03 November 2013

‘If I should die, think only this of me’ ... time
stands still in Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester

A perfect summer afternoon on the river ... known as both the Cam and the Granta, the river has given its name to both Cambridge and Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Remembrance Day this year falls on Sunday 10 November 2013. In many commemorations in England, Rupert Brooke’s poem, ‘The Soldier,’ is part of the traditional readings, with its opening lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England …

‘The Soldier’ was written by Rupert Brooke in 1914 at the beginning of World War I as the fifth in a series of sonnets, 1914.

The poem encompasses the memoirs of a dead soldier who recalls the blissful state of England and proclaims his patriotism by declaring that his sacrifice will mean the eternal ownership by England of the small piece of soil on which he dies. It is often contrasted with Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (1917), which is also read in many places on this Sunday.

A year after ‘The Soldier’ was published, Brooke died on a French hospital ship during the Gallipoli landings in 1915, and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Syros. The manuscript of ‘The Soldier’ is held in King’s College, Cambridge, where he had studied.

The Grantchester Grind

The Grantchester Grind, the name given by many generations to the walk between Cambridge and Grantchester, also became the title of a Tom Sharpe novel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

While I was on study leave in Cambridge earlier this summer, I visited a “corner … that is forever England” – the village of Grantchester, which is closely associated with Rupert Brooke and his poetry. Although he was born in Rugby and died in the Aegean, Brooke lived in the Old Rectory in Grantchester, and the village is the one place most intimately associated with him.

The Church of Saint Andrew and Saint Mary dates from the 11th century and has long been linked with Corpus Christ College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Grantchester is listed in the Domesday Book (1086), when two mills are recorded, and it is mentioned briefly in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The parish church, Saint Mary and Saint Andrew, which stands above the Mill Way, is as old as the village. Over the centuries, the church has undergone many changes, but its surviving structures range from early Norman times to the 19th century, including some stonework from ca 1100.

The decorated tracery in the East Window in the parish church displays a unique “butterfly” effect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The incumbents were Rectors of Grantchester until 1380, when Corpus Christ College, Cambridge, became the patron of the living and the incumbents became the Vicars of Grantchester, many of them fellows or senior members of the college.

The upper part of the East Window of the church includes an unusual “butterfly” design. Outside in the churchyard, the war memorial records the names of villagers who died in two World Wars, including Rupert Brooke.

These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men called age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

– Rupert Brooke, ‘War Sonnets’

While Corpus Christ College is patron of the village church, King’s College Cambridge has owned the Manor House in Grantchester since 1452. At first it provided the Fellows of King’s with food, and in time of plague the fellows also took refuge there. As Lord of the Manor, King’s College gradually acquired the greater part of the village, the farmland and the meadows, and did much to conserve its character.

Grantchester’s pubs ... oozing with English charm and antiquity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The village has at least four old pubs: the Blue Ball is Grantchester’s oldest pub, although the present building dates from about 1880; the Green Man has the oldest building of the four pubs; the Red Lion is a handsome thatched building and was once known as the Ax and Saw; the Rupert Brooke, known as the Rose and Crown for 100 years or more, acquired its present name in the 1970s.

An early 17th century thatched and whitewashed cottage ... typical of the houses in Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The charm of the village is enhanced by picturesque, white-washed cottages, the terrace of former almshouses, the old schools, the village hall and the reading room ... and cricket on the green.

Tea in the Orchard

The Orchard was first planted in 1869, and Rupert Brooke took up lodgings there in 1909 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

For many, the ideal approach from Cambridge is through Grantchester Meadows, where Sylvia Plath once read poetry to the cows. She would tell her mother: “I never had such an intelligent, fascinated audience.” The footpath through Grantchester Meadows is nicknamed the “Grantchester Grind,” which has given its name to a comic novel and the second in the Porterhouse Blue series by Tom Sharpe, who died earlier this year. Others still travel by punt to picnic in the meadows or to take tea at the Orchard.

The tradition of tea at the Orchard began in 1897 when a group of Cambridge students persuaded Mrs Stevenson, the owner, to serve them tea in her apple orchard which was first planted in 1868, and suggested the idea of starting a tea garden.

