A Cavern That Overlooks the River Avon

When I was growing up in Cambridge, we had local giants, Gog and Magog, or maybe it was a single giant Gogmagog after whom some low chalky hills were named… or so I always believed and so we learnt in our local history lessons when I was at junior school.  However there is also a Biblical connection, but Gog was the giant and Magog was his land…

Now we live near Bristol, it seems there were giants here too, Goram and Ghyston, or Vincent, who lived in a cave in the Avon Gorge… you can still see the cave today, but here is a poem by Robert Southey, who lived from 1774 to 1843; he was born in Bristol and obviously knew the legends:

For a Cavern that Overlooks the River Avon

Enter this cavern, Stranger! Here, awhile
Respiring from the long and steep ascent,
Thou mayst be glad of rest, and haply too
Of shade, if from the summer’s westering sun
Sheltered beneath this beetling vault of rock.
Round the rude portal clasping its rough arms,
The antique ivy spreads a canopy,
From whose gray blossoms the wild bees collect
In autumn their last store. The Muses love
This spot; believe a Poet who hath felt
Their visitation here. The tide below,
Rising or refluent, scarcely sends its sound
Of waters up ; and from the heights beyond,
Where the high-hanging forest waves and sways,
Varying before the wind its verdant hues,
The voice is music here. Here thou mayst feel
How good, how lovely. Nature! And when, hence
Returning to the city’s crowded streets,
Thy sickening eye at every step revolts
From scenes of vice and wretchedness, reflect
That Man creates the evil he endures.

Robert Southey

Her is what the cave looks like:


Ships That Pass In The Night – 5

I’m sharing a series of diary entries my mum and her sisters made during the war:

10th August – 2nd September 1940 (L. – 11′ Sep)

Leslie Gould                     Home:- Swansea
Fredrick Charles —     Home:- Romford
Fredrick Cobbett.
182nd Field Ambulance, R.A.M.C.
Stationed: – Pinehurst, Harston

We all three went to a dance in Harston Village Hall on 10th August and met the Legionnaire, Tall Fred and Howard. More fun!

The Legionnaire (who was a C.O.) was a tall Cub-Master before being called up. Beryl and Monica gave him this nick-name as they thought he looked rather fierce and just the type for the French Foreign legion.

Tall Fred had a very attractive smile. He was about the tallest soldier we had met so far, hence the adjective. It was after this dance that Beryl, who thought she was walking home with the Legionnaire, kept talking about Tall Fred whom she hadn’t properly met and asking who he was, arrived at the gate, to her dismay (or delight?) she found she had been walking home with Fred not Leslie!

Howard, who was a ship’s barber in civil life, got his nick-name because he was so very like a cousin of ours of this name. He was actually another Fred. The Army seems over-run with them (Freds we mean)

We also went to another dance on 17th August, but didn’t really know them, apart from having met them at the previous dance.

On the 24th August when Rose Bowyer was staying with us, we four girls and three boys spent an afternoon on the river in Cambridge We had a punt, took sandwiches for tea and had a grand time.

Punting on the River Cam; Audrey, a friend, and a soldier

It was unfortunate that Leslie, who had been so good all the afternoon, while the other two boys had been trying to sink the punt by “rocking” it should fall in. He was trying to get on the bank from the boat when the latter wasn’t moored and it just sailed from under him and in he went! He was rather wet and came home for a hot bath and supper, but before getting home there were more adventures!

Three small boys in another punt spent the afternoon following our boat and trying to sink it. It was getting late and we were afraid of missing the bus home as all our efforts to return downstream were thwarted by these boys. Then Fred had an idea. He leapt from our punt to theirs, got hold of their mooring rope, then leapt on to the bank and there he sat holding their boat fast while we hurriedly paddled downstream.

Monica and a soldier boy on the River Cam in the summer sunshine

When we were well on our way and out of reach of our tormentors, Fred let go of their rope (after having suffered much splashing from the boys) ran along the bank and rejoined us some hundred yards further down. Fred certainly saved us from missing our bus.

Leslie used to come in most evenings and one afternoon, the 8′ September, he took Monica on the river at Cambridge in a rowing boat. The other two never actually came to the house.

We saw Tall Fred on 12′ October when the convoy he was in paused for refreshment at the Old English Gentleman. We just had time to say “Hullo” and “Goodbye.”

A safe and happy voyage through life, lads!

