The Cathedral City Of Peterborough

As a cathedral city in Cambridgeshire with a population of 202,110 in 2017, Peterborough was originally part of Northamptonshire but became part of Cambridgeshire 1974. The city is 76 miles (122 kilometres) north of London, on the River Nene which flows into the North Sea some 30 miles (48 kilometres) to the north-east. I was taught that ‘Nene’ was pronounced ’Neen’, but I have heard some other folk say ’Nenn’ or even ’Nenny’! I prefer ’Neen’. The railway station is an important stop on the East Coast Main Line between London and Edimburgh and with it being right on the edge of the Fens the local area is flat, with some places the land lying below sea level, for example in parts to the east of Peterborough. Human settlement in the area began before the Bronze Age and this can be seen at the Flag Fen archaeological site to the east of the current city centre, also with evidence of Roman occupation. The Anglo-Saxon period saw the establishment of a monastery, Medehamstede, which later became Peterborough Cathedral. The population grew rapidly after the railways arrived in the 19th century, and Peterborough became an industrial centre, particularly known for its brick manufacture. After the Second World War, growth was limited until designation as a New Town in the 1960s. Housing and population are at present still expanding and a £1 billion regeneration of the city centre and immediately surrounding area is under way. Industrial employment has fallen since then, a significant proportion of new jobs being in financial services and distribution. As I have said, the original name of the town was Medehamstede and the town’s name changed to Burgh from the late tenth century, possibly after Abbot Kenulf had built a defensive wall around the abbey, and it eventually developed into the form Peterborough, though the town does not appear to have been a borough until the 12th century. The contrasting form ‘Gildenburgh’ is also found in the 12th century history of the abbey, the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in a history of the abbey by the monk Hugh Candidus. The name has been used a few times for various things including the Gildenburgh choir which still exists and which I was a member of for a number of years. The present-day Peterborough is the latest in a series of settlements which have at one time or other benefited from its site where the river Nene leaves large areas of permanently drained land for the fens. Remains of Iron Age settlement and what is thought to be religious activity can be seen at the Flag Fen archaeological site to the east of the city centre, the Romans established a fortified garrison town at Durobrivae on Ermine Street some five miles (eight kilometres) to the west in Water Newton, around the middle of the 1st century AD. Durobrivae’s earliest appearance among surviving records is in the Antonine Itinerary of the late 2nd century. There was also a large 1st century roman fort at Longthorpe, designed to house half a legion, or about 3,000 soldiers. It may have been established as early as around AD44 to 48. Peterborough was an important area of ceramic production in the Roman period, providing Nene Valley Ware that was traded as far away as Cornwall and the Antonine Wall, Caledonia. The place is shown by its original name to have possibly been an Anglian settlement before AD 655, when Sexwulf founded a monastery on land granted to him for that purpose by Peada of Mercia, who converted to Christianity and was briefly ruler of the smaller Middle Angles sub-group. His brother Wulfhere though murdered his own sons, similarly converted and then finished the monastery by way of atonement. Hereward the Wake rampaged through the town in 1069 or 1070 and outraged, Abbot Turold erected a fort or castle, which, from his name, was called Mont Turold. This mound, or hill, is on the outside of the deanery garden, now called Tout Hill. The abbey church was rebuilt and greatly enlarged in the 12th century and the Peterborough Chronicle, a version of the Anglo-Saxon one, contains unique information about the history of England after the Norman conquest. It was written here by monks in the 12th century. This is the only known prose history in English between the conquest and the later 14th century. The burgesses received their first charter from “Abbot Robert” – probably Robert of Sutton (1262–1273). The place suffered materially in the war between King John and the confederate barons, many of whom took refuge in the monastery here and in Crowland Abbey, from which sanctuaries they were forced by the king’s soldiers, who plundered the religious houses and carried off great treasures. The abbey church became one of Henry VIII ’s retained, more secular, cathedrals in 1541, having been apparently assessed at the Dissolution in the King’s Books as having revenue of £1,972.7s.0¾d per annum.

