For this post we’ve decided to focus on an area that we often overlook, probably because to us it doesn’t feel too much like travelling, which is the area that we currently call home. We’ve been living here for over a year now, so we’ve had a good chance to explore and now we’re happy to bring you our tips for places to visit in Cambridgeshire, our own little slice of England.
To try and avoid creating two almost identical accounts, I’ve decided to arrange mine by the activity rather than the location, however the places are all still in Cambridgeshire. For a more geographically based post, see Ms Lust’s which follows mine.
St Neots’ Museum – This small museum is a wonderful way to spend an hour or so, and conveniently located in St Neots’ town centre. The museum is housed in the old police station and town jail, and the first part of your visit will be exploring the original cells and prisoner’s facilities. Some of the cells have been made into dioramas and, combined with the information boards on the walls, it really gives you a good impression of what it would have been like to be imprisoned here. Following this is the main part of the museum, a series of rooms filled with artefacts from the town’s long and varied history. Starting with items from prehistoric times that have been found in local archaeological digs, the age of the exhibitions become more and more recent as you work your way through. The biggest collections are from the Victorian period and the two world wars, with recreated street scenes and rooms from these periods. The museum finishes with the obligatory gift shop, with some nice local craftwork and a second-hand book section which provided me with some new travel literature to enjoy!
Oliver Cromwell’s House, Ely – This whole area has a strong connection with the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, with Ely having been his hometown. His former home has been restored to how he would have recognised it and turned into a museum of the great man’s life. Each room tells a story of daily life in the 17th century, as well as information and artefacts more personal to Oliver Cromwell and his family. Most of the items seem to be replicas rather than original, but they create a setting that is both educational and interesting. There are also activities in the rooms for kids, both big and small, ranging from brass rubbings to dressing up. All in all it’s definitely an interesting visit, and engaging enough to spend an hour or two here.
This area seems to be very rich in stately homes and historic buildings, with many of them sharing connections with one another. Catherine of Aragon spent her final years in this area after Henry VIII announced their marriage null and void, and she stayed at both Buckden Towers and Kimbolton Castle. Kimbolton Castle is now used as a school, as is Hinchingbrooke House, yet it is still possible to visit both of these houses on their open days. See our posts on our stately home visits for more information on these and other homes, you can find them here and here.
Churches and Cathedrals
Ely Cathedral – Ely is one of the smallest cities in Britain, and is probably most famous for its cathedral. Built on the site of the former abbey, this majestic building stands over the city and dominates the skyline. Inside, the cathedral seems even bigger, with a huge vaulted ceiling way up in the heavens. There are stained glass windows seemingly everywhere and the central octagonal window feature is spectacular. The ceilings are also a masterpiece in their own right, with magnificent paintings covering almost all of them. After exploring the full extent of the cathedral, the Lady Chapel is your next destination. The chapel is accessed by a corridor leading from the cathedral, and you enter into a large open room. Much less decorated and lavish than the cathedral, the chapel is more what you expect at an abbey. Aside from the altar which dominates the room, there is no furniture or seating. The walls have been adorned with decorative masonry and some small statues, many of which were damaged during the Reformation. This chapel was obviously designed purely for worship rather than show, and it is a clear contrast from the cathedral next door.
Peterborough Cathedral – I cannot tell you too much about Peterborough Cathedral, despite having visited on two separate occasions, as we have been unable to explore it properly due to ongoing services at the time of our visits. From the outside the cathedral is huge and imposing, standing guard over its wonderful grounds. The cathedral is walled off from the city centre, with huge doors that are closed after hours to deny access. We have only caught a few glimpses of the inside of the cathedral, but I can tell you that it looks very impressive. The nave seems impossibly long, made to look even longer by the vast vaulted ceiling above it. Stained glass windows feature throughout the front façade, and I imagine there are a lot more to be discovered in the body of the cathedral. Unfortunately I can’t say much more than that, and that we’ll definitely be trying again to visit on our next day in Peterborough.
The great outdoors
Cambridgeshire isn’t really renowned for its countryside, with the Fens taking almost all of the publicity that the area does get. There are some wonderful parks and nature reserves all over the county however, and here are some of our favourite ones:
Grafham Water – This Anglian Water owned reservoir is just a stone’s throw from the bustling A1, yet it is such a peaceful area and great for getting away from the noise and commotion of urban life. Grafham Water is one of the biggest reservoirs in England, so the recreational areas are vast. All kinds of activities are catered for, from lazy afternoon strolls around the lake right through to watersports and rowing. There are also barbecue stands dotted around for using disposable barbecues, make sure to bring one with you to take advantage of them! Barbecuing by the water in summer is a real delight, and I for one am already looking forward to next year’s visits. We haven’t noticed too much in the way of wildlife ourselves, but I’m sure the different environments here are all teeming with wonderful creatures both big and small. Being just around the corner, our visits haven’t been too long, but it would be easy to spend a whole day here enjoying the surroundings.
