River Cam

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The Cam from King's College Bridge

The River Cam is the famed river of Cambridge, through which it flows; a serene and noble stream in whose waters are reflected some of the glories of the university's great colleges. It is known here also as the Granta; by tradition it is the Granta above Silver Street Bridge and the Cam below it.

The Cam is ultimately a tributary of the River Great Ouse, which it meets in the Fenland below Ely.


The origin of the names of the river are unknown, but in the Anglo-Saxon period the river was known as the Granta, just as it does today on the upper part of the river. Cambridge in turn was known as Grantanbrycg or Grantebrycg. In later ages however these names changed and Cambridge became Cantabridge, hence the abbreviation Cantab for a Cambridge degree, and later "Cambridge". The name of the river then followed that of the town.

By tradition, the river is known as the Cam below Silver Street Bridge and the Granta above it. The Granta has lent a name to the pretty village of Grantchester, which in former days was Grantasæte. The name Grantaceaster though can be traced much earlier, for Bede used it,[1] though it is thought that the name then attached to Chesterton near Cambridge.

Another Cambridgeshire river claims the name "Cam", namely the River Rhee. The Granta and the Rhee meet a little south of Grantchester, and the Ordnance Survey mark them above that point as "Cam or Granta" and "Cam or Rhee" respectively for the villages on the Rhee, which flows from south-eastern Cambridgeshire, have claimed theirs is the real Cam.


The Granta to Grantchester

The Granta rises in Essex, between Widdington and the hamlet of Hamperden End. The infant stream flow south-westwards before turning due north east of Ugley, and frm there carving a fair valley north through Essex; the valley followed today by the railway, the M11 motorway and the local lane between the villages. It passes through Newport then the parkland of Audley End and on to Great Chesterford, where it becomes briefly the county border and then enters Cambridgeshire.

In Cambridgeshire the broadening Cam meanders past Ickleton, Hinxton, Duxford and Whittlesford, where its waters have powered mills. Then after flowing between Great Shelford and Little Shelford it is joined by the River Rhee.

The Granta at Grantchester

Grantchester to The Silver Street Bridge

The Granta divides Grantchester from Trumpington, both pretty villages, though it is the former which is most celebrated. The students from the University of Cambridge often punt as far up as Grantchester with picnics to be spread on the meadows. The Granta here is a river which has often inspired poetry, and rightly so.

The river wanders north between the Grantchester meadows towards Cambridge: the path along the river down to Grantchester is well trodden and known as the "Grantchester Grid". The river meets the town at the village of Newnham and divides into two branches around the meadows at Fen Causeway.

Punt being pulled up the rollers

The highest locks and weir on the river are in this part, above the Silver Street Bridge, and this marks off the Upper River from the Middle River. Punts are for hire here, to take one upriver to Grantchester or downriver along the backs (and rollers are provided to take punts past the weir). The delightful Mill Pit is a still backwater over toward Newnham where many a punt wanders.

The Backs

King's College chapel and Clare College

Below the weir until Jesus Lock is the Middle River. Below Silver Street Bridge (from where the river by tradition becomes the Cam) is Queens' College, and the mile-long reach from here to Magdalene College is known as the Backs, which is one of the most beautiful stretches of river in Britain. Along the Backs, the River Cam flows serenely past the lawns at the backs of the colleges of the University; here are spacious lawns and intimate gardens, the banks edgesd in well tended grass and ancient willows, and on display are some of Cambridge's grandest buildings: Queens' College, King's College Chapel and the Wren Library, while the river passes under elegant stone bridges; the King's Bridge, Garrett Hostel Bridge and eventually Magdalene Bridge; the only bridge in the Kingdom which has ultimately given a name to its county. This reach is most popular with tourists, with its picture-postcard views. It also has the unusual feature of the remains of a submerged towpath: the riverside colleges did not permit barge horses on the Backs, so the beasts waded up the Cam to the mill pulling their loads behind them.

Access for mechanically powered boats is prohibited above 'La Mimosa' Pub (at the upstream end of Jesus Green between 1 April and 30 September, when the middle and upper river are open only to manually propelled craft. The most common of these are the flat-bottomed punts.

Between 1 October and 31 March powered boats are allowed as far as Mill Pool, but few people take advantage of this, as there are very few public mooring places along the Backs, and the river is too narrow and the bridges too low to afford easy passing or turning for many boats.

The lower river

A Caius eight about to be "bumped" during the May Bumps

Jesus Green Lock is on Jesus Green, downstream of Magdalene Bridge, and below this lock and its weir is the Lower River.

The Conservators of the River Cam was formed in 1702, charged with keeping the lower river navigable, and they are responsible for the two locks in and northeast of Cambridge: Jesus Lock and Baits Bite Lock (north of Fen Ditton.

