Reaching the riverbank in Grantchester, my instinct was to first test the water’s temperature. The grassy bank is nearly two feet above the lapping surface so I inched forward from a sitting position before fully committing. It wasn’t to be. As my toes touched the stream, I slid involuntarily over the rounded bank and into watery embrace.
My inadvertent splash was a fine introduction to the swirl of the Cam as it turned out. Its meandering flow cuts surprisingly deep through fields and meadows where picnickers and punters escape the city, and a herd of chocolate bullocks enjoy their short lives. The waters where Rupert Brooke and Lord Bryron once swam drew me gently through an idyl little changed from their time – at least when viewed form the river’s surface. Fine gault clay squelched beneath my feet, and a chirruping call announced the flash of a chaffinch’s wing.
On a warm August Sunday, my son and I saw no other swimmers, although a steady parade of punting boaters wobbled their way upstream. Most happily conversed with those of us who had chosen immersion over floatation.
Brooke mythologised the tableau in a homesick verse of 1912 penned while, in Berlin, recuperated from nervous collapse. It evokes swimming scenes featuring the poets mentioned above, as well as Chaucer and Tennyson, although fancy may well have trumped fact in his litany. Nevertheless, it is as delicious a river swim as it is possible to imagine: a deep, gentle flow through a verdant shire of pretty villages and unspoilt pastoral land. Picturing Brooke and Virginia Woolf skinny dipping by moonlight from the same spot (Woolf boasted to Vita Sackvile-West that they had) provided a further a tantalising vision.
It is easily accessed. Though entirely rural, the village is just three miles from the centre of Cambridge. There are several points from which the Meadows are accessible – one, for example, is beside of the Red Lion public house. The sunken river is not visible from the fields or the road, but following the trampled grass downwards delivers you to its banks. I found no areas specifically set up for swimming, although there is a long stretch – well over a mile, I would guess – along which the water can be accessed. Getting in is all too easy, as I found. It is worth thinking through how you will get out beforehand, however. I managed to pull myself up the bank close by where I went in. A friend willing to help with a pull would have been easier.
The river’s name is an easy source of confusion, incidentally. First known as the Granta, the river was later rechristened the Cam – although the original name is still in common use. Perhaps multiply-named rivers are a requirement of ancient university settings?
A swish gastro-pub in the village now trades as the Rupert Brooke. Joining the poet for a dip seemed a better remembrance than a £20 roast lunch, however.
I had promised my son a swimming safari, so we continued on to Jesus Green Lido in the city centre. This 1923-built open-air pool is unusual for being 100 yards long and just 15 yards wide (91m x 14m), apparently designed to evoke the experience of swimming in the river, that runs beside. It is a beautiful little facility; twinkling reflected sunlight and beaming with outdoorsy goodness, despite being hardly a stone’s throw from the urban centre.
By the time we reached Jesus Green, the cloud cover was gone and powerful August sun toasted the handful of mature sunbathers deported around the pool. Pairs of well-spoken aqua joggers conversed on subjects I couldn’t follow, and we basked in the warmth. Perhaps we had happened upon the set of a quadrangle-drama to be filmed in a 1930s neverland of outdoor pursuits and sunlit healthfulness?
The water may have been a touch cooler than its natural rival, but it was no less pleasurable. Such a long pool is cruel host to those unused to repeated lengths, but the two laps that I managed were enough to transport me to a fantasy of living close by and performing my daily virtues in its shimmering expanse.
Only as we left did I notice that we should have paid £4.75 each to bathe, although our evasion was was unintended. The lido, which has open-air changing rooms, showers and lockers, also boasts a sauna, housed in a pine tube. Alas, I noticed it too late.
The sun dipping, we bade Cambridge farewell, satisfied that outdoor ablution is so readily and pleasurably available in a city whose history has been so shaped by water. My purified glow lasted all evening.
Top picture – me in the Cam © James Adams
second and all subsequent pictures © Tim Dawson – Jesus Green Lido, Grantchester and Jesus Green.