Early English Gothic West Front of Peterborough Cathedral.

When civil war broke out, Peterborough was divided between supporters of King Charles I and the Long Parliament. The city lay on the border of the Eastern Association of counties which sided with Parliament, and the war reached Peterborough in 1643 when soldiers arrived in the city to attack Royalist strongholds at Stamford and Crowland. The Royalist forces were defeated within a few weeks and retreated to Burghley House, where they were captured and sent to Cambridge. While the Parliamentary soldiers were in Peterborough however, they ransacked the cathedral, destroying the Lady Chapel, chapter house, cloister, high altar and choir stalls, as well as mediaeval decoration and records. Housing and sanitary improvements were effected under the provisions of an Act of Parliament passed in 1790 and an Act was passed in 1839 to build a gaol to replace the two that previously stood. After the dissolution the dean and chapter, who succeeded the abbot as lords of the manor, appointed a high bailiff. Also constables were elected, though it is unclear as to whether they were elected by the dean and chapter or by the ‘court leet’, as other borough officers were but this ended when the municipal borough was incorporated in 1874 under the government of a mayor, six aldermen and eighteen councillors. Among the privileges claimed by the abbot as early as the 13th century was that of having a prison for felons taken in the Soke of Peterborough. In 1576 Bishop `Edmund Scambler sold the lordship of the hundred of ‘Nassaburgh’, which was coextensive with the Soke, to Queen Elizabeth I, who gave it to Lord Burghley and from that time until the 19th century he and his descendants, the Earls and Marquesses of Exeter, had a separate gaol for prisoners arrested in the Soke. The abbot formerly held four fairs, of which two, St. Peter’s Fair, granted in 1189 and later held on the second Tuesday and Wednesday in July, and the Brigge Fair, granted in 1439 and later held on the first Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in October, were purchased by the corporation from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1876. The Bridge Fair, as it is now known, granted to the abbey by King Henry VI, survives. Prayers for the opening of the fair were once said at the morning service in the cathedral, followed by a civic proclamation and a sausage lunch at the town hall which it seems still takes place. The mayor traditionally leads a procession from the town hall to the fair where the proclamation is read, asking all persons to “behave soberly and civilly, and to pay their just dues and demands according to the laws of the realm and the rights of the City of Peterborough”. That I have never seen or heard. Railway lines began operating locally during the 1840s, but it was the 1850 opening of the Great Northern Railway’s line from London to York that transformed Peterborough from a market town to an industrial centre. Lord Exeter had opposed the railway passing through Stamford, so that Peterborough, situated between two main terminals at London and Doncaster, increasingly found itself developed as a regional hub.

