As we discovered in Stage
2 of the walk, Cambridge began on top of Castle Hill, above the muddy
river Cam. Slowly, it moved down the hill with Saxon settlements in the
river valley around the Quayside and the market square.
Either in the late Saxon period or the early medieval
period a ditch was dug going from the Mill Pond at Silver Street, running
up Pembroke Street, under the Holiday Inn, down Hobson Street and in a
loop back to Quayside. In a way that defined historic Cambridge; the river
on one side and the ditch on the other - with a little bit of settlement
remaining on Castle Hill.
Beyond the river and beyond the ditch were fields where
everybody went to grow their food. Cambridge was hemmed in, and the layout
of the fields was established in the late Saxon / early Norman period,
so Cambridge is shaped, in a way, by events that happened centuries ago.
The town grew up within the ditch, within those confines of the river.
Gradually the ditch got filled in with rubbish and this
was the main reason that Hobson's Conduit was built...
In the 1500's there was lots of plague in Cambridge and
people were dying. In those days, people were of the belief that if you
died, it was because you were a sinner and it was God's way of showing
his displeasure. However, disease doesn't care about social standings
or class, and just as many of the university staff and students were dying
as the townspeople. It was one of the first times when the town and gown
were brought together!
They slowly realised that the plague was killing people
because of poor sanitary conditions. They realised that the ditch round
town was clogged with sewage and rubbish and was a major cause of disease.
So in the early 1600's, the town and gown came together to fund and build
Hobson's Conduit running along
The conduit brings in water from Nine Wells which are
springs at the foot of the Gog Magog hills near Great Shelford. The water
comes out of the chalk, and for hundreds of years they filtered into the
river at Vicar's Brook. They took over the spring water at the brook and
sent it to the bottom of Pembroke Street to try and flush out the ditch
to try and keep the water moving. It wasn't terribly successful, but they
then had a canal coming in to town and they then used it to take a section
of water to the market where they fed the fountain. This provided fresh
drinking water for the people which was really important if you lived
in middle of town.
Another strand of Hobson's Conduit runs down Lensfield
Road, down Regent Street, goes into Emmanuel College and Christ's College
to provide water for the pond and you can also see the conduit opposite
Christ's College, where people queue for taxis - it's not a broken drain,
it's the conduit! It also supplies water for the ponds at the Botanic
Gardens and there are some old dipping wells beneath shops like Robert
The conduit has an artificial base lined with clay to
stop the water seeping away. Some sections are above ground and some below.
It's an amazing piece of late medieval engineering and a reminder of how
important water is.
The conduit was named after Thomas Hobson. He didn't
build the conduit, but he left money to maintain it. His stables were
where St Catherine's College is and he was a wealthy entrepreneur who
made lots of money on horse traffic between Cambridge and London. The
expression 'Hobson's Choice' comes from Thomas Hobson. It means that you've
got 'no choice'. Hobson rented out horses for students to go exercising
on, and if you went to Thomas Hobson and you wanted to hire a horse, you
couldn't have the one you wanted or the best looking one, you had to have
the one that had been rested longest by the door... you had 'no choice'!
The reason the conduit head is on Trumpington Road, is
because of a fire in the market square in the 1850's. Hobson's Conduit
Head used to stand in Market Square. It was a lovely traditional market
of sand, mud and scattered stalls. The Victorians used the fire as an
excuse to build what they thought was a traditional market. They couldn't
cope with a fountain that wasn't in the middle, so they got rid of the
traditional fountain - the Conduit Head - and put a Victorian gothic fountain
in, which you can still see today.
There is also a deep buried channel that runs under Brown's
Restaurant, the Judge Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum and through Downing
College. This channel is filled with gravel, sand and mud and is another
ancient course of the River Cam. It is probably a continuation of the
same channel that runs beneath Jesus College and Jesus Green - the 'grandfather'
of the Cam!
Walk along Trumpington Street towards the city centre.
You can see Hobson's Conduit running along the side of the road. The Fitzwilliam
Museum is on Trumpington Street and is open every day except Monday.
Admission is free of charge and you will also find toilets, baby changing
facilities and a Courtyard Café.
Keep walking down Trumpington Street, then follow
the road round to the left which turns into Silver Street. Walk over Silver
Street bridge, where you will see the famous Mathematical Bridge on your
As you look at the river, you might be lucky enough to
spot a Daubenton's bat. The Daubenton's bat is a medium-sized species
that live near water and they fly over the water within a few centimetres
of the surface to feed on insects.
You might also be lucky enough to spot a pipistrelle
which is one of the UK's smallest bats, or a noctule bat which is one
of Britain's laargest!
Keep walking past Queen's College til you reach a
grassy area called Queen's Green.