Parker’s Piece is a civic space on which the communities of Cambridge have long gathered. Known through its cricket as ‘one of the finest playgrounds in England’ it is a playground for everyone forever: a place for crossing boundaries, proposing new futures, and celebrating peace.
In the 1800s a tradition arose of large-scale feasts: most notably, the Peace Feast of 1814 for 6000 residents, the Feast for the Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 for 15000 residents, the Children’s Tea in 1856 to celebrate the end of the Crimean War, and the Feast for one thousand aged poor to celebrate the royal wedding of 1893. The Feast of 1856 also marks the day the Cambridge Award Act was passed ending the war of town and gown.
Organised by huge teams across all the parishes of Cambridge, residents came together on this land in 1814 under the motto ‘As knowledge spreads may discord cease, may nations know the worth of peace!’ Laurel leaves were used as decoration and banners emblazoned with devices.
The menus of 1814 and 1838 included beef, plum pudding, bread, cheese, salad, onions, vinegar, salt, mustard, ale, pipes, snuff and tobacco.
From witches and wives’ tales to female pioneers, Cambridge has a history of extraordinary women, often unrecognized in the patriarchies of power. Alongside the notable women of Cambridge including Florence Ada Keys, the first women elected to Cambridge Council and first female magistrate, who competed the Guildhall and founded Citizens Advice Bureau; Eglantyne Webb who founded Save the Children; WWI code breaker Margaret Darwin; Leah Manning member of Parliament; Emily Davies founder of Girton College; and Clara Rackham who chaired the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, under Millicent Fawcett, and founded the Cambridge Women’s Co-operative Guild, are the working women, ‘formidable Cambridge nannies’, and house wives, whose wisdom permeates this city.
The venue of choice for important speeches on women’s rights by the Women’s Institute following the second World War, The UNIVERSITY ARMS, CAMBRIDGE has a fascinating history of female leadership and creativity. It was owned and run collectively by the Hewitt sisters in1890 and hosted an artists’ studios in its yard, run by Miss Caroline Long and Miss Whitehead from the year 1887 to 1898.
Revered and feared in equal measure, the female Pythia of ancient oracle opened up a future world – a world none the less dominated by men. As Baroness Wotton of Abinger declared at the University Arms Hotel on 9 July 1962, ‘you see the modern young couple and you see that the man is still holding her by the hand and the man is still pointing to the future – one day that picture will be the other way round.’
Marking the center of this field of future prophesy is Reality Checkpoint – a beacon to many realities. Early proposals to light Parker’s Piece were met with aversion as late-night lovers preferred the cloak of darkness. The original lamp of 1894, cast in iron by the Sun Foundry of George Smith and Company, Glasgow, withstood a rumored attempt by Noel Teulon Porter to blow it up in the interests of free love but was in the end toppled by American soldiers celebrating VJ night in 1945. Remodeled by local metal works firm George Lister and Sons, by foreman Sam Mason, assisted by Tony Challis, Four Lamps was born and became the first fluorescent lamp in the UK.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the name Reality Checkpoint was first applied to the lamp in the 1950s as a navigator in the ‘pea-souper’ Cambridge smogs and fogs. By the 70s the name had become known both as a place to get back to reality, as a pilgrim site for LSD trippers with local hearsay including Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd among its pilgrims, and as a location to challenge reality, a site to check your life and question the status-quo.
Marking the point at which to sober up before walking past the police station, the post also stands at an intersection of university and town, a historically factious line between very different realities. Known as the entrance of students to the real world, stories abound in both directions as to whether it is the life of Mill Road or the work of college that offer the challenging reality.
Records show the name was first written onto the post in chalk and then ink, before being painted on for the first time in 1973 by art students from CCAT (Cambridge College of Arts and Technology – now Anglia Ruskin) under the guidance of a tutor. Unofficially scratched or painted on ever since, the name was repeatedly marked and covered in a constant back and forth between residents and council, each seeking to preserve the history and integrity of this post. In April 2017, Artist Emma Smith was given official permission to paint the name onto the post to preserve its name for posterity. In homage to the artists who painted the name in 1973, and continuing their legacy of intervention, this work was undertaken in the very early hours of the morning to appear as people woke the following day.
Stories still abound and multiply as to the meaning of this name and it is in the end up to each of us to find and check their own reality.
Parker’s Piece is not shy of invention or future foresight: indeed such prescience is not bound to the realms of history but continues for all who have dwelt here since. This is the site where the football rules were invented in 1848. Records in the diary of a Master of Jesus College record boys playing football on Parker’s Piece, each to their own set of rules, leading to confusion. Kings boys preferred Rugby so separated off, while Trinity man Beaumont along with others devised a common set of rules that they attached to the trees around the piece. In 1863 when the Football Association was formed, a match was played on Parker’s Piece to demonstrate these new rules, which have since become the standard rules of football across the world today.
The University Arms Hotel predicted and invested in the success of the motor-car, subsequently becoming home to the Cambridgeshire and Ely Automobile Club in 1907. They were the first hotel in Cambridge to have electricity in 1893 and installed Britain’s largest solar heating system in 1980. As a postal department, the University Arms was part of the history of the development of standardised time that evolved through this national network.
The first steam coach was test driven here in 1839 and the central lamp-post Reality Checkpoint was the first electric light in Cambridge and the first fluorescent lamp in the UK.
This is a site of change and these predictions, inventions, and imaginings join a long activist history on this land of hustings, rallies, and protests.
For over one hundred years up to 1939, families would gather yearly on Parker’s Piece to skip together in celebration of Spring. This practice, taking place on the Christian Good Friday, has its roots in more ancient rituals of jumping that symbolised leaping into the future in the hope of better times to come.
The tradition can be found historically across the UK adapted to the local supply of rope. In fishing towns skipping often took place along the beach using fishing lines, whereas in agricultural villages skippers used hop stems stripped of their leaves. On Parker’s Piece washing lines were the favoured rope. Traditionally, the ropes were turned by the men with the women jumping, although children often joined in too. By the 1900s men, women and children skipped alike.
Early records of skipping on Good Friday link the practice to ancient earthworks and in particular to barrows – earthen burial mounds around which these games were played. While there are no records of this being the case in Cambridge, it is interesting to note that the flatness of Parker’s Piece is a feature of relatively recent history and it has a much more undulating past including a mound that surrounded the piece which was particularly prominent on the Regent Street side.
The earliest record of skipping on Parker’s Piece is from 1838 and compared to other towns it maintained the tradition until quite late, coming to an end only with the outbreak of World War II. Prior to this, Good Friday Skipping was an annual occurrence with residents descending on the piece from morning till the early evening. Traders would supply lemonade and spiced buns, sustaining those leaping and wishing for a better future.
It is rumored that in the years following Roman occupation Grantacaestir (as Cambridge was then known) was scarce of residents, marauded by mythological giants who were so tall they could see beyond the present horizon into the future. Two centuries later and embracing the folklore of these dangerous seers, future residents of Grantebrig (newly named after its Great Bridge – now Magdalene Bridge) spread their dwellings along its hills with settlements on Castle Hill, Market Hill, Peas Hill, and the lesser known Hogs Hill of St Andrew’s.
These hills were linked by the Via Devana, the oldest road in Cambridge, that originates in Colchester, running through Cambridge to reach Chester, and whose name is linked both to the supernatural divine and to ceremonial oracles. Castle Hill marked the northern entrance of this road to the city and Parker’s Piece the south. Positioned in the historical ward of Preachers, Parker’s Piece lies on the stretch of this road that was later to become known as Preacher’s Street. This is the home of prophesy, prediction and of future seers.