Cambridge to Grantchester riverside walk, East of England
Cambridge is a justifiably popular place for tourists to visit, with its magnificent college buildings, beautiful riverside parks, and bustling shopping centre. A couple of miles to the south lies the village of Grantchester, overlooking the Granta river from the west.
We were enjoying a family get-together in Cambridge over the Easter weekend in 2011, which came rather late in April. It turned out to be spectacularly warm: part of what we will doubtless remember as the hot dry April of 2011. Temperatures in the south-east of England rose to 25 degrees celsius and above for several days.
Easter Saturday was one of those days. One member of the family was based in Cambridge and already knew this walk, so she recommended that all 8 of us tried it. The river banks should provide some shade from the sun and she promised us that we would enjoy a cream tea at Grantchester if they hadn't run out of scones by the time we got there!
We set out about 12.30 from our hotel, the well-maintained Arundel House Hotel - traditional in style but very comfortable and offering excellent food and good beer. The sun was blazing down so we were careful to plaster on some sun cream. We weren't quite sure about the best route to take from the north side of the city centre, through to the south side where we would pick up the path across the riverside meadows. It made sense to go via the famous Backs - the walk past the parkland which is spread out behind the colleges on the west side of the city.
To get there, we went over the footbridge onto Jesus Green and crossed to the right along a gorgeous avenue of trees laden with white blossom, then past the houses on Portugal Street to St John's College. A walk through a succession of historic courtyards overlooked by towers reminded me somehow of the walk through the Forbidden City in Beijing 6 years ago, although the college was on a smaller scale and much less oriental in style. There's an admission charge for visitors but free entry if you're going with a member of the university or visiting for academic purposes - details on the college website.
The walk through the college took us over a covered bridge across the river, with views through the windows of the Bridge of Sighs and people in punts passing underneath. Cambridge encapsulated in a single view.
We reached the doorway out into the grounds and gazed up at the exterior of the college as well as examining some of the plants fringing the pathway. The gate crossing the stream into the next area of parkland (behind Trinity College) was locked, so we had to walk back alongside the stream and cross over a dried-up section of the stream bed. Further on we turned up through the garden gate onto the public path along the Backs, with Queens Road on the other side. There were plenty of other people enjoying the walk, past the gates leading into the grounds of one college after another - Gonville and Caius, Clare College, King's College, and finally Queen's College with its modern extension at the southern end of the Backs.
We turned left here into Silver Street which crossed over the river, and took the steps down on the far side to the bank where customers were queuing to rent a punt. There were loads of people enjoying themselves in the sunshine at lunchtime. We worked through the crowd along the quayside and crossed the next bridge to a path on the west side of the river where we found a bit of space. In front of us, a punt was being pulled up the slope from the pool down to the right to relaunch into the river.
The path ahead ran alongside the right through semi-wild parkland to Fen Causeway, then onto another path on the other side of the road. After another couple of hundred metres a footbridge took us over towards a parking area and a refreshment kiosk at the corner of a large public park next to Paradise Fen nature reserve. We were ready for a rest - with cheese toasties, ice creams, and a quick visit to the playpark.
Revitalised, we walked along the roadway leading away from the river and up to a corner in Barton Road, the A603, but as soon as we got there we turned left onto Grantchester Street, encouraged by a sign for pedestrians: "Grantchester 1.5 miles". This led past a small Co-op store, some attractive suburban housing, and various turnings to right and left, before Grantchester Meadows turned to the right. Another lane led straight on but we were reassured by passers-by that we should turn right. The road became a path between a fence and a hedge and then we finally reached the start of the meadows themselves - a wide area of grassland leading down to the river. A solid path continued ahead but a bumpier route went across a little footbridge towards the river bank, past a herd of cattle.
The walk by the river Granta over Grantchester Meadows can only have been about a mile, but it seemed to take quite a while in the heat of the afternoon. There were groups of picnickers all along the way, some of them having a splash in the river to cool off, whilst punters and kayakers slid past on the water.
Finally we reached a gate with a pollarded tree beside it, then another field to cross, with stiles to climb over next to a pair of gates. This took us to a track leading up the bank to the Orchard tea garden. At last. We had to walk along the outside of the gardens to get to the gate in the far corner next to Mill Way, then through the garden past customers sitting out in deckchairs enjoying their tea and scones among the apple trees in the sunshine. We found a vacant table and pulled together enough deckchairs for the 8 of us whilst other members of the group went to queue up to place our order. It was an idyllic spot and we thoroughly enjoyed the tea and cream scones when they arrived.
All very relaxing - we found out that the No 18 bus would take us back to Cambridge, but we'd have to walk up to the village, past the Green Man pub (with the Red Lion tucked away just behind), on Coton Road just along from the Rupert Brooke pub. It seemed a small village to support three pubs!
We didn't go into the Brooke Museum next to the Tea Room, but I picked up one of the free booklets from the rack in the Tea Room which provides a short history of the Orchard and some moving passages of poetry.
The Orchard was first planted in 1868 and became a tea garden by chance when some Cambridge students turned up in 1897 and asked to be served tea under the fruit trees. The Stevensons who owned Orchard House then took in lodgers, one of whom was Rupert Brooke. He moved out there from Cambridge in 1909 and commuted to the University by canoe. Other visitors came out to see him, and were called the "Neo-Pagans" by Virginia Woolf. They also included E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John Maynard Keynes and Ludwig Wittgenstein. There must have been some great intellectual conversations and no doubt plenty of enjoyable relaxation. Rupert Brooke enlisted in the forces in the First World War and died of blood poisoning in April 1915 on a troop ship bound for Gallipoli, at the early age of 27.
The popularity of the Orchard has continued to the present day, boosted by these literary associations. It has become a tradition for students to punt to Grantchester for breakfast during the May Balls.< Back to England page for links to other stories