The stretch between Jesus Lock and Baits Bite Lock is much used for rowing, and the north bank of the Cam here is heavy with the boathouses of colleges and others. Midsummer Common is on much of the suth bank before the town takes over again. There are also many residential boats on this stretch, their occupants forming a community who call themselves the Camboaters.[2]

The river flows through the suburbs of Cambridge, past Chesterton, with Stourbridge Common on the south bank stretching all the way to Fen Ditton. A little beyond Fen Ditton is Bait's Bite Lock; the end of the Conservators' jurisdiction and the end of many a hard row. Below this is in the fenland.

The fenland river

Navigation on the lowest section of the Cam, below and including Bottisham Lock, is the responsibility of the Environment Agency.[3]

The Cam passes Horningsea, Clayhithe and Waterbeach, and then is devoid of villages until the tiny village of Upware, where the famed pub the Five Miles from Anywhere looks out over it, as it ithe river is joined by the Reach Lode. (There is a signpost on the river here to direct riverboats at the junction).

The Cam enters the Great Ouse at Pope's Corner, near Ely.


The principal tributary of the Cam is the River Rhee, though it too claims the name of the Cam. The Rhee begins just off the High Street (Ashwell Springs), Ashwell in Hertfordshire, to join the Granta south of Grantchester.

Another tributary, also known as the Granta, runs 10 miles from south of Haverhill to join the larger Granta south of Great Shelford.

A minor tributary is Bourn Brook which has its source near the village of Eltisley, 10 miles west of Cambridge, running east through Caxton, Bourn and Toft to join the Cam at Byron's Pool at Grantchester.


The Mill Pond at Grantchester

The Cam has generated endless stories, poems and paintings.

"The Reeve's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales begins:

At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge,
Ther gooth a brook, and over that a brigge,
Upon the whiche brook ther stant a melle;
And this is verray sooth that I yow telle:
A millere was ther dwellynge many a day.

The mill formerly stood by Brasley Bridge on Grantchester Road. The mill pond is extant and the foundations of the mill can be seen when the water is low.[4]

Byron's Pool is named after the poet, Lord Byron, who is reputed to have swum there. It was certainly a bathing place for Rupert Brooke and the Cambridge neo-Pagans. Brooke used to canoe from Cambridge to lodgings in Grantchester, which included The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. His homesick poem of 1912 evokes the river:

Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?

—"The Old Vicarage, Grantchester", "Collected Poems" (1916)[5]

One of Brooke's contemporaries, Gwen Darwin, later Raverat, grew up in the old mill by the Mill Pond. Her book, Period Piece, is a memoir of a childhood messing about on the river. The mill house is now part of Darwin College.

Darwin College seen across the Mill Pond

Children's author Philippa Pearce, who lived in Great Shelford until her death in December 2006, featured the Cam in her books, most notably Minnow on the Say. The river is renamed the River Say, with Great and Little Shelford becoming Great and Little Barley, and Cambridge becoming "Castleford" (not to be confused with the real town of the same name in West Yorkshire).

River Cam is referred to as "Camus, reverend Sire" in line 103 of John Milton's pastoral elegy Lycidas. Edward King, in whose memory the elegy was composed, was a fellow student at Cambridge.


Mathematical Bridge between Queens' College and the President's Lodge
The meeting of the Cam (left) and the Great Ouse

Like many rivers, the Cam is extensively used for several forms of recreational activity. These include angling, swimming and various kinds of boating.

Punting and canoeing

Punting is the most popular form of boating on the stretch of the river between Jesus Lock and Grantchester. Several of the colleges own punts, and they can also be hired from various companies, either with or without a person to operate them (a "punt chauffeur").

Punts are hired by Magdalene Bridge and by Silver Street Bridge.

Canoeing and kayaking, both recreational and competitive, are popular at all times of year, especially on the section above the Mill Pond towards Grantchester. Both Cambridge Canoe Club (on Sheep's Green) and Cambridge University Canoe Club (just upstream from Newnham) are based here.


The lower river between Jesus Lock and Baits Bite Lock is the training and racing home of the Cambridge University Combined Boat Clubs' university and college, and the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association's town, rowing teams. The Cambridge Lent, May and Town Bumps rowing races, where boats set off at regular intervals, and the object is to catch and touch (that is, 'bump') the boat in front, are held here.[6]


All boats require a navigation licence[7] from either the Conservators of the River Cam or the Environment Agency.

There are public moorings just below Jesus Lock on both sides of the river and on the western bank just north of the bridge at Clayhithe (both with a maximum stay of 48 hours), and on the railings adjoining Riverside in Cambridge (unlimited stay, but usually fully occupied). The moorings on the commons in Cambridge (Jesus Green, Midsummer Common and Stourbridge Common) are reserved by the City Council for holders of its long-term mooring permits. There are also some privately owned moorings.

