Mill Road: Beyond the Pale

ROISIN KIBERD visits Mill Road, Cambridge’s ‘shadiest’ and artyest shopping quarter.

Enter Mill Road. The student lifestyle lends itself to invention born of poverty and laziness, and where better to embrace the grime than Cambridge’s shadiest shopping quarter. Mill Road is a strange mixture of hookah pipes, discount internet cafes and thrift shops staffed by kindly grannies. It is near enough to the town centre to be reached on foot, but far away enough to merit mythical status. With hopes of an end-of-term buying spree on a non-existent budget, I rounded up three friends for an expedition to the other side of Parker’s Piece, into edge-of-bubble territory.

1. Before we got our shady shopping fix, we were going to need recovery time from last night’s party. A gentle start was in order, and we soon found ourselves vegetating on the gorgeously worn-in leather sofas of CB1 Cafe. With its beat-up furniture, and walls lined with strange, strange books (we found a collection of Go manuals and records of 70 tournaments!), this place will make anyone feel instantly at home. The coffee tastes beautiful but costs far less than Starbucks, served to a soundtrack of Joanna Newsom by a friendly, blissed-out waitress. I could happily have spent all day here, had the others not decided to move on.

2. Raging gluttons that they are, my companions were after something more substantial than cookies and cappuccino froth.  Cafe de Paris, a little further up the street, is several notches above what I would consider a greasy spoon. There’s no fried bread or numbered breakfasts to choose from on the wall, nor is there that soul-deadening ‘losers on the Apprentice’, caff-of-death atmosphere. But the prices are as low as the oiliest breakfast joint; Tim’s Croque Monsieur and mug of hot chocolate came to £3.20, and Beth bought pizza and a latte for £4.20. Oddly enough, this ideal hangover breakfast was also soundtracked by fey indie music, this time a woman covering Cyndi Lauper in folksy acoustic style.  I’ll definitely return here, next morning I find myself dazed and confused.

3. Now we were fed and watered, we were ready to start hunting for bargains and exotic canned stuff. The Chomee Supermarket provided a good ten minutes of wonderment just examining food labels; tins of  ‘mushroom fungus’ , technicolour tapioca balls and ‘Healthy Boy’ brand soy sauce all have a place on its shelves. There was also had a mind-blowing selection of luridly-packaged ramen. Many of the products seemed to be packaged courtesy of Babelfish; I was charmed by cheesy ‘Love Letters’ sweets in a box by the door, and snapped up a sachet of technicolor tapioca balls in the hope of some home bubble-tea experimentation. I also found myself wishing I had been here earlier in the term to stack up on collossal and fabulously cheap bags of sushi rice.

4. Next we hit up the grand-daddy of Cambridge charity shops, or rather the mad aunt; Sally Ann’s is a cluttered, radically low-priced collection of junk housed in a spare Salvation Army outlet, ranging from end-of-line kitchen wares to £1 tops and dresses to £20 wardrobes to store them in. I was taken with the kitschy porcelein cats and a frankly disturbing egg-shaped decoration with a swastika on it. I left loaded down clothes, bric-a-brac and jewellery, having spent no more than £3.50. Seriously, those benign old ladies have no concept of value, none at all, and stingy as it sounds I advise you to take  advantage of it. My star discovery was a black Eminem-printed wife beater, which I intend to pair with a tube skirt for summer.

5. Brave and tireless shoppers will venture further over the bridge, to be rewarded with a headshop, an ‘alternative bookshop’ and a tiny and bedraggled charity shop in aid of cats. But we were short on time and energy, and so headed back via the Arjuna Healthfood Shop, with its bewildering variety of German Rye bread and flavoured organic fruit beers, and then to the branch of Oxfam at the very start of the street.  This one seemed particularly proud of their collection of old Stevie Wonder and Culture Club records, having arranged the neon record sleeves in an attractive if slightly retina-burning window display. Beth found a fantastically kitschy gingham dress, and I was smitten with a £1.99 edition of the ‘Star Trek Official PC Fonts Pack’, which I plan to give to some lucky Vulcan when I’m back home.

So all in all, £10 poorer but with an impressive selection of pointless loot, Mill Road was well worth the trip for the interesting food buys and jaw-droppingly cheap stuff you never knew you needed. In terms of more practical shopping, bulk buying basic ingredients works out far cheaper in the speciality shops, and you’re sure to find quirkier items such as moon cakes, Hello Kitty gum and cans of Mountain Dew (I’m fond of giving the latter two as hostess presents..). Like a dubious £1 can labelled ‘Korean Health Congee ‘, Mill Road is full of secrets; if you don’t find something interesting here then you aren’t looking hard enough. Its the perfect shopping destination for students bored with the wallet-emptying tyranny of supermarkets, or anyone in need of a new dress, if you have £1 to spend and don’t mind that someone died in it.