Visit Cambridge as a Syd Barrett Fan

by JoHarrington

Syd Barrett was the founder of Pink Floyd. He famously lost his mind then retreated to his home city of Cambridge. I found some of his haunts.

Cambridge is famous for a whole host of things.

It's the location of one of England's oldest and most prestigious universities for a start. It's also where we find Britain's answer to Silicon Valley. And back in the 1960s, Cambridge spawned Pink Floyd.

More specifically, from my point of view, it brought us Syd Barrett; and that makes it practically a place of pilgrimage for me.

When I finally had the opportunity to visit those twisting, medieval streets, it was with a notebook in my pocket. I was on the hunt for Syd Barrett related spots in Cambridge.

Image: Jo Harrington at a Syd Barrett site in Cambridge
Image: Jo Harrington at a Syd Barrett site in Cambridge
Jo Harrington

The Musings of a Syd Barrett Fan-girl

"You only have to read the lines. They're scribbly black and everything shines."

To say that I'm a fan of Syd Barrett is to understate the case quite dramatically.  The decades might have blunted my utter obsession, but the clues are still there.

The t-shirt that I'm wearing in my Wizzley profile picture depicts Syd under the legend Astral Piper. It's worn by the people who funded a memorial bench in Cambridge's Botanical Gardens. My first Wizzography is entitled Jo Harrington: A Crazy Diamond Trying to Shine. It's an obvious nod towards Shine on you Crazy Diamond, a song written by Pink Floyd to Syd Barrett.

That's just one site. One of my oldest friends recalls fondly how he introduced me to the internet. My naive question indicated some interest, "Is there anything about Syd Barrett on your computer?"  Thus I discovered the world wide web. My internet presence has been clad in references ever since.

So when I had the opportunity to finally visit Syd's home city of Cambridge, the fan-girl in me rose again.

Buy Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head

This is one of the latest and most comprehensive tellings of the tale of this tortured genius. It includes many interviews (finally!) with his family.

Who was Syd Barrett?

The founder of Pink Floyd, who blazed like a comet, then retreated out of the limelight into mental health issues.

Syd Barrett was undoubtedly a musical genius. Half of the songs even now in the most downloaded charts owe their genesis to him.

There was a certain technique of playing guitar; a turn of lyrical content; a personal style and charisma; all of these things add up to a largely unacknowledged, pervasive musical legacy. The fans of a huge sweep of bands and artists might not even know it; but Syd's fans hear it.

He smashed through a lot of musical norms, then simply handed the baton on and left. The charts have never been the same since. But, of course, I'm biased.

To describe Syd Barrett in a nutshell is impossible. Countless biographers have tried with far more words that I have to play with here.  So let's just say this:

Syd was born and raised in Cambridge. He left for London and founded a band named Pink Floyd. For a time, he was the biggest presence in rock - the It Boy, whom everyone else wanted to be. Then drugs took their toll. They may have exacerbated an already underlying mental illness. 

The other members of Pink Floyd turned against him and kicked him out. The song Comfortably Numb is almost word for word a conversation which took place in Syd's apartment. He was trying to tell his friends how it felt to be in his head.

Poised on the brink of world stardom, his young friends had no sympathy. They simply stopped picking Syd up for gigs and replaced him with David Gilmour. The rest, for them, is history; but the ghost of Syd never went away. References to him litter their songs.

Syd carried on alone, recording three solo albums. The songs upon them sometimes soar in a heart-rendering brilliance; and sometimes crash into the mire of his disturbed mind. Become a fan and Syd will break your heart. But he will also lead you out of the rabbit hole of your own mentality. It's a very strange journey to undertake and I doubt anyone ever forgets him afterwards.

Eventually he couldn't cope in London, so he walked home to Cambridge. It took days to do it on foot, an epic journey back into his childhood. Then he became a recluse, while his legend slowly grew.

The other members of Pink Floyd are still having to apologize for the behavior of their youth. Their debts to Syd are still being paid in remastered albums and the inclusion of his images in the back-drops of their tours.

Syd's tale is wrapped in mysticism, excess and tragedy. He turns up in surprising places.  For example, he inspired David Bowie to take to the stage.  More cruelly, he was the artist lampooned in the persona of Sid Vicious. Blur's Graham Coxon is quite open about stealing Syd's guitar riffs. Placebo, Scissor Sisters, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins and the Flaming Lips are just some of the bands who have covered his songs. Supergrass have recently fallen under his spell. They even recorded Bike.

