Tuesday, 3 February 2015


When in the beautiful university city of Cambridge, if you want to escape the hubbub of the centre you should make your way along the banks of the Cam to the village of Grantchester, a riverside settlement with charming pubs and cottages.  Probably the best known building in the village is The Orchard TeaGarden, which is known in literary and academic circles as the place where a group of talented friends known as the Grantchester Group used to congregate.  The group included philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, writers E. M. Forster and Viriginia Woolf, the economist Maynard Keynes, the artist Augustus John and the poet Rupert Brooke.

Brooke, who moved into Orchard House in 1909, was a central figure to the group.  His boyish good looks and floppy hair once moved the Irish poet W. B. Yeats to describe him as the "handsomest young man in England".  This was a peaceful period when hedonism was the order of the day, and the group led an idyllic existence, skinny dipping in the river and hanging out together in the orchard.  On one occasion Brooke and Virginia Woolf swam naked by moonlight in a weir pool known as Byron's Pool, a reminder of  an earlier poetic presence in the village.  However, as was the case for so many people, the fun ended abruptly in 1914 with the onset of World War I.  Brooks entered the war by joining the Navy, and he sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in 1915.  Tragically, he died of sepsis brought on by an infected mosquito bite while moored off the Greek island of Skyros.  He was buried there, and the grave remains on the island to this day.  

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River Cam at Grantchester. Photo by Trevor Peach, via Wikimedia Commons
In May 1912 Brooke found himself in Berlin, and was so overcome with nostalgia for Grantchester that he penned a poem called 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester'.  In the poem he recalls wistfully the flowers in the garden: "And in my flower-beds I think//Smile the carnation and the pink".  Suffering from the Berlin heat, he longs for the cool river back home: "The stream mysterious glides beneath//Green as a dream and deep as death", and "And there the shadowed waters fresh//Lean up to embrace the naked flesh".  He then pokes fun at the Germans and their rules and regulations: "Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton//Where das Betreten's not verboten."  (an allusion to the German mania of the time for banning people from walking on grass).  He also has a go at the inhabitants of the other neighbourhoods in and around Cambridge, accusing them of being miserable, as in the lines "Strong men have run for miles and miles//When one from Cherry Hinton smiles", in contrast to Grantchester, where "They love the Good, they worship Truth//They laugh uproariously in youth".  

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Grantchester Mill Pond. Photo by Sebastian Ballard, via Wikimedia Commons

The Orchard Tea Garden still serves tea to thirsty passers-by today, and the wooden tea pavilion still stands there.  For those who want something stronger, the pleasant selection of pubs in the village includes one named after Rupert Brooke.  The walk to Grantchester is an easy 2-mile hike along well-worn riverside paths taking in the verdant stretch known as Grantchester Meadows.       

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One of Grantchester's inviting pubs. Photo by Sebastian Ballard, via Wikimedia Commons
Map of the area.

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