Our lives at Cambridge are predominantly focused on work, with most days spent endlessly in the library. So it is in the quiet corners of these establishments that individual desks tell unique stories and reveal glimpses of singularity amid the collective pursuit of academic achievement.

“The desks seem frozen in time”

The inspiration behind this insight came from my frequent visits to my college library, where I can instinctively tell who is sitting on each desk, even if they are not there, merely by what’s on them. The desks seem frozen in time: some trust old wired headphones, iPads, Apple Pencils and iced lattes, whereas others prefer physical paper, AirPods and a good Diet Coke.

As I delved deeper into this exploration, I encountered desks adorned with all types of mementos. Some bear the marks of the Cambridge hustle and bustle, with half-empty coffee cups and random bits of paper, while others boast a minimalist setup, their owners complaining of a lack of productivity if mess is involved.

Whether we like to admit it or not, our desks serve as a mirror image of our personalities. Students adamant to resist the switch to digital notes will proudly showcase their physical planners, books and folders. In the rooms of those seeking a calming aura amid the chaos of Cambridge weeks, desks might bear the presence of a scented candle. Others may prefer over-ear headphones to help them fully immerse themselves in work.

Patrick Dolan with permission for Varsity

Beginning with my desk, it unmistakably reflects my inclination towards slight minimalism. The essentials dominate the working space: a sleek laptop and a good, old French book.

Concerning the academic landscape, I’ve adopted a hybrid approach: I embrace the convenience of online note-taking, while also relying on the tangible connection to physical texts. Straying from the Cambridge trend of over-ear headphones, I’ve opted for AirPods.

The always ready-to-go set of keys and University Card on my desk acts as a clue to my love of leaving my desk frequently. I find it quite the challenge to remain seated at a desk for extended periods of time, so I try to incorporate intermittent strolls around the library. Opting for two drinks is potentially excessive, but staying hydrated and enjoying a casual DC to give me a caffeinated boost can be done.

Heidi Atkins with permission for Varsity

There are instances where one is granted the excuse to be messy. Heidi very kindly shares her desk preserved in time as she deals with grieving a loved one. The desk stands as a testament, embellished with the remnants of meal deals from bygone days and an emptied pack of B&H blues which were consumed on the day they received news of her friend’s death. A depleted box of wine and dry bottle of vodka can be seen, as well as a herbal tea discovered randomly in her pocket, which serves as an optimistic nod towards a hopeful remedy, she tells me. Old Varsity papers link the space to Heidi’s student journalism, and the pile of books shows how Cambridge life will not wait for you to grieve.

“Grief is horrible, weird and sickening; if my desk has to become a second bin to deal with that … so be it”

Heidi does not resent her desk for its standout messiness:

“Grief is horrible, weird and sickening; if my desk has to become a second bin to deal with that … so be it.”

Nick James with permission for Varsity

Nick puts my supposed minimalism to shame; he advocates for a tidy desk because of the distraction of a messy environment. He confesses to being a “paper guy”, with the proximity of disturbances just one click away on a laptop.

There’s also some satisfaction to be found in accumulating notes over the years, he finds: physically writing notes has been shown to improve content retention. In an attempt to cling to the paper past while moving forward with the University’s increasingly technological future, Nick invested in a lightweight tablet which allows him to download reading materials and compose notes.

Ruby Cline with permission for Varsity

Ruby’s desk serves as an intimate canvas. The obvious laptop, planner and glasses hint at the academic rigour of Cambridge life. In the digital age dominated by Moodle, the deliberate choice of a paper planner is one that I admire most highly; the tangible inscription of handwritten ink appointments is more meaningful, and makes them more likely to be remembered.

The pumpkin adds a mysterious touch, a temporal bookmark which indicates when this desk was captured. The contrast between the speaker and headphones encapsulates the work-hard, play-hard ethos: one to indulge in music while working, the other a companion to pres or a chill night in with friends. Painkillers nonchalantly lying on the floor are reminiscent of a mid-term flu or post-revs hangover.

The cosmetics symbolise more than just a routine: the perfume, jewellery and makeup perched on the higher side of the table serve as a daily reminder that the seemingly mundane act of simply getting ready every morning is actually something to be enjoyed. The desk achieves an equilibrium: it seamlessly integrates bittersweet moments of Cambridge life – represented by the flowers and lingering scent of perfume – above the table of academic material.

Eve Maylor with permission for Varsity


Mountain View

What on earth is a ‘girl desk’?

Eve’s desk cultivates a cosier feel right from the start. The candles, coupled with the gentle glow of fairy lights, provide a positive approach to studying. The thankful absence of harsh lighting makes the workplace a comfortable retreat. Alexa takes its rightful position on the desk, not just as a source of music, but also as a practical aid for checking the recently indecisive Cambridge weather. Photos of friends from Cambridge highlight the more amicable aspects of university life, whereas glimpses of those from home serve as a reminder that a world beyond the Cambridge bubble truly exists and that one is never too far from their roots.

Each desk, with its unique arrangement of items, offers a glimpse into the multifaceted identities of the individuals occupying their seats. These desks, often overlooked in the grandeur of academia, serve as a testament to individuals who are much more than the work produced at this university. After all, they are not merely pieces of furniture, but narrators of the lives being lived within the confines of the University of Cambridge.