A couple of miles southwest of Cambridge, the leafy village of Grantchester is chocolate-box pretty, with thatched cottages and a honey-coloured church in keeping with the county’s iconic picturesque scenery.
On its eastern periphery, the Grantchester Meadows roll back from the river and are the perfect setting for picnics on the grass or wild swimming in the river, which is permitted (or ‘tolerated’) on this stretch. It’s worth mentioning that the river between Grantchester and Silver Street Bridge in Cambridge is sometimes called the Granta, although many people call it the Cam, and the two names are used interchangeably.
Along with its idyllic setting, Grantchester is known for its legacy of famous residents – current villagers include the sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld OBE and the novelist and former politician Jeffrey Archer. The village also claims the world’s highest concentration of Nobel Prize winners, thanks to the number of Cambridge academics who have lived here.
A charming High Street meanders through the village, which has the church of St Mary and St Andrew at its heart. The church is mostly 14th and 15th century, although some sections have been dated to 1100 AD. It acts as a mini tourist information point, displaying information about village life and its many claims to fame – Grantchester is the setting for the TV detective series Grantchester, and was also the subject of the Pink Floyd song Grantchester Meadows, which is based on band member David Gilmour’s experiences of growing up here. Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College has been patron of the church since 1380 and you’ll find the college’s coat of arms – an image of a pelican pecking its breast – on the mosaic floor in front of the altar.
Grantchester’s most famous resident was the Edwardian poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915). A graduate of King’s College, Brooke lived at Orchard House, and later at the Old Vicarage (where Jeffrey Archer now lives). He was part of the Grantchester Group – a community of artists and intellectuals that included economist John Maynard Keynes and novelists Virginia Woolf and E M Forster. The group would meet to discuss the arts, host parties and swim naked in Byron’s Pool. You can see original photos of Rupert Brooke at the Orchard Tea Garden.
Less than a mile upstream from Grantchester is Byron’s Pool – the old mill pool where poet Lord Byron (1788–1824) bathed when he was a student at Trinity College. Rupert Brooke drew on Byron’s legend in his poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.
Still in the dawn lit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (1912) by Rupert Brooke
It’s fair to say that the romance of the pool has faded somewhat over the years, thanks to the introduction of metal railings, a concrete weir and distant traffic noise from the M11. Nonetheless, it’s still a lovely spot, and the pool is surrounded by grassland, woods and riverside footpaths. As you wander, look for kingfishers and great spotted woodpeckers, a wealth of autumn fungi, or wildflowers, butterflies and damselflies in summer.