There are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, looks at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. Having started with Bedford and Northampton I now turn to a cathedral city to the east: Peterborough.
Don’t be put off by the industrial estates and roundabouts that girdle the place: Peterborough is, at heart, an ancient cathedral city, albeit much expanded since it was designated as a New Town in the 1960s.
And its cathedral is something very special indeed. Its nave is as impressive as Wells or Durham, its perpendicular fan vaulting is as impressive as Westminster Abbey, and its west front is as impressive as Lincoln or York.
It started life as the abbey of Medeshamstede in 655: it’s an accident that the city’s modern name didn’t end up as Medhampstead. The abbey soon became one of the most important Christian centres amidst the upheavals of Dark Ages England. It was burnt, and all its monks massacred, by the Danes in 870, but it was rebuilt by 972 and dedicated to St Peter. Thus the town began to be known not as Medeshamstede but as St Peter’s Burgh: Peterborough has exactly the same etymological roots as St Petersburg.
In about 1070 the abbey and its outbuildings were burnt again by Hereward the Wake and a force of Danes, who hauled off its treasure. After yet another fire in 1116 the abbey was rebuilt once more and much of this Norman cathedral, with an Early English west front of about 1210, survives today. Next year marks the 900th anniversary of its founding in 1118.
Peterborough is thus one of the greatest medieval cathedrals, and arguably one of the most important 12th-century buildings, in England. Despite Cromwell’s soldiers’ vandalism in the civil war, its still remarkably intact. It has many of the features of a showstopping cathedral: a Norman gatehouse, cloisters, a pretty (if small) close with fine limestone buildings (one of which contains an exemplary new visitor centre).
Just two things are missing. Firstly, the cathedral has no tall spires or towers. Its squat central tower had to rebuilt in the 1880s to save the building from collapse; a detailed history of the cathedral reveals that plans to put a huge spire on top, recreating one that had collapsed in 1549, were considered but then dropped. There is an asymmetric North-West tower and two small spires at the West End, but the cathedral’s real triumph is the rhythm of its three gothic arches, not its height. Unlike most other English cathedrals Peterborough does not look particularly impressive from afar: any contribution to the skyline has been negated by postwar office blocks nearby. This is a cathedral to appreciate close up, not from a distance.
The second missing feature, oddly, is a long pedigree as a cathedral. The abbey was only elevated to cathedral status by Henry VIII in 1541 (before that it lay in the huge diocese of Lincoln, which stretched almost as far south as London). But Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon is buried here, as was Henry’s great-niece Mary Queen of Scots following her execution at nearby Fotheringhay in 1587 (her son James I moved her to Westminster Abbey in 1612).
The absence of a majestic spire, and the fact it became a cathedral a mere 500 years ago, can’t be the only reasons why Peterborough is so little-known and rarely visited (unlike so many cathedrals these days, there’s no admission charge). Something else is going on. Peterborough does not have the cachet of Winchester, York, Canterbury or Salisbury, even though its cathedral is just as important. It’s a cathedral city that outsiders pass by or through, or visit for purely practical purposes (like renewing a passport: Peterborough is one of only three English cities with a passport office), but rarely visit as tourists.
It’s a strange hybrid: the only place in England that is both a New Town (designated as such in 1964) and an ancient city. I did not know what to expect when I first explored it in 2015, having moved to the diocese a few months before. Would I find the New Town grafted on to the side, with its own centre entirely divorced from the old High Street? Or had the New Town been overlaid on the old, and if so how much of the old would have survived? It turned out to be the latter; the New Town’s centre is in exactly the same place as the old city’s.
Peterborough was a very different sort of New Town from its close neighbours Milton Keynes and Northampton, both of which were also designated as new towns in the mid-to-late 1960s. Milton Keynes was a brand new city to be built between the existing settlements of Bletchley and Newport Pagnell, and while Northampton was already a large place it wasn’t (and still isn’t) a city.
A century before it became a New Town, Peterborough was already a sizeable place overshadowed by the huge Fletton brickworks, whose chimneys acted as a palisade on the southern fringe of the town. “There can be few places where one can see so many chimneys in one glance,” wrote Pevsner in 1968. In the early 1970s – when much of the New Town had yet to be built – Dame Juliet Smith, author of the Shell Guide to Northants and the Soke of Peterborough (of which more anon), complained that “Peterborough is not at first glance a prepossessing city. From whatever direction one approaches it … the long fen skyscape bristles with transformer stations, pylons and clusters of belching chimneys. Some of the largest brickworks and a sugar beet refinery are so sited that the prevailing wind blows black smoke straight onto the 800-year-old fabric of the cathedral, and the air of the Close is often heavy with the sickly smell of beet.”
