Tue Jan 30th, 2007 at 07:53:20 AM EST
The Place to Be by Anthony Gormley-Peterborough Sculpture Park
Where I live is nowhere very special. A city only because of its cathedral, it was, in effect, a market town until 1967, when it was given the dubious honour of new town status. Since then, it has become a byword for provincial soullessness, so deeply unfashionable that, despite being within an hour of London, property prices are amongst the lowest in the country.
The detractors don't have it all wrong. When I first came here, much of the Tudor centre had already been ripped out and replaced with a monolithic shopping centre, but the candied smell of the sugar refinery still announced the beginning of Autumn. Now most of the manufacturing has gone, and the economy is based on corporate headquarters and the London commute.
And yet, like every inch of this small island, it is flooded with echoes of the past. It has seen bloodshed, war, taken part in events that changed the face of Britain, contains some of the most important historical sites in Europe- and some tiny, local fragments all its own.
More ET Photo-journalism from the diaries -- whataboutbob
Not many people know where Peterborough is, and fewer still want to claim it. Local poet Toby Wood has described it as North of the South, South of the North, East of the West, West of the East. Chances are that it will be missed off maps of both the East Midlands and East Anglia, and it has been shunted between three counties at least. It lies at the meeting of two landscapes: the pastures of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire to the west, the marshy plains of the fens to the east.
It was to this place beyond definition, this space between spaces, a land of neither earth nor water, that the people of the Bronze Age came to...we don't know what exactly. But between 3000 and 3500 years ago, they built a 1 km causeway across the marsh at Flag Fen. Weapons were broken before being laid in the water, a ritual believed to be designed to symbolise or facilitate their passage from one world to the next. .
The local museum, formerly the city hospital (and reputedly the most haunted building in the city) has a fine collection of Peterborough ware, which was transported all over Roman Britain:
but the truly major exploitation of the local clay began in the nineteenth century. London brick was transported all over the country using the new railways, but also used extensively in building workers' cottages like these:
Sometimes, I go the fairly short distance to the Midlands and am newly surprised by the incredible redness of the brick there. But this is the colour of Peterborough, echoing the Barnack limestone of which the abbey was built...
(picture from cathedral website, as the West Front is half-covered in scaffolding right now)
The Abbey of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew is significant as the last place in England to stop keeping the Anglo Saxon chronicles,, providing one of the few first hand written accounts of life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It was sacked by the Danes (the present cathedral teashop, a former chapel, was the site of a bloody massacre (is there any other kind?) of monks who had taken refuge within it).
These days, they have learned to drink lattes.
In fact, this has been a new town twice, having undergone an expansion planned by the abbey in the fifteenth century. But the names of the streets and villages (ending in -gate meaning way and -thorpe meaning settlement) still reflect the centuries under the Danelaw.
Later the abbey was damaged by fighting between the Norman invaders and local resistance hero Hereward the Wake, attacked by the Lancastrians in the War of the Roses, vandalised by the Parliamentarians in the Civil War and most recently was reportedly an hour from collapse as a result of an arson attack in 2001. In terms of might-have-been history, the cathedral came close to finishing off Oliver Cromwell-his horse shied passing through the Norman gate and Cromwell struck his head on the stone, lying close to death for two weeks.
The abbey became a cathedral (and therefore Peterborough a city) in 1541 following the reformation. Catherine of Aragon (the first wife of Henry VIII, who created the Church of England in order to divorce her) was confined to a nunnery nearby, and is still buried in the cathedral. Later, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed at nearby Fotheringhay and interred here until her son, James VI of Scotland, united the English and Scottish thrones.
The largely Victorian Broadway Cemetery is said to be our Highgate. It's a quiet place, save for the birds shocked out of the overgrowth by my approach. Ivy snakes through and over the toppled stones. There are problems with vandalism, of course, and general disrepair
and obviously no Karl Marx. But it does contain the grave of Sergeant Thomas Hunter, the Lonely Anzac. Fatally wounded in France in 1916, he was evacuated to Peterborough. The sole Australian in the hospital, he became a public cause, and when he died, a gravestone was erected by public subscription. Over ninety years later, on Anzac Day and Remembrance Sunday, wreaths are laid at his grave. An adopted son of the city, who perhaps symbolises all the blood-sons who died a long way from home. And a corner of an English field that is forever Kirri Kirri.
And, just to confirm English eccentricity, from Central Park (yes- I can go to Central Park at the weekend. It just isn't quite the same...), the grave of a donkey called Jimmy.
Born on the Somme in 1916, he was wounded several times and became the only donkey in WW1 to be awarded a military decoration.
And, you guessed it- there were flowers on his grave too...
If you have the patience, maybe another time we can start at my own suburban -thorpe. We can visit the Saxon cross, walk through bluebell woods to the ruins of a Roman farm, hunt for the entrance to the legendary passage from the grotto by the holy well, then climb the tower of a fourteenth century manor house to see one of the most complete sets of secular wall paintings left in Europe. Not so bad for a place without a past...