History of the Rambling Club

The late 1950s, by Pat Wilson

This is – unavoidably – a fragment of the CURC's long and distinguished history – mainly covering my own time with the club in the late 1950s plus a few years before and afterwards. I will be copying it around my surviving contemporaries and those on the most recent "reunions" list with the hope that some of them and our present day successors will be able to correct and add to it - Pat Wilson, 2016

The Rambling Club held its first official ramble in – it's thought – the Michaelmas Term of 1934. Our forefathers walked fourteen miles to Horseheath on the very edge of Suffolk. We think they were led by the astronomer Fred Hoyle probably with map and telescope. And they may have danced a little on the way!

(The CURC was largely drawn from the ranks of The Round folk dance club (still dancing in Cambridge today) and enjoyed overlapping membership for many years. Right up to the 1950s ramblers would sometimes startle Sunday morning villagers with impromptu performances of "Strip the Willow" or "The Clog Dance" in front of their local pub...).

The late 1920s/early 30s was very much lift-off time for the great outdoors. The YHA was opening its first hostels and the Holiday Fellowship and the CHA were busy buying up country houses for their Spartan walking holidays. (Men and women – married or not – in separate dormitories!) Thousands of young people were out every weekend and many took part in the Kinder Scout mass trespass.

The CURC seems to have been an eccentric group from its earliest days and – at least by my time – with its own traditions. We were the only university club without any formal membership. We proudly kept a yellowing letter from the Senior Proctor allowing this on the strict condition that there were no funds or officials. The only exception was the person known as "Enquiries To" who had his name in the Varsity Handbook once a year.

All rambles began at 10:30 or so from Mill Lane Bridge (MLB) with the destination chalked up each week for late-comers. First ramble of the season was always to Eltisley. (Difficult nowadays with a New Town half way). Usually a pub at lunch time (only selling crisps and picked eggs) and late afternoon tea at a genteel tea shop or tea garden (most now gone) often run by querulous old ladies in black dresses who tended to disapprove of muddy boots and wet anoraks. 2s and 6d for tea, bread and jam and one cake if you were lucky.

We got back to Cambridge by bus or – sometimes – taxi! One of our senior members owned a decrepit London taxi called Queenie which could accommodate, dangerously, an astonishing number of ramblers inside, on the roof or just clinging on. The record was twelve, I think.

Sunday evening was traditionally a gathering for coffee in someone's rooms where "the archives" were read aloud to much barracking and nit-picking. These were detailed reports of the previous week's ramble – sometimes pedestrian, sometimes faux literary, occasionally in verse. Thirty volumes or so – also including accounts of vacation trips with maps and photos – are now in the University Library and can be consulted by appointment.

And there was punting – usually instead of rambling – in the Summer Term. Obviously along the Backs to Granchester or Fenstanton but also on the Ouse at Hemingford Grey or St Neots. Couples, known as "entities" (some still together in 2016) would embrace in the bottoms of punts together with the picnic things, flagons of cider and the Sunday papers.

To reduce the hiring cost we invested in our own punt "The Captain Fred" brought down by a local student entrepreneur from Yorkshire. We all paid £1 a head as shareholders. Fred always leaked a bit (never the one anyone raced to get to) but lasted for years. Believed to have sunk for ever off Jesus in the bad winter of 1963.

Three times a year there were vacation trips. North and South Wales, the Lakes and the Cairngorms and further afield. One group made it to the Arctic Circle travelling deck class and hitch-hiking home via Helsinki. In fact hitch hiking - now a lost art reserved for escaped prisoners and illegal immigrants tended to be the normal method of travel for both sexes. After finals in 1960 we held a timed hitch-hiking race from Mill Lane Bridge to the Summit of Snowdon and back. The winner – now Emeritus Professor of chemistry at Newcastle – did it in eighteen hours I think.

The Club was always keen on reunions. Fred Hoyle chaired the 25th anniversary reunion in Cats in 1960. Later we had the 1,000th ramble reunion in (I think) 1968 and the 50th in 1984. Probably a number of others since then.

There was a grand plan projected many years in advance for a massive reunion on Salisbury Plain at the time of the last total eclipse in 1999. In the event tracking down survivors assembled took us until 2001 with (I suppose) the 66th Reunion on the Yorkshire Moors. There have been a series of others with more "lost" ramblers steadily recovered until last year when my generation met the 2015 CURC – in Cambridge (!) and walked to the Gog Magogs.

We all look forward to the 85th in 2019/20. Maybe even with a spot of dancing!

