A journey down Mill Road (part one)
Our world is easier to explore than ever before. Airlines are flying to an ever increasing number of destinations, cities that used to be hidden gems are developing booming tourist industries, and the demand for travel-related jobs is at an all-time high. However, when there are so many new places to visit, it’s easy to forget or disregard the familiar. As someone who’s become obsessed by the idea of ticking countries off a bucket list, I’ve definitely fallen into this trap somewhat, but I’ve recently started reading a book which has put me in my place.
A Journey around my Roomis its name (translated from the original French), and Xavier de Maistre its author. The novel is written from the perspective of an invalid, who, unable to move from his bed, contents himself with travelling, as it were, around his bedroom. I’m not sure I’ll ever be satisfied with quite such restrictive boundaries, but this book has made me think that perhaps I ought to stop dreaming of far-off places for once, and concentrate on my nearby surroundings.
With this in mind, I decided to set off to explore somewhere very close to my house. Mill Road is Cambridge’s most vibrant and multicultural shopping street, with boutiques run by men and women of all different nationalities. A few of these establishments I know like the back of my hand; others, I had not, before yesterday, so much as set a foot in. Here, then, is part one of my journey through the old and the new.
I start my journey down Mill Road on Parker’s Piece, a large grassy square which marks the more central end of the street. It’s a sunny day, so there are plenty of people out and about: some are enjoying picnics on the lawn, while others zip along the central pathways on their bicycles. I’m rather shocked to see a new stone monument that’s been erected in one of the corners. ‘1848: The Laws of the Foot Ball Club’, I read. It appears to be a list of the rules established for this sport by students at the University of Cambridge back in the day. I can’t say I’m riveted by this subject, and so I quickly move on.
Past the fire station I go – it was renovated a few years ago, much to the horror of many locals – and onto the pavements of Mill Road, itself. To my right is Parkside Pools, the city’s most popular swimming pool, complete with diving boards and flumes; to my left is Petersfield, a quaint little park with tree-lined paths running through it.
In support of human and animal rights
The Amnesty International Bookshop and Arjuna Wholefoods are the first two shops I come across. It’s only by coincidence that they stand by side, but it’s rather nice to begin my tour of Mill Road with a couple of activist shops. The first is a fairly typical second-hand bookshop: works of all genres can be found here, all at low prices. The second is every vegetarian’s or vegan’s dream, with appetising (and mostly cruelty-free) products lining all the walls. I’m particularly impressed by their refrigerated section, which contains a whole array of plant-based milks and cheeses. If I can ever wean myself off chicken nuggets, I know where I’ll be doing my weekly shop!
Meals and wheels
The next cluster of establishments are mostly food-related: Lagona, a Lebanese restaurant, Noodles Plus, a great Chinese eatery, the Mill Road International Supermarket (speaks for itself, really), and Tom’s Cakes, a fantastic bakery. I long to go inside the latter and indulge in a slice of their Victoria sponge cake: it used to be my go-to choice for birthdays. Alas! I’ve just had lunch, and couldn’t stomach so much as a biscuit.
Instead, I nip into the supermarket and grab a can of Tamek Şeftali Nektarı, a peach-flavoured soft drink from Turkey. On my way out, I pass The Bike Shed, one of Cambridge’s most popular independent bike shops. I remember getting my very first two-wheeler there!
Mill Road Cemetery
I cross the road just after Covent Garden, and make my way down a leafy trail towards the Mill Road Cemetery. I wander along the pathways for a bit, stopping occasionally to read the inscriptions on various gravestones. Everything is wonderfully calm: I’m still close to Mill Road, but the noise of the traffic has been smothered entirely. I could stay here all day – one man I pass, sitting with his nose buried in a book, has clearly decided to do just this – but many quirky boutiques await me, and so I move on.
Carbs and garbs
Back on Mill Road, I walk past various shops – an upholsterer and a pharmacy – before making my mind up to pop into one. The Ocean Supermarket is a Chinese convenience store, packed with traditional delicacies. I grab a bag of lychee popping candy, and before long there is pandemonium in my mouth. As the fizzling continues, I walk past Al Casbah, an excellent Algerian restaurant where my relatives and I have enjoyed many a meal. It’s closed right now, but I have a quick peep through the window at the tent-lined ceiling and gorgeous tiled walls. I’ll be back soon to enjoy mountains of couscous, bathed in the juices of succulent meats.
