The university cities of Oxford and Cambridge (or Oxbridge, to applicants) must be the only places in Britain where you can be both a cyclist and a punter without having to gamble or wear hi-vis Lycra, though freedom of expression means there’s nothing to stop you doing either.
Punting, a form of boating where the “punter” stands up and propels their flat-bottomed craft (called a punt) by pushing a long pole against the riverbed, is a popular pastime on the gently-flowing rivers of both cities. While Oxford has several punt-friendly waterways including the Thames and Cherwell, Cambridge has only the Cam, but it is a river with three names. As if to compensate for its lack of friends (and not be beaten by Oxford) the Cam re-invents itself along its length. Upstream of the city it is called the Granta, and higher still, the Rhee. These names are loosely applied though, and on the green fringes of Cambridge near the village of Grantchester, where my day began, either Cam or Granta will do.
Grantchester’s recent fame is due to an eponymous television drama, in which “unlikely crime-fighting duo” Robson Green and the parish vicar tackle Cambridge’s toughest criminals while smoking cigarettes and composing sermons. But throughout the previous two centuries, Grantchester Meadows was a revered hotspot for literary intellectuals including the poet Lord Byron. Having no interest in 19th century poetry, it was the meadows’ reputation for relaxed watery activity that most inspired my visit. In between writing verse, Byron and his friends would unwind by “messing about on [or in] the river” near here, though this idea probably didn’t exist until Three Men in a Boat and The Wind in the Willows were published almost a century later. Not being a punter of any sort, I would explore by stand up paddleboard (SUP), weaving among the punts and under the bridges of the old city to find Byron’s favourite bathing place. Maybe I would see the infamous novelist who now lives in the former riverside home of a truly English war poet. Regardless, I planned to end the day as Byron would have approved – by swimming in the Cam.
Leaving the car on a potholed track behind Pembroke College, I launched the SUP and headed upstream. The Granta looked cold and uninviting slithering through the meadows, squashed beneath the flying skies of a gusty day in East Anglia’s flatlands. Stooping willows grappled hard with invisible assailants, the reeds kicked and thrashed and water lily buds bobbed like the capped heads of hardened swimmers. Shelter had scarpered behind bushes and to the corners of fields. All the punts were still in port – it was hardly the weather for paddling standing up.
I eventually found shelter at the top of the meadows, where Grantchester Mill stands partway along a leat branching off the Granta (or Cam). This channel would once have provided a “head” of water to turn the mill’s grinding mechanism, though as it runs through the owner’s garden it cannot be used to travel further upstream. The only way around is to head back to the main river, which leads under the road towards the first major landmark on the Cam, a historical bathing place called Byron’s Pool.
In his Wild Swimming Guide, Rob Fryer laments the loss of Byron’s Pool as a once valuable swimming spot whose beauty was ruined by a large concrete weir built by the Environment Agency. The pool, which lies at the confluence of the mill leat, Bourn Brook and the Cam (or is it now Rhee?), is reputedly the place where Byron bathed in the days before swimming pools existed. If you look the other way you may still see a view similar to Byron’s, of the surrounding willows and sycamores, of reeds and water lilies, of the white stream that throws itself in like a mountain burn, evoking the poetry that was spawned here. But unfortunately the weir’s crass ugliness all but eclipses these remaining signs of the picturesque. It is a crusted concrete wall with a protruding part that looks, with guardrail on top, rather like the prow of the Titanic. Sadly, thanks to this and the inseparable roars of the weir and nearby M11 motorway, the one-time allure of Byron’s Pool is sunk too.
As I already knew the pool would be disappointing, I was not too disconsolate when I turned around and headed back towards Cambridge. The weather was improving, the sun was coming out, and there were many more sights to see, beginning with the reclusive and deeply private residence which has been home to two of Britain’s greatest literary figures.
Hidden among trees where Grantchester’s mill leat re-joins the Cam, an old vicarage lurks secretively in the undergrowth. If you look closely you may catch a glint from the attached orangery, but little else is visible. This is the hideaway of controversial novelist Jeffrey (Lord) Archer, who probably spends lots of time here musing out onto the river and making up stories. I imagined him peering out irascibly over a hard-won first draft – as I zigzagged on tiptoes at the bottom of his garden – and wondering how he might form a plot-line in which a pesky paddleboarder meets his watery demise. In Archer’s eye-line are riparian wild flowers including red poppies, which I guessed he might have sown in remembrance of his home’s former occupant, the war poet Rupert Brooke. Brooke, who famously wrote The Soldier in 1914, developed sepsis and died after being bitten by a mosquito in Aegean waters during World War I. Brooke was buried, not quite in the corner of a field as his poem predicted, but in a peaceful spot beneath olive trees on a Greek island. He never came home to Grantchester.
