Backpacker Sleeps Under a Bridge in Cambridge, England

When budget travel meets lack of accommodation.

Photo by Jean-Luc Benazet on Unsplash

** Republished from 2016 **

I thought it would be easy. No hostels in Cambridge, hotels far out of my budget, what’s one night on the streets? Well, those were my thoughts before I forgot to check the weather. Obviously, I survived, but it ended up being more difficult than I thought and it required a lot more strategy than I was anticipating.

It was mid-April last year. I decided to take a side trip for a couple of days to avoid the busy London crowds. Cambridge was only about a two-hour bus ride from London. I booked the ticket spur of the moment and was on my way to Cambridge twenty minutes later. I figured I could figure out the details to a less than thirty-hour visit using the Wi-Fi on the bus on the way there. No big deal.

Well, it became a bigger issue when I figured out Cambridge does not have any hostels and it was already almost 2 p.m. — the chances of me finding a Couchsurfing host this late were slim. Being desperate, I curiously searched for the cheapest hotel in Cambridge: the equivalent of $106 for the night. That was certainly out of my budget. So I made my decision; I was going to be homeless for the night. How bad could it be for one night? I was there to check out the college town’s nightlife on a Friday night and could probably stay out and party until the early morning anyway. I would only have to manage a couple of hours of sleep outside.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Cambridge, I began to do some amateur scouting for safe, warm sleeping places. It was windy, but it was sunny. There was no way I was anticipating bad weather. Basically, I was looking for signs indicating it was illegal to be out overnight in certain places. I was more concerned with the legality of it all.

After spending too long doing this, I decided to enjoy my time and do some wandering. Upon destination-less wandering, I came about a secluded bridge over The River Cam. There was (what seemed like) an ideal sleeping spot that I planned to return to at the end of the night.

It was not until the sun went down that the storm came and changed up all of my plans. It started raining while I was inside Fez Club. I didn’t notice. I had to pay quite a steep entry fee to get in, and shortly after I realized it had started raining. I figured staying at the empty club was probably my best choice with nowhere else to go.

I stayed as late as I could until the bartenders started giving me weird looks. I couldn’t blame them. I was the weird one at the club alone that night, but I was desperate. It was only about 1 a.m. and now I was out in the rain. It was about 40 degrees outside on top of that. All I had was one jacket that was in no way waterproof.

On my way to my bridge, I ran into a bit of dumb luck, if you will. I found a rain jacket in a stockpile of trash. Again, I was desperate, I used it. This is starting to sound a bit far-fetched, I’m sure. After two hours of attempting to fall asleep in my bridge spot that ended up being not-so-comfortable, I decided to find a new, warmer place to sleep.

I made my way back into town where I met Rich and Julie, a homeless couple by choice. I spent about an hour staying up talking with them in the middle of the night. I learned so much and my eyes were widened by this lifestyle choice. The homeless population in Cambridge is more than you would expect. Especially right around the University, there are quite a few people living on the streets. I am so fortunate to have run into Rich and Julie. They broke so many stereotypes about homeless people in my mind. Each of them held a college degree, each of them was far and away more knowledgeable than I was, but they preferred the simplicity of not having more money than they needed. They were not beggars; they were simply living life for themselves. I found this type of mindset to be very inspiring.

Regardless if they needed it or wanted it, I still bought some doughnuts for Rich and Julie for the morning. I hope that didn’t offend them as I just wanted to pay them back something for what they did for me. We parted ways and I felt greatly impacted by our encounter, but I still faced the problem of having nowhere to sleep.

Finally, I found a nook in front of a bank to sleep in. So there I lay on the cold concrete, head propped up against the concrete “base-board” of the building. I couldn’t control my strong shiver from the wind cave I was sleeping in, but at least I was staying dry. I was asleep for a few hours when I got a tap on the leg. Without turning my head, I was sure it was law enforcement or a manager of the bank I was sleeping in front of. It wasn’t. It was a homeless man. He was asking for some money. I told him I didn’t have money to spend and that’s why I was sleeping where I was. He didn’t believe me and thought I was just drunk and passed out. He asked if I was homeless. I responded with a, “No!” as if I was offended by the question. Then he left me. I reflected on the way I responded. I was homeless, if at least for the night. Why after meeting Rich and Julie was I suddenly offended by the question?

By then, the rain had stopped and the sun was rising soon. I had survived the short night but learned so much about myself. Sure it was a little more stressful than staying in a hostel, but I would never trade the night for any ordinary night in a hostel. Sometimes doing things that scare you can teach you the most.

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