The River Cam and Stourbridge

Nov 23, 02:34 PM

This history trail audio is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. To find more trails and further information, go to

During Roman times, the River Cam was fully navigable from the Wash out at the seaside as far as Cambridge and was the northernmost point where transport from East Anglia to the Midlands was practicable. Therefore, Magdalene Bridge marks the site of an important Roman era river crossing. It used to be known as “Great Bridge”. All routes, both local and long- distance, had to converge on this crossing point, giving it immense strategic importance in times of peace for trade and in times of war to control armies and supplies.

An essential service for the survival of Cambridge, was the grinding of grain to make bread to feed both town and gown. The Mills were water powered and situated beyond the Backs where the River Cam supplied water to the Mill Pond. Here there were two competing Mills, the Bishop’s Mill and the King’s Mill, with another rival mill, Newnham Mill, just around the corner. Most of the grain was transported in from the south by barge, and then sold to merchants who shipped it by River beyond Cambridge as flour, ready to be sold on to bakers.

The River was therefore the most important means of transport for goods and services for Cambridge and in the 12th century, King Henry I issued a writ saying that Cambridge was to be the key port in the County. This meant that Cambridge had a monopoly over local river trade so that market traders thrived at the expense of those in other towns further downstream.

But this all changed in 1845 with the opening of the railway to London, which dealt the river trade its death-blow. Up until then the River Cam was the essential travel and trading route by which Cambridge was fed and built with boats bringing fish and grain, meat and salt, coal and reeds, timber and stone. Many business people in Cambridge had been dependent on the River for their trade.

The early importance of the River to Cambridge is captured on the City’s Coat of Arms which shows three sailing boats on the River; the Great Bridge topped with Cambridge Castle; flanked by giant Seahorses showing the city’s trading and strategic significance in relation to the River and the route to the Great Ouse and trade routes overseas via the Wash. Our song called ‘Seahorses’ is on the website for you to listen to and sing along to.

The biggest Fair in Europe, called Stourbridge Fair, also had boosted trade using the River from when it started in 1211 under a special charter from King John, and up to its heyday in the 1600s to 1800s. It ran for several weeks every September using the meadows between Stourbridge and the Leper Hospital with traders camping out all the way back along the River Cam to Fen Ditton. I’ve written a poem about all the numerous wares and foods and entertainments and you can view the film of it (shot on location at Stourbridge Fair) on the website.

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