The history of the River Great Ouse at St Ives.

A local history of the river around St Ives, Cambridgeshire

A few notes about the River Great Ouse and the part it has played in the creation and development of the town of St Ives – or Slepe, as it was called in ancient times.

The river travels approximately 160 miles as it meanders from the tiny brook at Brackley in Northamptonshire to King’s Lynn and the sea, but St Ives is the last town the river flows through before reaching the village of Earith, 7 miles downstream, to the start of the Bedford ‘levels’ as they are known hereabouts or to give them their official titles The Old and New Bedford Rivers, these change the character and flow of the river from then on. The river is joined along the way by the Cam as it flows through the fens to Denver where it reaches the sluices at the other end of the ‘levels’ where the waters from Earith now rejoin the river as it makes its way out to sea via King’s Lynn and the Wash.

In ancient times St Ives was the furthest point inland that the was easily navigable by sea-going vessels, it was this factor that made its ancient international markets and fairs so important – these events brought wealth and prosperity to the town and Ramsey Abbey who had inherited the right to collect tolls for using the bridge to cross the river and the mooring fees. The abbots also erected the stalls and booths used by the traders and merchants generating more revenue for the Abbey at Ramsey.

The abbey had inherited the township of Slepe from Alfwen, the daughter of Aethelstan Mannesane way back in time; King Edgar confirmed this gift to the abbey with a charter back in the 900’s. Abbot Ednoth thought to increase the popularity and income of the town so he acquired the bones of Saint Ive, a Bishop from Persia, and brought them to Slepe so that pilgrims could visit his saintly remains – which supposedly had healing properties – he set up a small outpost of the Abbey of Ramsey at Slepe to oversee this activity which was dedicated to St Ive.

It was these saintly remains combined with the navigable river that began the creation of St Ives as a town, Edward the Confessor granted the abbey the right to hold a fair in Easter week and so the importance of the town was assured. This tradition of markets and fairs continues to this day, Monday and Friday are still market day in the town, and when the Bank Holiday falls on a Monday traders from far and wide descend upon the town to ply their ware, taking over all the town centre, at the end of August 2007 this great market will coincide with the Inland Waterways Association National Festival and Boat Show, the river still bringing traders and merchants to the town of St Ives.

Upstream from the Chapel Bridge, St Ives

Upstream from the Chapel Bridge, St Ives

From the collection of the Norris Museum

 

This picture shows the great Hemingford Meadow on the left, opposite bank of the Ouse to St Ives, this is a flood plain, and in the dryer months grazing for local livestock, sheep can still be seen on it the summer months. In August 2007 the Inland Waterways Association National Festival and Boat Show will be based on this site.

You can just make out the horse and rider on the Hemingford Meadow; they appear to be towing the boat into the cut.

The spire is of the Parish Church of All Saints, which Cromwell attended when living in the town his name appearing in early church documents. The current spire had to be repaired when an airman taking off from the Hemingford Meadow crashed into the spire in 1918 the airplane and pilot both crashing through the church roof.

At the bottom of the picture can be seen a small boat dragging a fishing net, although this practice in not done now, you will come across people fishing on the town bank of the river among the moored boats.

Work and Pleasure on the River Great Ouse in St Ives

Work and Pleasure on the River Great Ouse in St Ives

From the collection of the Norris Museum

 

This picture shows the combination of river as work and pleasure. On the left can be seen buildings from the towns working history with access to the river and a covered boatshed. On the right nestling into the banks of Hemingford meadow is a punt, the local pleasure boat, in this instance propelled by oars, but in time gone by you could hire punts which were moved by a quant, a single pole which also acts as the rudder, this past-time is still prevalent in Cambridge where you can hire boats to have a go yourself, or a student will do the punting for you.

A little early for the Festival but mooring in the right place!

A little early for the Festival but mooring in the right place!

From the collection of the Norris Museum

 

The town bank seen here shows its working history with functional buildings from times gone by; as you can less emphasis is made on accessing the river from the various buildings in this shot. You can just make out in the foreground the wooden bank re-enforcements and the large mooring post which would have secured vessels far larger than the small sailing pleasure craft, remnants of a time when the river was a place of work for many people.

The view from the Festival moorings if you were here 100 years ago.
It's not changed much!

The view from the Festival moorings if you were here 100 years ago. It's not changed much!

From the collection of the Norris Museum

 

The view from Hemingford Meadow, the site of the August 2007 the Inland Waterways Association National Festival and Boat Show, looking across to The Waits and Holt Island, The Waits was literally where boats waited; Holt Island is now a nature reserve.

Holt Island

Holt Island, St Ives

From the collection of the Norris Museum

 

This picture shows the osier beds on Holt Island being harvested for their reed, a hardwearing thatch for local buildings, reeds are longer and harder than wheat straw, and it is still harvested in parts of Norfolk for Thatcher's today. Holt Island is now a nature reserve.

The Waits at St Ives

The Waits at St Ives

From the collection of the St Ives Town Web

 

This picture shows The Waits in decline, this was once a busy part of town for boats mooring while ‘waiting’ to continue their journey. Since this picture was taken the foreground has been built up, during 2006/7 flood defences were installed along this part of the river bank. It is a pleasant spot with flower beds and on some Sunday afternoons in the summer bands play here.

Chapel on the Bridge at St Ives

Chapel on the Bridge at St Ives

From the collection of the St Ives Town Web

 

This is the view that you would have had from Hemingford Meadow back in the 1920’s, the top two stories of the chapel have been removed since this picture was taken. The three gabled building on the left of the bridge is still standing but is now a tea shop.

 

What you would see travelling Upstream from St Ives

Hemingford Grey

Hemingford Grey

From the collection of the St Ives Town Web

 

This is a view of the village of Hemingford Grey as seen in the 1940’s, an interesting village to visit, its church lost its steeple when it toppled into the river in the 18th century, its Manor House is one of the oldest continually inhabited homes in England.

Hemingford Abbots

Hemingford Abbots

From the collection of the St Ives Town Web

 

This is Hemingford Abbots as painted in the early 1900’s a charming village of thatch cottages which still holds an annual flower festival and rowing regatta each summer.

Houghton Mill

Houghton Mill

From the collection of the St Ives Town Web

 

And finally this is a picture of Houghton Mill painted in the early 1900’s, it was the last working mill on the River Ouse, now managed by the National Trust the mill is still in working order producing flour for sale when open.