From carbs to garbs: my next port of call is Fantasia, a pop-up vintage clothing store. I’m especially taken by their collection of sunglasses and fluorescent bucket hats. If I end up going to a music festival later this summer, I know where I’ll be buying my outfits.
Mill Road’s most controversial shop
And then I arrive at the most controversial shop on the whole street: Sainsbury’s Local. This supermarket is, of course, by no means short of customers, but when it was first introduced, those inhabiting the nearby streets weren’t totally happy. After all, what worse establishment to bring to a famously cosmopolitan street than one of the most British chains? Never mind: things seem to have calmed down now, and Sainsbury’s Local is most definitely here to stay.
Brews, booze, and vintage shoes
Next, I stumble across two cafés: the Garden Kitchen and Rubiaceae (or Dom’s Coffee, as it’s known by its regular customers). Both have hipster vibes, with their light wooden surfaces and leafy plants. I’m especially intrigued by the latter, which seems, even from the outside, to have a rather intimate atmosphere.
There are a number of people inside, but when I enter, the room falls silent. I begin to worry that I’ve disturbed some private meeting, but the owner assures me otherwise, and runs me through the drinks menu. Payments can only be made by cash, so I tell him I’m just going to nip to the ATM, and that I’ll be right back. ‘No photos!’ he shouts, as I try to snap a shot of the shop’s gorgeous interior. Embarrassed, I rush out, never to return… (He was lovely, and I would highly recommend that you visit this place – I'm just awkward!)
I make a quick detour down Tenison Road to visit the Salvation Army charity shop. For years, it was located in Mill Road proper, but the owners have relocated to a spot next to their church. I peruse the clothes, shoes, and various items of bric-a-brac, half expecting to find an old possession of my own. We often have clear-outs in my house, and this place is our go-to donation point. No previously-loved teddy bears jump out at me; perhaps they’ve already found new homes!
Back towards Mill Road I stroll, stopping in Culinaris, a gourmet grocery shop on the corner of the two streets. Thousands of beautifully packaged products line the shelves of this Hungarian-owned boutique: it’s the perfect place to find gifts for foodies. The chocolate section is perhaps my favourite, with flavours ranging from plain milk to zesty coriander.
Slightly further on – just before Camcycles, another bike shop – I see Bacchanalia, a well-stocked and reasonably priced wine merchant. The exterior wall is covered with a mural depicting the Roman god, Bacchus; the interior wall with drinks sourced from all across the world.
An Anglican church and a Korean supermarket
A few restaurants later – one Maghrebian; the other Halal – I find myself in front of St Barnabas Church. It isn’t the most beautiful structure, but it’s much loved by those who attend services within its walls. Just next door, I spot the St Barnabas Centre, a hall available for hire, which used to be the classic birthday party location of my primary school peers.
Across the road, I have a quick browse of Seoul Plaza, a Korean supermarket. It’s lovely to hear the shopkeeper chatting to his customers in their native language: just another reminder of the huge number of ethnic groups that are united in this street.
I turn a corner into the quieter, but no less interesting, Gwydir Street. Down here are a number of hidden gems: two quaint antique shops (Cambs Antique Centre and The Hive), the Hot Numbers café, and, just opposite, the David Parr House. Tours can be done of this building, which was meticulously decorated by the artist after which it is named. I’d love to book myself onto one, but unfortunately they’re sold out for the rest of the year!
Before the bridge
Back to the main road I go for the final stretch of my journey. I wander past an electrician and a tattoo parlour, and presently find myself in front of Al-Amin, the best international grocery shop on the street. If there’s ever anything missing from the food cupboards in my house, this is the place we’ll head to find it. The fruits and vegetables are always bursting with flavour – we enjoyed some of their perfectly ripe mangoes last night – their meat products are always juicy and tender (not to mention Halal), and their spices add brilliant flavour to any dish. And that's not all: in addition, the staff working there are completely lovely. They recognise their customers, and are never too busy to stop for a chat.
