Allan Brigham at work outside Queen's College, Cambridge

Road sweeper Allan Brigham will defend the value of parks and commons at an Open Cambridge event tonight.

I never thought that I’d say I was lucky to get up each day at 4.30am to clear up the rubbish others leave behind.

A Cambridge road sweeper and local historian will make a passionate plea for the preservation of Cambridge’s parks and commons – and the creation of more open spaces as the city expands – at a public discussion tonight. Allan Brigham will join an eminent panel to discuss the past and future of the historic university town in a debate organised for Open Cambridge, a programme of free events and activities taking place this weekend.

“Whichever way you approach Cambridge, you see grass, trees and lots of sky. The college gardens, parks and commons bring nature right into the town. Cows graze on Midsummer Common just five minutes’ walk from Marks & Spencer – and in the summer office workers and students eat their lunch beneath the willows trees that line the river at Coe Fen. At weekends Jesus Green becomes a giant playing field with games of every kind – from skateboarding to lacrosse. These spaces are vital to people’s wellbeing,” said Brigham.

“It’s easy to take Cambridge’s open spaces for granted. But over the last 100 years many of them have been under threat. New Square was a car park for 50 years. There have been proposals to build underground car parks beneath both Midsummer Common and Parker’s Piece. At one stage there was even a plan to make an inner relief road across Coe Fen. The protection of these spaces is, to my mind, just as important as the preservation of Cambridge’s iconic buildings.”

Brigham has been sweeping the streets of Cambridge for over 30 years.  He took the job when he left university, thinking of it as a temporary stop-gap with vague ideas of becoming a teacher.  Curiously perhaps, he found that the job suited him; he remains a familiar figure in Cambridge, pushing his bright yellow City Council barrow through the town centre, always with a ready smile. As well as being a street cleaner, he is a qualified guide and gives talks to schools and community groups, both about rubbish and the environment and about local history.

He has become passionate about the city he lives in – not just the grandeur of “gown” but also the less celebrated “town”. As a street cleaner (or rather Streetscene operative), he notices the details of the townscape, from the sun catching the pinnacles of King’s College Chapel to the ducks who roam the streets on early summer mornings searching for mates.  He also encounters all kinds of people as they go about their lives – from tourists and markets traders to university professors and college bedders.

“I never thought that I’d say I was lucky to get up each day at 4.30am to clear up the rubbish others leave behind. I never intended to stay in Cambridge, and planned to leave as soon as I’d saved some money.  But I’m still here, and I still haven’t saved any money. I feel incredibly fortunate that Cambridge has become ‘home’. Cleaning the streets and parks - from King’s Parade in the centre to the estates on the edge of the city - has allowed me to get to know Cambridge and the people who live here,” he said.

“Sometimes I feel my barrow is a mobile confession box, all sorts of people feel they can tell the council road sweeper their problems. And the people just as much as the buildings are what make the city such a good place to live.”

In 1985 Allan qualified as a Blue Badge guide and for the past 25 years he’s combined the long hours of street cleaning with taking groups on guided walks in his own time. He has devised routes that take Cambridge residents off the tourist trail, and away from the grandeur and manicured lawns of the colleges, to discover more about the streets that they live in – the once working class neighbourhoods that have become increasingly middle class as pressure on housing has increased . Often his tours book up as soon as he advertises them.

“Showing local residents around the streets where they live is immensely satisfying – many know more about villages in Yorkshire or Tuscany visited on holiday than their own city. All of Cambridge may not be graced with grand architecture, but the social history of ordinary people is everywhere, especially the history of town and gown, which often ended in riots. What I enjoy most is encouraging people to look at their surroundings, to appreciate them, and to care for them,” he said.

In 2009, Allan was given an honorary degree by the University of Cambridge in recognition of his contribution to the life of the city.

He said: “When I heard that I had been nominated I thought someone had made a mistake. For 30 years I’ve swept in front of the Senate House as students in their gowns receive their degrees watched by proud parents. I never thought I’d be there myself one day, watched by my family. It was a lovely day, and it really was an honour with a capital H. But many, many others deserve it too.”

The panel discussion Bricks and Mortar Boards will take place tonight (9 September) 7.30-8.30pm at Castle End Mission Hall, St. Peter's Street, Cambridge CB3 0BD. Open to all, free. Also on the panel will be leading local archaeologist Alison Dickens, visionary city planner Peter Studdert and renowned architect Nick Ray.  The event is hosted by Cambridge and County Folk Museum and is part of Open Cambridge. For a full programme of events and activities go to /opencambridge/. After the talk there will be a chance to visit the exhibition What makes Cambridge special? at the Folk Museum.


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