Buckden’s High Street was once part of the road from London to the north, and it is still flanked by two old coaching inns, the 16th-century Lion and the 17th-century George. The brick-and-timber cottages of the village are dominated by the remains of Buckden Palace, used by the Bishops of ‘Lincoln from the 15th century until 1836.
The unforgettable sight of Cambridge is the view across the River Cam and the Backs to the stately Gothic chapel of King’s College. The town itself contains much new building, often at variance with the character of the old. Although overshadowed by the university, the town, too, is very ancient and has its origins in Celtic settlements around a ford on the Cam. The Romans built a bridge and established an outpost here, at the meeting point of a network of roads and navigable waterways. The town has always been a flourishing regional centre, and of recent years the university’s scientific activities have encouraged the foundation in Cambridge of several research-based industries.
The university grew from small beginnings at the start of the 13th century, when a group of students, in trouble with the authorities at Oxford, came to Cambridge in 1209. There were no colleges as such at this period; the students were attached to the schools of cathedrals and monasteries, and lodged wheree they could in the town. The first college, Peterhousewas founded in 1281 by the Bishop of Ely. Over the next few hundred years, most of the other colleges were established.
Queens’ College – founded at different times by two queens, Margaret, wife of Henry VI, and Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV. The ‘Mathematical’ bridge, built in 1749 without the aid of nails, and on geometric principles, was one of the curiosities of Cambridge. The present structure is a replica.
Pembroke College – The chapel is the first of Christopher Wren’s designs ever to be completed. Not far from the college is Hobson’s Conduit, named after a mayor of the city who had run a livery stable, and inspired the saying ‘Hobson’s Choice’ because he refused to allow his customers to choose their own horses.
Trinity College – Three medieval colleges were incorporated into Trinity by Henry VIII. The Great Court has a magnificent Renaissance fountain, and the library, designed by Wren, has carvings by Grinling Gibbons.
According to the Venerable Bede, Ely’s name derives from the abundance of eels tn the surrounding fen: these were an important part of the diet of the Saxon population of the area. Previously Ely was an island. It was here that Hereward the Wake held out against the Normans until 1071, when they succeeded in building a road across the marshes.
Begun in 1083, on the site of a 7th century Benedictine monastery, the magnificent cathedral dominates the fenland. Notable are the octagonal lantern tower and the choir stalls, which are carved underneath, both designed by Alan de Walsingham; also the fine painted ceiling. Oliver Cromwell and his family lived in the old Vicarage for 10 years when Cromwell was a tithe collector for the cathedral.
The fens around Ely were drained in the 17th and 18th centuries with the help of the Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden. The intention was to grow flax enabling the British cloth industry to compete successfully with their Dutch rivals.
Famous through Rupert Brooke’s evocative poem ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, this serene village on the River Cam has been loved by generations of students from Cambridge. Brooke lived here before World War 1, before him Milton, Spenser, Dryden and Byron were all visitors. Outside the village off the Trumpington road is Byron’s Pool. Trumpington Church contains a brass of Sir Roger de Trumpington, the second oldest in Britain, dated 1289. Chaucer used Trumpington Mill as the setting for his Reeve’s Tale.
Huntingdon, formerly a county town, now forms a borough with Godmanchester which began its days as a crossroads of the via Devana, the Roman road which ran from Colchester to Chester, and Ermine Street, the York to London road. Both towns contain some fine buildings and the area is rich in history. The coffin bearing Mary Queen of Scots was rested in St George’s church on it’s way to Westmister Abbey.
Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon and was baptised in 1610 in All Saints Church. He attended the local grammar school, now the Cromwell Museum. The George Inn was owned by Cromwell’s grandfather. Hinchingbrooke House, a Tudor manor just outside the town, was built by Sir Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s prosperous great-grandfather. The sculpted gatehouse is believed to have come from Ramsey Abbey. After the Restoration the house passed to the Earls of Sandwich; it is now a school and can be visited during the summer.
Samuel Pepys the diarist was born just outside the town in Brampton, where the exterior of his family’s 15th century farmhouse can be seen. It was here that Samuel is alleged to have buried his money, away from the expected Dutch invaders. He attended Cromwell’s school in Huntingdon.
