Here’s something I have written about before, but I’ve written it differently this time… it’s about my relationship with the River Cam:
The older of the two girls was taken to the outdoor swimming pool by her mother, certainly in the summer when she was eighteen months old, maybe the previous year too. Even so little, she had no fear of the water and would float around like a little starfish, her mother close by. The feeling of floating between the water and the sky never left her, water was her natural element.
Much later she would swim in the river; there was an annual race through the town along what is known as the Middle River, and for several years from being about twelve or thirteen, she would compete. She would dive with the others from the punt moored against Darwin College Bridge, then swim fast towards and beneath Silver Street Bridge, trying to break free of rest.
The swimmers raced beneath the Mathematical Bridge, properly called the Wooden Bridge; they all knew, and all their parents and probably most of the town knew, that Sir Isaac Newton built or at least designed the bridge… That would have been a real achievement of the great thinker, as he had been dead for twenty-two years before the bridge was built. The swimmers, and their parents and most of the town knew that the bridge was built without nuts, bolts or any metal parts… Sadly, for this wonderful myth and its believers, the joints ware held by iron pins or coach screws, and today’s bridge is held fast by nuts and coach-bolts.
By this time the girl had turned onto her back and was swimming between the walls of the colleges and their grounds gazing up at the sky, usually grey even in summer, and looking at all around her, including her opponents.
The swimmers began to spread out and by the time they had reached King’s College Bridge, there were clear front swimmers and a straggle of those further back. Looking back from many years later, it was apparent that there must have been boats accompanying them, or at least people acting as lifeguards – no doubt people from the two main swimming clubs in town. There would have been punts and canoes, but looking back, she couldn’t recall them. Where there were banks beside the river, they would be crowded with people, cheering and shouting; swimming on her back she could see and hear the spectators. Occasionally she would turn onto her front, especially when approaching bridges.
The beautiful Clare College Bridge was constructed in 1640, but the girl didn’t know that, nor that it’s the oldest of the college bridges; ; she knew that the decorative balls on the walls of the bridge numbered 13¾. She, like most people in Cambridge, probably the same most people who knew that Newton designed and built the Mathematical Bridge which contained no metal parts, knew that the missing quarter of the stone ball had been excised by the original builder who had not been properly paid for his work. There is no evidence for this… far more likely the ball was made in segments and one fell out, maybe into the river, maybe elsewhere.
When the girl and her friends were doing ‘The Swim Through’ they would have passed beneath a recently constructed bridge, the Garret Hostel Bridge, and then the much older by nearly two hundred years, Trinity College Bridge. For some reason she would swim on her back after going under the Kitchen Bridge, swimming between the college walls of St Johns, as if she was in a moat going round a castle, looking up at the Bridge of Sighs. Then she would know the end was in sight, and maybe she would turn and swim fast on her front, trying to get ahead of the others. Under Magdalene Bridge, and to the finishing line…
She came fifth, she came third, she came second, but she never ever won this river race, she never ever won the Swim Through.