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Rambling Club History

Some notes on the earliest days of the Club 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.

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!

Pat Wilson 2016 (last updated 27/10/2016)


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