River Cam: Exploring Cambridge’s Surprising Mystery, Part 1 – The Preparation

Recently, when thinking about new ideas for trips, I decided to set myself a bit of a challenge: to uncover a journey that would need good planning, more detailed research, and a bit of in-person exploration as well. Would it possible to find something like this around Cambridge?

River Cam immediately came to my mind. The presence of the river in Cambridge is so obvious that almost no one thinks where it is coming from and why it is still here, not drying out completely. It would be great to know more about its source, history and the type of water it brings with its flow. With this in mind, I set myself the formidable task of forming an expedition around the great river itself.

Midsummer Common and rowing clubs

I have been thinking a few times about going upstream, beyond Byron’s Pool. However, I knew only that there are a few river junctions upstream of Cambridge, but have never checked what exactly they are, and where they are coming from…

Thus, I decided first to conduct a bit of research about our great river…

I should probably start with basic information about The River Cam. I thought that defining its start and end points would be a simple task, taking no more than five minutes. However, I was proven seriously wrong…

Probably the most easily defined aspect of the river is its mouth: River Cam merges with the River Great Ouse, with its confluence at Pope’s Corner, around 5km before Ely. It can be reached from Cambridge by walking or cycling along the River Cam (please see the detailed description of our trip to Ely) or by paddling. This simple trip is an enjoyable way to make use of the great weather we’re currently experiencing!

Junction of the River Cam (left) and Great Ouse (right)

Things start to get more complex when it comes to defining the source

The River Cam, as it is now known, actually used to be called ‘Granta’ in Old English. At that time, the settlement which eventually became Cambridge was called Grantebrycge/Grantabridge (Bridge over the Granta). When the city’s name changed to its Middle English alternative of Cambridge, the name of the river below Cambridge was changed to River Cam to match. Many assume that the town was named after the river, when in truth it’s the other way around!  

Upstream of Cambridge, there are four main tributaries of the River Cam – or rather, I should say that there is a main River Cam (or Granta) with its three tributaries, which still would give four in total – the tributary nomenclature is rather confusing! Breaking it down gives the following:

Source: UK Rivers Map | WWF, modified; blue dots: sources; red dot: end of River Cam; green dots: junctions

Four main watercourses/tributaries upstream of Cambridge city:

  1. River Rhee* – rises at Ashwell springs in Hertfordshire
  2. River Cam* – rises south of Debden near Widdington in Essex
  3. River Granta* – rises south of Castle Camps 
  4. Bourn Brook – rises east of the village of Eltisley

*These are official Environment Agency and National Rivers Authority names. However, river Rhee (1) is also sometimes referred to as ‘River Cam’ and, to make it more complex, River Cam (2) is called ‘Granta’ by many sources.

The official source is located near Debden, and is at the highest attitude point from all of the four tributary sources mentioned. Being the longest distance from the lower River Cam, it is the obvious destination for my ‘expedition’. However, all four upstream rivers have contributed to the waters of the River Cam which we see in the city. Not wanting to shy away from a challenge, I have decided that each tributary should be explored!

Confluence of the River Cam (sometimes called Granta; left) with Rhee (sometimes called River Cam; right) at Hauxton Junction.
The next step was planning and preparation…

Being a keen kayaker and needing some way of traversing the great rivers, I immediately decided to ask the question: is it possible to reach the sources of each offshoot river by kayak? If not, how far can I go? Of course, I again took to the Internet for some further research, including analysis of online and satellite maps. Once more, however, I did not find any obvious and complete answer.

With these questions in mind, I decided to conduct a small exploration of the river itself to plan for the longer expeditions. My aim will be to go step by step, starting with a simple upriver kayak for each tributary, beginning with one that I find most promising. I’ll see how far I get and plot further expeditions from there… and I’ll be sure to share each part of the journey on this blog! Stay tuned for Part 2: The Exploration!

Upsteam of the Hauxton Junction – River Cam (sometimes called Granta)

Related posts:

Paddling along the River Cam

Traveling on the water is a totally different experience than walking or cycling. Luckily, we have River Cam flowing through the city. It takes only…


Hunter Blair A., Along the River Cam, Sutton Publishing Ltd. 2007

Cambridgeshire Geological Society, The Cam Valley, http://www.cambsgeology.org/camvalley

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