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Episode 21: Huntingdonshire

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

Where is Huntingdonshire?

In our twenty-first episode we mentioned lots of interesting places and things in Huntingdonshire, so here are some pictures and links to more information if you're curious to find out more!

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, a small town near Cambridge, on 25 April 1599 to Robert Cromwell and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Steward.

Although not a direct descendent of Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell (who was famously promoted to the earldom of Essex but later executed in 1540 when he fell from the King’s favour), Oliver Cromwell’s great-great-grandfather, Morgan Williams, married Thomas’ sister Katherine in 1497.

Godmanchester's Neolithic Temple

While somewhere in Sumeria writing had just been invented and in Egypt the first pyramids were being built, in Godmanchester someone was building a temple. Its design was not based upon architectural ideas but on the positions of the rising and setting of the sun and moon during the course of the year.

The Neolithic people, having dug more than half a mile of banks and ditches as the foundations, cut trees in obelisks (some up to twenty feet high) and throughout the year positioned them appropriately. Twenty-four such poles were used, sunk four feet into the ground.

The choice of position included where the sun rose and set at mid-summer day and where the moon rose and set on the same day. Similar positions were chosen for the mid-winter, spring and autumn equinoxes - that is to say when the sun appears vertically overhead at noon.

The Chinese Bridge

The Chinese Bridge is a landmark of the town and has stood since 1827.

The bridge is now in its fourth generation. Originally designed and constructed by an Irish Architect by the name of James Gallier, rebuilt in the 1860s and again rebuilt in 1960 with a replica by G.B. Brudenall Ltd of Godmanchester for the sum of £1,580, on behalf of the council (and again replaced with a replica 50 years later by CTS Bridges, Shepley, Huddersfield.

The design of the bridge was influenced by the popular 18th Century style on Chinoiserie, a French term, indicating “Chinese-esque” which was a recurring theme throughout Europe and is a mixture of Eastern and Western styles for both decoration and shape.

Huntingdon Elm

A Huntingdon elm can grow to 30m. The bark is grey with crossing fissures, and twigs are dark grey and covered in coarse hairs. It is a cross cultivated hybrid of the smooth-leaved elm and the wych elm.

Look out for: the asymmetric leaf bases which are common in all elms. Leaves are rough to the touch on the top surface. Identified in winter by: twigs which are sparsely hairy, often becoming smooth with age. Buds lack a leaf scar below them.

Nun's Bridge, Alconbury Brook

Photograph by Richard Humphrey

The bridge over Alconbury Brook, called ‘Nun’s Bridge’, is supposedly haunted by a nun, believed to be the same one that was murdered following her love affair. She steps out in front of oncoming cars, causing them to swerve out of the way.

Some have reported that the nun was accompanied by a ghost which resembles a nurse, whilst others claim to have seen three ghostly crashed cars that silently burn at night. Sightings were first reported by a couple in 1965, but subsequent reports have arisen since then.

Hinchingbrooke House

Hinchingbrooke House is an English stately home in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, now part of Hinchingbrooke School. The house was built around an 11th-century Benedictine nunnery.

After the Reformation it passed into the hands of the Cromwell family, and subsequently became the home of the Earls of Sandwich until 1956, including John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, reputedly the "inventor" of the modern sandwich.

Kimbolton Castle

Kimbolton Castle has a rich and fascinating history that has seen it develop from a wooden motte and bailey castle in Norman times, into the building it is today - home to Kimbolton School.

The family seat of the Dukes of Manchester from 1615 to 1950, it is famous as the final home of King Henry VIII's first wife, Queen Katharine of Aragon.

The earliest known castle in Kimbolton, a wooden motte and bailey castle, dating from Norman times, was not on the present site. Around 1200, the local Lord of the Manor was Geoffrey Fitzpiers, Earl of Essex.

He was given permission by King John to hold a fair and market in historic Kimbolton, (the origin of the modern Statute Fair). The High Street was laid out as a market place, with the existing church at one end and a new castle, (probably a fortified manor house), at the other, on the site of the present castle.

Nothing of this early castle has survived.

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival

In Whittlesea, from when no one quite knows, it was the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the 1st Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress one of the confraternity of the plough in straw and call him a 'Straw Bear'.

A newspaper of 1882 reports that "... he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef".

The bear was described as having great lengths of tightly twisted straw bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen. Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw wound round upon them to form a cone above the "Bear's" head.

The face was quite covered and he could hardly see. A tail was provided and a strong chain fastened around the armpits. He was made to dance in front of houses and gifts of money or of beer and food for later consumption was expected. It seems that he was considered important, as straw was carefully selected each year, from the best available, the harvesters saying, "That'll do for the Bear".

The tradition fell into decline at the end of the 19th century, the last sighting being in 1909 as it appears that an over-zealous police inspector had forbidden 'Straw Bears' as a form of cadging.

St Ives Bridge

St Ives Bridge is a 15th-century bridge crossing the River Great Ouse in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, England.

It is noted for being one of only four bridges in England to incorporate a chapel (the others being at Rotherham, Wakefield, and Bradford-on-Avon.)

The Manor, Hemingford Grey

Built about 1130 by Payn Osmundsen, tenant of Aubrey de Vere. 1256 – 1490 owned by the de Grey family then, amongst others, Edmund Dudley, Henry VII’s favourite and Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s grandfather.

The beautiful Miss Gunnings, Maria and Elizabeth, were born here in the 1730s. The house had been doubled in size by their uncle. The extension burnt down in 1798.

Lucy Boston bought the house on 31 May 1939 and restored it, as much as possible, back to its Norman original.

The Fen Tiger

The legend of the Fen Tiger dates back more than 40 years, with the first sighting reported in the summer of 1978, when a workman spotted a "tiger-like animal" at Bourn airfield.

After this, there were numerous sightings in the mid 80s, including one that caused 12 baby rabbits to die of fright.

In the 90s, the tiger was finally caught on camera - but still nobody has managed to see it up close in the flesh.

Fenland Safe Keep

Before the Fens were drained, the expanses of misty swamps and meres were dangerous, especially at night and when there was no moon. It was said that evil creatures lived in the marshes and bogs waiting to lure the unwary to their deaths: boggarts, bogles, willo-the-wisps with their dancing lights and the dead hand which would emerge from the water and pull a man to his death.

Many were lost in the dark fen and never seen again.

Many Fenlanders were extremely superstitious and would carry a charm or ‘safe keep’ to protect them from drowning or from other evils of marsh and fen.

Safe keeps were often small hessian bags with items thought to protect against these creatures.

Safe keeps included lots of different things including cures from the Wise Woman and other precious mementos, though the best thing was thought to be the nail clippings of a dead woman!

Grave of Mary Ann Weems, Godmanchester

Mary Ann Weems (nee Sawyer) was a Godmanchester girl who fell in with Thomas Weems, a man of “strong build and rough exterior”.

Following reports that she was made pregnant by him the parish authorities forced a marriage, however no child arrived.

Whether Mary faked her pregnancy or miscarried, none can say, but finding himself with an unwanted wife Thomas left Godmanchester where he met another woman.

Three years later he returned to Mary, convinced her he was repentant and following a quarrel on the road to London took her into a field outside Wendy (now Wendy-cum-Shingay near Royston) and strangled her there.

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