There is a public slipway next to the garden of the Green Dragon pub in Water Steet, Chesterton. This is occasionally used for launching small boats.

Powered boats may navigate as far upstream as La Mimosa pub (next to Jesus Green) all year round, and as far as the Mill Pool between 1 October and 31 March.


The Cam Sailing Club was founded in 1899. It is based at Clayhithe near Waterbeach and organises sailing races most weekends between March and November.[8]


The water is not murky and is clean enough from its source to its confluence with the Great Ouse to support fish. The fishing rights on the west bank are leased annually to the Cambridge Fish Preservation and Angling Society.[9]

The Cam below Bottisham Sluice may still hold burbot, a fish thought to be extinct in English waters since the early 1970s.[10] The last known burbot caught in Britain was in 1969, on the Cam, and in 2010 a fisherman reported spotting two in the Great Ouse.[11]


Swimming on the upper river is very popular in the summer, with many people bathing at Grantchester Meadows all year round. The New Year's Day swim is also a treat for more hardy bathers.


Cambridge was an inland port due to its location on the River Cam until the draining of the Fens; the arms of Cambridge City Council show three ships. As the university colleges rose in importance, the course of the river through the town, known as the Backs, was moved further to the east to accommodate their new buildings. A report conducted in 1618 by Richard Atkyns highlighted the problems caused by sandbanks above Clayhithe and watermills obstructing navigation. An order made by the parliamentary Committee of the Association in 1643 regulated use of the river for trade, but the biggest change was the construction of Denver Sluice on the River Great Ouse, which reduced river levels on the lower river as tidal waters were excluded from the Ouse. Both the university and the Corporation of Cambridge complained to parliament in 1697 that the trade route to the town from King's Lynn had been severely impaired.[12]

At some time before 1722, Denver sluice had been destroyed. Cambridge Corporation opposed its reconstruction, but it was rebuilt by 1750 and the river entered a period of steady profitability, with toll receipts rising from £432 in 1752 to over £1,000 by 1803. In 1835 they peaked at £1,995. The Convervators also raised some revenue from rents on the public houses which they owned adjacent to each of the sluices.[12] The South Level Act of 1827 created Commissioners who had responsibility for the river below Bottisham and appointed the Vice-Chancellor of the University and the Mayor as navigation commissioners. The Conservators built locks at Baits Bite and Bottisham, and removed the sluice at Chesterton.[12]

Traffic using the river today consists of private cruisers making the journey to Jesus Lock, with the section above Baits Bite lock regularly in use by the University rowing clubs, both for practice and for races. Motorised craft can navigate along the Backs in winter, but headroom is severely restricted. The Conservators of the River Cam now have an office in the former lock-keepers cottage at Baits Bite, while the house at Clayhithe is now the residence of the foreman of the Conservators. The Conservators are still responsible for the river above Bottisham lock, while the lower river has been managed by the Environment Agency since its creation in 1995.[6]

The three locks are all of different sizes. Bottisham and Baits Bite locks are both fully automated, with a vertical guillotine gate at the upstream end and traditional mitre gates at the downstream end. Jesus lock is manually operated, and has mitre gates at both ends. Boat sizes are restricted to 96.8 feet by the length of Bottisham lock, and to 14 feet by the width of Baits Bite lock. Jesus lock is only 9.7 feet wide.[13] The navigable lodes of Reach, Swaffham Bulbeck and Bottisham, the last of which is no longer navigable, can be reached from the River Cam.


The Cam flooding Stourbridge Common, 2001

The Cam is normally a placid river but flooding does occasionally happen. The most recent serious floods were in 2001, first in February and again on 22–23 October.[14] Further serious flooding occurred in February 2009.

The Environment Agency is responsible for managing water levels and issuing flood warnings for the entire river.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about River Cam)


  1. Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  2. Camboaters Community Association
  3. Environment Agency - River Great Ouse
  4. W. E. Dring (1974). "Grantchester Road, Byron's Pool and the River Cam". Trumpington Local History Group. http://www.trumpingtonlocalhistorygroup.org/subjects_reminiscences_Dring3.html. Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  5. The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke at Project Gutenberg
  6. 6.0 6.1 The River Great Ouse and tributaries, (2006), Andrew Hunter Blair, Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, ISBN 978-0-85288-943-5
  7. Conservators of the River Cam -- boat registration
  8. Cam Sailing Club
  9. Conservators of the River Cam -- fishing
  10. UK Biodiversity Action Plan, Burbot, accessed 10 January 2009
  11. 'Extinct' burbot spotted in River Eden and Great Ouse
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 The Canals of Eastern England, (1977), John Boyes and Ronald Russell, David and Charles, ISBN 978-0-7153-7415-3
  13. Cam Conservators, Lock Dimensions, accessed 25 May 2009
  14. Photographs of the October 2001 Cam floods on the Cambridge 2000 site