A few doors down, I see the Curry Queen, another of my family’s favourite local restaurants. There’s no cuisine I get more regular cravings for than Indian, so I’m sure I’ll be popp(adom)ing in there soon. The final two places I visit are the Cho Mee Supermarket – another Chinese grocery shop, which stocks traditional crockery, as well as food – and Mill Road Butchers, whom you can always rely on for delicious cuts of meat.
End of part one
I reach the Mill Road railway bridge and decide to call it a day. Shops are beginning to close now, and I’d prefer to come back another time and see them in their full glory. I’ll doubtlessly make this second trip at some point in the coming week, so stay tuned for part two! In the meantime, I challenge any of you reading to get out there and explore your own local area. There’s so much out there to discover, and a lot of it could be right under your nose!
A journey down Mill Road (part two)
A few days ago, I decided to get out there and explore my local area. I discovered quite a few new shops and cafés on the street that neighbours my own, and met many of the interesting people who run them. However, I only made it halfway down Mill Road before deciding to stop and call it a day. To make up for this, I went out again yesterday to peruse some of the establishments on the other side of the railway bridge (a part of town known as Romsey). If you haven’t read part one of my adventure, click here to do so; once you’ve got through that, enjoy part two below!
Over the bridge
The Mill Road railway bridge is closed right now for maintenance work, but much to my relief, the pavement remains open to pedestrians on one side. I make my way over this structure, stopping to admire the artwork on its walls. ‘Respect and diversity in our community’, I read on one of the murals; flags of countries all across the world adorn the other. I walk a bit further and spend a few moments watching trains as they pull into the nearby station, before descending into the street below.
Booze, mews, and milkshakes
Unlike the half of Mill Road that I explored in part one, this section has shops on both sides. I resolve to start on the left-hand pavement, and to come back on the right. The first place I see is The Earl of Beaconsfield, a popular pub in the area, which hosts regular live music nights. I’m not one to drink during the day, but if I were, I’m sure it would be lovely to sit and enjoy a pint in the beer garden.
I wander past a few houses, and onto the next block of shops. None of them particularly takes my fancy – there’s an estate agents, a beauty salon, and a tanning parlour, and I can’t say I have much use for any of these services right now – but I do appreciate the name of the Black Cat Café, the abundance of flowers in Cambridge Floral Design, and the seats outside the Tradizioni café, which co-ordinate with the Italian flag.
Only one establishment here really catches my eye: Urban Larder. I’ve heard great things about this small café, but never got round to checking it out. I order a chocolate milkshake, and take a seat by the window. My drink is brought to me very promptly, and I’m pleasantly surprised by its taste – milkshakes can be very hit and miss. Ten minutes later (I’m momentarily distracted by the free WiFi), and I’m out on the street once more.
Food: locally-grown and imported
I arrive presently at Tesco Express, another of Mill Road’s slightly more controversial shops. Sinfully, I go in and buy myself a snack. I then walk past Hilary’s Wholesale, a fruit and vegetable shop with walls as colourful as its produce. A lot of the food on sale here is locally-grown, but some of the more exotic items have been imported. The people running this place want their customers to be able to get their hands on absolutely any edible plant, so more unusual products can be requested and ordered in from afar. I decide not to purchase anything today, but I’ll be back soon. Three ripe avocados for £1? Yes, please! Right next door, I find the Co-op: best to keep all the chain shops in one place, I suppose…
Two houses of worship; one hall of residence
Soon afterwards, I’m standing in front of the St Philip’s Church Centre, a house of God, complete with its own eatery: the Cornerstone Café. I peep through the window and see that many a table is occupied. It’s noon on a Friday, so most of the people inside are elderly folk, but I imagine this place is packed with families at the weekend.
I continue walking, and notice that the shops are thinning out quite a bit, making way for houses. There are one or two warehouse-like establishments, as well as a One Stop supermarket and Subway restaurant, but for the most part, this area has a much more residential feel to it.
