St Ives

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A personal view
by Philip Grosset

Brief history
St Ives is a pleasant little English market town on the River Great Ouse, some 15 miles from Cambridge. It is about 26 feet above sea level. In the very earliest times, it must have been covered by the sea because fossils of corals and sea urchins have been found in the area. These date from 160 million years ago. Later remains include those of mammoths, elephants and hippopotamuses.

Map of England

The district has been inhabited since Stone Age times, and remains of a Roman villa have been found. The first Anglo-Saxon settlers (actually Angles) arrived in the 5th or 6th century. Their settlement became known as Slepe (meaning "muddy").

The original Anglo-Saxon settlement at Slepe was at the west end of the modern town, in the area right at the back of this picture. The present parish church of All Saints was rebuilt in the 15th century, probably on the site of an old Anglo-Saxon church.
The street on the right of both pictures is called The Waits. Some say it is because barges used to have to wait here before docking at the Quay. It is more likely, though, that the word came from the Anglo-Saxon word "wiht", meaning a bend in the river. The large house facing us in the centre background is the old boys' grammar school, from a front window of which the headmaster could keep an eye on any pupils on the street outside! It closed at the end of 1939, after the last headmaster had been jailed for indecently assaulting a pupil.

The Waits as it was in 1882.
In 1001 AD a ploughman discovered a stone coffin containing bones which the landowner, the Abbot of Ramsey Abbey, hopefully declared to be those of St Ivo, who was claimed to be a Persian missionary bishop who was said to have died here around 600 AD. In fact it was probably a Roman burial, as it is now known that there had been a Roman villa on the site. The picture shows St Ivo, as imagined on an icon in the parish church. It is the work of a late 20th century monk at Walsingham.

St Ivo icon
The discovery of Ivo's supposed body was very important, as it led to the foundation of St Ivo's priory on the site, about half a mile east of Slepe, which attracted many pilgrims, with the result that the town of St Ives developed, the first bridge was built, and a famous annual fair (one of the four largest in the country) was held. It was awarded its charter by Henry I in 1110. Its clothing attracted buyers from the continent, as well as people from all over the country, including English royalty. All that remains of it now is the name Tenterleas Road (lea was the name for a meadow, and tenterhooks were the wooden frames on which woven cloth was stretched and dyed).

Monday market
In the 14th century, the primitive English looms proved uncompetitive compared with the newer Flemish ones, and the fair began to be replaced by a weekly market, which became known for its woad, old clothes and eels, before developing into an important sheep, cattle and horse market. Hence the old riddle:
As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits;
Kits, cats, sacks and wives -
How many were going to St Ives?

See a possible answer to this riddle!

The market is still held on Market Hill every Monday morning, with a smaller one on Friday. It's worth a visit!

During the 17th and 18th centuries, St Ives became an important waterway route. For an intriguing description of town life here in 1732, see the book As I Was Going to St Ives by Mary Carter, (available from the St Ives library.) Lighters (horse-drawn barges) used to bring coal from the port of Kings Lynn then return with corn. Herbert Norris, the local historian, wrote in 1888: "St Ives was formerly the centre of a great river traffic. I have seen the river so covered with barges, that boys could walk across the river near the Quay on their tops".

This is the view from the Quay, looking over the Great Ouse at the bridge and its chapel.

The Quay
The Quay is probably the most attractive part of St Ives. The Dutch influence can be seen on the old houses.

The Quay at night
The Quay at night, as seen from the bridge. The Free Church spire can be seen in the left background.

At the time of the Domesday Book, in the 11th century, there were just 51 adult males living in Slepe (they didn't bother to count women and children).
St Ives has grown rapidly in recent years and now has a population of nearly 17,000, compared with only 3000 in 1951.

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or look at the MAP and AERIAL VIEWS of St Ives.