75 miles north of London, just under an hour by train, lies the medieval market town of Peterborough. It might still be a quaint throwback were it not for the railway, which arrived here in 1850 because neighbouring Stamford didn't want it. It might still be quite ordinary had it not been selected in 1967 to become a New Town, which is why over 200,000 people now live here. It's modern with the occasional flash of old. It's been a city since 1541. It's worth a quick look.[6 photos][visit Peterborough]
900 years on thecathedral is still Peterborough's most amazing thing. The wow starts outside with the unique triple-arched West Front, which is topped off by a confection of gables, spires and towers. It's quite the skyline to see poking over the top of Starbucks and Nat West while you're out shopping. Entrance is free, which is nice, and the wow continues when you're inside. The nave is long and indubitably Norman, stretching from the font to a bright red crucifix hanging over the altar. The painted ceiling is an exceptionally rare 13th century makeover, still emblazoned with its original design of gold-rimmed lozenges. Henry VIII's first wife Catherine of Aragon is entombed on one side of the sanctuary, while Mary Queen of Scots was briefly buried on the other side before being removed to Westminster Abbey. The cathedral's summer gimmick is a moonscape laid out on the floor between the transepts under the tower, for traipsing across in flat-heeled shoes only. It's far better than any New Town deserves, and an excellent civic centrepiece.
This is the oldest municipal leftover, a small assembly room (circa 1670) raised above a covered space where markets could be held. Today it lacks purpose, other than as a gathering place for local youth at the heart of Peterborough's best attempt at a heritage precinct. During the day the Cathedral Square Diner dishes out Jumbo Lincolnshire Hotdogs and Delicious Chips, while of an evening it's more about Pizza Express, Wildwood and Nando's. Alas the market moved out to a corrugated green box some years ago, less conveniently located, and is currently pencilled in for 150 flats so faces a most uncertain future.
Every New Town needs a shopping centre and Peterborough got Queensgate, opened in 1982 not by the expected monarch but by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. It's dense and large and has all the big guns, relegating the town's other streets to also rans, although it suffered a major blow when John Lewis announced they wouldn't be reopening after the pandemic so that's its anchor tenant gone. Peterborough's last department store is a downsized Beale's, recently reopened on the ground floor only, and very much not Westgate's most alluring building.
The Nene - from here to the Wash essentially a navigable drain - just scrapes into the UK's Top 10 Longest Rivers. It also very much divides Peterborough in two, which is bad news for the suburbs south of the city centre connected by a paucity of road and footbridges. The chief access is via Town Bridge, watched over by a 17th century tollhouse and ideal for swan spotting. Pedestrians and cyclists can use the nearby crossing known locally as Asda Bridge (due to unfortunate supermarket proximity), beside which high speed trains cross the river via an original 1850 cast iron span. For several miles upstream the banks are flanked by Nene Park, which sounds lovely, but the city centre riverside only disappoints.
Nene Valley Railway
This popular steam railway runs for seven miles from (almost) the city centre to a Neneside village. Alas it doesn't operate midweek so that's a pleasure for another day, as is Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery which was closed by the time I arrived, not that I'll be rushing back.