Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England

Another stunning Cathedral City loomed on the horizon, as we spotted the main front of Peterborough Cathedral…


Status: Peterborough Unitary Authority, Cambridgeshire (historically Northamptonshire), City, England

Date: 07/01/2016

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: Costa

Attractions: Peterborough Cathedral, Guildhall, Town Hall, River Nene, St John’s Church, Old Custom House, Market Square, St Nicholas’s Gate, Abbot’s Prison, King’s Lodgings, NatWest Building, Queensgate Shopping Centre, The Grain Barge etc

We parked up in a large car park just outside the city centre, with the grand presence of the Cathedral looming over us.

Peterborough Cathedral originated as the Abbey Church for a Benedictine Monastery here, and many of the buildings that surrounded it still exist, although most are now private homes. The Monastery was disbanded during the reformation by King Henry VIII, with the Church becoming a Cathedral.

To the left is the “Little Dorter”, a small building connected to the ruined walls of the refectory. Dorter is another word for Dormitory, and the Listed Buildings website says the Little Dorter was an attachment to the main dormitory.

We made our way round to the main Cathedral Yard, to the stunning West front of Peterborough Cathedral. It’s a magnificent building, and certainly one of the grandest in England, with it’s own unique style.

The present building is a Norman rebuild of the original Anglo-Saxon Church, destroyed by fire in 1116. Two years later work on the new Church began, taking over a century to complete, in 1237, consecrated the following year.

It’s most impressive feature is the vast wooden ceiling in the Nave, which took 20 years to craft, from 1230 – 1250. Although it has been repainted at least twice over the centuries, it was but a retouch of the original, making it the only Cathedral in the UK to retain its original wooden ceiling.

The Cathedral’s main three arches are the standout feature of the building, and were originally built in the new Gothic Style, in front of the old Norman Towers near the end of the build. To integrate them back into the main front, two new towers, at either end of the arches were built, so the Cathedral now has an incredible four towers clustered around the entrance. The centre arch has a small entry gate at it’s base, called the “Galilee Porch” from 1375.

A few decades later, by the 1380s the main central tower had been rebuilt, again in Gothic to match the West front, although it reused the original structural beams at its base.

As I mentioned earlier, the reformation dissolved the monastery, and the Church became a Cathedral, seat of the newly created Bishop of Peterborough, head of a new diocese.

During the English Civil War major damage was inflicted by the Parliamentarians, who were responsible for the destruction of the old Abbey buildings, the ruins of which we saw earlier. Various restorations have been carried out since, with the final marble altar being added in the 1880’s.

The Cathedral is also the resting place for two important figures from British history, namely Catherine of Aragon (1485 – 1536, 1st Wife of King Henry VIII) and for a number of years, Mary Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587, Queen of Scotland from 1542 – 1567).

We passed through the stone “St Nicholas’s Gate” (shown centre) into the Market Place beyond, an enormous square that contains many of the city’s most historic buildings.

The Gate itself dates back to the late 12th century, built by the then Abbot, Benedict. The section to the right, the royal apartments, became known as King’s Lodgings. Various monarchs have visited the Cathedral over the years, King Stephen (1143), Henry II (1154), King John (1216), Henry III (1268) etc and presumably it was here that they stayed. The name may also come from the fact that after his arrest, King Charles I was held here for a short time before his trial.

The ground floor was used as the “Abbot’s Prison”, whilst at one point the court met above the main Gateway, also once used as a Chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, and later a music room.

To the left of the gate is “Number 1 Precincts”, a charming 19th century construct originally crafted by Lloyds Bank. The style mimics the prevailing architectural style around it, and is now home to a Starbucks.

To the right is the Natwest Building, one of the squares most ornate structures. Designed in the 1920’s by F C R Palmer (in-house architect for the National Provincial Bank, which later became part of NatWest) and W F C Holden, again to match its surroundings.

The centre of the Market Place is marked by a number of historic landmarks, starting with the truly beautiful Peterborough Guildhall (a perfectly detailed Lilliput Lane model of which sits on my shelf!).

The Guildhall, aka “Butter Cross” is a common feature in old English Market Towns, where the old outdoor markets were once held. The main rooms of the building are sat atop stone columns, allowing the markets to be held beneath. Indeed, the Butter Market was still being regularly held here until 1963.

Completed in 1671, the Guildhall has had various uses, starting out as a Courtroom/Meeting Hall. Later in life it was home to a Boys School (1779 – 1839), and prior to the present building being created, it was the Town Hall until 1932.

It even held an important position during WWII, being the HQ of the Fire Watch and the distribution point for Gas Masks in the event of enemy attack.

