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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the River Cam in Cambridge

What is the River Cam?

The River Cam is Cambridge’s principal waterway, lined by some of the city’s most iconic buildings.

The river cam in cambridge

River Cam History

Aside from the numerous ducks and swans, the River Cam is proudly populated by swimmers and boaters, whether punters and rowers or kayakers and canoers. The river flows from its sources in Debden, Essex, and Ashwell, Hertfordshire, to the sea at King’s Lynn in Norfolk via the Great Ouse. 26 bridges now cross the Cam, but the city’s first manufactured crossing was Magdalene Bridge, known as the ‘Great Bridge’. It’s a cast-iron, single span construction, which replaced an 18th-century stone bridge. Before that was a wooden bridge, first assembled by Anglo-Saxons when the river was called the Granta and Cambridge was known as ‘Granta-Brycge’.

Taking a punt along the river, whether self-propelled or chauffeured, is highly recommended. Starting upstream, you firstly travel past the channels which used to house Cambridge’s old mills, before the river opens up into the luscious environs of Grantchester. As the names suggest, Sheep’s Green was for grazing sheep and Coe Fen was for cows. Lammas Land recalls Loaf Mass Day, a harvest festival held annually on the 1st of August.

Punters pushing from Scudamore’s on Mill Lane travel along the middle river, seeing some of Cambridge’s most architecturally impressive colleges. First is Queens’, with its Mathematical Bridge, then comes King’s and its iconic chapel. Clare is next, where guides like to recount how the bridge’s builder was inadequately paid and so left off a section from a globe that sits on the south side of the bridge. The truth is more banal. Cambridge’s oldest bridge, erected in 1640 by Thomas Grumbold, suffered from weather erosion and the spheres became loose. Segments were cut out so the stone balls could be properly affixed, but the cement replacements also weathered and fell into the river below.

Soon after is Trinity Hall, which contains one of the few remaining chained libraries in the country. Slip underneath the Garret Hostel Bridge, designed in 1960 by Timothy Guy Morgan and named after a medieval hostel (the precursor to colleges), which was one of the first post-tensioned concrete bridges built. Curve around the corner and you’ll encounter Trinity College’s Wren Library on your right and St John’s Bridge of Sighs ahead of you.

The middle river can become very crowded, with low-bottomed boats in traffic jams, novices tumbling into the water, and enterprising locals selling cold drinks and ice creams from laden punts. The 19th-century Dampers Club for ‘all those who have unwillingly entered the Cam fully clothed’, was succeeded in 2010 by the Cambridge University Punting Society – colloquially referred to as the Granta Rats – which looks after the interests of punters. The lower river, flanked by boathouses and pretty, green commons and fens, is the scene of Cambridge’s competitive rowers, who are often followed by bicycles on the banks. Academics and sport are not always kept separate: the annual cardboard boat race puts mind, body, and physics to the test as participants design, build and row their boats.

Dive deep into the city’s rich history with our comprehensive Cambridge audio tour.


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