Central Cambridge, especially the area around Silver Street, is where the punting really begins. There is a mill pool blocked on its upstream side by a weir, which punters could bypass by heaving their boats up the rollers, though it is probably easier to go downstream instead. SUPs, being the lightest of craft, are free to go either way as they can be “portaged” around obstructions. The portage route passes through a field where, quite bizarrely for a city centre, people were sunbathing among grazing cattle. It’s unlikely Cambridge will ever have a Spanish-style bovine stampede though, as the cows are quite marooned there on Robinson Crusoe Island. This is the beginning of the part of the Cam that all the tourists come to see, and I re-launched onto a river wooden with punts.
The so-called Cambridge “Backs”, where the Cam runs behind and between the colleges, contains some of the most extraordinary man-made scenery in England. The college buildings, the river and the bridges that cross it command an atmosphere of utter civility and grandeur. Here the “done” things are very much done, and the river writhes with people who don’t usually go in boats. There are canoes for hire, but most visitors choose one of the ubiquitous punts from Scudamore’s, whose fleet fans out across the pool below Silver Street weir.
I have never actually been punting, but I imagine it is quite difficult and the day-trippers do not make it look easy. With no rudder, steering is all trial and error, but mostly error. One craft called Granta 9 seemed to be trying to hit every bridge and wall and as it was also shadowing me I had to dodge and accelerate to avoid being sunk. When I stopped to rest on a ledge I found another punt heading straight at me, and I decided it was safer to keep moving. As well as being light, SUPs are highly manoeuvrable and my acrobatics soon became a sideshow for the tourists. One lady asked if I “go surfing” on the Cam, while others muttered their disappointment that I had not yet fallen in.
If the thought of serious mishaps dissuades them from hiring their own craft, less confident visitors can take a guided tour and be chauffeured around by their own punt skipper, often a student on Cambridge’s equivalent of a McDonald’s shift. In between recounting the history of the colleges and explaining the correct pronunciation of “Magdalene”, the learned guides chatter as inanely with friends as is possible in this illustrious city. Like a collegiate rugger ball, political references are tossed around and names are dropped – “Jean-Claude Juncker…”, “they said Hitler couldn’t be beaten, and he was…” Entrants to the “who can use the most adverbs?” competition pitch phrases like, “highly academically endowed”, et al. It’s no wonder that three-quarters of Britain’s prime ministers studied here or at Oxford.
The drifting scent of lavender, the wavering punts and the knocking of poles, three chiming bells, the curl of American accents and the click of Japanese shutters soon had a soporific effect upon me. But there was so much to absorb that I paddled through the city twice before returning to Grantchester, where I planned to prepare myself for the drive home with a brief dip in the Cam.
Back at the meadows, the wind had abated and a solitary punt found its way upstream. A lady on board trailed her hand lazily in the river, the ungraspable water trickling through her fingers. I always cringe slightly when I see people do this, tempting though it is, as it mimics the way that anglers try to lure pike by dragging a shiny object slowly through the water, themselves attempting to replicate the behaviour of the pike’s prey. I like to hope that those who enter the river entirely, make a commotion sufficient to scare away our fiercest freshwater fish, and that is hopefully what I did as I slipped over the muddy bank into the sun-warmed Granta.
Thanks to Lord Byron, Rupert Brooke, and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who wrote a song about them, Grantchester’s meadows have been romanticised and are imbued with the spirits of those who made them famous. They may be prettily bucolic, but in essence are just fields, as ordinary as any others. Perhaps, I mused as I dried off beside the river enjoying its very ordinariness; the poets who were so inspired to write here only did so because it was their local spot, and in the days before planes and motorways it was not easy to find remarkable places to write about. Wouldn’t the world benefit, I thought, if we could just appreciate our local areas more, rather than always flying off to “better” places?
With these deep (and perhaps hypocritical) thoughts in mind, I sluiced my muddy shoes in the river and, as the rain washing the meadows bore high the smell of summer, and the cows sheltered under the trees, I heaved the board under my arm and ran for the car, and the motorway.