11 September 2014

Signs and wonders for pedestrians
on the streets of Cambridge

Petty Cury looking west towards the pinnacles of King’s College Chapel … but what does the name Petty Cury mean? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

In the early mornings this week, I have been slipping out of my rooms in Sidney Sussex College to attend the daily Eucharist in Saint Bene’t’s Church, which is only five minutes’ walk away.

In the early morning, as Cambridge begins to come to life but is still quiet and calm, I am sometimes enamoured by the names of the streets and side passages and some of the street signs.

Most mornings on way to or from Saint Bene’t’s, I have found myself walking along the strangely named Petty Cury, a pedestrianised shopping street opposite the junction of Sidney Street with Christ’s College on the corner of Hobson Street and Saint Andrew’s Street.

Petty Cury links this junction with Market Hill, the venue for outdoor market in the heart of Cambridge, and Guildhall Street. As I walk west down Petty Cury these mornings, an interesting vista opens to the Guildhall, which continues the line of the south side of the street and on to the pinnacles of King’s College Chapel rising above the buildings on the west side of market.

A street sign at the west end of Petty Cury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

But the name of Petty Cury is intriguing. Where does it come from? And how did it survive the crass developments along the south side of this narrow street in the 1960s and 1970s?

Petty Cury is an old street and the name first appears in documents around 1330, when it is recorded as Petycure. Two generations later, Thomas Furbisshour and his wife Agnes are recorded as living there in 1396.

It is most likely that this unusual name derives from petit (meaning “little”) and cury (meaning “cooks’ row”). Well, at least Samuel Pepys, who was an undergraduate at Magdalene College, Cambridge, offers this derivation in his Diary. So, it appears, there was a number of bakers’ stalls originally lined the sides of the street.

By the 15th century, the street was lined with inns, each with yards behind. But these yards later became some of worst slums in Cambridge by the 19th century. For example, up to 300 people may have lived in the Falcon Yard, which eventually was demolished on the order of the Medical Officer of Health in 1903.

Work on the extension to Boots in the 1950s indicated that that many of the mediaeval remains on this street had not been disturbed and that there was a deep sequence dating back Norman or even Saxon times.

Major changes came in the 1960s, when the entire south side was demolished to make way for the building of the Lion Yard shopping centre. The Lion Yard development destroyed all the remaining archaeology in this street. Limited observations were made, but most of what was there was destroyed unseen.

An extensive underground parking and service area runs under all the retail buildings, making the area below Petty Cury essentially hollow.

Today, Petty Cury is pedestrianised and is one of the primary shopping streets in Cambridge, with national retailers occupying most of the ground floor units … and one good Italian restaurant, Statzione, on the corner at the west end and with tables on the street. The upper storeys of the buildings on the street are mostly in commercial use, with some used for storage and others as office space.

The building of Lion Yard in 1960s and the 1970s means, of course, that we may never be able to trace the history of Petty Cury before the 1300s. Archaeologists say that while the potential for mediaeval finds may still be high, the potential for prehistory or Roman finds is low.

Gonville and Caius College asserts its rights between Saint Mary’s Court and Rose Crescent (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

On my way back from Saint Bene’t’s each morning, another sign that has caught my eyes this week is on the north side of Saint Mary Street, opposite Saint Mary’s University Church. This sign warns all pedestrians walking between Saint Mary’s Court and Rose Crescent that we are stepping on the soil of Gonville and Caius College … although no-one has yet tried to take the ground from under my feet.

A little further along, on the corner with Rose Crescent, a sailor guards a sign letting me know that Trinity Street is also nearby. As Cambridge is some distance inland and not a port city, I wonder how he was marooned up there.

Ahoy there! … the corner of Rose Crescent and Saint Mary Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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