Grantchester Meadows – a lazy swim in the Granta

“I entered the river from just below the village, at a bend where there’s a gently shelving beach of gravel and bits of old brick. From here, I drifted downriver all the way through the meadows, by pollard willows in a row down the far bank, overtaken by the occasional punt.”

There’s a keen breeze as we click through the footpath’s final metal gate and enter Grantchester Meadows. The long grass sighs as it blows, the cattle chewing up green stalks in a far corner of the field.

Along the banks of the Granta, families are laying out early picnics, while the river itself is laden with punt and canoe traffic. My friend Joe and I have come up for the day from London, escaping a city suffering a collective Olympics hangover on the 45 minute express train to Cambridge. The half an hour walk from station to riverbank has been a tad too brisk and as the sun burns off the highest clouds, we’re overheating and ready for a cooling dip in the Granta’s lazy current.

The Granta is one of the first rivers Roger Deakin visits in Waterlog, its proximity to Cambridge and the Cam making it a particularly special stop on his nationwide journey. It’s here, too, where I first shook off the shackles of tedious social disapproval and took my first river swim, so I’m particularly excited to get into the water.

Having scoured the banks for decent entry points (via helping a family heave a number of pushchairs over a stile), we alight on a point under a willow that we reckon is sufficiently upstream to prevent all but the hardiest of punters from getting in our way. Primed and ready to go, I ease myself down the bank, stifling my gasps as the cold water nips at my toes. Standing in the shallows, I’m primed to launch myself across the billowing rushes as Joe points to an oncoming flotilla. Desperate to get going, but keen not to take a whack around the head from any oars, I stand waist deep and exchange pleasantries with canoeists and punters.

Boats passed, I take a short breath and push myself onwards, into the main channel and out of my depth. Swimming downstream, I catch a glimpse of three damselflies in the reeds, flicking the water as they dart out from the bank and across the river. Last time I swam here I was dive-bombed by a kingfisher, but these more delicate creatures are a more than ample match for the most colourful bird found on Britain’s waterways.

Unlike Roger, Joe and I aren’t swimming the length of this stretch of the Granta. Rather, we’re doing what amounts to lengths, swimming 25 metres or so, before turning and breaststroking back to our starting point. But just as Roger talked of this place evoking the classic stories of Brooke, Woolf and Byron’s swims nearby, I feel he would have found this place much unchanged in the years since his visit. The farm fields, the gliding river, the lily stems. He remarks of the latter that there was ‘too much waterweed’ thanks to fertiliser leaching off the land. It’s still the case today. The Granta is chock full of the stuff.

Allaying any fears of being nipped by pike or perch, I swim on until the backs of my arms get a touch too cold for comfort. My standard test for deciding whether it’s time to exit. I grab the chewed grass of the bank and haul myself out of the water, grabbing my towel and quickly drying off. We’re the only swimmers here and it gives us a unique take on this river. Something visceral, integral to our surroundings.

Later, fed, watered and on the fast train back to London, I try to bring to mind a line about this feeling of being in nature. I keep grasping for a line from Waterlog to sum it up, but back in my South London flat, I realise I’m searching for words by Deakin’s friend and one my favourite writers, Robert Macfarlane, from his wonderful book, The Wild Places.

“Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something  about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”

Those words are a guiding principle of wild swimming,I suppose, and ones I shall keep at heart after that glorious swim in the Granta.

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