The Orchard has a small Rupert Brooke Museum, which opened in 1999 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In 1909, Rupert Brooke, then a young graduate studying for a fellowship at King’s College, took up lodgings at Orchard House. It was an idyllic period, when the world had been relatively at peace for almost 100 years since the Battle of Waterloo. Two years later, the poet moved next door to the Old Vicarage.

The Reading Room, attached to the Village Hall, was the first school in Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In those years immediately before the outbreak of World War I, the Orchard, with its wooden Tea Pavilion, provided a backdrop to Rupert Brooke’s remarkable group of friends – including the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the novelists EM Forster and Virginia Woolf, the economist JM Keynes, and the artist Augustus John, who lived nearby in a gypsy caravan with his two wives and their seven children.

Rupert Brooke formed the centre of this group. While was at Orchard House, he spent his days studying, running to Haslingfield in the mornings, swimming in the river, walking barefoot in the village, pedalling around the neighbouring villages with political pamphlets for Beatrice and Sidney Webb, living off fruit and honey, and commuting to Cambridge by canoe.

Cricket on a sunny afternoon between the village and the river (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In a letter to his girlfriend, Noel Oliver, written in Orchard House in 1909, Brooke said: “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 ... 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.”

He recommended her to read EM Forster’s latest story in the English Review and his last novel, A Room With a View.

The former almshouses, originally thatched and divided into four dwellings, ow form one single house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The economist John Maynard Keynes visited Brooke at Grantchester later that year and found him “sitting in the midst of admiring females with nothing on but an embroidered sweater.” The Irish poet WB Yeats described him as “the handsomest young man in England.”

Byron’s Pool ... where Lord Byron, Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf and Ludwig Wittgenstein went swimming (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Further upstream is Byron’s Pool, named after Lord Byron, who was said by Brooke to have gone swimming there while he too was a student in Cambridge. Brooke also swam regularly in Byron’s Pool with his friends, and on one occasion he and Virginia Woolf swam in the pool naked by moonlight – or so she boasted to Vita Sackville-West.

Above the pool, there is a modern weir where the Bourn Brook flows into the River Cam, which defines the dividing line between the parishes of Grantchester and Trumpington.

Later, while he was in Berlin in 1912, Brooke, in a fit of homesickness, wrote evocatively and memorably in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,’ recalling his times in the Orchard, Grantchester Meadows, the Old Vicarage and the parish church:

Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truth, and pain? ... oh! Yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

‘The weight of the war’

The Mill House, once the home of Alfred North Whitehead who worked there with Bertrand Russell, who in turn argued there with Wittgenstein (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

When he heard of Brooke’s death, Bertrand Russell, who was a pacifist, could still write: “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 had once stayed at the Mill House, working with Wittgenstein and Alfred North Whitehead. Later, Russell wrote from Cambridge: “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 ... I keep fearing that something of civilisation will be lost for good, as something was lost when Greece perished in just this way.”

The Old Vicarage was Rupert Brooke’s home and is celebrated in his nostalgic poem from 1911 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Brooke, who spent his last happy days in Grantchester, always dreamt of returning to the Old Vicarage, was first built in 1685. After World War I, his mother, Ruth Mary Brooke, having lost all three of her sons, bought the Old Vicarage and entrusted it to Rupert’s closest friend, Dudley Ward. The Ward family continued to live there until 1979.

The Old Vicarage is now the home of the writer Jeffrey Archer and his wife the Cambridge scientist Mary Archer, who have erected a statue of Rupert Brooke on the front lawn.

Wright’s Row ... apart from the modern cars, the streetscape looks almost unchanged since Rupert Brooke lived in Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantham,’ a melancholic and homesick Rupert Brooke asked:

Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?

Sadly, the great elm trees were lost sixty years later through Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s. They have since been replaced by a plantation of mixed native trees.

In the late afternoon, I walked from Grantchester to Trumpington, the scene of Chaucer’s Tale of the Miller, which tells of the miller, his wife and daughter, and two Cambridge students. On Trumpington, one of the village pubs is called the Lord Byron, after the other swimming poet. Nearby, I had a very late lunch in the Green Man before returning to Cambridge.

Rupert Brooke’s name is inscribed on the war memorial in the churchyard alongside the names of parishioners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Review (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in November 2013