Writing just before the end of the Second World War – 20 years before New Town designation – Arthur Mee speculated that “but for the railway Peterborough would be today a place like Southwell, a cathedral of great splendour with a village gathered about its walls”. Southwell today is still a small town of 7,000 people; Peterborough has 200,000 and rising. The railway cottages of Peterborough’s evocatively-named inner suburb, New England, remind us that it’s breakneck growth had started long before the 1960s. It wasn’t just Peterborough’s position on the east coast mainline: the fact that the local clay can be turned easily into bricks, the navigability of the river Nene and the proximity of the Fens also played their part.
Peterborough’s population was already 60,000 by the mid-1960s and it soon doubled. The New Town was really three new “townships” some way from the centre – Werrington, Orton and Bretton – built in earnest from 1971 onwards, each with their own shops and employment zones and linked by fast dual carriageways (to this day the fastest roads in Peterborough are orbital, not running in and out of the centre). These suburbs are a bit less monotonous than Milton Keynes’ grid, but despite Peterborough City Council declaring itself “the UK’s environment capital” in 2008 the sprawl is far from sustainable: life there must be hard without a car.
There was some innovation. One development in Orton Wistow – Svenskaby – was christened a ”Swedish village in the heart of England” on account of its “component houses”, mansard rooves and timber cladding. Three experimental solar-powered houses – very unusual at the time – were built at Orton Brimbles. But as in most new towns, the new suburbs were low-density – just 12 houses an acre, typically – and made up of cul-de-sacs, with pedestrians corralled into underpasses as per the classic Radburn model. Because there are few hills or natural frontiers (apart from the A1, which has so far been a brake on the city’s westward expansion) the city has sprawled in almost all directions, and is still expanding fast to the south. It’s certainly not just a dormitory: as well as new IKEA and Amazon warehouses, Thomas Cook holidays has long had its HQ here and though the brickworks are long gone there’s still a lot of manufacturing. Until it was broken up a few years ago, Emap (East Midlands Allied Press), which started life publishing newspapers in Peterborough, was one of Britain’s biggest magazine publishers.
But Peterborough’s still not quite as big as first envisaged. In the late 1960s Peterborough’s masterplanner Tom Hancock had envisaged much of Peterborough’s expansion to be westwards, along the river Nene. But a shift of political focus from New Towns to inner cities in the late 1970s meant the western extension was never built. So the City Council’s area still covers several beautiful limestone villages. To the west are Barnack, Castor, Water Newton, Stibbington and Wansford; to the north is “John Clare Country”: Helpston (where the peasant poet went to school and lived for much of his adult life) and Glinton (where he was born). Nearby is the Nene Valley Railway, one of the most popular heritage railways in England, and still subsidised by the council: Peterborough’s tourism brochures place as much emphasis on its wealthy rural hinterland as the city itself. How ironic it is that much of it was almost swallowed up by the city’s growth in the 70s.
There was little high-rise, and a lot of right-to-buy: by the time the Development Corporation was wound up in 1988, a third of the rented houses it had built had been sold to their tenants. Since then Peterborough’s development has been led by the private sector, and the results have been even less edifying. The big southern suburb of Hampton, in effect the fourth “township”, is a profoundly depressing place. Its huge shopping centre – Serpentine Green, where the UK’s then-largest Tesco opened in 1999 – overlooks acres of car parking. Built on an old brickworks and topped with a Disneyland clocktower, Serpentine Green belongs in Atlanta or Houston, not here.
Peterborough’s always been very modern in many ways, very ancient in others: of the city centre’s three main hotels, one is a coaching inn dating back to the seventeenth century (the Bull), and another is a railway hotel built in 1852 (the Great Northern). Just yards from Queensgate an old-fashioned Are You Being Served -style department store, Beales, somehow survives.
