River Cam History

The River Cam has been navigable since (at least) Roman times. Mentions of it have been made throughout the Middle Ages including the types of cargo carried – corn being the main export with building materials coming in to serve the growing university town of Cambridge. Before the 1200’s, the navigable river ran from the centre of Cambridge in a northerly direction to Ely. Further north it met the River Great Ouse and the combined waters became the Wellstream, heading north west to Wisbech and then into the sea.

However, during the Middle Ages the River Cam’s route was drastically changed and the course that remains today is only about ½ of its original length. The first changes came during the 1200’s when the people of Earith, on the River Great Ouse, diverted that river into the Aldreth River.

Before this, the Aldreth River had flowed westward out of the Cam from Stretham to Earith but the diversion reversed the flow of the Aldreth River, causing the River Great Ouse to run into the River Cam. From Stretham the rivers Great Ouse and Cam then joined forces all the way to The Wellstream.

Many years later more changes were made when a new watercourse was created between Littleport and Stowbridge.

This diverted the combined rivers Great Ouse and Cam away from The Wellstream and into a small stream which ran into The Wash at Lynn (now King’s Lynn).

From this time on, the joint waters of the River Great Ouse and River Cam were generally known as the River Great Ouse.

The River Cam’s main line was then (and still is) the 13 mile course from Cambridge to its confluence with the River Great Ouse near Stretham.

1618
With no official governing body to look after it, the River Cam was in a fairly poor state. A number of surveys had been made with a view to making improvements. One such survey was made by Richard Atkyns who’s report mentioned a number of problems including sandbanks between Cambridge and Clayhithe and “interference” from water mills.

1643
The Committee of Association (made up of MP’s) tried to help navigational problems on the River Cam – but not by making improvements. Instead, they decreed that boats should be restricted to daylight hours in Cambridge town centre and that no boat should be allowed to carry goods downstream without an official “ticket” authorised by the commissioners who now looked after the waterway from Clayhithe to Cambridge.

During this period there was a major change going on to the north west of the River Cam on what is now known as the Bedford Levels. Much of the low lying land had been under water and a concerted effort was being made to reclaim the countryside by diverting rivers and constructing drains. Most of the work was done by Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch drainage expert, but he was not on the River Cam’s best friends list! Traders on the river feared his drains would cause the river to dry up, cutting it off from Cambridge and other local towns. They were let off the hook when work had to be halted during the 1640’s.

1652
After the brief respite (caused mainly by the English Civil War) Vermuyden completed his drainage construction. The work included the New Bedford River (or Hundred Foot Drain) which ran from a sluice at Earith to another, Denver Sluice, near Salters’ Lode. This new “river” diverted almost all of the River Great Ouse’s water, thus making the navigation below the confluence with the River Cam almost dry.

The lack of water made it virtually impossible to use boats on the River Great Ouse around Ely and the same problem applied to all of its tributaries – which included the River Cam. Although complaints were constantly made by the people of Cambridge, Ely and King’s Lynn, nothing was done to replenish the River Great Ouse and allow boats to move regularly.

1697
The people of Cambridge sent a petition to Parliament bitterly complaining about the loss of the navigation which they had used for hundreds of years until Vermuyden happened along. They stated that they had all but lost their supply of coal, fish, salt and “all sorts of foreign merchandise”. They demanded the reinstatement of a proper navigation and the dropping of the high tolls charged at Denver Sluice.Nothing was done.

1699
The Corporation of Cambridge petitioned the house of Commons for an Act which would make the River Cam navigable again. They would appear to have had more clout than the traders as the government agreed to make improvements. Four sluices were constructed to regulate water (at Clayhithe, Baitsbite, Chesterton and Jesus Green). Although this made the River Cam considerably better, it did not help the situation further downstream on the shallow (if not completely dry) River Great Ouse.

1702
As part of the 1699 Act a new governing body, the River Cam Conservators, was set up to look after the river from Bottisham Lode to Cambridge.

1713
There was a brief period of optimism for traders on the River Great Ouse and its tributaries when bad floods destroyed Denver Sluice. This meant that the tide was not restricted by the sluice and was able to reach the River Cam. For many years this allowed much better navigation (though only during high tides) than had been possible for the past 60 years. However, the missing sluice also make it completely impossible to navigate the river in low tides because there was nothing to prevent the river being completely drained.

