Tales of the St Neots Riverbank

On 4th February 2022 Liz Davies, the curator of the St Neots Museum, outlined the history of the River Great Ouse and its formation some 500000 years ago when Britain was connected to Europe by a land bridge. The river now rises near Silverstone in Northamptonshire and flows via Bedford, St Neots, St Ives,
Huntingdon and out to the Wash. Glaciers came and went and so did the hunter gatherers, eventually becoming farmers. They had a variety of wild animals to
contend with – woolly mammoths, lions, sabre toothed tigers and red deer. These animals were attracted to the river to drink and were hunted to provide food. A variety of Neolithic and iron age artefacts have been found including a Neolithic hut and tools. The river had religious significance, the inhabitants believing spirits lived there.and artefacts have been found in the river presumably gifts to the gods. In the bronze age the river became a means of travel in boats made from hollowed out tree trunks (some of these can be seen at Flag Fen). Larger boats allowed trade with Europe in farm produce and slaves. Invaders came, attracted by the farming wealth and the Romans established settlements. There is evidence of Christianity in some of the artefacts. At Water Newton silver spoons with Christian writing were found dating to around 200AD and are suggested as baptismal spoons. The Vikings came. The relics of St Neot were brought from the church in Cornwall and deposited in the new St Neots Priory which had been established by the river. The site is now where Waitrose supermarket stands. A bridge was made to cross the river and help trade. The monks, with the site by the river encouraged trade and with the newly established priory with St Neots rerlics hoped for travellers to visit and donate offerings to the priory while they traded at the market which was chartered around 1130. Both Henry II and Henry III visited. A stone bridge was built in1640 replacing the wooden structure. St Neots became a good trade centre in the 1700s until the railway came and cut the river trade. In the Victorian times bathing was popular and led to huts being built on the bank. However these became used for non- bathing purposes and disrepute followed. Mixed bathing was considered scandalous. Skating on the frozen river , fishing and rowing were popular pastimes. The St Neots regatta has a long history but cannot claim the longest continuous competition. This goes to the Hemingford Regatta which has run since 1901, only missing the war years. Liz Davies had given us the tale of a river and its benefits to the local people of St Neots from neanderthal times to the present.

Brian Lake

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