Coupled with vast local clay deposits, the railway then enabled large-scale brick-making and distribution to take place and the area was the UK’s leading producer of bricks for much of the twentieth century. Brick-making had been a small seasonal craft since the early nineteenth century, but during the 1890s successful experiments at Fletton using the harder clays from a lower level had resulted in a much more efficient process. The market dominance during this period of the London Brick Company, founded by the prolific Scottish builder and architect John Hill, gave rise to some of the country’s most well-known landmarks, all built using Fletton Brick. Perkins Engines was established in Peterborough in 1932 by Frank Perkins, creator of the Perkins diesel engine. Thirty years later it was employing more than a tenth of the population of Peterborough, mainly at its Eastfield site. In 1903 Baker Perkins had relocated from London to the area known as Westwood, now the site of the HM prison, followed by Peter Brotherhood to Walton in 1906. Both manufacturers of industrial machinery, they too became major employers in the city. British Sugar remains headquartered in Woodston, although the beet sugar factory, which opened there in 1926, was closed in 1991. We could always tell when sugar beet was being processed because of the distinct ‘aroma’! The Norwich and Peterborough Building Society (N&P) was formed by the merger of the two separate building societies in 1986. It was the ninth largest building society at the time of its merger into the Yorkshire Group in 2011. N&P continued to operate under its own brand administered at Lynch Wood until 2018. Much was happening in these years and prior to merger with the Midlands Co-op in 2013, Anglia Regional, the UK’s fifth largest co-operative society, was also based in Peterborough, where it was established in 1876. The combined society began trading as Central England Cooperative in 2014. Designated as a New Town in 1967, the Peterborough Development Corporation was then formed in partnership with the city and county councils to house London’s overspill population in new townships sited around the existing urban area. There were to be four townships, one each at Bretton, (originally to be called Milton, a hamlet in the Middle Ages), Orton, Paston, Werrington and Castor. The last of these was never built, but a fourth, called Hampton, is now taking shape south of the city. It was decided that the city should have a major indoor shopping centre at its heart and so planning permission was received in late summer 1976 and Queensgate, containing over 90 stores and including parking for 2,300 cars, was opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1982. 34 miles (55 kilometres) of urban roads were planned and a network of high-speed landscaped thoroughfares, which are known as parkways, was constructed. Peterborough’s population grew by 45.4% between 1971 and 1991, new service-sector companies like Thomas Cook and Pearl Assurance were attracted to the city, ending the dominance of the manufacturing industry as employers. An urban regeneration named Opportunity Peterborough, under the chairmanship of Lord Mawhinney, was set up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2005 to oversee Peterborough’s future development. Between 2006 and 2012 a £1 billion redevelopment of the city centre and surrounding areas was planned. The master plan provided guidelines on the physical shaping of the city centre over the next 15–20 years. Proposals are still progressing for the north of Westgate, the south bank and the station quarter, where Network Rail is preparing a major mixed use development. Whilst recognising that the reconfiguration of the relationship between the city and station was critical, English Heritage found the current plans for Westgate unconvincing and felt more thought should be given to the vitality of the historic core and with the city expanding, in July 2005 the council adopted a new statutory development plan. Its aim is to accommodate an additional 22,000 homes, 18,000 jobs and over 40,000 people living in Peterborough by 2020. The newly developing Hampton township will be completed, there will be a 1,500-home development at Stanground and a further 1,200-home development at Paston. In recent years Peterborough has undergone significant changes with numerous developments underway, most notably are Fletton Quays, a project to construct 350 apartments, various office spaces as well as a new home for Peterborough City Council with other projects within the development to include a Hilton Garden Inn hotel with a sky bar, a new passport office and various leisure, restaurant and retail opportunities. Other projects within the city include the extension to Queensgate Shopping Centre, The Great Northern Hotel and more recently plans to extend the railway station and long stay car park to facilitate more office space in the city centre and further parking. In 2020 planning permission was granted for a new university, ARU Peterborough, which will be based on Bishops Road, a five-minute walk from the City Centre. It will be an employment focused university run by the Anglia Ruskin University with four faculties: Business, Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Creative and Digital Arts and Sciences; Agriculture, Environment and Sustainability; Health and Education. The new university is expected to take its first cohort of approximately 2,000 students by 2022, rising to 12,500 by 2028. The ARU Peterborough is not expected to receive its degree awarding powers before 2030 when a review will take place to determine its future as part of Anglia Ruskin University or whether it should become its own entity. A great deal has changed in the years since I left that fine city and I am sure more will occur, but it will always be special to me.

I am glad to be back writing again. Here we have some fun…

There was a painter who was very interested in making a penny where he could, so he often thinned down his paint to make it go a bit further. He got away with this for some time, but eventually the local church decided to do a big restoration job on the outside of one of their biggest buildings.

The painter put in a bid, and because his price was so low he got the job. So he set about erecting the scaffolding, setting up the planks, and buying the paint. But even though it was a church building, he thinned the paint down with turpentine. A while later he was up on the scaffolding, painting away and the job was nearly completed when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder, the sky opened and the rain poured down washing off all the thinned paint from the church and knocking him off the scaffolding to land on the lawn amongst the gravestones, surrounded by puddles of thinned and useless paint. This guy was no fool, he knew this was a judgment from the Almighty, so he got down on his knees and cried:

“Oh God, Oh God, forgive me; what should I do?”
And from the thunder, a mighty voice spoke.

“Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!”

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