1723
Despite the improvements to the River Cam and the temporary removal of Denver Sluice, the Corporation of Cambridge were still not happy. Again they petitioned Parliament and severely criticised the commissioners of the Bedford Levels for the continual drainage of watercourses which would otherwise serve the River Cam and River Great Ouse.

It is thought, however, that the corporation may well have been exaggerating somewhat because Defoe wrote about the river in 1722 while describing his visit to Stourbridge Fair (held on Stourbridge Common on the banks of the river). He wrote that barges were carrying “heavy goods” along the River Cam, having come from London to King’s Lynn and then along the River Great Ouse, to the very edge of the fair.

1748
Much to the dismay of all who used the River Great Ouse and River Cam, the commissioners of the Bedford Levels decided to build a new Denver Sluice. The Corporation of Cambridge wrote to them complaining about the destruction that this would cause to the navigable route and its ports. The complaint was ignored, the sluice was rebuilt and the River Cam began to suffer once again.

Over the next 90 years the income on the River Cam continued to grow steadily despite the navigational difficulties. The main point of income came from tolls collected at the first sluice from the junction with the River Great Ouse (at Clayhithe). All the sluices had pubs alongside which were owned by the river conservators and some pubs had a ferry, run by the publican, under the control of the conservators.However, one cold night in December 1793 the ferry at Jesus Green (where the pub and toll office stood on an island) was swept against the sluice and two women were drowned.

1829
Engineer Charles Humfrey made a report of the River Cam in which he said a number of improvements were urgently needed. He highlighted Jesus Green Sluice in Cambridge which he said was in a sorry state. He recommended a much larger structure and he also suggested a number of other improvements between Clayhithe and Chesterton.

On top of this, he also appears to have had concerns for the “education” of the university students. He said the Lighters which used the river needed to be speeded up because college rooms over-looked the river well within sight and earshot of the boatmen! Part of the reason causing slow passage was that horses were not allowed on college ground and because of this a towpath on the bank could not be built. Instead, a path had been laid on the river bed, the river being shallow enough to allow horses to “paddle” their way along the river bottom, pulling their boats behind them!

1827
The South Level Drainage & Navigation Act was authorised and this gave the conservators control of the whole River Cam for the first time. Humfreys’ suggestions were now taken on board and improvements to the whole river began.

1830’s
A new lock was built at Jesus Green slightly upstream of the original sluice which it replaced. However, this caused problems further upstream which served only to slow the Lighters down even more.The lock had done a great job in making the river much deeper aboveJesus Green but this meant that towing horses could no longer “paddle” along the river bed path and now had to tow through the deepened watercourse half submerged!

This is just one “trick” that horses on the South Levels could perform – they also had to know how to leap fences while towing a boat because landowners often built their fences right to the water’s edge. Other improvements to the river included the removal of Chesterton sluice and the building of new locks at Bottisham Lode and Baitsbite.

1842
The prosperity and confidence of the conservators during this period can easily be seen at the house they built for themselves at Clayhithe. It was a large building in the Tudor style with Dutch gables, it had a large banqueting hall which was also used for committee meetings. (Today it is used as a foreman’s home).

1845
Eastern Counties Railway became the first to build a line near the River Cam, passing through Cambridge on route from London to Norwich. Over the next 5 years income dropped by almost 75%. The railways also hit passenger travel on the river with all services being abandoned by the end of the decade.

1851
Undeterred by the sudden decline, the conservators still felt rich enough to buy themselves a boat which they named State Barge.It cost £200 to build and was a rather large vessel. However, it was used just one day every year during the annual river inspection.

During the rest of the year it was kept in a specially built boat house with a keeper employed to clean and polish it. This paints a somewhat greedy picture but the conservators also often donated a fair amount of money to help build bridges and other buildings. However, the boat turned out to be the conservator’s last opportunity to over indulge because the river’s decline was about to accelerate over the next few years.

1868
Income had declined so much after just 20 years of railway competition that the conservators had to appeal for money to dredge the river.

For the next 80 years cargo continued to be carried on the River Cam, including coal, fertiliser and farm produce. However, the quantity carried was much lower than the pre-railway days and was only just enough to keep the navigation ticking over by the time WW1 had begun.

After WW2, all commercial carrying ceased and pleasure activities took over. Rowers – especially university students – became the biggest users and the old quayside became very popular with punts. Cabin cruisers are the prominent motorised craft nowadays though the odd narrow boat can also be seen now and then.