In 2006, I had friends break the news of Syd Barrett's death to me. It was done in much the same tone and sensitivity with which they'd tell me that a family member had gone. By then, Syd had stayed personally out of the spotlight for over thirty years.

He was still seen, out and about in Cambridge, but everyone protected him there. Fragile and terrified of fans, neighbors pulled rank to see off any roving reporters or sight-seers.

People have wondered why I left it so late to visit the city, given how long I've been a fan of Syd Barrett. The answer is right there. He's only been dead for a handful of years and, as a fan, I kept my distance before that. It seemed like the least that I could do.

See Emily Play (1965)

Dominoes (1970)

Buy Biographies about Syd Barrett

Unsurprisingly, I own and have read all of these books. If you have to pick just one, go for 'Lost in the Woods'. My very dog-eared copy has been repeatedly well read.

Wandering and Dreaming in Syd Barrett's Cambridge

"I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like; it's got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good!"

There is no great fanfare in Cambridge about Syd Barrett having come from there. No huge statues dominating the main streets. No bunting or plaques. The sign as you enter does not say, 'Welcome to Cambridge: The Home of Syd Barrett'.

Of course, the city can be forgiven in this. Given the rest of its gifts to the world, a single meteoric rock star isn't even its most famous son.

For the Syd Barrett aficionados, the emphasis therefore is on finding our own sights and sounds. The biggest of these is the city itself. These were streets along which Syd walked and cycled. Those are the shops in which he made his purchases. Over there is a pub in which he played a gig. This is the air that he breathed.

Cambridge is a stunning city. Dominated by its famous University, many of the commanding buildings are medieval. Even main streets are contorted, as they twist around them following trails blazed by ancient scholars and kings. Tiny alley-ways weave their cobbled paths amongst them.

It is a charming place, only begrudgingly accepting modernity. Syd aside, you could wander happily exploring all the pretty back-streets and gaping at the architecture.

But for the like of myself, the most startling first impression comes with the bikes. Suddenly Syd's song about them moves into sharp focus. I know what it's about now!  I've seen the hordes of cyclists zooming through the city; the mass of bike racks; the endless notices on glass shop-fronts, 'Do not rest your bike against this window!'. 

Bikes are the main form of transport in Cambridge and they are everywhere! I spoke to a taxi driver who referred to them as the bane of his life. In fact the few car drivers whom I spoke to all hated pushbikes with a passion. They take over the roads.

I defy any Syd Barrett fan not to meander around Cambridge with Bike playing on their internal jukebox.

Pink Floyd's Bike

This song was written by Syd Barrett. He's singing and playing lead guitar. It appears on the 'Piper at the Gates of the Dawn' album.

Discover Syd Barrett's Music

These albums and compilations are the most accessible for those finding Syd for the first time. Buy them to work out what all of the fuss is about.

Creating your own Cambridge Syd Barrett Tourist Trail

"Why'd'ya have to leave me there, Hanging in my infant air. Waiting?"

The lack of official guidance from the city of Cambridge means that it's imperative that you do your own research. Or, to put it another way, we're all following Syd along uncharted pathways. Wasn't that always the case anyway? 

The trick is to hunt through biographies and internet for all of the places which hold some significance on our trail. I will provide some of them here.

However, don't be disappointed to discover that time did not stand still, even in Cambridge. We're looking back over decades and visiting prime city center real estate. That famous theater might now be a bookstore. That amazing bar might not even be open to the public anymore.

More often than not, you will be taking a photograph of a doorway, safe in the knowledge that Syd once passed through it.  Your imagination will have to supply the rest.

Syd's Cambridge

NB The DVD being advertised in this is no longer available. It was a limited edition in 2008. But the introduction shows us some great Syd sites in Cambridge!

Buy Syd Barrett's Solo CDs

These albums were recorded after his troubles began. Personally I think his best (and most heart-breaking) songs are on them.

City Center Places to Visit

"Fairy stories held me high on clouds of sunlight floating by..."

Everyone in Cambridge knows where to find King's College. There are also sign-posts leading you there.

Walk along the Parade before it, until you spot a right-turn. This is Silver Street and it will take you to the River Cam and one of the more recognizable Syd Barrett sites.

Once you reach the bridge, turn left between the buildings and a mass of parked river punts. You are in Laundress Green, alongside the Mill Pond. Before you is the Mill pub, where Syd and his friends hung out in the 1960s.

This was care-free Syd, before London, Pink Floyd and the troubles. Photographs of him here can be found in many biographies; and you can take your own. These will be the pictures that you can bore non-Syd fans with, because you can at least compare and contrast with those of the man himself standing here.