Eventually, there’s a clearing, and a huge modern building appears to my left: the Cambridge Central Mosque. The place is heaving when I arrive – Friday is the Islamic holy day – but I manage to get a glimpse of the house of worship over the crowds. I had no idea, before now, that it existed, but I’m very glad it does. Until recently, Cambridge’s Muslim community had to make do with a tiny mosque on Mawson Road, and I’m sure they’ve benefitted enormously from this expansion.
Just next to this building, I see another similarly new-looking one. It turns out to be the Cam Foundry, a hall of residence for university students. It looks pretty swanky from the outside, although I imagine it’s quite a trek to get to the centre of town from here. Slightly further down the road, I see the Brookfields Hospital, and its much-loved Edge Café. I decide that I’ve now “done” this side of the street, so I cross the road and begin my journey back on the opposite pavement.
Chinese medicine and British politics
The first place I come across on this side of the road is Sunrise Chinese Medicine, an acupuncture clinic. I’m very interested in alternative medicine – you’ll know this if you’ve read my article on the Lo Spirito del Pianeta festival – but I daren’t enter this shop without any ailments. Perhaps next time I have aches and pains, I’ll give them a visit…
I continue walking – passing by the Royal Standard Pub, who boast a fine selection of Belgian beers – then pause for a minute outside the Romsey Town Labour Club. This building is all boarded up now – I think it’s soon to be demolished and turned into flats – but it was once a meeting-place for trade unionists. Just beyond, I see the equivalent for the Conservative Party: a red-brick structure with ‘Club Salisbury House’ written across it. I believe it’s now a hall for hire.
Bathrooms and basements
As I continue my journey, I notice that there’s quite a concentration of bathroom and furniture shops: on one side of the road, there’s the Cambridge Bed Centre; on the other, Cutlacks, a homeware store.
I’m not planning on moving house any time soon, however, so I quickly move on, and before long, I find myself in Relevant Records, a lovely little café with a record shop in the basement. I am immediately impressed by the friendliness of the staff working there, and resolve to sit down and have a bite to eat. One sausage roll later, and I’m downstairs flipping through albums of all genres. One man stands in the corner dancing to music coming from a record player – I’ll be surprised if he walks out of here empty-handed!
Second-hand goods and Italian foods
The next part of Mill Road is probably my favourite, and this is largely thanks to a cluster of charity and antique shops that I find there. The first of these is The Children’s Society, a thrift store set up in support of disadvantaged children and adolescents. I purchase a travel guide to Goa (one of my current bucket list destinations), and the lady behind the counter sweetly wishes me well on my adventures.
Before continuing my thrifting session, I have a quick look in Limoncello, an Italian deli that I haven’t set foot in for years. Lining the walls are all the delicacies I enjoyed with my host family during my year abroad: Pan di Stelle biscuits and Rio Mare tinned tuna are the first of many items that I recognise. Sadly I’m too full to try any of the dishes served here, but the menu certainly looks tempting, and I know I’ll be back soon!
My perusal of previously-loved treasures continues in The Old Chemist Shop Antique Centre. An elderly man sits behind the till, engrossed in a novel (nice for some, eh?). He raises his eyes briefly to greet me, then gets right back to reading. I have the whole place to myself, and have a wonderful time strolling from room to room. When I reach the section at the back – which is full of vintage dresses – I’m suddenly hit with a wave of déjà-vu. Could it be that my mother brought me here about a decade ago? I’ll have to ask her next time we’re together.
Antique wears and bike repairs
Next up is the RSPCA bookshop, which is full of fantastic volumes that can be snapped up for a fraction of their original price. I buy one on solo female travel – only 95p! Then, after walking past the brightly-painted Greg’s Cycles bike shop, I reach my final destination of the day: the Romsey Mill Charity Shop. Again, I’m pleasantly surprised each time I read a price tag in here. I don’t end up getting anything, but I know where to go next time I need cheap, good quality clothes.
All good things must come to an end
A few kebab restaurants later, and I’m back at the railway bridge! My stomach is full of food, my handbag is full of new books, and my heart is full of joy. I’ve had a lovely time exploring my local area, and, as I said in my last post, I would highly encourage you to get out there and do the same. To quote Gladys Knight, ‘sometimes the best things are right in front of you; it just takes some time to see them’.