There’s a lot to like about Cambridgeshire’s favourite ancient riverside town, from its unusual Bridge Chapel and the Old Riverport to the independent shops and historic Monday market. St Ives is a place to delve into Huntingdonshire history, potter around its shops and cafés, and soak up the Great Ouse views.

Originally known as ‘Slepe’, the settlement was renamed ‘St Ives’ in ad1001 when a ploughman discovered a stone coffin buried in a field. The Abbot of Ramsey Abbey (who happened to be the landlord) decided that the bones inside belonged to St Ivo, a Persian bishop. This announcement led to the founding of St Ivo’s Priory. Pilgrims came, the river was bridged and trade boomed. Before long, Ramsey Abbey’s biggest source of local income was the St Ives Fair: one of the four largest wool fairs in England.

While markets and fairs are still an important part of the town’s identity, all that remains of St Ivo’s Priory is the wall of a 14th-century barn on Priory Road – look for the information plaque on the old stone wall that skirts ‘The Priory’ office building.

What to see and do in St Ives

The Old Riverport

Before the development of railways and roads, the River Great Ouse was East Anglia’s major transport route, and St Ives was one of England’s busiest riverports. The Quay would have been a hive of activity, with merchant ships unloading their cargo, riverside inns bursting at the seams, and rows of barges and fen lighters (flat-bottomed boats) jostling for space, and young ‘horse-knocker’ boys tending the horses that pulled these flat-bottomed boats along the river. In 2014, in recognition of this rich heritage, St Ives officially named its town centre and quayside ‘The Old Riverport’.

St Ives bridge
St Ives Bridge is found right in the centre of town © Phillip Pankhurst, Wikimedia Commons

Most of the Riverport’s shops and cafés are clustered along Market Hill and The Broadway. Once part of the medieval fairground and market site, this linear strip has a good dose of historical charm. Many of the grander buildings here were once busy coaching inns or the homes of prosperous millers and brewers.

Norris Museum

At the far end of The Broadway is the excellent Norris Museum. Free to enter, the museum started life in 1933 as the natural history collection of St Ives local Herbert Ellis Norris and was reopened in 2017 after a £1 million revamp.

Norris Museum St Ives
© Peter O’Connor, Wikimedia Commons

You can immerse yourself in an interactive pocket history of Huntingdonshire’s early days, told through Stone Age flint tools, 160-million-year-old Jurassic fossils, Roman pottery and Victorian relics. Some of Norris’s original collection is displayed in a recreation of his study, as well as a fantastic exhibit about the magic of fenland skating – listen to the video stories of Cambridgeshire locals skating under moonlight, and see an original ‘bandy’ stick and a pair of fen runners (ice skates).

Free Church

Looming over Market Hill, the Gothic-style Free Church (built 1863–64) is one of the oldest Nonconformist churches in England and was largely funded by Potto Brown of Houghton. Nip upstairs to appreciate the stunning worship space, or stay downstairs for the fair trade shop. Outside the church is an impressive bronze statue of Oliver Cromwell with a very stern gaze. Although Cromwell lived in St Ives for a while during the 1630s, the statue was originally intended for his hometown of Huntingdon. When Huntingdon failed to raise enough funds or local interest, St Ives stepped in – a reminder of the town’s history of nonconformity. Unveiled in 1901, the statue commemorates Cromwell’s 300th birthday.

St Ives market

In 1110, Henry I granted a royal charter for the St Ives Fair, which grew to become one of England’s largest. By the late 19th century however, things were getting out of control with the filth and mayhem caused by thousands of unruly beasts presented at market becoming a health hazard. As such, the historical market site is now home to the town’s main bus station but you can still see some of the metal bars from the old cattle pens. At the entrance is the town crest, which features four bulls’ heads – a reminder of just how significant the cattle markets were.

St Ives continues to host a weekly Monday market (beast free), plus a Friday market on Market Hill.

Holt Island Nature Reserve

A nine-acre river island, this secretive reserve is tucked away behind All Saints Church, to the west of the town centre. When the gate is unlocked, cross the footbridge and follow the raised boardwalks to discover wet woodland, reed beds and riverside wildlife.

Holt Island St Ives
© Nigel Sprowell, Holt Island

This tranquil haven is home to warblers, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, badgers, foxes and more. If conditions are suitable out of season, the Norris Museum can give you a key.