St Ives bridge and chapel

There's an awful lot of historical water under St Ives bridge and chapel. For almost a thousand years it was the only access from the south into St Ives for travellers, pilgrims and traders. At one time the chapel was a pub of ill repute. And Oliver Cromwell blew the bridge up. Read on to find out more...

First crossings

It’s thought there has been a ford on the site of the bridge ever since a settlement has existed in the area... probably several thousand years. Prior to the introduction of locks on The Ouse the river was wider and more shallow and therefore easier to cross.

The first bridge was a wooden structure built in 1107 as part of Ramsey Abbey’s development of the settlement. Tolls collected from travellers provided a valuable income for the monks.

Building the current bridge

In 1414 work started on building a stone replacement, completed in 1425. A chapel was included in 1426 dedicated to St Leger. Bridges incorporating chapels were not uncommon in medieval times, but today St Ives bridge is only one of four such remaining.

Oliver Cromwell leaves his mark

Although Cromwell lived in St Ives between 1631 and 1636, it was during the English Civil War that he left his mark on the town’s bridge. The war started in 1642 and Cromwell very quickly rose through the ranks. By 1643 he was in charge of the East Anglian cavalry. 

Concerned over attacks from the opposing Royalist forces, and mindful of the strategic importance of the bridge at St Ives, Cromwell ordered the southern part of the bridge to be blown up, and a drawbridge erected. It was another seventy years before the bridge was returned almost to it’s original form. Since the restoration was done in the style of the time, the two replacement arches nearest the Dolphin Hotel still bearing witness to Cromwell’s act, being more rounded than the original Gothic arches.

Other uses for the chapel

Besides its original use as a place of worship, the chapel was used to collect tolls from travellers and traders using the bridge. The hatches through which bridge tolls were passed into the chapel can still be seen. 

Following the Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539 Ramsey Abbey relinquished ownership of the bridge. The chapel became a private residence and two extra floors were added in 1736.

During the mid 1800s the building was a pub named Little Hell, an establishment with a somewhat dubious reputation. Pigs were kept in the cellar, so the ambience must have been somewhat unique. Thereafter the chapel was again occupied as a private residence up to 1927.

All change

In 1930 there was concern over the safety of the chapel structure, resulting in the extra two stories from 1736 being removed and the building restored as a chapel. Until the building of the by-pass in 1980, St Ives bridge was the only access from the south over The Ouse and into St Ives for almost a thousand years.

Today the bridge and chapel are Grade 1 listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Normal traffic is forbidden to travel over the bridge, only goods vehicles for whom a three point turn in the narrow Bridge Street would be hazardous. St Ivians are protective of their bridge, and will happily stop any car ignoring the signs and explain the restrictions!

Don’t stop at the bridge!

As you travel over the bridge away from St Ives you’ll access another unique feature, the causeway, though you’ll have to look over the side to fully appreciate it. Built in 1822, with an amazing 55 arches, it’s the longest road causeway in the country.

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