We've been in Cambridge all day today celebrating my birthday, which, incidentally, is on Monday. It always feels a little fraudulent and previous to celebrate one's birthday before the actual event, but I felt like doing something with a bit of a crowd, and today was the nearest Saturday.
We went there by train, and met at King's Cross just before 10 this morning. The whole of the Northern Line was down, and, by the time Nathan and I had got our acts together, there wasn't enough time to get a rail replacement bus. We booked an Uber car, which felt incredibly decadent. Nathan and I are not taxi users. They're far too costly. But sometimes needs must. Sadly our driver was awful. He kept ignoring the sat nav and making us later and later as a result. Sitting in laborious queues of traffic at the start of a day which is meant to be relaxing is not a lot of fun. But we got there. Just.
My travel companions today were Tina, Sam, Matt, Abbie, Ian, Ted Thornhill, Nathan and Julie Clare. We met up with Brother Edward, Sascha and my parents in Cambridge itself.
These days are always fairly formulaic. We've been doing the same thing, pretty much every year since my 13th birthday. We walk from the train station to Marks and Spencer on the market square to buy a picnic lunch. We stroll around the market itself and buy strawberries, sun glasses and all the things we suddenly think we might need for the rest of the day. At that stage, half of us disappear with my brother to King's College, where we hire a punt. My brother was a student at this particular college, and alumni here get huge privileges, including being able to hire college-owned punts at very special rates.
We went through the college, showing Tina and the gang the amazing dining hall where the students eat decadently (in the style of Harry Potter) and then punted along the backs towards the rest of the group, who were waiting at Scudamore's, the official punt hire place. It's rather nice to be able to punt along the backs in Cambridge. Our trip always takes us up the river and away from the city towards the village of Grantchester, so a few glimpses of some of those iconic sights, like the sublime King's College chapel and the wooden mathematical bridge, is always a bit of a treat. I'm not sure Tina quite felt it was a treat. She'd never been punting before and has a pathological fear of water. She spent most of the first part of the journey clinging to the sides of the boat, expecting the whole thing to capsize.
The Cam in the direction of Grantchester is on a higher elevation, so the punts need to be dragged over rollers by the side of a weir. Whilst the others got on with heaving our punt up the hill, I joined the other group at Scudmore's and we set off down the river in tandem.
Sascha greeted us with the news that he'd seen Stephen Hawkins rolling along the side of the river whilst he'd sat waiting for us. The two gays from Gogglebox were apparently also in the vicinity. They'll almost certainly have caused more of a splash!
The trip up to Grantchester was as it always is. The sun was hot. People swam in the rivers. Young people swung from trees. We were visited by an inquisitive swan. Nathan climbed out of the punt and over a footbridge and plonked himself back inside the boat on the other side. He always does that. There's something pleasingly predictable about the trip to Grantchester. The only difference was the high number of canoeists on the river. Those little bastards can be incredibly irritating. There's a tendency for them to travel in packs, and, whilst they ought to have been fairly nimble and able to navigate the meanders of the river with ease, most were completely incapable of steering, and simply got in the way of the punts. One woman had a right go at us, suggesting we "stopped to let her pass." She'd already crashed into us about nine times, and, on one occasion caused a major pile up of several punts, about nine canoeists and an inflatable dinghy!
We picnicked with my parents in a field half way between Cambridge and Grantchester. We ate too much. We always do.
Upon arriving in Grantchester, we took ourselves to the Orchard cafe, where people eat cream trees under apple, pear and plum trees. It's an iconic location. Virginia Wolf, TS Elliot, Keynes, Brooke and Wittgenstein were all regular customers there in the early 20th Century. One assumes the deck chairs are some of the only things which have changed since those heady days. We bumped into Helen Acton. It was so lovely to see her. I shared a cream tea with Nathan. The sun was incredibly hot. I could feel my forehead burning to a crisp.
We returned to our punts at about 6pm. It's really rather lovely that you can simply leave a punt moored up against the river bank with all of your possessions inside without any fear of things being stolen or trashed. The light was glorious. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. We threw ourselves into the river and had a lovely swim in the reed-infused waters. People have been swimming in Grantchester Meadows for years and years. People have swum on my birthday trips to Cambridge for as long as I can remember. I love tradition.
We sang as we punted back to Cambridge. We always do. We sing in multipart harmony. We sang rounds. We sang folk songs. We sang ABBA, The Beatles, The Mammas and the Papas and loads of show tunes. People seemed rather thrilled to hear a boat load of people singing whilst drifting down the river. It's certainly a somewhat eccentric sight.
We arrived back in Cambridge at about 8pm and had a drink outside the Mill pub whilst watching a group of fully-clothed nutters launching themselves into the Cam from the bridge by Queens College.
The train journey home was accompanied by a glorious sunset which seemed to fill a great swathe of the fenland sky before melting into a ribbon of tangerine-coloured fire on the horizon.
The only thing which was less than perfect was the rail replacement bus ride from kings Cross back to Highgate which took far longer than it should have done, threw us about and then deposited us unceremoniously and without reason at Archway. London can be very boring sometimes!