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Official Review by Chris Tuck, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The city of Cambridge is a hugely popular and historic destination located an hour north of London. Its top 5 university has produced 96 Nobel Prize winners, its architecture will take your breathe away and something called 'punting' may well get you wet.
If you are on a stadium journey however, it's the 'Cambs Glass' you want to hear about. First things first, it's the name 'Abbey Stadium' that brings the memories flooding back. Dion Dublin, John Beck and a ground that very nearly saw top flight football in 1992 when Cambridge United just missed out in the play offs to Leicester City. The naming rights though - currently held by Cambs Glass - bring in vital funds for the club.
Cambridge United are the largest club in the area and the Abbey has been their home since 1932. It's another must-visit ground in England primarily because it's one of a decreasing number of UK stadiums which still has 4 tall, imposing floodlight pylons, one in each corner of the ground, visible from miles around. Check out the photos tab to get your flood light fix.
I attended a match in English soccer's fourth tier between Cambridge United (the U's) and Blackpool, a club themselves steeped in history but currently treading water whilst the owner and the fans disagree on the best way forward for the club (that's putting it nicely). It was a freezing cold January afternoon in Cambridgeshire as the UK went into a weather meltdown after 'slightly heavy frost.' Just 5 days earlier this old ground had been full and rocking for a huge FA Cup tie v Leeds United that the U's narrowly lost. This time it's just over half full and most people seem content to bide their time, waiting for the action to bring excitement and warmth - it didn't, however, as the game ended in a dour nil nil draw.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The center of Cambridge has all the usual food outlets you'd expect. As you travel along Newmarket Road from the city center there is a McDonalds and a 'Mr Chippy' for all the food connoisseurs out there. Outside the main entrance to the club, still on Newmarket Rd, is a Chinese takeaway called 'China Chef' and an Indian restaurant called 'Pipesha.'
Food can be purchased in the supporters bar found by the main entrance. Go to the hatch at the far side of the bar for burgers, hot dogs, bacon rolls and pies all £3, or chili with chips/jacket potato setting you back £4.50. Back out in the main car park, the burger van provides a similar menu if you need to 'eat on the go.' Moving round to the main community stand, the Tea Bar sells more hot food.
In the supporters bar half a coke costs £1.30 or a pint of mild bitter is £3.20. The Tea Bar outside the main stand serves drinks and the adjacent Dion Dublin Bar gives you a pint of Wainwrights for £4.20. Decisions decisions!
Before I made my choice a friendly local told me about the large burger van 'hidden' at the far end of the stand which 'did a great chips, sausage and curry sauce'. Excited to have a recommendation I followed his advice; he was right, but forgot to mention it would be £7!
Clearly the match versus Leeds a few days before had been a raucous atmosphere. Today the home fans behind the goal did their best to raise the roof. Ultimately the cold weather ensured most were simply waiting for the final whistle to sound so they could get back into the warm confines of the supporters club!
The Abbey has four separate stands, the newest of which houses the away fans is the south stand, built in 1992, with a separate police control center by the corner flag. The main stand is a 'community stand' with a family area as well as media facilities and the changing rooms. The home terrace is at the Newmarket Road end of the ground and houses the more vocal home fans but finally the Habbin stand, which runs the length of the pitch, also helped lift the atmosphere from time to time.
I'm not normally a fan of club mascots particularly but a special mention must be made of 'Marvin Moose' (see photos tab). He was first spotted at at the bus stop outside the ground and then worked tirelessly to entertain the younger fans for the next few hours. He entertained the older fans too.
The main stand does have pillars that can cause your view to be a little restricted. Be warned not to lean forward to see some action however as I was chastened by an older lady for doing just that! It was a legroom issue really which caused me to sit slightly sideways but all other locals were a friendly and welcoming bunch. This however is all in the name of 'character' and I'd rather this kind of old stand where you can feel history, than some of the soulless newer bowl stadiums.