What a wonderful time the girls must have had; as intelligent young women and with a brother serving in the RAF, they must have listened anxiously to the BBC news on the wireless, and read the reports from the Front in the newspaper, but they were young, and lovely and enjoying their life!  

The confusion of Beryl over the identity of the young soldier who walked her home is understandable because it would have been a black-out, no street lights, no lights allowed from windows, it really would have been very, very dark! Going on the river was a regular and common thing for Cambridge folk… forget the University, they are ‘gown’ think of us Cantabrigians, we’re ‘town’!

The photos were actually taken the following year, the summer of 1941, and I don’t know the identity of the young man paddling them along!

Ships That Pass In The Night

I’ve been sharing a diary my dad and his best friend kept during a fortnight’s cruise in a motor launch up the River Cam and out into the Fens in 1937 when they were eighteen. I’m lucky not only to have that dairy but a dairy my mum and her sisters kept from 1940 to 1942, during the war, and I thought it would be interesting to share it again after my dad’s dairy.

This is what I wrote as an introduction when I posted it a couple of years ago:

War was declared on September 3rd 1939; for Donald Elsden his life was put on hold as he had been called up and would spend the next seven years serving his country. He must have often thought of home, and remembered the happy life he had led in his parents’ pub, the Portland Arms, in Cambridge. No doubt he thought back to times spent by the River Cam, fishing, rowing, and cruising on the M. C. Belle with his best friend  Sammy.

For Monica Matthews and her family, living in the small village of Harston, just south of Cambridge, her life too would change because of the conflict.  Monica lived with her two sisters, Audrey and Beryl, brother Alan and their parents Reg and Ida Matthews at a large and attractive property on the edge of the village, Newton View.

Ida and Reg

Alan had joined the RAF before the war and now was serving abroad. Reg, who had served in the first World war, had volunteered again; he was a great patriot and if called upon, would have given his life for King and country.

Audrey, Alan, Monica, Ida, Reg, Beryl Matthews

In 1939, Alan was nearly 21, Audrey 19, Beryl 15 and Monica 14; Audrey too would join up but Beryl and Monica were school girls until they went to work when they were 18.

Between June 6th 1940, and November 16th 1942, the Matthews girls kept a diary of the servicemen they met and welcomed into their home to share their meagre rations.

The Matthews girls

Their mother Ida was a warm, kindly woman whose life had been difficult for many reasons and yet she opened the door to these young men who were far away from their homes with no idea of what lay ahead, only their duty.

The diary

The dedication

River Cruise on Board M.C. Belle, September 9th, & 10th, 1937

The last entry, and no doubt the last day of my dad and his friend Sammy’s cruise up the River Cam.


It was quarter to nine before either of us woke this morning and after lighting the primus we soon had breakfast ready. We went into St Ives and bought some food. We returned as it was spotting with rain and the rain came on faster as we put up the awning for the first time. We were surprised at the size of the awning which fitted over the complete stem of the boat.

The rain continued to fall heavily until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon during which time we listened to the wireless, played cards and had a sing song.

When the rain had cleared up we wrapped up as it was cold and went prepared to meet Mr Nunn off the train but were disappointed to find that there were no more trains from Cambridge that night. We spent the rest of the time walking all round St Ives and after paying a visit to ‘The Robin Hood’ where Don had a friend, we bunked at about 11:30p.m.


Today looked more like a summer day early this morning and although there was a slight breeze blowing, the sun was out.

We squared everything on board and cast off from St Ives at 10:15. From that moment until we reached the Pike and Eel at Over, we had very little water to move in. We had to test the water all the way with a boat hook.

Eventually we reached Overstaunch and we went through the pen with the Explorer. We moored below the lock at 11 o’clock. We went to see Bill Ellis and as Mrs Ellis had promised, she had made us one of her special Queen’s Puddings which we devoured with great relish, also tucking a few sausages in the odd corners.

We proceeded to Hermitage Lock at 1:30p.m. and arrived at 2:15p.m. On the way we saw Mr Pleasants and Mr Webster and after stopping for a chat we forged ahead.

We arrived at the the Fish and Duck at 4:0p.m. having a fairly slow journey. The barges were all up the river containing gault for the banks. The river was not wide enough for us to give full throttle because the water crashed against the banks and swamped them.

