A Cambridge college has banned wild swimmers from the River Cam amid fears the site has become a hotspot for drug use and drunken behaviour.

Grantchester Meadows, a two-mile grassy stretch along the river bank, has been a popular summer bathing spot for students for more than 500 years.

The meadow, which dates back to the ninth century, has been the subject of Pink Floyd lyrics and featured in Sylvia Plath and Rupert Brooke poems, while the weir pool was named Byron’s Pool after Lord Byron, who relaxed there.

But its tranquil surrounds are at the centre of an intensifying “town versus gown” row that has escalated between residents and students during the pandemic.

Now King’s College, which owns much of the land, has prohibited wild swimming, boating, paddle boarding and barbecues on the beauty spot, citing a surge in unruly behaviour.

Patrols in force to deter swimmers

The decision was prompted by a “large number” of complaints from locals, ranging from discarded watercraft on the meadows, local roads being blocked and rudeness towards residents, the college said.

A King’s College spokesman said: “Unfortunately, Grantchester Meadows has become a frequent site for large gatherings of individuals entering the river Cam under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, and subsequently requiring emergency medical assistance.

“Sadly it has become increasingly apparent that this not only causes significant problems for the emergency services, but also brings with it a serious risk to life. As such it would be irresponsible for the College to continue to encourage swimming in an area where it is unsafe to do so.”

Council officials have raised “serious concerns” about erosion of the river bank and the public footpaths affecting the natural habitat. Signs will be put in place to deter swimmers, and patrols will guard the area, a letter from councillors said.

‘Town versus gown’

But the move has sparked a furious backlash, with thousands of people signing a petition demanding free access to the river and a public consultation.

Camila Islay, a regular swimmer who launched the petition, criticised the “drastic action” which would “shut down traditions dear to the people of Cambridge, and choke our connection with its beautiful natural surroundings”.

“The closure would deny new generations the sense of well-being and enjoyment derived from the river at the only accessible spot where you can swim away from traffic and infrastructure,” she said.

“The way this has been presented feels very much like the gown dismissing the town, which is not a useful or constructive approach for a progressive city, especially at a time in history when we aim to build a better ‘new normal’.”

Social media users branded the prohibition “illiberal”, “high handed” and “unenforceable”.

King’s College said it had no desire to prevent enjoyable hobbies in the River Cam, but could not in good conscience give consent to activities continuing in their current state.

It is the latest episode of Britain’s elite universities grappling with disquiet from nearby residents. 

Last September, Oxford required students to sign an “anti-party charter” to address noise and Covid-related complaints, which made clear they should not stage parties in College accommodation or privately rented houses, and “show respect” for residents.