01 September 2016

Sidney Sussex College has its own
‘Bridge of Sighs’ on Sussex Street

The Sidney Sussex Bridge on Sussex Street … one of the newest bridges in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The bridges on the River Cam are an important part of the tourist trail in Cambridge. The classical bridge at Clare College is said to be the oldest bridge spanning the River Cam. The bridges at Silver Street and Magdalene College are popular gathering places for people hiring punts. The Mathematical Bridge at Queens’ College is surrounded by myth and legend about its building. And the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Saint John’s College is one of the most photographed bridges in London, alongside Tower Bridge and London Bridge.

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Saint John’s College, was described by Queen Victoria as the most ‘pretty and picturesque’ feature of Cambridge University. But, despite its appearances of antiquity, it dates only from 1831.

But Sidney Sussex College, where I have been staying this week during the summer conference of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, also has its own ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ albeit one that is 160 years younger than its counterpart in Saint John’s College.

The bridge at Sussex Street is only a quarter of a century old, which may explain why it goes without comment in most guide books. But antiquity never explains popularity. Although I may have taken this bridge for granted for too long, I have passed under it almost every day I have been in Cambridge for the past decade.

This enclosed footbridge crossing Sussex Street was built in 1991 to connect the historic site of Sidney Sussex College on the north side of the street with new residential accommodation built in the inter-war years at Sussex House on the south side.

Although this bridge lacks the antiquity of most of the better-known bridges that cross the River Cam, it is a pleasant and eye-catching late 20th century addition to the streetscape of Cambridge and it blends in well with the neo-Georgian 1930s buildings on each side of Sussex Street.

The buildings lining Sussex Street were built for Sidney Sussex College in 1928-1939 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The buildings lining Sussex Street are a planned mixed-use development and were built for Sidney Sussex College in 1928-1939. They include a shopping arcade, offices and college accommodation.

The south side dates from 1928-1932, and is three storeys with dormer attics. The wall materials are red brick with a stone arcade.

The ground floor consists of an open-bowed or crescent-shaped colonnade or arcade of 11 bays, the cornice supported on unfluted Roman Doric columns. The range of shops includes late 20th century plate-glass display windows.

The upper arcade is reached by balustraded stone staircase on the east and west side that provides access to offices, the top storeys and the dormer attic.

The lower floor has 12/12 homed sashes, the upper floor has 8/8 homed sashes, and there are hipped roofs with dormers. The comers of elevation have rusticated quoins.

The north side of the street was completed in 1938-1939, and the building line is along the back edge of the pavement. Here there is a 10-bay arcade of Roman Doric columns supporting offices lit through 12/12 homed sashes to the first floor and 8/8 homed sashes to the second floor. The hipped roofs have two tiers of dormers.

The college accommodation to the rear is reached by a terrace and stair. There are additional four-storey and dormer attic corner blocks to each side at the east and west ends of the street.

Nikolaus Pevsner describes Sussex Street as the ‘best piece of pre-war urban planning in Cambridge’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The architect for this development was ER Barrow, who also designed the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, London, in 1923. He later used his ideas in Sussex Street for a classical colonnade combined with Jacobean mullions and gables when he was commissioned by Saint John’s College, Oxford, to design Belsyre Court in North Oxford in 1935.

The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) describes Sussex Street as the ‘best piece of pre-war urban planning in Cambridge.’

Sussex Street runs between Sidney Street to the south-west and the junction of King Street and Hobson Street to the north-east. To the south and parallel with Sussex Street is Hobson’s Passage.

Historically, the line of this street dates back to at least mediaeval times, and it is thought there may be archaeological deposits at a depth of 1.5 to 2 metres. Stray finds of Roman pottery and coins as well as pottery from later periods have been made in the vicinity, but the potential for prehistorical finds is low and for Roman finds is rated as moderate.

Montagu House on the corner of Sidney Street and Sussex Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

However, the potential for mediaeval finds is regarded as high and there is evidence for mediaeval occupation at the west end of the street. In the Middle Ages, Sussex Street was known as Little Walles Lane. It marked part of the southern boundary of the Franciscan or Grey Friars Priory, and the street ended at the King’s Ditch, a less elegant name that has since been transformed into Hobson Street King Street.

The Franciscan Friary was established on this site around 1325. Sidney Sussex College, which was founded in 1596 by Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, stands on the site of the mediaeval Franciscan house.

No 1-20 Sussex Street are now listed as Grade II buildings and they have names that reflect key people associated with the history of Sidney Sussex College: Montagu House, Sidney House, Kent House, Harrington House and Sussex House, with, appropriately, Sidney House and Sussex House at each end of the south side of the street. These two blocks of buildings also include No 29 and 31 Hobson Street, and No 23, 24 and 25 Sidney Street.

Sidney House on the corner of Sidney Street and Sussex Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at the east end of Sussex Street is a late 20th century addition linking the two blocks of college residences and offices, and is dated 1991. The bridge was designed by the Cambridge architectural practice, Pleasance Hookham and Nix, who have offices near Sidney Sussex, on a corner close to Magdalene College.

The bridge opened on 3 September 1991 and links Stairs X, Y and Z on Hobson Court, South Court and Staff Court with the offices, rooms and accommodation above the colonnade and shops on the south side of Sussex Street.

The keystone on the west side is decorated with the Sidney Sussex College arms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The bridge has two keystones, one on either side of the bridge. The keystone on the west side is decorated with the Sidney Sussex College coat of arms, in their unique shape of lozenge rather than a shield, and with the date 1991 beneath.

The the keystone on the east side is decorated with the porcupine that features as logo in many parts of Sidney Sussex, and that is derived from the supporters on he coat of arms of Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, the founder of Sidney Sussex College in 1596.

The keystones were designed and carved by the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge. The letter-cutter and sculptor David Kindersley (1915-1995) was apprenticed to Eric Gill in 1934-1936 before starting his own workshop near Cambridge in 1946. He was joined in 1976 by Lida Lopes Cardozo, beginning a partnership that lasted until David’s death. The workshop moved to its present address in Victoria Road, Cambridge in 1977.

The keystones were carved and painted, using platinum rather than silver leaf, which would turn black. The unusual Guiting stone is from Gloucestershire.

The keystone on the east side is decorated with the porcupine that features as logo in many parts of Sidney Sussex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Five years later after the bridge was built, the buildings were listed and Sussex Street was fully pedestrianised in 1996, the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Sidney Sussex College.

Sussex Street is now an attractive neo-Georgian shopping street. It is popular and busy stret, lined with specialist shops and cafés on the ground floors and offices and student rooms above.

The colonnade features a wide variety of specialist shops in beautiful surroundings. Here too are shops with everything for the musician with pianos, instruments and sheet music, a bridal and ball gown shop, hair and beauty salons, a lingerie and swimwear shop, a leather goods shop and the Cambridge Toy Shop.

A recent report recommended some minor improvements to street furniture on Sussex Street, particularly at the Sidney Street end. It identified a key challenge as the attempt to reduce the occasional night vandalism without recourse to ugly shop security measures or unsightly street furniture. It also suggested formal cycle parking may help to reduce the incidences of cycles being chained to railings.

The shop windows remain open and bright even at night time, but.

The landscaping of Sussex Street is restricted to two silver birches in the centre of the street. Between them, an obelisk with attached street lighting was erected in 1996 to mark the pedestrianisation of the street 20 years ago.Tthe bicycle parking proposals have still not been put in place

A set of architectural walking tours of Cambridge can be downloaded here.

1 comment:

Frank Callery said...

Lovely blog, Patrick. That certainly is a bridge is size!