The Hills of Cambridge

This article was published in 1999, in Newsletter 22.

Why are Peas Hill, Market Hill and Hills Road so called? I was intrigued by these questions put by Cycling Campaign members recently and have done a little research. The Cambridgeshire Collection, on the third floor of the Central Library in Lion Yard, is a wonderful resource and I looked at maps, and books such as the Victoria County History vol. III and The Place-names of Cambridgeshire by P H Reaney.

Senate House Hill
Image as described adjacent

Hills Road is the road to the Gog Magog Hills, just as Trumpington Street is the way to Trumpington. The other hills are all areas which were slightly higher than the surrounding countryside. The Romans built on the highest point 70 feet above sea level, the chalk spur overlooking the river crossing, bounded by Northampton Street, Magrath Avenue, Victoria Road and Mount Pleasant. In medieval Cambridge ‘the position of the earliest settlements was determined by a gravel ridge… so that dwellings could be above the flood plain’ (Victoria County History). What is now St John’s Street, Trinity Street and King’s Parade was the main street (Magna strata 1250, Highe streate 1592). The low-lying land was between here and the river, but four centuries of dumping rubbish have levelled it all out. In 1475 ‘the town covenanted with Queens’ College to be allowed to deposit rubbish in the space between the College grove and the road to Newnham.’

You can trace the several high spots by looking at our street names –

  • around Great St Mary’s there is Senate House Hill, Market Hill, Peas Hill
  • around the Shire Hall area (site of Roman fort and Norman castle), there is Castle Hill, Honey Hill, Pound Hill and Mount Pleasant
  • St Andrew’s Hill (where the Holiday Inn is today)

You can also see that the line of early churches is along the gravel ridge. Starting from the north – St Peter, St Giles, St Clement, St Sepulchre, All Saints in the Jewry, St Michael, St Mary the Great, St Edward, St Benedict, St Botolph and St Mary the Less.

Anne Taylor