Around 1980, by David Stone

Here are a few notes, mostly from my memory, in a few places supplemented by others with whom I am still in touch, which may be of interest to members of Cambridge University Rambling Club. They complement those of Pat Wilson from the 1950s currently on the club's website. My notes cover the period 1977-1981. I, David Stone, was Secretary for the year 1979-1980.

I was prompted to write them by finding CURC memorabilia (two posters, two editions of the songbook, many photos) when helping to sort the possessions of my father-in-law Brian Williamson ("Willie" in CURC, rambled around 1950, died 2015).

The pattern of rambles

The normal pattern of termtime rambles was Saturday afternoon and all-day Sunday, alternating. The Sunday rambles were limited by the poor public transport available; as I recall, there were only 4 ways of getting out of Cambridge on Sunday morning (train to Audley End, or Ely, or Royston, and a 151 bus towards Huntingdon).

At some earlier time rambles were on Sundays only; but certainly during my years they alternated between Saturday and Sunday. The annual sponsored Oxfam Walk was sometimes adopted as a CURC ramble (1978 and 1980 during my time).

At the end of the Easter term, there a punt party and picnic, followed by a formal dinner (black tie or similar), after which most of us changed and went on an all-night ramble; those who survived had breakfast in some member's room. One of these rambles gave us the rare privilege of sitting down on the M11 (then under construction, cutting across the Coton footpath); a photo in the archive shows this.

Most all-day rambles included a pub stop for those who wanted lunch indoors, but the group tended to divide into pub-goers and pub-haters (of course, pubs were smoky in those days). We made (or didn't make) decisions at Sunday coffee evening, held in some member's room.

During most vacations CURC arranged a holiday for those interested, usually hostelling in some more attractive, or hillier, or just boggier, part of Britain, just occasionally further afield. On a few holidays we camped, or used bothies.

There was a practice of having the odd silly ramble. One was called (eccentrically) "Brillig and Slithy Cambridge" -- we sought out the scruffy, run-down and ugly parts of the city. Another was visiting all the colleges in alphabetical order.

An observation from our rambles was that any walking group comprising more than two people eventually arranged itself into three groups, fasts, middles and tail-enders. We observed this pretty consistently; I do not know if it was a feature of those individuals in our generation, or whether this is a universal pattern. Because of the rule about a quorum (see below), it was thus sometimes possible to have three, quorate, contradictory decisions made on a ramble at the same time.

The office of secretary

The only officer was the (honorary) Secretary. His (or her) primary duty was to make sure the termtime rambles were organized and led, with help (or sometimes hindrance) from others. Other duties were:

  • to encourage members to make arrangements for a holiday in the next vacation (though as the song puts it "7 for the hours it takes us to fail to make a decision").
  • make sure the club was publicized at the Freshers' Fair and through notices on college noticeboards (no WWW then).
  • to deposit a copy of the term card at the U.L.
  • to complain (once during his annual term of office) to the County Council, about the missing footbridge across the Granta near Stapleford, near TL498513. (This now exists, I am pleased to say.)
  • Charlie Coombs (secretary 1977-1978) recalls that there was just "the one power vested in the Secretary by our constitution. As I recall, this was to requisition appropriate coinage from any rambler present prior to pressing Button A in time of need, subject to the duty of returning any coins remaining unused after the pressing of Button B. (This alludes to a design of public telephone which I believe was withdrawn through the 1970s.) This power was already obsolete in my day, but I derived obscure comfort from it.


    CURC's organization was rather informal. There was indeed a Constitution, but much of it was ignored. (Where was it? I cannot recall. Most likely in the first volume of the Archives, q.v.)

    The more formal title of the Club, as it appeared in the Constitution, included a reference to the Y.H.A (E. & W.). I never understood this; it may perhaps indicate that C.U. Y.H.A. local group (now defunct?) was originally the same organization as the Rambling Club, though by my day they were rival groups. (I asked Jim Greenwood about this link; he rambled in the early 1950s, just before Pat Wilson. He recalled "...certainly in the early 1950s there was a University YHA group, who alternately walked and cycled: I think on Sunday afternoons. The only link with CURC was that Tony Jackson, heavily involved with the YHA group, shared digs with John Chapman (Johnny-bach), effectively the CURC (unofficial) leader." So either the groups became more linked after that time and then separated again before 1978, or (more likely in my view) they had already separated by 1950.)

