I survived Mill Road Summer

A personal chronicle

The long slog began nearly a year ago when many of us received an email on October 27 alerting us to a public meeting to be held only days later on November 1 announcing the Mill Road Bridge closure. Small notices on lamp-posts were the only other warning given. The hosts were Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Network Rail and its contractors; the venue was the DoubleTree Hilton, on Mill Street by the river.

Besides the shock of the short notice and the seriousness of the subject matter, people commented that the hosts perhaps did not realise that Mill Street was nowhere near Mill Road. The crowd was already riled when it arrived and a rough meeting ensued where the hosts seemed to be surprised by attendee reaction and rather put on the back foot by challenges to decisions and methods.

This set the tone of the following months: “They” announced; “we” (councillors, traders and residents) reacted, resisted, and suggested over many meetings, but compromise was reached as months dragged by. 

The bridge had to close, certainly; but it was reduced to seven weeks in July and August and the draconian “even-to-pedestrians” closures were reduced. (I wonder why the solutions couldn’t have been thought of in the first place.)

Mill Road Traders (I’m a member) called an emergency meeting in June which brought in the largest attendance in several years. We were informed that, while reparations for lost business were not to be considered, both sides of the Bridge would receive £15,000 “happy-money” from GTR to soften the effect of the closure. Traders were called on to submit ideas. At the meeting we scratched their heads: what could we do with “happy-money” that would magically improve sales when our customer base couldn’t reach our shops with the usual … ease (already un-easy from tight parking in Petersfield and tougher parking in Romsey)?

An ad campaign in the Cambridge Independent, a reissue of the shop map of Mill Road, and a series of car-boot sales were suggested by traders, approved by GTR and fast-tracked in a few weeks, along with many other initiatives by other residents’ groups on both sides of the Bridge.

But the traders knew that those actions would never make up for lower traffic – and would not help bring people back afterwards, to retrain them to travel down Mill Road again and consider it a main shopping source for Cambridge. 

So traders and residents plodded on… and then, the gasworks started in earnest, followed by the huge fire at Gee’s, saddening the Road and blocking traffic further. And then, the gasworks came back! to sections they couldn’t reach before, owing to the fire. Several business and homes were occasionally inaccessible or without gas and even water for days. 

The aggro felt unending and would have been far worse without the constant vigilance of local councillors, who worked much harder than most people know. My hat is off to them.

Some amusement was extracted, some experiments with alternative uses of the road; all ages were involved with events from historical to musical; some sense of life was rapidly concocted and consumed by a decent number; “lemons got quick-squashed into lemonade”, if you will.

The day the bridge was re-opened to full vehicle traffic, my shop had its best sales in weeks. The day the diggers ceased and the barriers left felt sparkly and new. We’re back!

– Which is all very nice and optimistic, but there is still underlying damage to our businesses that will take luck and time to heal; it may be too-little-too-late for some.

What can we do to help now? One way is to support the Mill Road Winter Fair more than ever: bring the crowds back and show them our colours and spirit. Volunteer to help on the day – cheerful involvement of locals makes such a good impression on the visitors we need.

Pamela Wesson, proprietor of Mill Road’s Fantasia, purveyor of ‘unusual and unnecessary items’

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