St. Ives, Cambridgeshire

For a brief four days, I have been visiting the lovely village of St. Ives, in Cambridgeshire, UK (not to be confused with that other St. Ives in Cornwall).  While the main purpose of the visit is to spend a bit of time with my daughter, I also am very much taken by this picturesque old English town, which originates in the 9th century.

St. Ives is located on the Great River Ouse, just thirty minutes away from the university town of Cambridge.   Flocks of snowy white swans gather in the water on the quay, near the Chapel Bridge. In the mornings, these graceful creatures swoop into the water near the bridge with a great flutter of wings. Tourists and locals alike keep them happy and well fed, mostly with pellets developed as food for swans, but sometimes with stale bread.

There appears to be quite a pecking order among swans. Alpha males fluff up their feathers and chase other swans as well as smaller water fowl, pecking and biting to keep them away from the feeding.  What angry bullies they are!  Enjoying a walk on the great meadow this morning, I came across a family of swans on the river, a male, female, and five goslings. My presence on the riverbank inspired a distinct and threatening hiss, despite being quite some distance from the young ones.

Great Meadow, St. Ives

The great meadow is both beautiful and accessible. A tourist map of the town quotes Daniel Defoe as saying, “Here are the most beautiful meadows on the bank of the river Ouse, that I think are to be seen in any part of England.” While I am totally unqualified to speak to all the meadows in England, it is hard to imagine that this statement could be wrong.

A public footpath leads from the Dolphin Hotel, across the bridge from the quay.  From the car park, the path traverses a great expanse of green fields. Two separate gates bar the public from trespassing on private land on two sides of the meadow.  Though not visible, there are apparently ranches in the fields beyond the reach of the public.

Returning to town, I again crossed the Chapel Bridge. This historic bridge, built in 1425, is apparently one of only four in the country. A small chapel anchors the center of the bridge, currently being utilized for a treasure-hunt oriented art project.

A swan family on the river Ouse

One cannot visit England, of course, without experiencing tea and scones.  Only today, unlike the not-too-distant past, the favored beverage now seems to be espresso drinks. The Tea House, on Bridge Street, overlooking the Ouse, fit the bill very nicely.

Many years ago (fifty, in fact!), I visited Cambridge as a very young adult. The historic colleges are magnificent examples of classic architecture, but Cambridge now is overrun with tourists. It is but a 30-minute bus ride from St. Ives, and the best part of the journey was traveling along old rail paths, through pristine countryside. That said, had I known in advance how much Cambridge has changed, I would have skipped the excursion and spent another afternoon in St. Ives. Though small, there is still much to see and experience.

Rowers from St. Ives Rowing Club cross under Chapel Bridge

Life on the river includes rowing, with single skiffs as well as eight-person boats, and my daughter has become a rower.  Boats depart from the St. Ives Rowing Club.  The Great River Ouse provides near idyllic rowing conditions, with shallow yet clear water, and slow current, especially during this most beautiful time of the year. The surroundings are picturesque, including the ancient buildings and churches bordering the quay and riverbanks, with houseboats resting along the shores.  Rowers pass by an island nature preserve while heading upstream.  Rowing in the larger boats is complicated, requiring absolute coordination among rowers, each of whom dips their oars on one side of the boat only.  The boats cross under the arches of the bridge at great speed, requiring absolute concentration and skill.  Many of the rowers are highly competitive.

St. Ives is much like the England I visited for eight weeks in my youth. The pace is quiet and the people are friendly.  My regret is to leave so soon.   But tomorrow my daughter and I are off to London for a day of museums and sightseeing.  I will miss lovely St. Ives, but look forward to a new adventure!

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