A gentleman from the ‘Madame’ came aboard to look over the boat that he would have taken had we not nipped in and ordered before him. He was fed up with the 2 stroke engine in his boat which would not keep running.


This is the last entry in Sammy’s diary. I’m guessing this was the last day of their holiday. Sammy made a slip of the pen in these last two entries and dated them as 9.11.37 and 10.11.37! He made very very few errors of punctuation and no spelling mistakes at all!

Mr Pleasants who they met up with was a family friend; Ted Pleasants lived with his wife and sister at 22, Harvey Goodwin Avenue in Cambridge and many years later, in 1965 Donald and his wife Monica bought the house from him. Gault is a type of clay which was used to maintain the river banks in the fens; the gault Sammy and Snick saw may have come from the Roswell Pits near Ely.


River Cruise on Board M.C.Belle, 30th August 1937

I have been sharing the diary entries my dad and his friend Sammy wrote, aged eighteen, in the summer of 1937, when they hired a launch, the M.C.Belle, and spent a week cruising up the River Cam.

We woke on Monday morning at 8:30p.m. and this was shortly followed by a brisk swim in the river the water being very cold. After dressing and attending to the engine, we took a trip down to the farm which was about 1/2 mile away and collected the milk which we had ordered. Breakfast was soon prepared after we had returned.

The remainder of the morning was spent in fishing and exploring the neighbouring copse on the other side of the river. For dinner we had corned beef, beans and potatoes followed by pineapple and condensed milk. In the afternoon we decided to go for a ramble round by a wood, passing the old mill, which we had previously explored, on our way.

The old mill

The old mill

We had to push our way through long distances of rushes which came about shoulder high, and climb overhanging trees to get across marshy pools and streams. It was while we were groping our way along, that we found a couple of swans eggs which we found after we had broken them; they were very antique. In fact we made our way from them as quickly as possible.

After uselessly trying to stalk two wood pigeons, we returned for tea. In the evening we fished, Snick catching nearly all the roach in the net.


As my pen has run out I shall have to continue in pencil until we can buy some.

The evening at the Dragon resulted in a very close and exciting dart match between the Cambridgeites and the Fenites. The Fenites one by two matches to one. It was all due to “Old Percy” who, by the way has forsaken his “bombers.”

As my pen has run out of ink, I shall have to continue in pencil…

I love their style of writing, especially the incident when they accidentally trod on the old and very smelly swans’ eggs. Interesting reminder that there were no ball-point pens in those days and they were using a fountain pen and ink, which ran out. There is one little spelling error – ‘one’ instead of ‘won.’ Goodness knows what Percy’s bombers are – very smelly cigarettes maybe! The boys come from Cambridge, hence Cambridgeites, and where they are camping is in the are of England known as the Fens. The Fens,in East Anglia,  is a vast area of low lying, peaty land, well-drained now by lodes – drainage channels

River Cruise on Board M.C. Belle, August 28th 1937

I often think back to my dad and the wonderful stories he told about his life; I am lucky enough to have inherited a dairy he kept, one August in 1937. I have shared this before but I think it’s worth sharing again!

My dad was born in 1919 in Saffron Walden in Essex; he was christened in Peterborough Cathedral, but spent most of his life in Cambridge. From an early age his best friend was Sammy, and in 1937, just after his eighteenth birthday, the pair of them set of on a holiday cruise. They kept a diary which is fascinating reading!

We started this afternoon from Banham’s Boatyard at 2:30 p.m. under a beautiful clear sky and a slight breeze behind us. After successfully passing through Baites Bite and Bottisham locks, we settled down for a nice long stretch of water. We did not hurry and at 5:15 p.m. we stopped about 1/2 mile from Ely and had some tea. We then pushed on to the Cutter Inn at Ely where we moored for provisions etc.

Half an hour later we were off again and after travelling along  magnificent stretches of water we came within a quarter of a  mile of Sandhill Road Bridge, Littleport. We put ashore here for the night and moored our craft securely before having a short and unsuccessful attempt to fish the water round about us.

Sammy at the wheel

We went for a stroll after dark along the bank, the air being cool after the sunny afternoon. On our return we wound up the clock and made our beds and in a short while we were “dead to the world.”

On August 28th, 1937, two 18 year old lads set off for a week’s holiday, cruising the River Cam. Gordon Samuel, Sammy, kept a diary of their adventures. The other young man was Donald Elsden, Snick, my Dad!

Swimming through

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.