While Milton Keynes promoted itself in the 70s and 80s with modern visions of a Frank Lloyd Wright-style garden city and futuristic drawings by Helmut Jacoby, Peterborough Development Corporation had a series of TV adverts in which the Carry-On actor Roy Kinnear pranced around Cathedral Square and an Intercity carriage in a Roman Legionary’s outfit, evangelising about the “Peterborough effect”. “People have forgotten where Peterborough is”, said Kinnear (unrolling a handy scroll to indicate it’s just off the A1, 75 miles north of London). Even more bizarrely, in one ad Kinnear spoke only in Latin (with English subtitles) followed by a roll call of modern Peterborough employers, their names sewn onto Roman standards. (The irony is that Peterborough was never a Roman town. Although Ermine Street – the modern A1 – passed nearby, the nearest Roman settlement of any consequence was the town of Durobrivae at Water Newton, five miles west of Peterborough.)
But just as these twee adverts were being aired, Peterborough was developing modern infrastructure that other New Towns could only dream of. Astonishingly, Milton Keynes did not get a railway station until 1982, 15 years after its construction began. Unlike New Towns like Daventry, Corby or Haverhill, which lost their rail connections just as they began to expand, Peterborough had always had brilliant rail connections. It largely escaped the Beeching cuts and if anything its rail links have improved: an upgrade in 1981 reduced the journey time from Peterborough to London King’s Cross from an hour to just 50 minutes. The Midlands’ only surviving east-west rail line still crosses the east coast mainline here, and there’s a branch line up to Lincoln via Spalding. Today, York’s a little over an hour away from Peterborough and there are direct trains to Birmingham, Leicester, Stansted Airport, Cambridge and Norwich.
And in 1982 Queensgate, a huge new shopping centre, opened right in the centre of town on the site of Perkins Engines’ old works (Perkins still have a presence here, and is sponsoring the local half-marathon, the Great Eastern Run, this October). Such malls have a bad reputation – many Mancunians even welcomed the IRA’s bombing of their 70s Arndale centre, which helped unlock the city’s renaissance in the 90s and noughties – but Queensgate is an unexpected success.
Arriving at Peterborough station – redeveloped in the 1960s and an underwhelming place for such an important railway junction – the first thing you see is Queensgate’s multi-storey car parks (albeit yellow brick, not stained concrete) blocking views of the cathedral. The pedestrian route to Queensgate, past a swanky new Waitrose, is not enticing until you reach the inner ring road (named Bourges Boulevard, after Peterborough’s French twin town), which just had a European makeover with rusted metal railings in the middle and proper crossings (a grotty footbridge over the Boulevard is currently being rebuilt, but should have just been removed).
Once inside, Queensgate’s a lot bigger than you anticipate, with plenty of late 1970s/early 80s details (smoked or reflective glass, brown ceramic tiles, lots of diagonals), though its not clear how much will survive a refurb that’s just started. Given Peterborough’s unfashionability there’s more retail floorspace here than you expect, over two levels, including an HMV, M&S and a huge John Lewis.
The real triumph is how Queensgate integrates with the ancient street pattern. Where it meets the north side of Cathedral Square it avoids either offence or pastiche: limestone and steel rooves, and a clockface, humanise the front of McDonalds. On the other side, it leads seamlessly into Westgate Arcade, an Edwardian thoroughfare that wouldn’t look out of place in Mayfair. Queensgate blends in to the city better than any other 70s and 80s shopping centre I’ve seen.
“The city has little history apart from the cathedral,” wrote Arthur Mee in the 1940s. “There’s nothing in Peterborough apart from John Lewis,” an estate agent told me 70 years later. I beg to differ; there’s much of interest besides the cathedral.
Peterborough’s ancient street plan is simple – essentially a loose grid surrounded by gates whose names are still echoed by many of the modern street names – and Cathedral Square (misnamed: it’s separated from the cathedral precincts by a Norman gateway) is the crossroads at its heart. It used to be full of traffic (as this moving footage of wartime parades and dancing demobbed soldiers in 1944-45 shows) but still has lots of life as a pedestrianised space. In 2011 the square had a makeover, replacing block paving, unnecessary clutter and tired raised planters with York stone and fountains (you can see before and after photos here). The square is now lined with a Carluccio’s and Patisserie Valerie as well as Nando’s and McDonalds, and the upmarket and downmarket rub along nicely. Right in the middle is the Old Guildhall of 1671 (its mullion windows make it look a lot older). So many town halls of the period have had their arcade filled in, but here the ground floor – once a butter market – is still open with a quaint cast iron staircase up to the rooms above.
