We have every intention of leaving it up to shop windows and the diligent mailing campaigns beloved of local retailers to cultivate your consumerist impulses. Furthermore, you will already have been provided with a basic list of Cambridge shops as part of the college information pack. If, however, upon your arrival you happen to be in desperate need of a particularly obscure item, feel free to ask any of the MCR’s sage old hands. If they’re worth their salt, they will be able to tell you where you may acquire your gilded mousetrap or your great highland bagpipe (the answer is likely to be, “there is a shop on Mill Road…”). In the meantime, the sole two items we recommend purchasing with some urgency once you’re here are (1) a gown and (2) a bicycle.
You will need this for matriculation (and graduation!) and various other occasions, such as formal halls. It is possible to rent MA gowns (the appropriate gown for graduate students) from the MCR. These cost £30 for the first year and £10 for each subsequent year (charged to your college account). You’ll also need to pay a deposit of £60. The Vice-President organises sessions during Freshers’ Fortnight for gown (and locker) rentals. It is also possible to rent gowns from the Graduate Union Shop.
For those of you staying for a three-year degree, you may want to invest in your own MA gown. You can attempt to buy one directly from another student (check the MCR Bulletin Board) – this is the cheapest option. Alternatively, go to any of the retailers you will find listed in the college information pack. Ask in the shop about the possibility of buying a secondhand gown; many shops sell them both new and used. A second-hand MA gown will cost about £60 (so if you’re here for a PhD it may be worth buying rather than renting).
If you have an existing Cambridge degree, you may be entitled to a different gown (e.g. an MSci gown if you did the four-year undergraduate Natural Sciences course). These can also be bought second-hand from a retailer (the MCR doesn’t have any available for rent), and will cost £60-£80. Check with a member of the MCR who knows what they’re talking about if you choose this course. For graduation from your PhD or Masters course, you will have to wear the ‘correct’ gown, but for formal halls no-one’s going to be checking that you’re suitably attired.
One of the many advantages of living in Cambridge is that transport costs are typically tiny. Almost no students own a car – parking is very limited, the roads are busy, and a bike is a much easier way to get around. Most students choose to walk or cycle, and a majority owns a bicycle (though this isn’t actually compulsory). Cambridge is an ideal city for cycling – flat, with plentiful bike parking, and with many pedestrianised areas that also allow bikes.
Purchasing a bicycle
There are many bike vendors selling steeds of various quality in Cambridge. I would strongly advise buying second-hand – a brand-new bike will cost about twice as much as a second-hand one of comparable quality, and is more of a target for theft. The cheapest options are the stalls in Market Square, where you can pick up a second-hand bike for as little as £60. However, this bike may fall apart after a couple of days’ use. As you may be using your bike for half an hour a day, every day for three years, I recommend spending more money to get something a little better. Expect to pay about £80-£150 for a decent everyday bike.
One good option is Station Cycles, which has two branches. The one at the railway station has the best selection but is rather distant. The centrally-located branch at the bicycle park below the Grand Arcade has a more limited supply, but is easily accessible. If you’re looking for a bargain, Station Cycles sells its ex-rental bikes for about £85 – these are robust, reliable and well-made.
You can also try the centrally-located Ben Hayward, who offer a friendly and quick service, although due to their prime location, they are not particularly cheap. The small, independent Cambridge Cycle Centre hidden down Botolph Lane provides a quick turnaround at a fair price, and their knowledgeable mechanics are usually helpful and polite.
Out to the east at Cambridge Retail Park, there is a large Halfords store (Halfords is a nationwide chain selling bicycles and accessories) with a very wide selection of new bikes.
When you buy a bike, you should also get a lock and lights. Bike theft is a serious problem in Cambridge – if you want to hang on to your shiny new bike for more than a few minutes, spend at least £20 on a good D-lock, and ensure your bike is always locked to some immovable object. Front (white) and rear (red) lights are required by law if you cycle after dusk (dusk is about 4 pm in January). These can cost from £10; if you buy a very expensive pair, don’t leave them on your bike as there is a risk they’ll get stolen.
Mudguards are highly recommended and will keep you significantly dryer when cycling through November rain. Some people like to use a basket to transport shopping.
Registering a bicycle
Once you’ve bought a bike, you’ll need to register it with the Porter’s Lodge. They’ll give you a form to fill in and a permanent marker to write the registration number on your bike. Each student can register as many bikes as they want with the college. There are regular bike culls, in which any unregistered bikes are removed from College grounds, so make sure you keep your bike’s registration number clearly visible.
Maintaining a bicycle
There are many bike repair shops in Cambridge. Ben Hayward have a repair shop near Queens’ College, and there is another small shop on Bridge Street. The turnaround time for most work is extremely fast – changing a wheel or the chain can often be done on the same day.
It’s well worth buying a bike pump, puncture repair kit and spare inner tubes (or befriending someone who possesses such apparatus). Fixing a puncture yourself will only take a few minutes; a repair shop will charge £5-£10 for this. The Porter’s Lodge have a wide selection of tools to borrow for bike repairs, including bolt cutters for when you break the key off in your lock, leaving your bike permanently coupled to your friend’s.
Rules of the road
Despite what many Cambridge cyclists seem to believe, bicycle riders have to obey the rules of the road. As a cyclist, you cannot jump red lights, must cycle on the road rather than the pavement, and must obey one-way rules. In addition, if cycling after dusk you must possess working front and rear lights. Failure to obey these rules can result in a fine from the police, or a serious accident. While bikes are allowed in some pedestrianised parts of town (for example, on Sidney Street or near King’s Parade), they must give way to pedestrians. There is no legal requirement to wear a helmet.
Cambridge and the surrounding countryside offer much for the serious long-distance cyclist (though committed hill climbers will be a little disappointed). There is a thriving road cycling scene (casual and competitive), both informally in college and at a University level at Cambridge University Cycling Club. Members of the Cycling Club can store their bikes in a closed garage if living on the Wychfield site. I would not recommend using your delicious, expensive full carbon race bike to cycle to lectures each morning – Cambridge has significant problems with bike theft. Most people with valuable bikes also have a cheap bicycle for everyday use. Insurance against theft is a worthwhile investment if you have a bike worth more than a few hundred pounds.
Happily, most supermarket chains in the UK offer online grocery shopping with (in some cases free) delivery straight to your door or the Porters’ Lodge—but make sure you’re home when your groceries arrive so you can sign for them.