Honey’s Off, Dear.

“Stands the church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?”

I am writing this on a snow day: one of the unexpected holidays that are beloved of schoolchildren, hated by Daily Mail readers and one of the few perks of being a teacher.  As I look out of the window here at Literary Britain HQ, a robin is happily gorging itself on the crumbs I left out for him and the cats seem quite interested in the show, too. It’s a beautiful, christmassy scene and seems a long way away from the bright and warm August day when I  visited the picturesque village of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire.  Grantchester is known for its associations with three literary figures and has been visited by many more as a result. Its proximity to Cambridge means that it is a stroll away from the city, and many writers, as teachers or students, took the short walk through the meadows to leave the City behind and spend a few hours in the lovely Cambridgeshire countryside.

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Byron’s Pool, Grantchester

George Gordon Byron has become literary folklore. He lived the romantic, rogering, roistering, celebrity lifestyle of an eighteenth century poet and the ‘Byronic hero’ has been a literary archetype ever since. It was during his time at Cambridge – he was a student at Trinity between 1805 and 1807 –  that his legend was born. A local story has it that, on being told he would not be allowed to keep a dog in his rooms, he returned with a bear. He overspent, became involved in scandalous behaviour and published his first volume of poetry.  His athletic prowess is often alluded to and he is known to have been a proficient swimmer. He swam across the Dardanelles in 1810 and, while living in Portovenere, he would swim across the ‘bay of poets’ to visit Shelley in San Terenzo, a distance of about 4km. He is supposed to have come to Grantchester to swim in the pools of the Granta, (The river here is the Granta, hence the name of the village; it becomes the Cam as it flows through Cambridge).Byron’s Pool is a densely wooded area of water meadows, with Beech, Ash, Wych Elm, Pendunculate Oak and Field Maple (according to the leaflet). It makes a really pleasant walk on a hot day. It is also home to a great deal of wildlife, including woodpeckers, chaffinches and kingfishers. The wildlife most evident during my visit, however, was dogs, as it is a popular recreation area for the local and has been designated a Local Nature Reserve by Cambridge City Council.

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The Orchard Tea Garden

Mrs. P and I spent a very pleasant afternoon wandering through the woodland and enjoying an hour of bucolic peace and quiet. We picked blackberries from the hedgerows as we made our way back to the village and the Orchard Tea Garden for afternoon refreshment. The Orchard has been a popular location among students since 1897, when Orchard House was a popular lodging for students wishing to escape the hectic social whirl of Cambridge. Rupert Brooke came to stay here in 1909 and, due to his popularity, attracted a succession of friends and visitors.

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What, no honey?

They included Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and EM Forster and, since then, many others have been attracted to this charming little garden. Their list of customers includes an astounding number of scientists, philosophers, actors and other public figures, along with some of the most important writers of the Twentieth century. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes spent many afternoons walking through the meadows to Grantchester with the sole aim of tea at the Orchard. You can still enjoy a decent cup of tea and a piece of cake here beneath the apple, pear and medlar trees.  They produce a little guide book detailing the Orchard’s literary links. It even contains the full text of Brooke’s most popular poems and is well worth the couple of quid they charge for it.

Rupert Brooke, born in 1887, became friends with the Bloomsbury Group (Woolf, Forster and Strachey) whilst at Cambridge. He later fell out with them following an ’emotional crisis’ during which he blamed Lytton Strachey for destroying his relationship with Katherine Cox. It’s likely that he had discovered his bisexuality. Following his breakdown, Brooke travelled to the US, publishing his travelogues in the Westminster Gazette. He travelled home via New Zealand and Tahiti, where he settled for a short time with a Tahitian named Taatamata. On his return to Grantchester, on finding that his rooms at The Old Orchard had been let, he moved into the Old Vicarage, next door to Orchard House, where he continued to live his bohemian lifestyle and entertain his literary friends. He first came the public’s attention following the publication of ‘1914 and Other Poems’, the collection that contains his most famous poem ‘The Soldier’, written during the First World War. As most of his poetry was written early in the war, it tends to be more optimistic and less satirical than that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; it is highly patriotic and full of hope. In 1915 he was sent to Gallipoli. He suffered a mosquito bite, which became infected and he developed septicaemia. He died on 23rd April and is buried on the Greek island of Skyros.

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Statue of Rupert Brooke at The Old Vicarage

Brooke’s poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, celebrates the English countryside and does so with sentimentality and humour. It has the wistful longing of a young man a long way from home (it was written in Berlin in 1912), filling the English landscape with literary allusion and natural imagery. It pokes gentle fun at the rivalry that exists between neighbouring villages and celebrates the countryside where Brooke walked barefoot, foraged in the hedgerows, travelled by punt into Cambridge and (allegedly) swam naked with Virginia Woolf in Byron’s Pool. The Old Vicarage is now the home of politician and novelist Jeffrey Archer.  I must confess to never having read one of Archer’s novels: they’re not really my thing. He may be very good for all I know and he is very popular. At least he has acknowledged an earlier and greater inhabitant of his house through the statue that stands on his lawn.

…And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.

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