Behind the Guildhall sits the “Parish Church of St John the Baptist”. Despite the fact Peterborough Cathedral is a minutes walk away, it was an important building for the city. The Cathedral was for centuries an Abbey for the use of the Monks, so a new Church was built for the townsfolk, where they could pray and worship.

The present building was completed in 1407, and reuses stone from the original, which was moved here specially when the new Market Square was established outside the main gate to the Cathedral. It was almost demolished after the English Civil War, when a plan to use it’s stone to repair damage to the Cathedral from the war was put forwards. Despite permission being granted, happily it never happened, although like the Cathedral some of its stunning features such as the Stained Glass were destroyed.

I mentioned earlier the two famous figures once buried at the Cathedral, Catherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots. Both women had their funerals here at St John’s, in 1536 and 1587 respectively.

On the South edge of the square is a rather interesting mock timber building from 1911, housing Pizza Express. It looks stunning, and features five highly detailed statues on the exterior:

Left: Athelwold (904 – 984, Bishop of Winchester) and Prince Rupert (1619 – 1682, Nephew of King Charles I).

Centre: King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547)

Right: King Peada (Died 656, King of Mercia from 655) and the Earl of Essex, although I am unsure which holder of the title it refers too.

Most of the squares Northern edge is taken up by the “Queensgate Shopping Centre”, opened in 1982 by Queen Beatrix (Born 1938, Queen of the Netherlands until 2013).

It is perhaps most well known for the Mechanical Clock Tower that has stood at it’s heart for over 25 years.

We left the square behind us, and headed South along the pedestrianised Bridge Street, past Peterborough’s impressive new Town Hall from 1933. The City Council still use the building for many functions, up on the first floor, whilst the ground floor is inhabited by a number of shops.

Before the Town Hall opened, the council were using the Guildhall in the Market Square. At this time in history, Peterborough fell under the jurisdiction of the “Soke of Peterborough” which in 1888 become its own county (although associated with Northamptonshire), until the 1960’s. This meant that the Town Hall was used by both the County Council of the Soke, and the City Council itself.

Now Peterborough is a Unitary Authority, broadly following the same boundaries as the Soke once did, with one council responsible for all services in the district.

Crossing the A15, and continuing South along Bridge Street past the Magistrates Court, we arrived at the original boundary of the city, the River Nene. The city spread South of the river centuries ago, away from the main centre around the Cathedral.

The UK’s tenth longest river, the Nene begins a 100 mile journey near Badby in Northamptonshire, and eventually empties out into “The Wash”, a large bay between the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts.

Above you can see the “Nene Viaduct”, built in 1850 by Sir William Cubitt (1785 – 1861) and his son Joseph (1811 – 1872) to carry the Great Northern Railway, from London to York, with a branch line towards Lincolnshire. The line was eventually subsumed into what is now the East Coast Main Line from London – Edinburgh.

Following the Town Halls completion in 1933, a new road bridge was built over the river here in 1934, called the “Town Bridge”. It replaced an earlier Iron Bridge which was taken down in 1933, and stood a few metres downstream of its successor.

Moored along the riverbank here is a floating pub/restaurant called the “Grain Barge”. The name comes from the fact that it is located within an old Grain Barge, becoming one of only four floating pubs in the country.

Had you been stood here prior to 1965, you would have seen a view unique in England. Before local government reform, three different counties met here. Peterborough has historically been part of Northamptonshire, whilst the grassy area to the left became Cambridgeshire a few metres further along the riverbank. The far side of the river would have brought you into Huntingdonshire.

In late 1965 this all changed, as Peterborough and Huntingdonshire were merged to create a new county. In 1974, this was in turn merged with Cambridgeshire, where they remain today.

Next to the Grain Barge is the old “Custom House” from 1790. Before the arrival of the railways in the mid 19th century, the River would have been the principal way to transport goods into the city.

It is thought the location of the Cathedral was deliberate, being relatively close to the river, where the buildings stone was brought in.

The Custom House would have been the home of the Toll Collector, who levied tolls on this section of the River.

Trade on English Rivers and Canals began to disappear after the Victoria Rail Revolution, making these type of Tolls redundant. The building is now used by the Sea Cadets.

Looking back towards the main city centre, Peterborough Cathedral is an impressive sight, dwarfing any other building around it.

Peterborough is a lovely historic city, with plenty of landmarks worth visiting. It also has good transport links, lying directly on the East Coast Main Line, between LondonEdinburgh via York, Durham and Newcastle, with branchlines out to Lincolnshire and Leeds. The City is also close to the A1, again from London to Edinburgh via important towns such as Stamford, Grantham, Newark and Berwick etc.

We had now visited all three cities in modern day Cambridgeshire, but our next trip was a quick foray into what was once Huntingdonshire…


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