The River Cam provided the main route for trade in Cambridge for over a thousand years, perhaps as far back as the eighth century, with Cambridge regarded as a seaport up to about 1300 (Bryan, 2008). Though the arrival of the railway in 1845 destroyed most of this commercial activity, transport of goods along the river continued well into the twentieth century (Taylor, 1999).
Several mills, granaries, malthouses and brewhouses stood slong the river, with Stourbridge Fair providing a centre of trade for hops, according to Defoe’s Tour Through Great Britain.
In like manner great quantities of heavy goods, and the hops among the rest, are sent from the fair to Lynn by water, and shipped there for the Humber, to Hull, York, etc., and for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and by Newcastle, even to Scotland itself. Now as there is still no planting of hops in the north, though a great consumption, and the consumption increasing daily, this, says my friend, is one reason why at Stourbridge fair there is so great a demand for the hops. He added, that besides this, there were very few hops, if any worth naming, growing in all the counties even on this side Trent, which were above forty miles from London; those counties depending on Stourbridge fair for their supply, so the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Northampton, Lincoln, Leicester, Rutland, and even to Stafford, Warwick, and Worcestershire, bought most if not all of their hops at Stourbridge fair.
The river was also important for transporting beer and the ingredients for making it, and some breweries were built by the river to take advantage of this means of transport.
Undoubtedly some breweries used river transport both for the reciept of barley and malt and for the delivery of beer. Indeed some of the more remote riverside pubs can only have been supplied by river for much of the year (Flood, 1987)
Almost certainly, none of this was in mind when Joe Kennedy from BlackBar Brewery decided to deliver his beer to Cambridge Beer Festival using the river as transport. Perhaps environmental concerns led him to consider punting the beer for the last 3 miles of the journey from the brewery to Jesus Green. More likely it was partly to avoid the city centre traffic and partly as an excuse for a spot of firkin about on the river.
From Spring Lane Field in Grantchester, twenty five firkins were loaded onto an ocean liner of a punt, provided by Scudamores and ably guided downstream by our captain Dan.
With buzzards wheeling overhead, and sedge warblers chattering in the reeds, it took just over an hour for us to calmly glide down the river, save for a bit of effort negotiating the deep water and sharp bend that is Dead Man’s Corner, to arrive at the weir where we were granted shore leave to visit the Mill.
The Mill public house stands overlooking the weir where two mills once stood, Bishop’s Mill and King’s Mill. Lauren generously provided free pints of BlackBar Bitter to any landlubbers who showed up wearing black in support of our efforts, along with a few who weren’t wearing black but were nevertheless keen on free beer.
Refreshed, we then gained a few extra pairs of hands to help roll the casks along the road in front of the Mill, and down the steps to the lower river where our punt was waiting.
We then embarked on the final leg of the journey, gaining a shipmate at Quayside as Louise boarded, with Rich, our photographer, apparently losing his sea legs:
Blackbar encourages responsible drinking
At Jesus lock we unoaded the beer and the casks were forklifted to the beer festival site. All bar one, which Joe took for a quick shred on the skate park:
And then we were finished. Well, Joe at least, and it was off to the Maypole for a final drink. The Maypole will be holding its own beer festival to coincide with the Cambridge Beer Festival, with a new BlackBar Porter on (I was granted a sniff from the FV while at the brewery and if the aroma is anything to go by, it will be a cracking beer).
Thanks to Joe for inviting me along, and to everyone that showed support for HMS BlackBar, particularly Lauren at the Mill, Scudamores and Cambridge CAMRA. Blackbar beers will be available at the beer festival – worth a punt.
Peter Bryan – Cambridge, The Shaping of the City (2008)
Alsion Taylor – Cambridge, The Hidden History (1999)
RJ Flood – Cambridge Breweries (1989)
Daniel Defoe – Tour through the Eastern Counties of England (1722)
HMS BlackBar 2013 The Story
Cambridge Beer Festival