While out that way, you could follow the river all of the way to the A1134, before following the signs to Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. There's a memorial bench in there dedicated to Syd.  But please note that, at the time of writing in 2012, it costs £4.95 to access through the main gate.

Hills Road and Glisson Road both run alongside it, but more on both of those later.

Cross the top of Hills Road and you come to Gonville Place.  Look out for the YMCA, Queen Anne House. It used to be a gig venue and Syd played there a few times during 1964-65. It's probably not worth becoming homeless just so that you can stay in there.

Head back past Parker's Piece into Cambridge city center. It's a slight trek (about five or ten minutes), but you won't mind because it's so pretty.  Follow the signs for Holy Trinity Church, then carry on past into Sidney Street.

Resist the temptation to berate the city planners for spelling his name incorrectly. It's actually named after Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex. Now stare at the Marks and Spencer's department store, opposite Boots the Chemist. 

In the 1960s, this was the spot where the Victoria Cinema and Ballroom stood. Both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour played gigs there, though in different bands. 

There's not a great deal to see, unless you're after a new outfit or something to eat from the food hall, so off you go towards Bridge Street.  Try not to get distracted by the Round Church (Holy Sepulchre). Even if it was built in the 1130s for the Crusaders, it's got nothing to do with Syd Barrett until you go around the back.

There is a stone stairway behind railings leading to a locked door. It's been locked for decades, but before that this was the Union Cellars. In 1964, Syd and David were both playing gigs with their respective bands behind that door.

On the day that I visited, as a nice little touch, someone had left their bike outside.  I didn't borrow it.

Turn around and head back towards Holy Trinity Church, but this time turn right towards the Market Place.  Follow the signs to the Cambridge Corn Exchange.  On February 24th and 26th 1972, Syd Barrett played his last ever concerts in there.  They weren't brilliant, as he was a little too far gone by then. But after he put down his guitar and left the stage, it was all over. 

Muse on that while you walk on by into the Cow public house.  In the early 1960s, a vibrant, charming and full of energy Syd used this as his local.  If he wasn't in the Mill pub, then he was in here.  The Jazz Club in the basement is still there and that was the music that he loved.

Image: Bike outside the Union Cellars
Image: Bike outside the Union Cellars
Jo Harrington
Image: Cambridge Corn Exchange
Image: Cambridge Corn Exchange
Jo Harrington
Image: The Cow (formerly The Red Cow), Cambridge
Image: The Cow (formerly The Red Cow)...
Jo Harrington
Image: Entrance to the Jazz Club, inside the Cow, Cambridge
Image: Entrance to the Jazz Club, ins...
Ed Walsh

Cambridge Maps and Guides

Buy these maps and photographic history, so that you can chart your own Syd Barrett tour.

I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives

A song by Television Personalities from their album And Don't the Kids Just Love It.

I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives

Everyone knows where Syd Barrett lives.  It's hardly been a state secret over the years. If you'd missed it in all of the biographies, then those addresses periodically turned up in newspapers.

He was born at 60 Glisson Road, Cambridge.  He grew up in 183 Hills Road, Cherry Hinton, near Cambridge.  Then, as an adult, he moved with his mother into 6 St Margaret's Square, Cambridge.

This is the house in which he was living when he died of pancreatic cancer in 2006.

Two big things to note before you just happen to be wandering past any of them:

  1. Syd Barrett is not there.  He died.
  2. They are all residential properties with new families living in them. How would you feel if you had random people peering through your net curtains trying to catch a glimpse of your living room?

For those living in St Margaret's Square, they have had nearly thirty years experience of seeing fans off.  They were protecting Syd himself for a very long time. Plus it's a dead end. You will not get away with pretending that you were down there to access somewhere else.

Most of those newspaper reports concerned journalists being yelled at by neighbors. Worst still, they encountered Syd's sister. By all accounts, Rosie Breen is a very lovely lady to her friends. But to anyone coming into the street to gawp, she has earned a reputation of being downright ferocious.

She too was protecting Syd and if you consider yourself to be a fan, then applauding her from afar sounds appropriate to me.

Should you visit the houses in which Syd once lived?

Every biography I've ever read, plus several websites, lists the addresses. People live in them.
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No, because...
Cecilia on 02/04/2013

Syd had to deal with peeping Toms when he was alive and now these families still have to deal with them. It's disrespectful to them AND Syd if we poke into people's privacy like that. Even if it's just looking at a house.

