Cambridge: Naked on the riverbank

Albinia Stanley revisits a Cambridge nudist colony that is still going strong despite the weather.

Cambridge comes into its own on clear days, flowering into the ghost of a city that only really exists in Inter-War novels. It’s damp October now; the heavy chestnuts which lined the river in May, and the green-leafed glow of June, are long gone. But the early evenings bring in their own beauty.

Virginia Woolf said once said it’s easy to feel as if you are ‘wading in a slightly unreal beauty’ in Cambridge; its fiction operates in commerce with your own realities, until the texture of your life becomes part of this city’s greater narrative. Travelers to the city are often awe-struck. Traces of history and imagination are everywhere, and just one example is an example less talked about than others.

A hundred years ago, a group of Cambridge undergraduates took to nearby Grantchester Meadows to bathe naked in the river and camp out in the fenland, close to both the earth and the stars. They became known as the ‘Neo-Pagans’. Rupert Brook was a key member, and others of the Bloomsbury Group dropped by, famously taking tea at their leafy haunt The Orchard or a moonlit dip in Byron’s pool, where Byron would swim. While the village of Grantchester, which Brooks immortalised in ink, is pretty enough and The Orchard remains charming, if touristy, I was on the search for more than postcards and scones.

Hot on the trail of these greats, I discovered a wild swimming club on the meadows with a ‘clothing optional’ policy. I spent long golden days there in Easter term, taking along various friends (both those who had and had not seen me naked before) and always feeling completely joyous. It is not only that swimming naked has a particular sensuality to it, nor that the setting is green and lovely, but that this almost secret club has a special atmosphere. Though in the nude, apparently at your most sexual, I did not feel in the least looked-at. When sunbathing by any swimming pool in a bikini I am constantly aware of my flesh; worrying if I look sexy or fat; checking for rogue pubic hairs or escaping nipples. But lying by this cool green river, I feel completely at ease, able to enjoy the sun on my skin whether or not my body has been made ‘bikini ready’. It seems that if there is nothing being covered, there is also nothing to hide.

With these memories, it was a nostalgic trip back to the club today, in the melancholy warmth of an Indian Summer’s late afternoon, whereby each day of sunshine feels like the last. I was cheered to see that there were still people lounging naked on its elegant lawns. One member, by club standards new with his fresh six years, told me that he swims once a week right through the winter, and as a result never gets a cold. “I’m 108 but I look 74,” a nut-brown veteran added, “I’ve been coming here since 1976: the river preserves you”. Another looked me up and down, checked my membership key (lest I be a reporter from The Sun) and sternly reminded me what I should have known: this club is a lifestyle, it cannot be condensed into a pithy quote.

Later that day I wondered why it had delighted me that I had caught in the river winds a scent of the ‘mint and mud’ that Woolf had promised. Or that John, the ash bearded barman, had allowed an I.O.U in lieu of cash, as we realised too late this little pub didn’t take cards. Enacting the past, or extending history into the present, feels exciting. It makes beauty not just for today, but forever.

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