Linton, an attractive village with timber-and plaster houses and a half timbered Guildhall, stands on the River Granta. The church, which dates back to the 13th century, has some interesting brasses and monuments. Linton Zoological Gardens stress the Importance of conservation of threatened species, and snakes, insects and spiders are on display as well as the more usual animals and birds. The zoo’s 10 acres are laid out with flowerbeds, shrubberies and exotic trees, and its enclosures are attractively landscaped each being made as similar as possible to the natural environment of the native country of its occupants.
Ten miles north west of Huntingdon is Little Gidding where a fervent religious community was established by Nicholas Ferrar, a member of the Virginia Company in 1625. Ferrar came from a wealthy family but, disillusioned with life, came here with his mother and other friends and relatives to devote his life to prayer and good works. In their prayers the community always remembered the Virginia colony. They rebuilt the church of St John the Evangelist and gained respect; Charles I visited the community several times, finally, in 1646, to seek shelter from Cromwell’s forces. The church and house were later sacked by the Parliamentarians as a reprisal. Little Gidding’s Society of Friends makes an annual pilgrimage tothe church, commrated in ‘Little Gidding’ the last of TS Eliots’s Four Quartets.
Peterborough Cathedral dates from the 12th and early 13th centuries. It is a magnificent structure, built of local Barnack stone. Inside, the ceiling of the nave is decorated with figures of saints, kings, and many grotesques. Two queens were buried in front of the retrochoir: Katherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots, both interred by the same gravedigger, Robert Scarlett, whose epitaph can also be seen: the body of Mary Queen of Scots was later removed to Westminster Abbey. In recent years Peterborough has expanded at an enormous rate, and the modern roads and buildings tend to obscure the legacy of the past. The Longthorpe Tower is a good example of a medieval fortified house. North of Peterborough are Peakirk and Northborough Castle.
Thorney was once an island village where Hereward the Wake made his stand against William the Conqueror. Then the Fens were drained, much being done by the Dukes of Bedford. It was the Duke of Bedford who in the 17th century gave asylum to the French Protestants whose names you can read in the churchyard. The ochre coloured, mid 19th-century model village was built by the contemporary Duke. The 12th-century ruins of Thorney Abbey are part of the Abbey Church, restored by Inigo Jones. They stand on the site of a 7th-century Saxon monastery, plundered by the Danes, rebuilt by the Normans.
The nature reserve of Wicken Fen consists of three main areas Sedge Fen, Adventurers Fen and St Edmund’s Fen – of which the first is open to the public. Here bird and insect life can be observed in conditions little changed from those of primeval fenland. The ‘lodes’, ancient canals which acted both as highways and as irrigation channels, remain, and a derelict windmill has been restored to pump water into the dykes.
Wimpole Hall is a large country mansion begun in 1632 by Sir Thomas Chichele but considerably altered in the 18th century; it eventually became the property of Rudyard Kipling’s daughter. Of interest are Lord Harley’s library and the yellow drawing-room designed by Sir John Soane. The chapel has frescoes by Sir James Thornhill. It was approached, until the advent of Dutch elm disease, by a fine double avenue of elms some two and half miles long and 100 yards wide, and stands in a park landscaped by Capability Brown, Humphry Repton and Sanderson Miller.
Wisbech is situated in an area renowned for bulb growing and fruit cultivation, and fruit canning is an important local industry. The town stands on the River Nene, 12 miles from the sea though at one time, before changes in river patterns altered its relation to the Wash, it was only 4 miles away. From the North and South Brinks an impressive array of Georgian houses, several with Dutch characteristics, looks across the quays and the river; the most notable is Peckover House, built in the 1720’s and displaying some fine rococo plasterwork. Near the bridge is Sir George Gilbert Scott’s memorial to Thomas Clarkson, a compaigner for the abolition of slavery whose father was schoolmaster here. The church of Sts Peter and Paul is mainly Norman and Perpendicular, with a fine 16th century tower. The Wisbech and Fenland Museum contains Clarkson relics and illustrates fenland life.
One must turn off the main road of this large and busy village to find the interesting buildings a thatched inn, black and white thatched cottages, 17th and 18th-century houses and the green with its old pump. St Peter’s Church dates back to the 13th century and has a beautiful steeple supported by flying buttresses; the font is original, and a fine oak chancel screen is 15th century. To the south east lies Holme Fen Nature Reserve, in what is believed to be the lowest land in England 8-10ft below sea-level in some places