site unseen Hobson's Conduit, Cambridge

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The Independent Online
Generations of Cambridge students weaving uncertainly down Trumpington Street on their bikes have heartily cursed the sunken gap by the side of the road.

Anyone who makes a navigational error and ignominiously ends up in this runnel is certain to provoke the derision of motorists and the sniggering of pedestrians. Rumour has it that several potential prime ministers and archbishops never recovered from the shame of their all-too-public mishap.

Unfortunate cyclists will not be soothed by the information that this hazard has been around for nearly 400 years, but, on reflection, they may feel that this elongated pot-hole has been of some value in the past. Why? Because it was built in 1614 to carry running water from the springs at nearby Great Shelford into the centre of Cambridge, thereby quenching the thirst of generations of undergraduates when they were unable to afford any- thing stronger.

One important benefactor of this project was a Mr Thomas Hobson whose occupation gave rise to a phrase which happily entered the English language: "Hobson's choice".

Hobson was a carrier who transported students and their luggage to and fro between Cambridge and London in the early 17th century. A shrewd operator was this Mr Hobson. Determined that no one would ever accuse him of favouritism, he leant over his horses in strict rotation. When undergraduates visited his well-stocked stables in order to hire a horse, Hobson gave them a simple, but artificial, choice - take the one nearest the stable-door. In other words, no choice at all.

Naturally everyone knew Hobson and he was commemorated in an epitaph by John Milton which begins "Here lies old Hobson, death has broken his girt,/ And here, alas, hath laid him in the dirt..."

Hobson's name was also attached to the hexagonal conduit which originally stood in Market Hill in the centre of Cambridge, as a fountain between 1614 and 1856. The next year, however, the introduction of a piped water supply made earlier arrangements redundant, and the Conduit was moved to a less conspicuous spot.

Today, its site marks the end of the artificial watercourse. From this point onwards, the water disappears into culverts which emerge as the dastardly runnels in Trumpington Street, and we are back with the unwary cyclists.

Leaving them to one crumpled side, it is difficult to pass the Conduit and not reflect that most people in both their professional and personal lives know all too well the reality of Hobson's choice: like it or lump it.

Hobson's Conduit is on the corner of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Street, Cambridge

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