May 25, 2024

Kingfisher Way, Cambridge

The playground between Kingfisher Way and Hobson’s Brook in Cambridge is an oasis of woodland peace, in a town, which in urban terms, is an oasis of peace in itself.

On the one side of the playground is a small wood, which stretches north south, and follows the course of a brook.

The other three sides of the playground are surrounded by a series of relatively young residential flats and terraces, that constitute an architectural fascination. All of them, despite being recently built are coloured to blend in with the motifs of their environment: grey skies and brown, almost black bark.

On closer inspection one also sees, behind the camouflage, that the buildings are an extraordinary and hapless mixture of styles. Their common denominator is modernity and tackiness. In all ways then, this estate is a perfect example of twenty-first century British town planning.

The buildings on Kingfisher Way are a strange mix of the rustic, the bizarre, the very modern and the 1970s.

This block of flats, for example, is quite incredible. At the base of the building the wall is composed of grey bricks encased in wire mesh. Its the kind of thing that you might see in the Tate Modern. In some ways it looks cool, and in other ways tacky and cheap.

And then on top of the bricks, the flats are constructed as if a series of old wooden rabbit hutches. I wonder about those huge wooden beams. Some of them have long cracks in, they look aged and warn. Is that the intended effect? Does the structure of the building depend upon the strength of these beams? Or are they just decoration?

What I can’t deny is that the wooden effect and the greys of the stone allow the building to melt into its woody surroundings. It adds to the peace of the area.

Then you’ve got a lot of these yellow brick buildings. On the one hand they look modern. The flat we’re looking at in this photograph has the most incredible balcony area. The brick frame gives the balcony a sense of dimension and depth. It is remarkable, and to my mind new. And yet these buildings, of which there are many in this estate and spread across the new estates of Cambridge, are reminiscent of the brick buildings built in towns across the UK in the 1970s. Still, again, the brick work is a peaceful colour, and one that clearly blends in with the fading leaves of autumn.

Then you’ve got the building in the background, whose angles and different faces are quite spectacular, overwhelming and messy. The building looks futuristic, unnecessarily complicated, ostentatious. Who would live, or who would want to live in a complex like this? The building sits apart from everything else in design terms, and yet its dark brown colours allow it to seep, almost unnoticed into the muddy, woody, Cambridge dusk.

Kingfisher Way playground itself is then a beautiful place to be. One can enjoy in the same moment: entertained children, the woodland and birds and architectural fascination. In the park there are also two magnificent trees to admire. First a sweet chestnut, which takes pride of place in the centre. Then a Giant Redwood, which looks like a haughty old dame, dressed in green velvet, ready to go for a Sunday walk around the more esteemed environ of the Botanic Garden, some hundred yards up the road.

Giant Redwood, Kingfisher Way, Cambridge, January 2021
The bark of the Sweet Chestnut, Kingfisher Way, Cambridge, January 2021

All in all, I love Kingfisher Avenue. I feel a sense of wonder each time I visit.

But there’s more. The cherry on the cake, the piece de resistance, is the fact that at the back of the estate surrounding the park, nestled like a cuckoo’s egg, is an old cold war nuclear bunker. I couldn’t quite believe this when I took a closer look at the area on Google Earth, in the writing of this piece. But lo and behold, if you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see it right at the end of the pavement.

Cambridge’s Nuclear Bunker (just to the left of the building in the foreground) at home in the modern residential estate that surrounds it, Kingfisher Way, Cambridge, January 2021

The bunker looks inconspicuous, very much at home in this modern residential estate. Its clear too that the architects of the flats next to it created roof angles to compliment the slanted roof of the bunker.

Cambridge’s Nuclear Bunker, Kingfisher Way, Cambridge, January 2021

This photo shows the bunker in its full functional glory. Ugly it is, my kids didn’t even want to approach it, so much did it spook them. But clearly it has been welcomed and respected by the more recent settlers, and has even been embraced by ivy and climbers, perhaps faux, perhaps gifts from the book. In sum, then the bunker takes my sense of fascination with the anarchic range of modern styles, into the realms of ecstasy. It is, it seems, from the sign on the fence outside of it, the home of the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology – I must one day see it!

Additional notes

It dawned on me as I wrote this article, that the name Kingfisher Avenue must be in honour of the kingfishers that live along the brook. Those mythical kingfishers that I’ve only ever seen once, weirdly on my first visit to the brook, where I managed to snap both of them. You can see the pair in the photo below. There is one perched on a branch, more or less in the centre of the photograph. Then you can see the second one as a small blur of blue, towards the left hand side of the photo and towards the bottom.

A kingfisher perched on a branch in Hobson’s Brook, 2019
The same photo as above, but close up.
A Kingfisher having just fished, Hobson’s Brook, 2019

I’ve never seen them since, though the possibility of seeing them again always fills me with a sense of magic when I walk up the brook.

In the middle of 2020 work was finished connecting the Kingfisher Way estate with the brook. This was a brilliant development, allowing people on the estate easy access to the brook and a way of walking onwards towards Lammas Land, without having to walk down the busy Brooklands Avenue. It has also made the small playground in the estate accessible to people walking up from Trumpington along the brook.

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