Today, 23 of my closest friends celebrated my 40th birthday in Cambridge. Unfortunately, I am now aching from top to toe on account of having punted, at speed, to Grantchester and back. Punting is a deeply muscular activity, which exercises parts of the body which don't normally get much activity. The triceps, largely. And the arches of one's feet!
We arrived in Cambridge at noon, having been trapped in a ludicrous traffic jam on the North Circular, which took half an hour to escape. Of course, the cause of the jam was the seemingly arbitrary coning off of a lane of traffic. No one was working on the coned off area. It was just coned off!
People descended on Cambridge via all manner of means of transport, and slowly congregated, largely at the M and S on the market square where, tradition dictates, we always buy picnic food, and way too much of it.
We ate our picnic in a slightly inauspicious spot outside The Mill pub, by the side of the Cam.
At about 5pm a slightly eccentric breakaway group including my brother and Sascha, my godson, Will, Philippa, Mez and Helen set off to see if we could find a couple of college punts. As an alumni of King's College, Edward is entitled to use the private punts of that establishment, and Helen, who works at Trinity is similarly entitled to use theirs. It's always a lottery as to whether any punts will be available and we were lucky at Kings but unlucky at Trinity. It didn't matter in the slightest; in the process we were given private access-all-area tours of the two most beautiful Cambridge educational establishments.
We returned to the rest of the group, who had hired commercial punts, and drifted up the river in four separate crews. My crew included Abbie (who very delicately fell in whilst punting) Will, who captained our ship manfully, and two blokes called Ian!
Will kept jumping into the water and at one stage jumped in specifically to rescue a football which a group of kids had lost whilst playing at the side of the river.
We also witnessed a girl jumping into the water from very high up in a tree. So high, in fact, we felt sure the river wouldn't be deep enough to sustain the drop.
We reconvened in the meadows outside Grantchester, where Abbie, Mez, Raily, Ian and Will swam. Wild swimming is definitely the new not going out!
We punted back in a fiery sunset, through dancing damsel flies and wisps of barbecue smoke from the river banks. The same group of lads had kicked their football back into the river and asked us if we could save it. As I chucked it back to them, the silver ring which Nathan gave to me some ten years ago flew off my finger and disappeared into the murky depths of the river. I was horrified and rather upset.
I shouted across to Nathan to tell him what had happened. "Can you dive in to retrieve it?" he asked, "I'd never find it", I replied, "in which case you need to accept it's gone." He said. Very wise, my husband. And, I suppose, there can be no better place to lose a ring than in my favourite river, on a beautiful summer's evening, two weeks before my fortieth birthday. Perhaps in 3000 years' time they'll find it again and wonder who wore it and why.
Brother Edward and I returned the punt to Kings as the light finally left us. He was able to tell me all about Julie's act of heroism earlier on when he'd dropped the pole, and she'd jumped into the river to collect it. It was a little strange to be with Brother Edward in King's College. Memories of bygone birthdays flashed through my mind, merging with all sorts of recollections of occasions in the early 1990s when I visited him at college.
As we walked along the dark river to the car park at the end of the evening, Julie reminded me that it was exactly a year before - in the very same spot - that I had mentioned the possibility of Nathan and I getting married in a TV musical. She had felt the idea was a little odd and quizzed me mercilessly about it. This evening, she grabbed my arm, and said, "but it was wonderful."
As we drive further North, to a hotel in Loughborough, we're listening to my Requiem, which is making me feel particularly nostalgic. I do have such wonderful friends...