the relationship of town to university in Cambridge – he goes on to talk about King’s College Chapel, and has a walk in the rafters.