Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Let There Be Lights!

This post has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. Guaranteed.

Sometimes you just don't realise when you have something that's unique. I've seen these old street lights in Cambridge for years and never given them a second thought. At one time almost every city in England had their own design of street-lighting but, over the years, they've been swept away by inexorable progress. Cambridge's lights, though they are not as ancient as the buildings they illuminate, are a remarkable survival.

Cambridge used to be lit by gas lamps right up till the mid 1950s, despite them being inefficient and difficult to maintain. It was then decided to have a trial of electric lighting and various different designs were erected around the town. Nobody really seemed to like any of them and the council went to the Royal Fine Art Commission for advice.

They suggested the 77-year-old Sir Albert Richardson as a possible designer. He already had a reputation as someone who hated the modern lighting designs of the day and was photographed wagging his umbrella at certain lamps to which he had strong objections.

“The lighting in a city should be regulated by the city itself, by the condition and formation of the streets, by the buildings and houses, and certainly with regard for vistas and silhouettes”, he stated. 

The lights he came up with are known as "Richardson's Candles".  And Sir Albert certainly succeeded in his aims: the tall, slim design fits in well with the narrow streets both physically and aesthetically, the neo-classical look is perfect for outside the Fitzwilliam Museum's facade and many other college buildings have a strong accent on vertical lines.

They are so familiar to me that I didn't even realise that I'd photographed this one.
It's on the side of the University Bookshop, though I took the photo
because there's been a bookshop on the site continuously since the 1580s.

There's no denying that Richardson's design looks great - in the half-light or during the daytime! However the vertically-mounted florescent tubes, which were a daring innovation at the time, throw most of their light out sideways rather than down on to the streets below. They light the buildings beautifully, but it's dingy down here on the pavement. Very like the candles they're named after, they look lovely but aren't very practical.

That, in a nutshell, is the conundrum that the city's been wrestling with for over half a century. Some have been taken down and replaced with more modern designs, some have been knocked down by careless drivers and some, despite everything, remain.

From time to time there are articles about them in our local newspaper - they are going to be replaced, they will be retained, they might be adapted to use LED lights - but still the indecision goes on. For a city of enlightenment we seem to spend a lot of time muddling along in the twilight. 

Take care. 


  1. Sometimes 'improvement' is not for the best, lovely lights they be. Perhaps some form of low level pavement lighting ought to be considered to work alongside with rather than instead of?

  2. This is sure one time I see both sides....I would hate to take these down...but I can see wanting more light.

  3. I think they are lovely, and I'm sure a bit of ingenuity would solve their design flaws.

  4. They are lovely lights, but perhaps more artful than practical. I hope they will be saved and other more useful lighting introduced for brightening the night.

  5. I was in Cambriudge twice it is definitely great city

  6. Nice, there is nothing like Christmas.
    But I wish you anyway Merry Christma.

  7. You tell the city fathers I like them and they should stay. That should settle things.

  8. Those are the most unusual streetlights I've ever seen! And I love them.

  9. love the lights. Went once to Cambridge. Someone had the bright idea to do away with the street furniture....not a seat anywhere. People were perching on walls. Couldn't get to the river .All the land leading down to it is owned by the Uni's and you had to pay separately for each access. Walked for about a mile till we got to a park by the river where we had our sandwiches. Never again. On the good side went twice into John Lewis's( needed a sit down.) to use their excellent coffee shop. What a lovely spacious store.

  10. Interesting little dilemma. Here we're concerned to remain a relatively dark sky area - no street lights and i don't want any!

  11. I learned something new.... so next time I visit the UK I will take a good look.
    Looks like you have plenty of rain, just like us here in Norway.

  12. Fascinating about the lights of cambridge if i visit i will be gawping at them and hoping they will be there when i visit .

  13. I really like the "Richardson's Candles" and think they are very appropriate for these spaces.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).