While Cambridge itself is beautiful, the area around the ground is a little more functional. If you are driving, concentration is vital with cyclists everywhere. The River Cam runs through the center of the city and a 'punt' on the river is a must. The Boathouse pub serves food and sits on the banks of the river, a 10 minute taxi ride from the ground. I carried out a twitter poll to ascertain where U's fans gather before the game, with the supporters bar at the ground coming out on top, followed by The Wrestlers, The Eagle and The Regal. Follow Sir Cam @CamDiary and @ACambridgeDiary for beautiful shots of the city by day and by night. There are lots of eatery options at the ground and in the city center. The Boathouse has a good menu, while for fine dining, try 'Cotto' - number one on Trip Advisor.
I tweeted my intention to visit Cambridge, hoping to find a local perspective. "Do so before 18:00 hours" came the first response "when the city shuts down and dies." I'm not sure the City Ambassadors' would agree, however; they are there to help you have a great visit, and can be found around the city or on twitter via @CityAmbassadors.
Your punting can be arranged through @traditionalpunt and on a Sunday morning you will be welcome at Christ Church Cambridge morning worship @CC_Cambridge. Slightly further afield you can pay your respects at the American Cemetery on the west of the city and Duxford Imperial War Museum at RAF Duxford is a few junctions south on the M11.
Newmarket Road has a Premier Inn and Travelodge within walking distance from the ground. For a little more character try Rectory Farm just off of Junction 13 on the M11. For just £55 you can get away from the busy city humdrum, get a comfortable room, breakfast if needed and a good old fashioned 'honesty bar.' Much further out town but also recommended is the Old Ferry Boat (@OldFerryBoatOEI) in the picturesque town of St Ives. Reputedly it's England's oldest inn!
Cambridgeshire is not a traditional hotbed of football but U's fans are well organised and love their club. 100 years of coconuts is a fan initiative that brings the story of Cambridge United alive. Visit the excellent mini museum in the far corner of the supporters bar or follow @100yearcoconut.
Home games this season have attracted over 4,000 fans; there was a sellout the week before against Leeds. In his programme notes, the U's CEO Jez George hinted towards possible ground expansion soon.
The favourite chants of the home faithful seemed to be 'Yellow/Black Army' and 'Amber Army' rhythmically chanted for minutes at a time.
Finding the ground was simple enough. My drive from the south took me up the M11 and getting across the city was straight forward. On arrival, street parking near the ground is your best bet. My traditional walk around the outside of the stadium wasn't a possibility on this occasion as each area of the ground seemed to be found down an alleyway or adjacent lane. Thankfully those imposing floodlights mean you will not get lost. After parking opposite the ground I queued on the dual carriageway back into the town centre for nearly 30 minutes, although I'm not sure if this is normal.
Cambridge has its own airport but most will use the much larger Stansted Airport 30 miles south of of the city. Hire a car from there or use a national express coach costing just £8. Take a CityBus C3 from the town centre or the main train station to get to the ground.
Match day tickets can be purchased from a portacabin by the main entrance. Stewards at the turnstiles were all helpful and courteous. If you have a disability, email the club before you travel and they will assist with parking, access and other arrangements. It's a tightly packed ground so there isn't a lot of room but the main stand has a large open area behind it with a merchandise stall and a room for junior supporters selling drinks and sweets.
Ticket prices are comparable with other League Two sides but overall these are too high. By comparison, a ticket to a German Bundesliga match can cost the same. On the other hand it's understandable since clubs at this level need the income and the U's have made the overall matchday experience a positive one.
Prices on the turnstiles range from £2 for under 5s to £22 for adults, but by buying in advance online you can save £2 on the ticket price. Senior citizens, students and 18 to 21-year-olds are charged £17 with under 18s paying £12.
A minute's applause was held for the former England football manager Graham Taylor who died earlier that week. The Cambridge United Youth side were also honored at half time for a great run in the FA Youth Cup.
I'd suggest coming for a weekend if you can as there is so much to do away from the football. Time your visit for the spring or late summer though and not January for the best experience. For 'old' football ground enthusiasts the Abbey Stadium has all the character that you will want and the sight of those floodlights will make your trip 100% worthwhile!
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14 Chesterton Road
Cambridge, CB4 3AX
337 Newmarket Road
Cambridge, CB5 8JE
+44 1223 566554
Duxford, Cambridgeshire CB22 4QR
+44 1223 835000
Holywell Front, St Ives, Huntingdon
Cambridge, PE27 4TG
+44 1480 463227