Rather than a single space this is really a sequence of three spaces: St John’s Square to the west (created by the demolition of a monstrous eight-storey Norwich Union office block, next to St John’s Church), Cathedral Square to the east, and a third grassy space between them. Gordon Cullen, one of the heroes of British town planning (his Concise Townscape of 1961 is still required reading), helped plan Peterborough’s growth in the 1960s and saw cathedral Square as the intersection of two axes: an east-west ‘Stone Axis’, linking the Cathedral to the Guildhall and St Johns, and a north-south ‘Green Axis’. Cathedral Square’s makeover has brought the Stone Axis to life, while related work to plant trees on Bridge Street on Long Causeway, both of which are now pedestrianised, has brought the Green Axis to fruition. The new spaces have won several awards, deservedly so, and has successfully resisted the temptation to fill itself with “statements”, big screens, sculptures or glass pavilions: the buildings around it are allowed to speak for themselves.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to extend the North-South axis – to the north, Long Causeway becomes Broadway and things go rapidly downhill, with lousy paving and too much guard railing. A cut-price 1990s public library struggles to make any sort of civic statement. The junction of Midgate, Westgate, Long Causeway and Broadway – arguably the second most important crossroads in the city after Cathedral Square – is a depressing affair, with a pawnbrokers on one corner and a Paddy Power bookmakers on another. Nearby office blocks on Midgate turn their back on the cathedral. Their bins and air-conditioning ducts are the first thing you see when you leave the Cathedral precinct northwards, and their redevelopment or revamping cannot come soon enough.
But south of the square are two wonderfully unspoilt streets, with much limestone – Priestgate and Cross Street – whose junction is marked by the extraordinary Victorian-baroque spire of the former Presbyterian church – “Vanbrugh-esque”, Pevsner calls it. At one end of Priestgate is Prevost, a restaurant that opened in 2016 and is already in the Michelin guide; at the other is the old infirmary, turned into a museum by Sir Malcom Stewart in the 1930s, and one of the best municipal museums I’ve seen: changing exhibitions are in the 1900s operating theatres at the back.
Cowgate nearby has been well-regenerated, with neo-Victorian shopfronts. And on Bridge Street is the Town Hall – a 1928 brick and limestone job with a Corinthian portico and cupola. It would look more at home on an American college campus than a British high Sstreet, save for the ground-floor shopfronts and a small shopping arcade at the north end. Pevsner, who had little time for whimsy, says “The choice of the [Georgian] style at so late a date may be deplorable, but the building is tactfully fitted into the street architecture”. In front of the Town Hall is a brand new limestone war memorial (the old one was tucked away behind the cathedral). Moving it out of the Close is a good metaphor for how Peterborough has realised it’s more than just a cathedral city.
Bridge Street leads southwards to the city’s law courts (late 70s brick boxes concealed by some clever landscaping) and the pastiche of the Rivergate shopping centre. Nearby is a 1930s lido, expensively kept open as a civic duty, and the Key Theatre, which has a bland programme: Queen tribute bands, Bring on the Bollywood and opera on a video feed from Covent Garden. But at least its glass frontage faces on to the Nene, a river which the rest of the city ignores.
Bridge Street is one of the few places where you can safely cross the southern part of the inner ring road (the continental makeover hasn’t reached this far) – trying any other route to get from the Asda on one side, to the city centre on the other is a hair-raising obstacle course. The whole boulevard now needs to benefit.
Further afield, across the railway lines, is the old Gaol of 1842 by W J Donthorne – later a courthouse and now sadly a closed pub – and further still is another limestone curiosity: Thorpe Hall, built for the Lord Chief Justice Oliver St John in the 1650s and one of very few mansions in England built during the Commonwealth period. It’s now a Sue Ryder hospice so public access is limited, but nearby you can visit the 14th-century Longthorpe Tower, an English heritage property whose domestic wall paintings are the finest of the period in northern Europe (they were discovered only when whitewash was removed after the Second World War). Further west still, you can still see fragments of a Roman villa in the stone walls of Castor, just north of the Norman church there.
One of the reasons Peterborough was chosen as a New Town location, a 1960s study noted, was that “Peterborough has a tradition of progressive local government…. Both the left and right are moderate and forward thinking.” Locals may scoff at that nowadays (both the Labour and Tory administrations that have recently run Peterborough have been too right-wing, many say) but at least the city has been free to make its own mistakes. Thanks to the Abbey Peterborough was designated as a ‘Soke’ (from the old English soc, meaning jurisdiction) in the fourteenth century. The Soke of Peterborough was part of Northamptonshire until 1889 (a link that persisted: the Peterborough constituency sprawled into Northants until 1974), but it still appointed its own magistrates and had its own police force.
