What is Grantchester?
Grantchester is a quaint village to the southwest of Cambridge with strong literary connections.
‘God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.’
So wrote the longing Rupert Brooke from a Berlin café in 1912, as part of one of his most famous poems, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. Just a few kilometres southwest of Cambridge, Grantchester is a quaint village with low-ceilinged pubs, a 12th-century parish church, and thatched houses. It became a particularly popular haunt after a group of Cambridge students, in 1897, bucked the custom of having tea on the front lawn of Orchard House, and asked the landlady if they could instead be served tea in the orchard itself. This pastoral scene was then transformed into an intellectual retreat when Rupert Brooke took up lodgings in Orchard House after he graduated in 1909, and then later moved to the Old Vicarage next door.
Brooke had been a member of the esteemed Cambridge Apostles, a group founded in 1820, in which both frivolous and scholarly discussions were held over a meal of sardines on toast. Through the Apostles he was introduced to the philosophers Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. So too was he able to make connections with the Bloomsbury Group, including the economist John Maynard Keynes, the author Virginia Woolf, and the writers E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. Woolf labelled Brooke and his Grantchester Group the Neo-Pagans, for their non-traditional lifestyle: their vegetarianism, pursuit of socialism, outdoor living, and enjoyment of social nudity. Certainly, they all skinny-dipped together, and the love interests within the sexually liberated group were legendary.
Swimming was always associated with the beauty and experience of Grantchester. Lord Byron, who was at Cambridge over a century before Brooke, was another fabled bather. ‘Still in the dawnlit waters cool / His ghostly Lordship swims his pool’, wrote Brooke of Byron, ‘And tries the strokes, essays the tricks, / Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx’. Indeed, just upstream is Byron’s Pool in an old mill pond; albeit somewhat spoiled by a concrete weir.
Swimming in the Cam was known from at least the 16th century when Everard Digby encouraged it in The Art of Swimming. Throughout the 19th century children learnt to swim in the Snobs, a small side stream. ‘All summer, Sheep’s Green and Coe Fen were pink with boys, as naked as God made them’, described Gwen Raverat, granddaughter of naturalist Charles Darwin and member of the Bloomsbury Group, in her 1952 memoir Period Piece. Wooden changing rooms, known as the Town Bathing Sheds, endured on Sheep’s Green until the late 20th century when there was declining demand. Now, wild swimming is more popular than ever and people are returning, though fewer unclothed, to ‘The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream, / The yet unacademic stream’ that Brooke so yearned for.
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