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The cities and towns around Cambridge host various winter fairs and Christmas Markets at this time of year.  Most are fun and interesting, but also somewhat generic.  But the Christmas Market to be found in Cambridge is instead quirky and distinctly individual – just like Cambridge itself.  And not far at all from the Varsity Hotel Cambridge.

Mill Road

Mill Road has become something of an institution in Cambridge.  Not an institution in the sense of the University itself.  But instead a byword for a way of life.  A way of life that has changed greatly over time.

The road itself is one of the long, straight spoke roads coming out of the hub that is the medieval city centre.  It likely existed for centuries in some form, heading from the market town to a nearby village.  But it really came into being in one of Cambridge’s first great waves of expansion.

In the 19th century the railway came to Cambridge, the station located not far from Mill Road.  Workers for the railway needed housing.  And Victorian England had a ready made solution for lower class housing – terraces.  Dozens of narrow roads sprouted off Mill Road.  All with narrow pavements and row upon row of terraced houses.  Not nearly as bad as the slums of Glasgow or Liverpool, but they packed them in tight.  And like the rest of Cambridge, the area was not designed for cars.

What resulted was a vast warren of low rise narrow terraced streets, all coming off one single spoke road – Mill Road.  Which became the venue for all the shops and amenities this area would require.  So while telling someone you live “off Mill Road” isn’t exactly a precise location, in a strange way it also is.

Mill Road Fair

But it was post-WWII that Mill Road came into its essence.  As the strictures of the “Working class” in England slowly dissipated, Mill Road instead became a home for immigrants.  The multicultural identity of Cambridge we now take for granted was born in Mill Road.  And for decades it remained there.

Naturally, these immigrants from different cultures brought slivers of those cultures with them.  Soon contributing to the melting pot that is Mill Road.  And at one time late last century, long before Amazon or even a general shift towards mainstream multiculturism, it was said that “you can get anything on Mill Road”.  Partly this was an acknowledgement of the less legal products more readily available in poorer areas.  But also for the sheer range of shops on the road.

And that legacy remains to this day.  Walk down the street and you’ll pass spice markets where your average Westerner can’t identify half of the goods on offer.  Asian supermarkets where you can’t even read the labels.  There are vintage clothing shops, the mosque, an Italian deli, both fish and meat butchers.  And restaurants from a couple dozen distinct cuisines.

So what makes Mill Road Winter Fair special?  The fact that all of these businesses spill out into the street to create a makeshift multicultural extravaganza of food and entertainment.  The road itself, usually jammed up with cars, becomes a pedestrian zone.  Aromas from all the cuisines in the world waft past your nose as the chatter of dozens of languages buzz in your ears.

What better way to celebrate the international city that is Cambridge?  The Mill Road Winter fair is this Saturday December 3rd, not too far from the Varsity Hotel.