This article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine
If all you knew of England was gleaned from BBC news or the tabloids you’d probably think it an over-developed, pissed-up dump full of people like Karen Matthews and Russell Brand. It’s almost as though its traditions, its neighbourliness and tolerance, and above all its natural beauty, were things to be bashful and apologetic about. Perhaps John Major’s speech about warm beer and old maids really did do for pride in English heritage, but great pockets of William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” remain still undivested of their come-hither fecundity.
Nowhere is this ineffable sorcery more alluring than in Grantchester, a village some two miles south-west of Cambridge that is as old as the Domesday Book. It is often said that the south remoulds and anglicises the mindset and manners of people not from there, but so long as you realise that on entering you are enjoined to scarper on a sliding scale of eccentricity, Cambridge seems to take no interest in redress. And Grantchester – idyllic, Arcadian, a place where time stands still and whose pubs do not sell lager – is where they go, tourists and chattering eccentrics alike, to escape the droves on the college backs and the world of cars, gymnasiums and Wagamama restaurants.
In doing so they follow in the footsteps of many of the country’s finest minds. Jeffrey Archer, “probably the best storyteller in the world” according to the Daily Mail, lives there now with his wife Mary Archer, the scientist; while past denizens include the poets Rupert Brooke and Sylvia Plath and the mathematician Bertrand Russell. And the list of others to have taken tea or fallen off punts there includes Newton, Darwin, Milton, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Wittgenstein, Keynes and the Stephens Fry and Hawking.
It was out walking on Grantchester Meadows – the pasture land along the River Cam that separates the village from Cambridge -that Alan Turing first came up with the idea of artificial intelligence. Turing, you may remember, cracked the German Enigma code during World War II. He later lived in Manchester, where, in the 50s he was prosecuted for being homosexual and subsequently killed himself. I was glad when John – my host – corrected my misapprehension that we were about to cycle to Manchester. Grantchester, he informed me, would be a less taxing journey. And so, he on his own bike, I on a borrowed girl’s one, we set off across the Granchester Grind, the path that crosses the meadows.
It would be difficult to prove, but I am convinced there are more bicycles in Cambridge than people. They’re like free newspapers: if someone nicks yours you can always find a spare one lying around. It’s all very well pedalling your library books and your corduroy around the city, though; a different story negotiating the Grind. No sooner had we set wheel on gravel than briar thorns gave notice of their views on two-wheeled gender-bending. Mindful of admonitions regarding health and safety in old films about the Countryside Code, I wheeled my punctured steed along by hand towards our destination, where I managed to get it patched up and we ourselves repaired to The Orchard Tea Garden.
To sit out in the sun drinking tea under the ripening apples there is to feel the ghosts around you, here Lord Byron expostulating grandiloquently, there Keats, half-demented, agonising over his verse in some shady bower. Just a little further upstream is Byron’s Pool, a former mill pond, where the poet used to swim. The mill itself receives mention in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale. No swimming for us – instead we admire the enormous cows grazing on the river’s banks. It’s a scene that could have been painted by Constable and one that managed to charm even that grim poetess of death, Sylvia Plath. She indeed wrote from Grantchester to her mother of an occasion on which she recited Chaucer to a captive bovine audience, and the episode is recalled in verse by her husband Ted Hughes: “Your voice went over the fields towards Grantchester. It must have sounded lost. But the cows Watched, then approached: they appreciated Chaucer.”
Having had enough of jam and clotted cream, John explains to me how the Romantic poets, contrary to what you will hear said of them, were bothered deeply by the cruel degradations of the industrial revolution. They feared “the dark Satanic mills” of places like Manchester but it was because they distrusted the new capitalism, and their fight was for the soul of England and its people. John is learned, so I don’t argue, but there is no doubting the poet most associated with Grantchester, Brooke, is unreservedly and unapologetically nostalgic.
Homesick in Berlin in 1912, Brooke, who lodged at Grantchester between 1909 and 1911, first at the Orchard House and later at the Old Vicarage – now the Archers’ gaff – wrote: “I only know that you may lie Day long and watch the Cambridge sky, And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass, Hear the cool lapse of hours pass, Until the centuries blend and blur In Grantchester, in Grantchester.” He ends the poem with the famous line: “Stands the church clock at ten-to-three And is there honey still for tea?” During much of 1911, the hands of the clock on the tower of the church were stuck not at 2.50 but 3.30; to this day, however, it is always ten-to-three in the dining room of the Rupert Brooke Inn, formerly the Rose and Crown.
Brooke moved to the village hoping to escape a hectic Cambridge social life, but instead he became the lodestar of the Grantchester Group, a circle of friends that included Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Keynes and the painter Augustus John. Woolf dubbed them the ‘neo-pagans’: contemptuous of the religious stuffiness of the mid-Victorians and later held to be symbolic of a doomed novocento optimism and innocence, they would go barefoot in the village, hike for miles around and travel to Cambridge by canoe. On one occasion Brooke and Woolf skinny-dipped together by moonlight, although it is not believed that they were lovers.
Russell lived for ten years at the Mill House writing his Principia Mathematica, the manuscripts of which were so heavy that he had to transport them to Cambridge in a four-wheeled barrow, while John, the outright bohemian, lived for a time in a gypsy caravan on the meadows with his two wives and seven children, all male, whose game it was to run around the place naked.
Yet for all he embodied the spirit of his time and place, and the timelessness of that place, posterity has not been kind to Brooke’s reputation, mainly because the sonnets he wrote shortly before his death in 1915 celebrate the dream of dying for a noble cause. They are the poems of a man who never saw battle: he died of septicemia on the Greek island of Skyros while waiting to land in Gallipoli. Locally, though, he’s still a hero – along with Brooke’s and 16 other names, the war memorial in the churchyard bears the inscription “Men With Splendid Hearts”, a line from his Grantchester poem.
The church itself is a magnificent old edifice, its nave dating back to the early 12th Century. We were happy sitting Betjeman-like in its cool stillness thinking ourselves the proper aesthetes; though happier still drinking pints of real ale (Adnams) in The Blue Ball Inn, one of four pubs in the village, all of which date back centuries. The Blue Ball is where the locals drink now; The Green Man – which Brooke tended to frequent and where John (Augustus, not my companion) once laid a man clean out after a quarrel – has fallen on hard times, its Scottish owner having gone bankrupt and then been arrested while breaking into his former property to find out what the bailiffs had left.
The Rupert Brooke, which has a fifty-cover restaurant, and where if you’re lucky you might hear Pink Floyd’s wonderfully bucolic Grantchester Meadows playing on the stereo, is also worth a visit. Or so I’m told: dinner was with friends at Wagamama that night and neither of us could remember what the Countryside Code had to say about cycling drunk. So we opted to play the peaceable Scots, scrapped the idea of paying a call on the Archers and rode back out across the Grind convinced eccentrics these days aren’t quite up to the old mark.