Home to great
ON holiday at Cambridge, one of the highlights of my visit was a visit to Granchester-the village made famous by Rupert Brooke, one of England’s most famous poets. Just a ten-minute drive from Cambridge, Grantchester is a picturesque village with thatched-roof cottages, pubs with interesting names, the Parish Church, a delightful Tea Garden set within The Orchards.There is also the Old Vicarage, where Rupert Brooke lived for some time and the beautiful meadows beside the River Cam. It was like seeing the images evoked through the poet’s poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, coming alive. I can do no better than begin with his immortal words....
I only know that you
Rupert Brooke, the son of a Rugby schoolmaster, was born in 1887. He spent his childhood and schooldays there, and came up to Cambridge in 1906, with a scholarship to read Classics at King’s College. Brooke’s connection with Grantchester began in 1909 when, having taken his degree, he left his rooms in King’s and moved into The Orchard, to lodge with Mr and Mrs Stevenson, who kept the Tea Garden. There he rented two rooms, was allowed the use of the garden and all his meals for the princely sum of 30 shillings a week. The Orchard suited him very well, and he would write all day, and enjoy strawberries and honey. He spent all his time out of doors, with his friends who would keep him company and wander barefoot in the meadows, bathing in the Cam whenever they pleased-by day or night. However , while this was an idyllic existence for the poet, the Stevensons were less pleased with their Bohemian lodger, and his friends...
In 1910, Rupert moved to the Old Vicarage next door, as the tenant of Mr. and Mrs. Neeve. The Neeves had been in the Old Vicarage for three years when Rupert moved in, and were anxious to give their 14-year-old son an education that would equip him for his future as a Congregational Minister.
Rupert spent the next three years writing and travelling and in 1913, was made a fellow of King’s College. His poem The Old Vicarage, was written in his favourite cafe in Berlin in 1912, in a mood that can only be considered, nostalgic.
In September 1914, Rupert volunteered for active service and joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Almost immediately he was sent to Belgium, and thereafter sailed from Avonmouth for Constantinople on February 28, 1915. At the end of March, the ship called at Port Said, where Rupert contracted dysentry, and a mosquito bite on his lip. This became infected and the poison spread down his neck. By April 22, Rupert was so ill that he was transferred to a French hospital ship, the Duguay Trouin, since there was no British one nearby. He died the next day of scepticaemia and was buried the same night on the island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea.
A natural place to begin a visit to Grantchester, is The War Memorial in the Parish Churchyard, inscribed with a quotation from his poem on Grantchester —Men with splendid hearts, and has Rupert Brooke’s name among those of others from the hamlet. It stands just inside the entrance to the churchyard and in these peaceful surroundings, one can see the gravestones of three centuries. The tall Corpus Christi Memorial to Fellows of that college is a reminder of the nearby University.
Turn your attention then to the Church, which, like most old English churches is not of any one period. Much of its history can be detected in the surviving structure, which ranges from early Norman times to the 19th century. The alterations to the building made over the centuries were in conformity with changes in the Church’s practices. The earlier ancient glass was destroyed, and the present stained glass window, dates back to Victorian times. The clock immortalised by Brooke is one of the Church’s main attractions.
The Old Vicarage would be the next place to visit, but as it is privately owned, this is not always available. It was built around 1685 on the grounds of an older rectory. The Garden which had so enchanted Rupert, was created by S.P. Widnall, who bought the house, when the vicar found it too small, and moved to larger premises.
The son of a highly successful gardener, Mr Widnall was an unusually scientific and artistic person. He built the ‘The Ruin’, out of local limestone, with the help of one labourer, and used it for his many hobbies. He gave natural history and antiquarian lectures using magic lanterns, was taking photographs as early as 1854, and made a primitive telephone for himself. He is the author, of the Hisotry of Grantchester - written, illustrated with photographs and engravings, and printed in 1975, entirely by himself, on his own printing press.
It was some years after Widnall’s death that Rupert Brooke moved into the Old Vicarage. The garden was in romantic disarray, and the Stevensons kept beehives to earn a living. Though Rupert lived there for a little more than a year, the place exerted a spell, that lasted till the end of his days. After his death, Rupert’s parents, who had lost all their three sons in the war, bought it and gave it to his close friend, Dudley Ward. The house is now the residence of well-known author Sir Jeffrey Archer and at ‘The Ruin’, books continue to be written, and Widnall Press is still being operated. Theatrical performances are also arranged in the gardens, which continues to be maintained as much as possible in the style of its creator.
For those who walk or punt to Grantchester, tea at The Orchard is a well-established tradition. The best way to approach it is no doubt on a punt, but it is just a short walk from the Parish Church. It all began in 1897, when Mrs Stevenson was asked to provide tea there, for some people at her lodging-house. The Tea Garden, in the apple orchard, with an attached pavilion for rainy days, opened soon after- Mrs Stevenson took on three assistants, and beginning with tea, they were soon busy through the day. They opened early in the morning for breakfast, and were open till late in the evening.
The Tea Garden became the haunt of Rupert Brooke and his friends - who followed him to Grantchester, when he moved away from King’s College to escape his hectic social life. The circle of regulars came to be dubbed the ‘Neo-Pagans’ by Virginia Woolf, herself one of the group. Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, Ludwig Wittgenstein are some of the other eminent personalities who were part of the group. A special board, at The Tea Garden, has photographs and other details of many of the famous personalities who have spent time there. The entrance door to the Pavilion, also has a plaque, showing the historical significance of the place.
The Orchard has had its ups and downs, and at one stage it seemed that it would be taken over by real estate developers, during the 1980s property boom. However, there were many supporters among Old Cantabrigians’, including Prince Charles, and The Midland Bank, who stepped in to ensure that The Orchard is never endangered again.
The tea that we had that afternoon, under the branches of apple-laden trees, was indeed special. Wasps hovered around, as we settled down to tea, muffins and home-made chocolate cake. The other tables in the garden were also full-families were there with lively children and tourists from all over, including quite a few who appeared to be from Japan.
And though it was later than the hour Brooke considered ideal for tea, for had he not written, Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea? There was honey, except that we preferred milk and sugar, and it was closer to five when we settled down to tea, but it is easy to understand why it had appealed to the poet.... leaving me with lasting memory. I hope I will be able to go back there again someday.