My favourite place in College is the Squares – two tiny lawns hidden in the corner of Newnham gardens. They remind me of my favourite book from childhood, The Secret Garden. It’s like a little room, halfway between being inside and outside, nestled in the heart of the garden.
When I first joined Newnham, the Squares used to be a little raggedy-edged but now with the support of the Garden Committee and our wonderful gardeners, they’re much more cared for.
In spring the turf is like a magic carpet. The trees deaden any noise and wild animals and birds pop in and out of the foliage as if to say hello.
It’s a restorative place. Whenever I can manage it, I love to sit for half an hour and feel at peace.
I say that I love the peace of the Squares, but what first got me into my career was the buzz of hospitality and the hotel trade. I’m a social person, and as a teenager I worked in the local pub. I loved the hospitality business, and the chance to brighten someone’s day, especially when I was struggling with my O-Levels. I turned out to be dyslexic, but back then, that wasn’t really diagnosed. While the rest of my family love maths and physics, I followed my own path and studied Hotel Management, which included working in Nice and studying French seriously in London for 12 months. I worked my way up to a senior position at a central Cambridge hotel, but the hours were dreadful. Eventually, I decided to rethink my work–life balance. I took a risk, and a major pay cut, and I went to work for Gonville and Caius College as Head Housekeeper.
That was my first introduction to Cambridge college life, and I felt like Alice through the looking glass.
Caius turned out to be a great place to learn, with a very supportive Domestic Bursar who was my mentor and biggest supporter. I did a postgraduate course in HR Management and became HR Manager, along with overseeing the Porters and the Catering staff for a while during periods when longstanding members of staff left and replacements were being advertised. All of this set me up for a role as Domestic Bursar, where I’m responsible (under the Bursar) for about 80 staff in Catering, Housekeeping, Gardens, Maintenance, Conference and the Porters. I came to Newnham in 2004 as the youngest Domestic Bursar in Cambridge by a mile. Despite all my experience, it took me six months to feel comfortable in the role. I now love to support new Domestic Bursars and hope I can share my knowledge and experience from my 18 years at Newnham.
As Domestic Bursar, you’re always juggling 50 balls and 5 of them are on fire.
But I love seeing our staff work together, especially when we’re going through very stressful times. Demolishing Strachey, for example: we had to empty every last thing out in less than a month, create a temporary Porters’ Lodge, Bursary, gym and much more. We’d not long moved into the Dorothy Garrod Building when the Covid pandemic began. Most of our students had left, but there were still many living in College. I came into College every working day, and in this whole corridor of offices, for a while there was just me, the Principal and one of our finance staff. This huge new building felt so empty. But I live on my own, so coming into work was a blessing, and the College’s Covid Task Force was a very bonding experience. I wasn’t afraid for myself, but I did worry about passing Covid onto my elderly parents.
I’ve been able to take a lot of what I’ve learnt at Newnham into my home life. I’m a Trustee and member of the Worship Team for my local church, the Ark Church at Isleham. At the same time that Dorothy Garrod was being completed, I was also closely involved with its beautiful new building – the biggest green oak building in the UK.
We all need a peaceful place to go to, somewhere we can pause and get a broader perspective. Next time you’re in Newnham, take ten minutes to go down to the Squares, and sit there yourself and perhaps a friendly robin or muntjac will come and say hello.