St Ives began life as the village of Slepe, built on the banks of the Great Ouse in about AD 500. Its rise to fame and fortune began with the discovery of the bones of ‘St Ivo’. According to legend it was on 24th April 1001 that a ploughman from Slepe dug up a stone coffin containing a skeleton. It was claimed the bones were those of Saint Ivo, said to be a Persian bishop who had come to this country to convert local people to Christianity. The bones were taken to a shrine at nearby Ramsey Abbey and a small monastery, called St Ivo's Priory, was built on the spot where they were found.
The Bridge, Markets and Fairs
A town began to grow up in the area between the old Saxon village and the new Priory. The town took its name from St Ivo, although it was later discovered that the bones were more likely to have been those of a rich Roman farmer.
The monks of Ramsey Abbey, who owned the new town, took steps to increase its prosperity. They built a bridge over the river and received royal charters that gave them permission to hold markets and fairs. The original wooden bridge was replaced by a stone one in the 1400s, which still stands. It is famous for its bridge chapel, built onto the bridge in the middle of the river.
The fairs and markets continue to this day. Every Monday and Friday Market Hill is filled with a bustling street market, with especially big markets held on Bank Holiday Mondays. We also now enjoy a Farmers’ Market every first and third Saturday of the month. Every October the town centre is given over to the Michaelmas Fair, a tradition that reaches back for hundreds of years.
In the 1600s St Ives was a hotbed of religious controversy. Oliver Cromwell lived here as a young man and his statue still stands in the Market Hill. The nonconformist tradition he founded can still be seen in the many churches and chapels in St Ives. The magnificent Free Church was built in the 1860s in an elaborate gothic style and with the spire deliberately made five feet higher than that of the Parish Church!
St Ives Today
Twenty first century St Ives keeps its historical monuments and traditions, but also benefits from its modern communications and proximity to the university city of Cambridge. This provides links with hi-tech industries and with the many visitors who come here to enjoy the rich history of Huntingdonshire and the lush countryside of the Ouse Valley.
The Town Council's offices are located on the ground floor of the Town Hall in the centre of the town in Market Hill. The Town Hall began life as a grand Victorian private house, built for the Warner family in 1850. It was designed in a grand Italianate style, with decorative stonework around the doors and windows. Inside, the hallway is lit by a stained glass cupola. The elaborate curved staircase leads up to the drawing room on the first floor with its marble fireplace and a view out over the Market Hill. This room is used as the Council Chamber.