Cambridge has many beautiful bridges, but which one gave the town its name?SIMON LOCK

Walking over Magdalene Bridge last year, I overheard a young boy, relishing his half-term trip to Cambridge, asking his mother: “Cambridge. Cam-bridge…Mum – is this the Cam-bridge, is this Cambridge?!”

This made me wonder as well: was there a specific bridge after which Cambridge was named? Why is it called Cambridge? Is there an individually-significant Cambridge?

Cambridge was founded around the area of Castle Mount and built-up due to its convenience as a port, soon becoming head of the navigation of the River Granta. Thus, a bridge needed to be constructed to exploit this usage as a trading port – through providing links to a market, as well as to the Continent – and so what we now recognise as Magdalene Bridge was built by King Offa. However, at the time, it was not named as such. It was simply called the Great Bridge, the last river crossing until King’s Lynn. This continued to serve as a link as Romans settled in Cambridge and began to establish a town in the surrounding area. At this time the town was known as Grentebrige or Cantebrigge, and then ultimately as Cambridge. Yet it wasn’t known as such until someone believed, just like the young boy voicing his thoughts aloud, that the river must be called the River Cam and Cambridge must be the town surrounding it, reached by crossing the Cambridge. Actually, the river was not called the Cam but the Granta, yet the logic seemed apt and the name quickly changed as the river was reborn as the River Cam. (Yet it still remains the River Granta further upstream in Grantchester!)  

Now, this was all making sense to me – the Great Bridge was originally the only bridge to cross the Granta, hence Grentebrige (potentially), yet as dialect changed and Grentebrige became Cantebrigge and finally Cambridge, it was necessary to update the name of the river correspondingly, hence the River Cam, over which the Great Bridge crosses. So in a sense the Great Bridge – now called Magdalene Bridge – is the Cambridge bridge. But there are so many others that have flourished since that must not be forgotten…!

Cambridge is home to no less than 20 bridges. Notable amongst these is the Silver Street Bridge, from which one can see the infamous Mathematical Bridge that arches the two halves of Queens, complete with its tales of Engineering students’ curiosity that “killed the cat” – and similarly “killed” the previous-existing bolt-less bridge construct. Also King's College Bridge by King's; Clare College Bridge, with its well-known myths of rolling stones down upon unfortunate punters below; Garret Hostel Bridge, fondly nick-named ‘Orgasm’ Bridge – and if you cycle you can definitely understand why! The Bridge of Sighs is one not to be forgotten too, the mini-Venice allusion of Cambridge and definitely a tourist hot-spot. Other footbridges and lock gates form the final 20. But it is Magdalene Bridge, the Great Bridge, that gave birth to Cambridge and the River Cam as we know it today.

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