The big idea

That great big, got-to-be-seen-to-be-believed, awe-inspiring, breathtaking cathedral – that’s what the big idea is. Yes, yes, Peterborough is a relaxing, laid-back city with a great country feel and agricultural background, plus a strong regional shopping centre, but it really does start with that cathedral, one of the finest Norman buildings in the country, and quite rightly a Top-10 UK landmark.

It’s worth a visit for that reason alone, but while you’re here kick back and relax in a great country setting.

That cathedral

Ok, so you know we’re a bit excited about the cathedral, but why? Well, we’ve already stated that it’s one of the finest surviving Norman buildings, but what else? The architecture and inherent beauty is simply stunning, and everywhere you turn is another view that’ll take your breath away, from the staggering gothic West Front, with its slightly leaning central arch making for a photographer’s dream, to the hand-painted nave ceiling, the only surviving wooden ceiling of this age in the country; the enormous central tower to the marble altar; the beautiful cloisters to the dramatic and colourful hanging crucifix. Truly, truly amazing.

Park life

OK, so there is more to the city than the cathedral: take the abundance of public parks, including the award-winning Central Park, with sunken gardens, sensory gardens and refurbished play areas, and the attractive well-maintained Itter Park. And then there’s the glorious Nene Park, which stretches over 10km of the river and includes the Ferry Meadows Country Park, a 500-acre lakeside beauty (think of the film Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and idyllic family breaks) and boasts water sports, cycling and fishing; Crown Lakes; and the Green Wheel routes, which offer 45 miles of cycling. Or try Thorpe Meadows, with one of the finest collections of modern sculpture in East Anglia. So we can see already that Peterborough is a great place to enjoy life’s simple pleasures: great architecture and the great outdoors.

In the country

But it doesn’t stop there; Peterborough is in the heart of the countryside, surrounded by rolling hills and farming and as such has been at the centre of country pursuits and agriculture for many a year. Take the East of England Showground in the city, famed for the East of England Show, one of the greatest livestock shows around, and other country experiences such as the Festival of Hunting, Just Dogs Live and the Land Rover Show. And then there’s the nearby Burghley Horse Trials, held at the Burghley Estate, home to the largest and grandest Elizabethan house in England; and the Shire horses at Sacrewell Farm; or Pigeons Farm, where you can learn about animal breeding and rearing.

Sit back and relax

We haven’t finished yet, because after all that architectural splendour, exercise and outdoors activity, you may simply want to sit back, relax and watch others do the hard work. In which case, fine, you’re well catered for here: if motorbikes are your thing, check out the BMF (British Motorcycle Federation) Show at the East of England Showground, the UK’s number one motorcycle festival; or take a look at the local Elite league speedway team, the Peterborough Panthers. Or why not put a bet on the dogs at the greyhound track or go and see a Premiership ice hockey match with the Peterborough Phantoms? If you fancy something a bit more, well, laid back, why not take a ride on the Nene Valley Railway (there’s even Railworld alongside, with exhibitions about train travel around the world), or step back in time and visit Flag Fen, one of Europe’s oldest Bronze Age sites.
All in all, a most relaxing city.

The essence

Inspiring countryside relaxation

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

Anyone who appreciates a fine bit of architecture should come here simply to marvel for hours upon end at the marvellous cathedral. But it’s also a great place to bring the kids to teach them just how their food gets on the plate, the importance of good provenance and how there’s more to life (and cities) than fast-paced living, games consoles, the internet and TV.

It’s a cracking place to get them in touch with nature and the countryside; and for you to quite simply relax.


Interesting bits in the history

We know that the area was settled between 4000 BC and 3000 BC thanks to the distinctive Neolithic pottery found here that is now known as Peterborough pottery. By AD 43 the Romans had arrived in the area and named it Durobrivae; although by Saxon times, Peterborough was known as Medeshamstede and a monastery was built here dedicated to St Peter. However, during the 800s this was destroyed by the attacking Danes. By the late 900s an abbey had been built on the site of the old monastery and the town became a burgh (a fortified town) and city walls were built. It was at this time that the name changed to St Peters Burgh.

Come 1070 and the Danes attacked again, this time with Hereward the Wake, and sacked the city. By the time of the Domesday Book, Peterborough was mentioned as one of the possessions of the Abbot and as such had no real independent life of its own. In 1117 a fire destroyed the church, with work starting on a new one in 1118, to be completed in 1258 (it formed part of the present-day cathedral). It was during this time that The Peterborough Chronicles was compiled, now one of the few remaining first-hand accounts of the 11th and 12th centuries written in English from a non-courtly point of view.