EMK Events Ltd on 05/08/2012

I think I'd have words to say about people looking in my front room. Fair enough if they're empty houses.

Yes, because...
kate on 05/04/2012

Just because people shouldn't doesn't mean they wont. People are just curious that way

Tolovaj on 05/02/2012

Sure, why not? Being in the same building where somebody else lived can help to understand at least part of that very person. And who would like to understand Syd more than his fans?

Look Out for Rare Syd Barrett Memorabilia on eBay

City Wakes Tour of Cambridge

David Gale, a childhood friend of Syd Barrett (and the rest of Pink Floyd), leads visitors on a bus tour of the city.

Guided Syd Barrett Tours in Cambridge

Two of these do exist, but I'm unsure if one is still running. I can't vouch for either, as I haven't been on them. But they have great reviews.

I did try to find more information about the tour shown in the YouTube footage. Unfortunately, the site appears to have altered its purpose. 

City Wakes doesn't mention Syd at all anymore, despite its whole remit centering around him.  Rosemary Breen (Syd's sister) was the first to donate money from his trust to set it up. She also gave David Gale permission to take his parties outside 6 St Margaret's Square, while the house was empty. A piece in Moving Tone describes the range of events on offer for Syd fans in the past.

Meanwhile, was the site which I used to plot my own walking tour of the city.  Unfortunately there were no officially guided tours on during the brief time that I was there. I wish I could have joined them!

The group co-opted a lot of people who actually knew Syd to take them around the city. Family, friends and ex-girlfriends pointed out all of the relevant sites.  Tour guides took notes. This is the information which is fed back to Barrett tourists.

I-Spy Syd in Cambridge only pre-books tours for parties of eight or more. However, they do allow people to contact them, on the off-chance that they can sneak into existing tours. They also provide a PDF leaflet, which highlights all of the sites to see, if you wish to make your own way around.

Beyond these two, I do not know of any other Syd Barrett related guided tours in Cambridge.

Buy DVDs about Syd Barrett's Life and Music

If I'm honest, I don't think that THE Syd DVD has yet been made. But the Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story is the best of what's available.

More Articles about Syd Barrett

The stories told about the making of The Madcap Laughs are nearly as legendary as the album itself. Here I go through it track by track.
The Madcap Laughs was almost finished, when two of Syd's former band-members took over production. The direction instantly changed.
Updated: 07/23/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 07/28/2014

Wow! So it's entirely possible that he heard you playing that music, given that he would have been two doors away at the time. I think that, if it had been a problem, someone would have knocked on your door and explained the situation.

What a bizarre thing to contemplate though!

Fernando on 07/27/2014

I first discovered the music of Pink Floyd in the early 90's as a young teen studying abroad in Cambridge. I did not know this at the time but I was listening to Syd's music literally next door to him! the house that host me and two other israeli students for that summer in Cambridge was the number 10 at St.Margaret's square! A very nice english lady took care of us, she was a former RAF and her late husband had been an RAF bomber pilot. I still remenber that she had a small brass Hampden bomber model in the living room.

JoHarrington on 03/03/2014

Aww! Thank you for the invitation. I'll check you guys out. :)

Laughing Madcaps on 03/03/2014

Join the Laughing Madcaps Syd Barrett Group! Since 1998! The original!

JoHarrington on 02/21/2014

I have a special place in my heart for 'Lost in the Woods'. It was the first Syd biography that I owned myself, instead of taking out of the library. :)

JoHarrington on 02/06/2014

That's what I like to hear! It was wonderful wandering around Cambridge, looking at the places that Syd had known. 'A Very Irregular Head' is a good read too. :)

Erin J. Green on 02/06/2014

I've totally been wanting to do this when I venture over that way...your article will be bookmarked because it's helped me a lot! ...I also own "A Very Irregular Head" and it is a very good resource, thank you for mentioning that!!

JoHarrington on 01/27/2014

I'm glad that you liked it. Thanks for reading.

JoHarrington on 05/06/2012

It was such a long journey for me. It didn't seem so, as it was fundamentally a motorway, then the A14, but they went on forever!

I was only in Cambridge city centre for an afternoon and evening, but I'd be well up for visiting again. I don't think I bumped into any students then, as all of the people whom I spoke with were down to earth and friendly.

I was so happy exploring those little streets. They looked so enticing, like going on a little adventure each time I entered one.

JoHarrington on 05/06/2012

Wow! Nice one! I'm assuming that you were just visiting. Did you go to see anything in particular?

Syd saw it as a retreat as he grew up there. He basically returned home to Mum and his brothers and sisters.

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