    The most notable provision of the Constitution was the rule for a quorum at meetings: a prime number of members, as the song helps us to remember: "six which is not quorate". It may be that I in my year as Secretary was the first to use a computer for the simple administration of CURC. Being also a member of the Archimedeans, I had a very small allowance of time on the main university computer. I used its line printer effectively as a duplicator for paper slips publicizing one of the holidays.

    There was no junior or senior treasurer -- this was acceptable because there were no permanent club funds. There was no subscription; everybody paid for their own bus/train fare at the start and end of rambles. Holidays were arranged ad-hoc, with one person nominated just for that holiday to collect the cost of accommodation and book the YHs.

    The Archives

    We wrote up every ramble in the Archives. These were large bound volumes. Each ramble was numbered. People volunteered to write up rambles, in whatever manner they pleased. As the U.L. catalogue entry notes, some accounts are facetious in nature. Normal practice was for the "scribe" to write the account on the right-hand page; the left-hand page facing would then be used for criticisms, corrections, more facetious remarks, photos if any were taken, and so on.

    We first wrote up holidays in an exercise book, more convenient for carrying around in a rucksack, and then an editor would copy as much as (s)he thought fit into the main archive volume. My wife (née Rona Williamson) and I still possess the exercise books for the holidays from summer 1978 to summer 1980. The archive volumes were passed along from one member (usually the secretary) to another. They were finally deposited at the UL in (I think) the 1990s, where they may be consulted (classmark SOC.88 in the Manuscripts Room). The term "cards" (well, pieces of paper) were also deposited at the UL. Likewise a copy of the 4th edition of the song book.

    With the Round

    Pat Wilson's notes record the common membership with the `Round` (C.U. English Country Dance Club). This link had fallen away. Colin Hersom, son of Bobby née Lewis (rambled 1950s), secretary before me (1978-1979) revived this link. It was never formal, merely that many people were members of both. We used to dance in or outside hostels (it helped keep us warm in winter, in the days when hostels stayed shut until 5:00 p.m. strictly), or when waiting for the bus, or to celebrate reaching the top of a hill (if there was enough flat ground).

    Our dancing in public places sometimes drew comment. Once we were dancing on a platform of Shrewsbury railway station -- we sang the tune while dancing -- and a member of staff came over the P.A system: "Would the dancers on platform 4 please keep in time with the music?". This informal link with the Round carried on a little into the 1980s, but then fizzled out again.

    The Song Book

    Colin Hersom also revived the Song Book. His mother provided one copy of an older edition, and my father-in-law two others. Colin, with much input from other CURC members, edited and produced the 4th edition. As with dancing, we used it to while away times of waiting together. He had the only copy with music (the basic song book was of words only).


    I doubt that a list of members of that day would be of general interest, only to those who know them. There are just a few of special note.

    Alan Duval had been a leader of CURC for some years before he left in 1978. He was a stickler for keeping strictly to the right of way, regardless of any obstruction. (And in those days obstructions on rights of way were more common than they now are; moreover, CRoW access land did not exist.) Any attempt at deviating to get round mud, barbed wire, farm machinery or whatever would be met with cries of "It wouldn't have happened in Alan's day". (He now lives near Penrith and is an R.A. member, helping keep footpaths open.)

    Colin Hersom has been noted above. Jim Greenwood (rambled 1950s) lived in 1980, and still lives, at Linton, and occasionally provided refreshments for a ramble ending there. As far as I know, he has the original tie with the tortoise, the image of which adorns CURC's website.

    A song: "There go the Ramblers, O"

    I have twice quoted the CURC version of the counting song. This is not in the 4th edition of the Song Book, being written just afterwards. The tune and general pattern is as no.47 in the 4th ed, "Green grow the rushes, O" (the original words are in wikipedia). The words are:

    • 10 for a foot full of blisters
    • 9 for the folds in an O.S. map
    • 8 for the termtime rambles
    • 7 for the hours it takes us to fail to make a decision
    • 6 which is not quorate
    • 5 for the hostel opening hour
    • 4 for the points of the compass
    • 3 miles an hour
    • 2, 2 for sopping boots, stuffed up with newspaper, O!
    • 1 is 1 lone ramb(e)ler and evermore shall be so
    Charlie Coombs was one of those who put together these words; but it was a communal effort. These words are recorded in the original logbook for the N.W. Highlands trip of summer 1979 (I have not checked whether they were copied into the archive volume now held in the U.L.).

    The Rambling Club has a few other songs which were peculiar to it, being at least partly parodies composed by members. Perhaps they ought also to be recorded.