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Monday, May 16, 2016

E. F. Benson on Grantchester & Byron's Pool

Recently, I watched a TV series called "Grantchester." It is based on a series of mysteries written by James Runcie, and set in the real life village of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, England. The stories take place after World War II, and follow a young priest who helps a police detective solve murders. These beautifully filmed shows depict the verdant beauty of the English countryside, and spark my interest in touring England's second great university town.

In addition to James Runcie's mysteries, the town boasts another famous literary association. Just outside of town lies Byron's Pool, named after Lord George Gordon Byron, a famous English poet, who is supposed to have swum there. Or, according to E. F. Benson in his novel The Babe, because "there is no reason to suppose that Byron was not supremely fond of it." Lord Byron casts a long literary shadow, and characters in fiction are even labeled Byronic heroes if they meet the appropriate qualifications. Authors said to have been strongly influenced by Lord Byron's poetry include Charlotte and Emily Bronte. 

In E. F. Benson's novel, one day the Babe and his friends decide to row a boat up the river Cam, and swim in Byron's Pool. Here's a few passages from their day on the river:

Though the lower river is one of the foulest streams on the face of the earth, the upper river is one of the fairest. It wanders up between fresh green fields, bordered by tall yellow flags, loosestrife, and creamy meadow-sweet, all unconscious of the fate that awaits it from vile man below.

Looking back across a mile of fields you see the pinnacles of King’s rise grey and grave into the sky; and in front, Grantchester, with its old-fashioned garden-cradled houses, presided over by a church tower on the top of which, as a surveyor once remarked, there is a plus sign which is useful as a fixed point, nestles in a green windless hollow.

Among sensuous pleasures, bathing on a hot day stands alone, and Byron’s Pool is in the first flight of bathing places.

In Byron’s Pool the reflective, or what we may call the garden bather is well off. He has clean water deep to the edge, a grassy slope shadowed by trees to dry on, and a boat to take a header from. Even Mr. Stevenson, a precisian in these matters, would allow “that the imagination takes a share in such a cleansing.”

I'm sure a lot has changed in Cambridge and Grantchester since E. F. Benson wrote The Babe in 1897. For example, I've learned that the Grantchester Mill he described burned down in the 1920s. I suspect (I hope!) the lower section of the River Cam has been cleaned up since Benson's day. I don't know if the locals would consider me a garden bather, but Byron's Pool sounds like a nice day to enjoy an afternoon swim. I'd also like to tour the village of Grantchester, which inspired a series of murder mysteries, as well as songs by the musicians in the group Pink Floyd. But I don't think I'll stop inside the church to speak with the vicar. That could prove dangerous.

Dragon Dave

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