Unlike virtually every other river in Britain, the River Cam did not pass into the hands of the government (National River Authority, Environment Agency) but has remained in the hands of the River Cam Conservators since 1702. They continue to do the juggling act of keeping all the differing types of users as happy as possible.

River Cam Route

The River Cam has been known under various names during its history, such as the Cham, Rhee, Granta and Grant. Its upper reaches also have two separate courses. The westerly one is now known as the River Rhee while the more southerly course is known as the River Granta though both are usually thought of as the River Cam.

The River Rhee course begins at Ashwell in Hertfordshire about 3 miles east of the A1. It heads north for about 3 miles to a 3-way county border, passing out of Hertfordshire and running along the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire boundary. After a mile it leaves the border and heads north east across the Cambridgeshire countryside for 4 miles.After being crossed by the A1198 (Ermine Street Roman road) it heads east for 5 miles until it comes close to the A10 near the village of Foxton. Three meandering miles further north, near Haslingfield, the River Rhee meets the River Granta.

The River Granta course begins near Henham in Essex, just a few miles north of Stansted Airport and Bishop’s Stortford. At one point a canal from the Lee & Stort Navigation to Cambridge was planned which would have been known as the London & Cambridge Canal. It is strange that the connection was not completed as the distance from Bishop’s Stortford to Cambridge is only around 30 miles. The canal would have followed – or used – the River Granta section of the River Cam.

North of Henham the River Granta passes through Newport and close to Saffron Walden. Unlike the River Rhee, this course is never far from busy roads and civilisation, the M11 uses the same valley, as does the railway, with smaller roads always close by.

The B1383 follows the river north through Littlebury and on to Great Chesterford where a motorway slip road crosses the route. Three miles further north is Duxford and Whittlesford Chapel (where the A505 crosses over). The final stretch of the River Granta is 7 miles long, meandering north west past Great Shelford, under the M11 and on to meet the River Rhee near Haslingfield.

The last unnavigable stretch of the River Cam (with the joined forces of the rivers Rhee and Granta) is 5 miles long in a meandering northward direction, ending in the centre of Cambridge.

The River Cam’s course through the city takes it around the western side of the main streets and university buildings. Its current course is actually artificial, the grassy western bank, known as The Backs, is reclaimed land through which the river ran many centuries ago. When the university (and the city’s wealth) grew, the river’s route was moved east to allow better frontage (or “backage”) for the buildings on Queen’s Road.

There are numerous bridges over the river in the city but the one carrying Magdalene Street is “the” Cam bridge. Shortly after this old structure, the river curves right around to the east. On the crown of the bend is the first lock on the navigation. Jesus Green is to the south with Chesterton Road (A1303) running parallel to the north.

A footbridge crosses the river at the lock which has a weir alongside.Past the lock the river continues to curve right for a mile until it heads south east, immediately it begins to curve left and after another mile it is heading north east through Chesterton.

A further 2 miles north east the busy A14 dual-carriageway crosses over and about ½ a mile further on, near Milton, is a lock. Another 2 miles brings the route to Clayhithe (where a minor road crosses the river) and then Waterbeach where there is another lock. Below the lock is the junction with Bottisham Lode which heads off in a very straight line to the south east (see the page on the Cambridgeshire Lodes for more info).

On the west side of the River Cam near Waterbeach there was once an artificial waterway known as Car Dyke which was built by the Roman’s, making it the country’s first ever “canal”. The full route stretched from Waterbeach to Lincoln, many parts of it can still be seen (especially in Lincolnshire near Sleaford). (#LINK See the file on the Car Dyke for more info).

The next 3 miles (still heading north east) are a lot less populated as the waterway moves across country away from villages and roads. Half way along this stretch is an isolated junction and lock where Swaffham Bulberk Lode heads off to the south east (see the page on the Cambridgeshire Lodes for more info).

At Upware there is another lock giving access to 3 lodes, Burwell, Reach and Wicken (see the page on the Cambridgeshire Lodes). Past the junction, the River Cam continues (now heading north) for 2¾ miles to its confluence with the River Great Ouse at Stretham. About ½ way along this stretch the A1123 crosses the route, otherwise there is no road access between Upware and Stretham.

Before the 1200’s when the River Great Ouse was diverted and took over the River Cam north of Stretham, the River Cam used to head north to Ely and then on towards Wisbech (details of this former route can be found in the page on the River Great Ouse)