The Grantchester Group

From 1909, when Brooke moved into Orchard House, to 1914, when the First World War began, the Orchard, with its wooden Tea Pavilion, which still stands to this day, provided a backdrop to a very remarkable group of friends - Rupert Brooke (a poet), Russell and Wittgenstein (philosophers), Forster and Virginia Woolf (novelists), Keynes (an economist), and Augustus John (an artist). It was an idyllic period. The world had been relatively at peace for nearly a hundred years, since Waterloo. It was an age of relaxed elegance - energetic and optimistic. An age of 25-mile-a-day walking tours, sleeping under canvas and picnicking on the grass.

Rupert Brooke formed the centre of this group. Whilst at Orchard House, he would spend his days studying, running to Haslingfield in the mornings, swimming in the river, walking barefoot in the village, living off fruit and honey, and commuting to Cambridge by canoe. He and his Grantchester Group were dubbed by Virginia Woolf the ‘Neo-Pagans’ in contrast to London’s Bloomsbury Group, of which they were also members. On one occasion Brooke and Virginia Woolf swam naked by moonlight in Byron’s Pool where Lord Byron used to swim whilst a student at Cambridge.

The following extracts are from letters in which the seven friends refer to one another, Grantchester, the Orchard, Cambridge or Bloomsbury.

Virginia Woolf on Cambridge and Keynes in 1924

(Keynes eventually married the young Russian ballet dancer, Lydia, mentioned in the letter.)


“Two weeks ago I was in Cambridge, lecturing the Heretics upon Modern Fiction. Do you feel kindly towards Cambridge? It was, as Lytton would say, rather ‘hectic’; young men going in for their triposes; flowering trees on the backs; canoes, fellows’ gardens; wading in a slightly unreal beauty; dinners, teas, suppers; a sense, on my part, of extreme age, and tenderness and regret; and so on and so on. We had a good hard headed argument, and I respect the atmosphere, and I’m glad to be out of it.”



“Maynard is very heavy and rather portentous, as he is passionately and pathetically in love with Lydia, because he sees very well that he’s dished if he marries her, and she has him by the snout. You can’t argue solidly when Lydia’s there, and as we set now to the decline, and prefer reason to any amount of high spirits, Lydia’s pranks put us on edge; and Bloomsbury steals off to its dens, leaving Maynard with Lydia on his knee, a sublime but heartrending spectacle.”

Woolf on Forster

Forster was never wholly at ease with women.

Forester "I always feel him shrinking sensitively from me, as a woman, a clever woman, an up-to-date woman."

Russell on Keynes

Russell spent ten years at the Mill House, next to the Old Vicarage, writing his Principles of Mathematics and Principia Mathematica, the manuscripts of which were so heavy that he had to take them to the Cambridge University Press in a four-wheeled barrow. In those years, he spent so much time wandering in the meadows that, as he said, he ‘knew every blade of grass’.

Keynes “Keynes’s intellect was the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool. I was sometimes inclined to feel that so much cleverness must be incompatible with depth, but I do not think this feeling was justified.”

“One morning I met him hurrying across the Great Court of Trinity. I asked him what the hurry was and he said he wanted to borrow his brother-in-law’s motorcycle to go to London. ‘Why don’t you go by train’, I said. ‘Because there isn’t time’, he replied. I did not know what his business might be, but within a few days the bank rate, which panic mongers had put up to ten per cent, was reduced to five per cent. This was his doing.”

Russell on Forster’s novel “Where Angels Fear to Tread” Forster would sometimes stay as a guest of Brooke’s at Orchard House. “It seems to me a clever story, with a good deal of real merit, but too farcical in parts, and too sentimental at the end. He is one of our Cambridge set; his age I suppose, about 26. He certainly seems to have talent.”

Keynes on Brooke

In November 1909 Keynes visited Brooke at Grantchester and found him “sitting in the midst of admiring females with nothing on but an embroidered sweater”. Keynes on Camping

Keynes, who used to go camping with the Grantchester Neo-Pagans, wrote to his father that:

“camp life suits me very well. The hard ground, a morning bathe, the absence of flesh food, and no chairs don’t make one nearly so ill as one would suppose.”

Keynes on Augustus John in July 1909

John was living in a gypsy caravan in Grantchester meadows.



“John is encamped with two wives and ten naked children....I saw him in the street today - an extraordinary spectacle for these parts.....All the talk here is about John...Rupert seems to look after him and conveys him and Dorelia and Pyramus and David and the rest of them about the river....According to Rupert he spends most of his time in Cambridge public houses, and has had a drunken brawl in the streets smashing in the face of his opponent.”