Nearby Rutland is often thought of as England smallest county but from 1889 until 1965 the Soke– considerably smaller than Rutland in area – was a county in its own right. It was then attached to Huntingdonshire from 1965 until 1974, when it became part of Cambridgeshire. But in 1998 Peterborough City Council – whose boundaries are almost the same as the ancient Soke’s – became unitary: although Peterborough is still technically part of Cambridgeshire and is now covered by its police force and its new ‘Metro mayor’ James Palmer, its County Council holds no sway here and with most services the buck stops at Peterborough Town Hall. The city even has its own Volunteer Fire Brigade, formed in 1884 and the only one of its kind remaining in Britain.
It’s a complex administrative history, but the upshot is that Peterborough has been largely self-governing since medieval times. It’s had arguably more autonomy over the last 700 years than any other British city. Maybe that’s why Cathedral Square has been such a success: its rejuvenation was driven through by the former council leader Marco Cereste and a couple of allies, and escaped strangulation by two-tier bureaucracy.
I’ve written before about recent immigration to Peterborough, particularly from eastern Europe: according to the 2011 census 18.4% of the city’s population were born outside the UK, one of the highest percentages for any council area outside London, and probably an underestimate by now.
The influx has undoubtedly put huge pressure on the city’s GPs and schools, and Peterborough’s often cited in the media as the ground zero of British migration. There’s a lot of poverty here and the Polish and Turkish shops on Lincoln Road, just north of the city centre, would not be amiss in a suburb of London or Birmingham. John Harris came here to do one of his videos for the Guardian in March 2013 (he appears to have got lost on his way to Ramsey, 10 miles away, where UKIP used to control the town council), and again in 2017. It was drizzling in Peterborough on both occasions and the place looked miserable, but he argued persuasively that immigration is the price we have to pay for our Amazon orders, cheap tea bags and the cardboard boxes they come in.
Local employers say that eastern European immigrants work hard (a Bulgarian told Harris he sometimes works 17 hours a day doing two jobs), and that they can’t afford to pay more than the minimum wage. “Make no mistake: it is these people’s toil that the whole circus depends on,” says Harris, and he’s right.
Harris found some locals who resented the competition for jobs, but he also met Poles who’d arrived here five or ten years ago and who are now running hairdressing salons, and even a “wholistic therapy clinic”. Other Brits admire their entrepreneurship, and the efforts they have made to integrate: a glance at the local CAMRA newsletter shows that publicans here are as likely to have surnames like Suchoruczka as Smith.
Maybe Peterborough is “on the social and economic cutting edge”, as Harris claims: UKIP are strong in the small towns near Peterborough but not in the city itself, and there’s some evidence that the city is becoming more tolerant of immigrants, not less. It’s not just a place where it’s always raining and everyone’s complaining about immigration or Brexit. At the June 2017 election the right-wing Tory Stewart Jackson was ousted by Labour’s Fiona Onasanya, a young solicitor of Nigerian heritage, as the city’s MP. Peterborough’s southern suburbs fall in the NW Cambridgeshire seat, represented by an Asian Tory MP, Shailesh Vara, since 2005: Peterborough must thus be the only British city represented solely by non-white MPs.
Peterborough is genuinely on the up. Much of the latest development is right in the city centre, not the suburbs (Fletton Quays, on the south bank of the Nene, makes much of its apartments with cathedral views) and its difficult to find fault with what’s been done to Cathedral Square. The city is increasingly comfortable with its recent growth, and rediscovering its civic pride. Movingly, local photographer Chris Porsz recently tracked down many of the people he’d snapped in the 1980s to snap them again for a book called Reunions. They’re mostly fifty and sixty-somethings now, and a diverse bunch – Asian lads now well into middle age, punks who got rid of their Mohicans, Mods who grew up – proving diversity in Peterborough is nothing new (just like Bedford, 50 miles away, Peterborough had a big influx of Italians to work in its brickworks after world war two).
Rather than a cause for lament, Peterborough’s New Town status is increasingly a source of civic pride. The city’s former MP Stewart Jackson has called for the city to rediscover the pioneer spirit of the 60s and 70s to defend itself from those who talk it down. Maybe Roy Kinnear was on to something: the British always present progress as nostalgia, so nostalgia for progress is only a matter of time.
With thanks to Don Chiswell for his historical expertise. All photographs by Alex Grant.