Hinchingbrooke Country Park – This is a more recent discovery of ours, and one we plan to make much more use of in the future. A large parkland area just outside of Huntingdon, this park really has a bit of everything. The car park and entrance are situated within a small woodland, with a network of walking paths throughout. After this you reach a large open area, with a small cafe, children’s playground, and outdoor gym facilities. From here there are a number of options, depending on what your recreational desires are. The park has a number of small lakes located just alongside the river, and a walk along this section provides an excellent opportunity to spot squirrels and waterfowl. Another route takes you through a wildflower meadow and wide open spaces perfect for a picnic or a stroll. Lastly there are more woodland areas, one of which is reached after passing by another lake. Here you will find a birdwatching hide with views across the lake, with a keen eye and a bit of patience you may even see a kingfisher (like we did!). So no matter what brings you to the countryside, you can be sure that Hinchingbrooke Country Park has it!
Paxton Pits – This is a nature reserve just outside of Little Paxton, that has been created in areas excavated by quarrying. This has resulted in a number of lakes, which have become a haven for migrating birds. There are two options for walks, as well as the connecting Ouse Valley Way, which take you around either the smaller lakes at the southern end of the reserve, or the larger Heron Lakes at the northern end. Both walks have birdwatching hides available for use, where you can relax for a while and see if you can spot any of the current residents. As well as the birdlife, an area has been created especially for otters and there is reported to be a colony now living at the reserve. Also, if you visit around dusk, keep your eyes peeled for foxes and badgers, which also live in the reserve. This is a great place for birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys a nice stroll through the countryside. Just one word of warning, parts of the reserve border the ongoing quarry works and also share some access routes, so be careful and watch out for any quarry vehicles.
Riverside Park, St Neots – The main park in St Neots runs alongside the River Great Ouse and it is a great place for relaxing and recreation. The area north of the town centre is mainly large open fields so perfect for ball games and other sports, and it is also where most of the park’s events are held, such as the annual Dragon Boat Festival. On the other side of town, the park becomes more wooded and more suited to walks along the river and finding more secluded spots for a picnic. The main walking track passes alongside the river, through a camping and caravan park, and brings you to the river lock at Eaton Socon. Here there is the River Mill Tavern, which we would definitely recommend for a spot of lunch or a well-earned drink! The paths continue to follow the river as part of the Ouse Valley Way, and you can walk as far as your heart desires. Following the path in the other direction from the town centre would lead you to Paxton Pits, and onwards towards Huntingdon and St Ives.
Another area that is great to get out and about in is the stretch of river between Huntingdon and St Ives. Encompassing the villages of Hemingford Grey and Hemingford Abbots also, there is a wonderful circular walking route that will take you to all the best spots. Starting in the town of St Ives, the walk takes you across the river and through a wildflower meadow. From here the river is always a welcome companion as you make you way to Hemingford Grey, where you are met by a quaint parish church. A short walk through the graveyard brings you back to the riverbank and the path continues past some houses with possibly the best view from their front gardens in the area. Don’t forget to look back as the river bends round to the right, as there is a fantastic view of the river passing by the church. As you reach Hemingford Abbots you will walk through the village centre and past a typical village pub. We didn’t stop, but it looked like a great place for a drink or food stop. After the village the walk brings you back across the river at Houghton Mill, which again is worth a stop if you arrive during its opening hours. Turn right here down Love Lane and the path winds through a wooded area until bringing you back to St Ives, where a short walk through the town will bring you back to your starting point. This walk can be started and finished at any point along the route of course, and the five mile circuit took us a couple of hours to complete. Great for a relaxing walk on a lazy weekend, it would be easy to make a few stops and make a whole morning or afternoon of it.
This brings me to the end of my post, and you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Cambridge at all in a post about Cambridgeshire. Well, we thought Cambridge deserved a post of its own so we’ve added that to our list of upcoming topics. Stay tuned!
As you may know, although we try to be out and about as much as we can, we are based in Cambridgeshire and we’ve just realised that we haven’t really taken you around in our area, so we have decided to dedicate some time to this before we go exploring Europe a bit more in the following weeks. This post is about some activities and visits you can do in the area, but we will soon take you on a different tour with our favourite places to eat in our neighbourhood.
Cambridge itself is fairly well-known and we won’t include it in this post, it will have one of its own. Just to give you a brief introduction, Cambridgeshire is now formed by different districts that were once separate because in the 1970s Huntingdon and Peterborough joined Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely to form the current country. Follow me around a few towns in this area that we call home.
St Neots and neighbouring villages
St Neots is one of the main towns in Huntingdonshire and, although it doesn’t look as big, it has a population of around 40,000 people because it includes several neighbouring villages such as Eaton Ford, Eaton Socon, Buckden, and Little Paxton. The town is well connected with London by train and some people commute daily to the capital.
After being in the area for over one year, we finally managed to visit St Neots Museum and we definitely recommend it. Located in the old police station and law court, this museum offers you a good variety of exhibitions. The visit starts with the prison and you can see the cells and learn a bit about the old punishments and local convicts. After this initial section, the museum opens to the collections, starting with some prehistoric findings such as mammoth bones to include also some findings of the period of the Benedictine priory in the village and an exhibition about life in the Victorian era. The main feature of the museum is probably the Kimbolton Coin Hoard with coins dating from the Iron Age and found in the neighbouring village of Kimbolton.