Wittgenstein’s afternoon exercise

Taking Russell’s advice about the importance of exercise, Wittgenstein would ride horseback to Grantchester or canoe on the river. His friend Pinsent recalls one such occasion:




“...went on the river with Wittgenstein in a canoe. We went up to the Orchard at Grantchester, where we had lunch. Wittgenstein was in one of his sulky moods at first, but he woke up suddenly (as always happens with him) after lunch . Then we went on above Byron’s Pool and there bathed. We had no towels or bathing draws, but it was great fun.”



Russell on Cambridge “On Sunday it was our custom to breakfast late, and then spend the whole day till dinner-time walking. I got to know every road and foot-path within ten miles of Cambridge, and many at much greater distances, in this way. In general I felt happy and comparatively calm while at Cambridge, but on moonlight nights I used to career round the country in a state of temporary lunacy. The reason, of course, was sexual desire, though at that time I did not know this.” “The one habit of thought of real value that I acquired at Cambridge was intellectual honesty. This virtue certainly existed not only among my friends but among my teachers. I cannot remember any instance of a teacher resenting it when one of his pupils showed him to be in error, though I can remember quite a number of occasions on which pupils succeeded in performing this feat”.

Brooke on his life in Grantchester

From a letter by Brooke to his girl-friend, Noel Oliver, written in Orchard House in July 1909:


“I am in the Country, in Arcadia; a rustic. It is a village two miles from Cambridge, up the river. You know the place; it is near all picnicking grounds. And here I work at Shakespeare and see few people. In the intervals I wander about bare foot and almost naked, surveying Nature with a calm eye. I do not pretend to understand Nature, but I get on very well with her, in a neighbourly way. I go on with my books, and she goes on with her hens and storms and things, and we’re both very tolerant. I live on honey, eggs and milk, prepared for me by an old lady like an apple (especially in the face) and sit all day in a rose garden to work.”



Of a morning Dudley Ward and a shifting crowd come out from Cambridge and bathe with me, have breakfast (out in the garden, as all meals) and depart. Dudley and I have spent the summer in learning how to DIVE. I can generally do it now: he rarely. He goes in tastically; quite flat, one leg pathetically waving, his pince-nez generally on. But O, at 10pm (unless it’s too horribly cold), alone, very alone and (though I boast of it next day) greatly frightened, I steal out, down an empty road, across emptier fields, through a wood packed with beings and again into the ominous open, and bathe by night. Have you ever done it? Oh, but you have, no doubt. I, never before. I am in deadly terror of the darkness in the wood. I steal through it very silently. Once I frightened two cows there, and they me. Two dim whitenesses surged up the haunted pathway and horribly charged on me....But when one, beginning to bathe, throws off one’s two garments, - then all is surprisingly well. You no longer feel disliked, an outsider. (It’s always a question of clothes, you see). You become, part of it all; and bathe. The only terror left is of plunging head foremost into blackness; a moderate terror. I have always had a lurking suspicion that the river may have run dry, after all, and that there is, as there seems, no water in it.

The second important thing is that you must read E.M. Forster’s story in the English Review for July. It is very good. Perhaps you never even read his last novel ‘A Room With a View’. (He is a young man). The second pleasant irrelevancy is that Augustus John (the greatest painter) (of whom I have told you) with two wives and seven children (all male, all between 3 and 7 years) with their two caravans and a gypsy tent, are encamped by the river, a few hundred yards from here. I go and see them sometimes, and they come here to meals. He is in Cambridge to paint Jane Harrison’s portrait. The chief wife is a very beautiful woman. And the children are a lovely brown wild bare people dressed, if at all, in lovely yellow, red or brown tattered garments of John’s own choosing. This Sunday morning I was invaded by Gwen Darwin, Helen Verrall, Gilbert Murray and his daughter, who made me take them to visit John. The Professor of Greek was rather nervous at visiting the gypsy Artist: but they all were very happy. It was an odd scene. To live with five wild children in a caravan would really be a very good life. I shall take to it one day.”

Russell on Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein was always talking of committing suicide - three of his brothers having done so.

“He was perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating. He had a kind of purity which I have never known equalled except by G. E. Moore. I remember taking him once to a meeting of the Aristotelian Society, at which there were various fools whom I treated politely. When we came away he raged and stormed against my moral degradation in not telling these men what fools they were. His life was turbulent and troubled, and his personal force was extraordinary. He lived on milk and vegetables, and I used to feel as Mrs Patrick Campbell did about Shaw: ‘God help us if he should ever eat a beefsteak’. He used to come to see me every evening at midnight, and pace up and down my room like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence. Once I said to him: “Are you thinking about logic or about your sins?” “Both”, he replied, and continued his pacing. I did not like to suggest that it was time for bed, as it seemed probable both to him and to me that on leaving me he would commit suicide.”

