Did you know that back in the day, St Ives was one of the busiest ports in the country with boats coming from as far away as Holland? You can still see the influence of the Dutch on the architecture today, all the way down the Ouse from Kings Lynn into the area that we now know as The Old Riverport.
St Ives has a long and prosperous past. The first settlers that we know about were the Romans, they made their home here in the 1st century.
In the 5th century, the town was named ‘Slepe’ by the Anglo Saxons settlers. Slepe actually means ‘muddy’ and was probably because the settlement was near a river crossing, close to where the parish church now stands.
Whilst ploughing a field in 10000 AD, a ploughman found human remains in a stone coffin, the ploughman and a local bailiff then had visions of a saint. This was brought to the attention of the Abbot of Ramsey who declared it to be that of St Ivo, a Persian Missionary Bishop.
The Abbey had a very powerful influence in the area and it founded first a church in the town and then a priory which attracted many pilgrims and gave the abbey a huge presence in the town, as it was now becoming a busy port and very popular market.
The abbey built the first bridge across the river, the first being wooden in 1107 AD. However, in 1414 a stone bridge was erected and a chapel was added in 1426. The chapel over the years has not only served as a place of worship but has had several other uses, a doctors surgery, toll house, public house “Little Hell” and a private residence.
This of course, brought more people into the town and the annual fair became one of the biggest in the country, very popular for selling cloth and attracted people from all over Europe even royalty to buy cloth and other goods although the cheaper stalls were on the outskirts of the town in St Audreys Lane, leaving the better quality stalls in the town centre.
The river has always played an important role in the history and development of St Ives over the years. It was used to transport huge quantities of coal, corn, timber, cattle food, stone and reeds up and downriver. The boats that were used on the Great Ouse were known Fen Lighters, huge boats up to 20 tonnes and these could be seen covering the whole width of the river and it is said that you could walk from one riverbank to the other just by walking across the boats.
However, in the mid-19th-century railways spread quickly throughout the country, the station in St Ives was where Waitrose now stands and the boats started to disappear as many goods were transported via rail. The river is now used by pleasure craft only and is enjoyed by many for its beauty and wildlife.
Today, St Ives as we know it is still a busy, bustling town drawing in tourists and local townspeople alike with its great mix of independent shops, pubs and independent restaurants and still hosts a busy twice a weekly market and of course the popular Bank Holiday market.