Troubled waters: the Cambridge river dividing town and gown

King’s College’s ban on wild swimming at Grantchester Meadows prompted protests and exposed old rifts in the city

It is a muggy, overcast day in Cambridge. Down by Grantchester Meadows, accompanied by butterflies and bursts of birdsong, Camila Ilsley is enjoying an illicit swim in the River Cam.

This inviting stretch of river – incongruously known as Dead Man’s Corner – is one that Ilsley, a local resident and wildlife charity worker, swims in regularly with her children and friends. “During the pandemic, we’ve all really needed it,” she said. “I’ve swum in that river all my life, but over the last year it’s really been a lifesaver.”

Her mood, like that of the other swimmers present, is defiant. Ten days ago, King’s College, Cambridge – which has owned the meadows since 1452 – put up a sign banning wild swimming in the area, abruptly denying residents a freedom they have rejoiced in for more than 400 years.

But that was far from the end of the matter. Since then, a petition started by Ilsley has attracted more than 20,000 signatures, and this weekend a mass “protest swim” was organised on the river to highlight the restrictions imposed and to demand that the sign be removed.

The college has now told the Observer it wants to “temper the language of ‘no swimming’ to a less prohibitive form of words”. It is planning to meet Ilsley and local authorities this week and says it has no plans to stop any swimmers who continue to swim there while it attempts to “quickly find a solution for the benefit of all”.

There seems little chance, however, that the row that has erupted over this famous pocket of land – beloved by figures ranging from Lord Byron and Rupert Brooke to Virginia Woolf and Pink Floyd – will die down any time soon.

Camila Ilsley standing in the river, leaning on the riverbank and smiling at the camera above her, with a float or small bodyboard
Campaigner Camila Ilsley: ‘Being able to get down to the river, be in cold water and the countryside, has made such a difference to our wellbeing.’ Photograph: Sophia Evans/the Observer

For Ilsley, the behaviour of King’s has added to a feeling of living in a city still deeply divided into “town” and “gown”. “I’ve always respected the college. But I don’t know how much I trust them any more.”

Swimming in the river meant so much to her over lockdown. “I’ve never experienced anything as hard as working and teaching three children at home. Being able to get down to the river, be in cold water and the countryside, has made such a difference to our wellbeing.”

She says Grantchester Meadows is among the few “scraps of land” available to the people of Cambridge where they can meet safely in the pandemic and go for a wild swim. “So it’s hugely upsetting to have that taken away. The timing is appalling.”


Swimmer Clare Hutton, who co-signed the petition with Ilsley, agrees: “When you’re just a resident – that’s how we express it, we’re “just residents”, not students, we don’t have their privileges – it feels like a lot of decisions are made above your head. I don’t think there is very much consideration for the actual residents of Cambridge and the leisure facilities we have.”

The college said that it decided to put up the sign because the meadows had become “a frequent site for large gatherings of individuals entering the River Cam under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, and subsequently requiring emergency assistance”. It is also concerned about the erosion of the riverbanks, which it said was in large part due to swimmers getting in and out or “improperly mooring their vessels”. The launching of all watercraft from the meadows has also been banned.

Many of the swimmers said they had seen antisocial behaviour taking place during lockdown. But they didn’t think wild swimmers should be punished for it. “It’s mostly schoolkids meeting up and socialising, getting drunk and leaving appalling amounts of litter behind – and I mean really disgusting amounts,” said Paul Beaumont, a resident who swims at the meadows three or four times a week.

He thinks educating young people about their responsibilities to the environment, rather than a sign banning swimming, is the solution.

The King’s ban is just the latest incident to fuel tensions between the university and the residents who live in its shadow. Cambridge is officially the UK’s most unequal city, where the top 6% of earners take home 19% of total income generated, yet homelessness is rife and rising house values have priced out many local people.

“Cambridge is growing fast, and many people are confined to small flats or live in houses of multiple occupation,” said Michael Goodhart, chair of the Cam Safer Swim Initiative. “And so they desperately need to be able to get out for their mental and physical health, and enjoy the nature of the Cam corridor.”

A man bending over a small trailer with two kayaks stacked on it, while. young girl in the background watches
Conor Woolfson and his daughter Ryah, trying out their kayaks for the first time at Grantchester. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

A spokesperson for King’s said it understood why it has been accused of creating a town-versus-gown divide, adding that the college had no intention of undertaking any patrols to prevent use of the river by responsible swimmers. “Our concern is that everyone stays safe, and we would ask any swimmers to consider the potential risks before entering the water. For those that wish to proceed, no action will, or indeed can, be taken.”

The college has asked people not to swim because it has a legal responsibility to try to deter activities which may result in harm, he said. “The advice we have been given would suggest that it is not sufficient for us to indicate that entering the river would be ‘at the swimmer’s own risk’ unless we have taken action to prevent it.” However, he added that King’s was seeking further legal counsel.

Goodhart said the liability for wild swimmers was well spelled out by the Outdoor Swimming Association. “Swimmers are entirely responsible for their activity, they take on board that risk. But there is an obligation for landowners to advise of hazards that may not be immediately apparent to a responsible adult.”

Fears of people drowning in the Cam at Grantchester Meadows have been present for as long as people have been swimming in it, he points out: records stretch back to 1587, when a fellow of St John’s published a treatise in Latin on the art of swimming. “He decided to write it because he was concerned about undergraduates drowning in the river.”

He believes the college and residents should work together. “The ideal outcome is that we find ways to make people aware of how precious Grantchester Meadows is, and to behave responsibly there.”


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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