The ticket costs £3 and there are some additional activities that you can find on the website. There is also a small bookshelf with secondhand books that are very interesting and in mint condition, so you have plenty of ways to support this local museum!
Something I really like about St Neots is the Priory Centre, as they always offer nice theatre shows, mainly thanks to the Riverside Theatre company, their actors are extremely talented!
St Neots is crossed by the Great Ouse River , which also gives the name to a famous walk that takes you around for 150 miles, the Ouse Valley Way. In St Neots, the river is surrounded by a big park, The Riverside Park, that sort of splits the town in two. The size of the river offers many activities, and rowing is definitely popular, with a rowing school as well. In August, the town hosts the Dragon Boat Race, if you are interested in a day of family fun while cheering your favourite team. One of my favourite walks takes you from St Neots starting the the Riverside Park and finishes in Eaton Socon passing through the lock just next to the River Mill.
As I said earlier, many neighbouring villages are part of St Neots, and Buckden is one of them. The village offers a few interesting things, starting from the Buckden Towers, a building that has seen many famous visitors and residents during the centuries and is now part of the Claret Centre and belongs to the Claretian Missionaries. There is an open day in September and then private visits can be organised according to its website. For more details about this, you can read our previous post on stately homes here, where you can also read about Kimbolton Castle.
Just outside Buckden, thanks to the River Ouse, you have Buckden Marina, a small marina with a leisure centre just on the side. You can enjoy a river cruise or exercise a bit. The gym is not extremely big, but the swimming pool is definitely the most accessible one in the area for swimming.
If you are interested in parks, though, one of the most interesting in the area is Paxton Pits, near Little Paxton. The different walks are of medium difficulty and are extremely enjoyable, and you can also enjoy a drink in the café before or after you start. The visitor centre offers a nice insight of some of the specimens that live in the reserve and also shows some ancient findings and fossils. If Paxton Pits is the best place for an immersion in the nature and wildlife, another famous park is Grafham Waters, a big reservoir and park. If you are planning a barbecue, this is definitely your place.
We have already talked to you about Hinchingbrooke House in Huntingdon in our second post about stately homes (check it here), but the town has a few more spots that may be interesting. The town centre could be a lot nicer if it didn’t give the impression that the shopping area is slowly swallowing the old buildings, but the surroundings are definitely worth a visit. If you like parks, something more on the line of Paxton Pits is Hinchingbrooke Country Park. This is a nice park both for families and people who want to train outdoors, and for people who like more exploring. The parking is quite small and may discourage you, but it seems to be easier to park there after 6 p.m., when it is actually free. You have a café and an area with an outside gym and it is very popular among runners. The paths are quite easy and offer a nice break. Among the elusive wildlife, you may be lucky enough to spot a kingfisher.
One of the most famous towns in Cambridgeshire, apart from Cambridge, of course, is definitely Peterborough. Since we have sort of traced Catherine of Aragon’s steps from when she was sent away by Henry VIII, first to Buckden, then to Kimbolton Castle, we cannot forget to talk about Peterborough Cathedral, her final resting place. This gothic building is of extreme beauty and it seems actually something separate from the city despite it being in the centre. The cathedral is surrounded by walls and after the evening service the gate is closed down as to separate this building from the mundane life. We have never managed to visit it properly as we always popped in during services or choir sessions, but we are planning to go soon, probably for one of their tours by candlelight, check their website to know more.
If we talk about cathedrals, we must talk about Ely, the Cathedral City. Once called the Isle of Ely due to the fens surrounding it and making it an island, Ely is now not an island anymore as the fens were drained in the 1970s. The cathedral is majestic, built initially by the Benedictine monks even before the town. The cathedral has gone through some major refurbishment in the past decades as most of it was becoming unsafe, and you can now appreciate the beautiful ceiling and the gothic structure in all its beauty. Several activities and concerts are organised regularly and I would recommend you check out what is on.
Ely is also famous for being the hometown of Oliver Cromwell and, just a few minutes walk from the cathedral you can visit his house. It is extremely interesting, both for all the historic information about Cromwell, and on a more general cultural level as it shows many details about the life in the XVII century. It is definitely worth a visit!
While we have visited the Cornish St Ives quite well, we didn’t really dedicate too much time to the one in our area. We went there to do one of the walks suggested by the National Trust, a route that is part of the Ouse Valley Way and starts and finishes in Houghton Mill. We actually started and finished in St Ives but we suggest you follow the original itinerary as it seemed quite hard to find a pub that would serve food in the afternoon when we arrived back in St Ives. The walk is easy and takes about 2 hours to be completed and takes you through some very nice bits of land. Just keep in mind that you will be crossing meadows and there are farm animals, in case that is an obstacle for you, it definitely was quite challenging for me, but walking through Love Lane kind of paid off!
I hope you enjoyed walking with us around our local area, stay tuned for more in the following weeks!