The Sunday Section: Travel - Pouring in Peterborough

It rained last weekend.  Rained and rained.  Horizontally at times, the wind was so strong.  And to make it a little more interesting, we not only had wet rain, which is to be expected, we also had icy rain.  Tiny, stinging particles of ice.  But what’s a little rain when you live in the UK?  I was not going to let that stop me having another weekend away, especially after the disappointment of not going to court, and the frustrating annoyance of having to wait till June before we do.

There are so many places I want to visit, but, for the moment, I am limited by finances.  So decided on Peterborough, in Cambridgeshire.  I’ve been trying and trying to think of something fun to say about Peterborough; the only thing that’s coming to mind is, it’s an ok place.  Apologies to anyone who lives in Peterborough, there was nothing inherently wrong or awful about it, yet, to me, it felt … bleak.  The night was spent in the hotel room, and it wasn’t only because of the weather; there was nothing to see, and I didn’t find it particularly inviting to be out.

The town square, opposite the entrance to the cathedral (first picture)

Under this is a Pizza Express, but at least this has been retained

Having said all that, I am so glad I went.  Why?  Peterborough Cathedral.  It is so gorgeous, one of the most beautiful churches I’ve seen.  Its official name is the Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew.  The defining image of the cathedral, unrivalled in medieval architecture, is the Great West Front and its trio of imposing arches.  The appearance is a little irregular as one of the two towers behind the front was never completed.

Original ancient Norman door

I found it difficult to take a picture that gives an idea of how enormous the building actually is!

Looking back towards the entrance arch from the cathedral

Although its architecture is mainly Norman, it was founded in the Anglo-Saxon period, around 655AD.  The original church, known as ‘Medeshamstede’, was one of the first centres of Christianity in central England.

In or around 870, it was supposedly destroyed by Vikings.  There is an ancient stone carving in the cathedral, the Hedda Stone, which depicts 12 monks, 6 on either side, and was carved to commemorate the destruction of the monastery, and the death of the Abbot and monks.

The monastic resurgence of the mid-10th century saw the creation of a Benedictine Abbey by Athelwold, the Bishop of Winchester, from what remained of the earlier church.  As it was dedicated to St Peter, the town surrounding the abbey came to be named Peter-burgh.

When the Normans invaded, the abbey’s secondary buildings were damaged in the struggle between the Normans and Hereward the Wake.  Also known as Hereward the Outlaw, or the Exile, this local folk-hero was a leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest.  

Hereward the Wake fighting Normans (from 'Cassell's History of England)

The church itself survived until it was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1116.  Work on the new church began in 1118, following the Norman architectural style.  

The decorated wooden ceiling of the nave was completed between 1230 and 1250, and survives to this day.  Unique in Britain, it is one of only 4 such ceilings in Europe.  It still retains the pattern and style of the original despite being overpainted twice, in 1745 and 1834.

The high altar

Ceiling above the high altar

Ceiling 'decoration'

When the Presbytery roof was replaced between 1496 and 1508, a rectangular building – the ‘New Building’ – was built at the eastern end, featuring gorgeous perpendicular fan vaulting.  This is the area behind the high altar.

In 1539, the abbey was closed, and its lands confiscated, part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The abbey survived being destroyed when, to increase his control in the area, Henry created a new bishop, and selected the abbey as the cathedral of Peterborough.

During the Civil war, Parliamentarian troops destroyed much of the interior, demolishing the stained glass, the choir stalls, the high altar, the cloisters and Lady Chapel, including the monuments and memorials.  Some repairs were done in the 17th  and 18th centuries, with extensive restoration work from 1883, which included the creation of hand carved choir stalls, the cathedra or bishop’s throne, the choir pulpit, and the high altar.

Having survived the Norman invasion, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the Civil War, the cathedral was, once again, threatened by fire, this time in November 2001.  Thought to have been started deliberately, the fire was, fortunately, noticed in time by a verger, who alerted the emergency services.

Two queens of the Tudor period were buried here.  Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, was buried here in 1536.  In 1587, following her execution at nearby Fotheringhay Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots, was also buried here until her remains were moved to Westminster Abbey on the orders of her son, King James VI and I.

Katherine of Aragon’s grave is graced with the title ‘Queen of England’, which was denied her at the time of her death.  A favourite of the people in her lifetime, she continues to be honoured to this day, with flowers and pomegranates (her symbol) still being left on her grave.

Walking around the outside of the cathedral, the gods were smiling as the sun came out, the clouds disappeared for a while to reveal glorious blue skies.  It was still so cold, but the sun made enough of a difference.

There wasn’t much to do on Sunday after breakfast, so walked around and took a few more pictures.  In the heart of the city centre is Peterborough Parish Church, named after St John the Baptist.  There’s been a parish church here since the 11th entury, and this church dates back to 1407.  The square that it’s located on was quite pleasant to walk around even in the inclement weather.

Being out wasn’t particularly appealing with the cold temperature and icy rain.  After walking around for a bit, found the museum.  Wasn’t expecting much but was pleasantly surprised.  It’s a Georgian house – didn’t take any pictures of the house itself as the weather was yucky, and just wanted to get under cover; also where it was situated with buildings all around didn’t make for satisfactory picture-taking.  It used to the home of the local magistrate, Thomas Cooke, in the 1800s.  When it was sold on his death in 1854, it was used as the city’s first hospital from 1857 until 1928, after which the hospital was moved to new, larger premises.  The building was donated to the Peterborough Museum Society, and was opened as a museum in 1931.

The only original piece of furniture from the 1800s

Part of the 'medieval' section

The top floor of the house was where the surgery for the infirmary was situated, to make the most of the light.  With the skylight, white walls and windows, it was very bright even though the day was still cloudy.

Model of the depot

 Items made by the prisoners, out of bone (didn't specify what kind of bone), and wood.

Looking down to the ground floor

Of all the places I’ve visited so far, Peterborough the town doesn’t rate very high.  But it is well worth going, if only to see the cathedral.  Oh, almost forgot to mention - the cathedral doesn't charge an entrance fee.  Donations are welcome if you wish to make one, and, if you want to take photos, there is a £3 charge.