At the beginning of 1914 he came to me in a state of great agitation and said: “I am leaving Cambridge, I am leaving Cambridge at once.” “Why?” I asked. “Because my brother-in-law has come to live in London, and I can’t bear to be so near him.” So he spent the rest of the winter in the far north of Norway. In early days I once asked G. E. Moore what he thought of Wittgenstein. “I think very well of him”, he said. I asked why, and he replied: “Because at my lectures he looks puzzled, and nobody else ever looks puzzled.”

“When the War came, Wittgenstein, who was very patriotic, became an officer in the Austrian Army. After the war was over it appeared that he had written a book in the trenches, and wished me to read it. He was the kind of man who would never have noticed such small matters as bursting shells when he was thinking about logic.”

The following scene took place at the Mill House, next to the Old Vicarage. Whitehead was a Cambridge professor who collaborated with Russell on his work on mathematics:

“Wittgenstein was not always easy to fit into a social occasion. Whitehead described to me the first time that Wittgenstein came to see him. He was shown into the drawing-room during afternoon tea. He appeared scarcely aware of the presence of Mrs Whitehead, but marched up and down the room for some time in silence, and at last said explosively: ‘A proposition has two poles. It is apb.’ Whitehead in telling me, said: “I naturally asked what are a and b, but found that I had said quite the wrong thing. ‘a and b are indefinable,’ Wittgenstein answered in a voice of thunder.”

Russell on Brooke’s death in 1915

“I have been reading Marsh on Rupert.It makes me very sad and very indignant. It hurts reading of all that young world now swept away - Rupert and his brother and Keeling and lots of others - in whom one foolishly thought at the time that there was hope for the world - they were full of life and energy and truth - Rupert himself loved life and the world - his hatreds were very concrete, resulting from some quite specific vanity or jealousy, but in the main he found the world lovable and interesting. There was nothing of humbug in him”.

Russell on the War

From a letter written from Cambridge in 1915:

“I am feeling the weight of the war much more since I came back here - one is made so terribly aware of the waste when one is here. And Rupert Brooke’s death brought it home to me. It is deadly to be here now, with all the usual life stopped. There will be other generations - yet I keep fearing that something of civilization will be lost for good, as something was lost when Greece perished in just this way. Strange how one values civilization - more than all one’s friends or anything - the slow achievement of men emerging from the brute - it seems the ultimate thing one lives for. I don’t live for human happiness, but for some kind of struggling emergence of mind. And here, at most times, that is being helped on - and what has been done is given to new generations, who travel on from where we have stopped. And now it is all arrested, and no one knows if it will start again at anything like the point where it stopped. And all the elderly apostates are over-joyed.”

The Plath-Hughes Connection

In the 1950s, Ted Hughes, the English Poet Laureate, and Sylvia Plath, the American poetess, lived together near Grantchester Meadows and often had tea in the Orchard, as the following extracts from Plath’s letters to her mother show:-

“Remember Rupert Brooke’s poem? Well we had tea by the roaring fire at ‘The Orchard’ (where they serve tea under flowering trees in spring) and the ‘clock was set at ten to three’ and there was the most delectable dark clover honey and scones”.

“We walked 15 miles yesterday through woods, fields, and fen, and came home through moonlit Grantchester and fields of sleeping cows”.

“Ted and I went up a green river in a punt … We had tea, honey and sandwiches under the apple trees in Grantchester”.

“Got up at 4.30 am this day with Ted and went for a long walk to Grantchester … I felt a peace and joy in the most beautiful world with animals and birds … We began mooing at a pasture of cows, and they all looked up, and as if hypnotised, began to follow us in a crowd of about twenty across the pasture to a wooden stile, staring fascinated. I stood on the stile and, in a resonant voice, recited all I knew of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for about twenty minutes. I never had such an intelligent, fascinated audience”.

Ted Hughes recalls the same event in one of his poems:-

“At the top of your voice, where you swayed on the top of a stile… Your voice went over the fields towards Grantchester. It must have sounded lost. But the cows watched… enthralled”.

Unfortunately, their marriage ended in tragedy. Ted fell in love with another woman and left Sylvia, who then gassed herself, leaving two small children.

Grantchester has, of course, been closely connected with the University of Cambridge from long before the time of the Grantchester Group. For over 700 years students, such as Newton, Darwin, Cromwell, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Marlowe and Spenser have walked, ridden or boated to the village, whilst the nearby village of Trumpington was the scene of Chaucer’s Tale (referred to by Brooke in his poem) which tells the story of the Miller, his wife and daughter, and two Cambridge students.

After a thought-provoking walk through the meadows, where Turing first conceived the idea of artificial intelligence, one can still seek sanctuary in the Orchard, where for over 100 years nature and intellect have met. It remains to this day one of the very few places where, as in Brooke’s day, one can chat for hours or just sit “day-long and watch the Cambridge sky”.