If we'd walked here a couple of hundred years ago we'd be on a narrow track passing between fields on our way to the village of Cherry Hinton. We'd have passed a windmill that would eventually give this busy modern road its name - Mill Road. Things started to change when the railway reached Cambridge and this land was used for cheap housing for those who worked on the railway and in its associated industries.
You might think that no one would want to live in these small, cramped houses today and that the shops here would not survive in this modern world. Maybe it's time to tear it all down and start again. But you'd be wrong on several counts.
These houses are some of the most expensive in the city - in terms of price per square foot at least. Although they were very cramped for the large families of the Victorian era, they are now snapped up by young professionals who value their nearness to the city centre and the vibrant multi-cultural atmosphere. They also support many of the small alternative shops and international cafes and restaurants along Mill Road.
However, although the future of this historic area looks healthy for the time being, there are problems with some of the public buildings. You see, there are only four listed buildings in this whole area. So while some buildings, like St Barnabas Church (above) are protected by planning laws, there are many others which are part of our history but have no such protection.
There are a number of industrial buildings like George Bolton's Warehouse which are surely worth keeping as part of the cityscape. Bolton moved to Cambridge from Hertfordshire in the mid 1800s, initially to work as a porter on the railway but soon set up in business as a general carrier (someone who took goods from the railway station to their intended destinations). Bolton and his sons expanded into building and owning a brickworks, but they were mainly known as furniture removers. The warehouse was used for storing furniture and is now converted to offices.
This fine red-brick building, on the corner of Mill Road and Gwydir Street, was once the public library. It was used for 20 years by the Hindu community as a place of worship until they were unable to fund the necessary repairs. The city council plan make the building some kind of community centre once it's been repaired.
The building above however now provides a mixture of accommodation for elderly people. But for many years it was Cambridge's maternity hospital. Wikipedia will tell you that Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy was born here, though it doesn't mention that I first saw the light of day there just a few months later. Its original purpose, when it was built in 1838, was as the Cambridge Union Workhouse to house the poor of the town.
Above the door of this building it says "Lifecraft", which is the name of a user-led organisation to help those with mental health problems. But above that it says "The Bath House" and that's what it was built as in 1927. It provided baths for those whose homes lacked the necessary facilities and, perhaps surprisingly, it still operated into the 1960s.
Right down at the far end of Mill Road we find Brookfields Hospital. This was built as a Hospital for Infectious Diseases from 1885. At the time "germ theory" was not fully understood and most diseases were thought to be caused by "bad air". For this reason it was built at the eastern edge of the town so that the miasma was not blown back into the town.
This building looks a bit sick and neglected too. It's known as The Romsey Town Labour Club and reminds us of a time when this area of Cambridge was nicknamed Little Russia because of the strong left-wing views of many of the people here; the union movement being very strong amongst those employed on the railway and its affiliated industries. These workers lacked funds but had many expert builders among them and the Labour Club was built entirely by voluntary labour. The beautifully carved crest above the door, presumably the work of one of Cambridge's many stone-masons, shows all the different tools used by the craftsmen who worked on the building.
The man responsible for much of the organisation of the Club was Billy Briggs, a local man who had left school at the age of fifteen to work on the railways. He held all kinds of voluntary and political posts and reckoned he knew everyone in Cambridge. He went on to become Cambridge's first Labour mayor. He was a man of firm opinions and demanded that there should be a bar in the Club so workers could get a drink after a hard day's labour. There were many Working Men's Clubs set up around this time, but Romsey Labour Club was perhaps unique in that it always allowed women to join too - you've guessed it, it was at the insistence of Billy Briggs. How sad that this building is so neglected.
Just along the road, the Conservative Salisbury Club is also in need of a facelift, though it is still an active club with snooker and pool tables as well as a function room.
I could go on, for there are many more interesting buildings of similar vintage along the length of Mill Road and its many side turnings. Above is the old Dales Brewery building which seems to be thriving as an antiques shop and a coffee bar. But are there any new buildings being built round here?
Yes, indeed. The golden dome is Cambridge's new mosque which now stands proudly near the far end of Mill Road. You can visit it at any time when prayers are not in progress and I intend to take a tour there later in the year.