In 1539 the abbey was closed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but by 1541 Henry VIII established the abbey as Peterborough Cathedral, making Peterborough into a city. Later that century, Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned, tried and beheaded at nearby Fotheringay Castle and then buried at Peterborough Cathedral before being moved to Westminster Abbey.

In the 1600s the Parliamentarians drove out the Royalists during the Civil War and ransacked the cathedral (it’s seen quite a lot of incidents this cathedral); and in 1671 the impressive Guildhall was built as the market grew.

By the late 18th century the population stood at just under 3,000, many of whom realised that the city governors were unable to provide properly for the growing city and as a result appointed 33 citizens to become Improvement Commissioners responsible for paving, lighting and cleaning (given the relationship between abbey and town, the city itself has always been a remarkably self-governed place).

During the mid-19th century the railways arrived and the main line between London and York that ran through Peterborough was opened by the Great Northern railway; this transformed the city’s fortunes and, coupled with significant local clay deposits, the city became the UK’s leading brick maker. By the end of the century the city was governed by a number of overlapping authorities and it became clear that Peterborough needed one leader to look after the city’s fortunes and future, and eventually a mayor was elected. It was also at this time that the Corn Exchange was built in the corn market, and soon became one of the busiest in the country.

More recently, in 1967, it was decided to turn Peterborough into a New Town thus significantly increasing its borders and the population. A flurry of shopping centres were built towards the end of the 20th century, reflecting the growing stature and regional importance of the city.

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of

Why not start just outside the city at Burghley, home of the famous horse trials?

And, boy, what a start to the day. One of the grandest houses of the first Elizabethan Age, this magnificent building houses one of the finest assemblies of 17th century Italian masterpieces and an exceptional collection of Oriental and European ceramics. And outside? Capability Brown-designed gardens, the Gardens of Surprises, and a majestic deer park are just some of the delights on offer here.

How about dropping by at Sacrewell Farm, to the south of Burghley, and west of Peterborough itself? This is the home of the National Shire Horse Centre, as well as a working farm, an 18th century working watermill, tractor rides, and a maze, amongst a number of other farm-related things: a real countryside escape, good fun, and a great imagination-stirrer for the young ones.

And so to the city itself, heading in from the west: come in on the Oundle Road and you’ll pass the East of England Showground. Time your visit over the summer months and there’s bound to be some unique countryside show in full swing. Head for the city centre and locate first the Queensgate Shopping Centre; here’s where you’ll find the big high street names, and within the centre the Westgate Arcade, a charming arcade of boutiques and smaller outlets. From here it’s a short stroll over Cathedral Square to the cathedral itself (it’s pretty hard to miss it in the city centre, such is its imposing West Front). It’s worth noting as well that Peterborough’s streets are fully pedestrianised, so are easy to get around.

You’ll probably join the others admiring the optical illusion that the West Front creates, as well as the striking statues representing Biblical characters and key figures from the cathedral’s past. Once inside look out for the tomb of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, and also the former burial place of Mary, Queen of Scots. Elsewhere, in the North Transept, you’ll find some of the finest surviving Norman architecture in the country.

Suitably inspired, head over the road and check out the magnificent Guildhall, dating back to the 17th century; this was built supported by columns to provide an open floor beneath for the weekly butter and poultry markets previously held there (the Cathedral Square was previously the Market Square). Now stroll along Church Street, taking a right down Trinity Street, and you’re at the Museum and Art Gallery (re-opening in March 2012 following a £3 million refurbishment). Next head along Westgate until you reach the attractive and imposing columns of Peterborough Town Hall, walk down Bridge Street, take a right at the Boulevard, along the Bishop’s Road (check out the walls to the Bishop’s Gardens on the left), and locate the Lido swimming pool; with its Art Deco design, this architectural little treasure is one of the last remaining buildings of its type still in use in the country.

From here head down to the River Nene, and cross over one of the footbridges, looking for the Nene Valley Railway Station, the eastern terminus of the 7.5 mile track which takes you to Yarwell Junction (next door is Railworld, with a superb model railway); and further on from here you’ll soon be in the expansive and relaxing Nene Park, with it’s waterside walks, water sports, and woodland delights. Beautiful.

Finally, head east out of the city and track down the Flag Fen archaeological site. One of the finest Bronze Age sites in Europe, with an ancient wooden track way stretching across the Fens and the oldest wheel in England, this is a really fascinating place to discover how people lived some 4000 years ago.

An evocative end to an evocative break.

When to visit

City pics