An unscheduled tour of The Fens


After getting up at 5:45am & only realising I had got the CommsCamp14 conference day a week early when the train left Ely (north of Cambridge), I decided to go on a mini tour…starting with Peterborough

Exactly – after spending too much on the train ticket. But rather than going home, & with a school governors meeting scheduled for the evening, I asked myself what the least stressful and most productive way of spending the day could be. Having been meaning to visit Peterborough Cathedral for many years, I thought no time like the present.

Peterborough deserves a better railway station

It’s not a ‘St Pancras International’, & never has been. But for a city that is effectively ‘the gateway to the Fens from the north’, Peterborough really could do with a railway station that tells the passing traveller that ‘this is a place to do business’. It doesn’t do that at all. Mind you, neither does Cambridge. A couple of glass and corrugated metal tubes over the fairly large number of tracks is all it is. A sort of upside-down Clapham Junction if you will.

It was still very early (by my standards) by the time I wandered round to the cathedral grounds. The first thing I noticed was how fresh the air was – a damn sight more fresh than the air in Cambridge. My A-level geography recalls that as my bit of Cambridge sort of sits in the middle of a gentle trough, we don’t get much fresh air round here.

Cathedrals as statements to the people

Historically in these parts, the Cathedrals of Peterborough and Ely (along with Kings College Chapel) were the buildings that dominated the local area. Religion aside, they are repositories of our region’s local history. (That region being East Anglia – A list of cathedrals is here). That’s what fascinates me as a historian-at-heart.

Film skool homework

Last week, we played around with big studio lights to get a better idea of how lighting has an impact on filming. One of the things we were told was that early morning light is the best for filming and photography. It was only when I walked through the doors of Peterborough Cathedral did this make sense.

Early morning sunlight...or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? ;-)
Early morning sunlight…or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? 😉




The above photograph was taken with a mobile phone. It was as I was photographing the interior that I also understood the difference that a top-of-the-range camera can have. I tried a series of different shots – most of which were unsuccessful quality-wise. For a building as grand as this, you need the kit and the skills to match. And I have neither.


The above is an attempted panorama from one side to the other, using a mobile phone. The strange thing for me here is that pre film skool, I don’t think I’d have even attempted a shot like this.


The striking thing about this one (above) for me was the colourful light from the stained glass – again it was more powerful visually in person. We sometimes get the sense of cathedrals being dark, vast and gloomy places without artificial light. In popular film, I always get the sense (perhaps linked to manipulative clerical figures in dramas) that this imagery of the buildings are portrayed in that sense to reflect the clerical characters.

Katharine of Aragon's tomb - the fruits there are pomegranates
Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – the fruits there are pomegranates



Finally, there was Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – something I wanted to see if anything just to get a: “It really happened” sense of tudor history.

The photos above don’t do what I saw ‘justice’ visually

But the difference between this visit and my previous attempts to capture images of interesting buildings is that I have a better understanding of process and what to look out for. In particular the need to take lots of photos in order to find ‘the one’.

Then the organist started playing

In most places, playing anything that loud would have got you arrested – but not here. Again, recorded on a mobile phone, have a listen.

Now, I’m not the greatest organ music fan, but even this made me stop in my steps.

Next stop, Wisbech

It’s taken a kicking in the press of late (eg here in The Guardian). I’d been meaning to go there for quite some time anyway because of an interest in what linking Wisbech up with Cambridge by rail could do for both places. This was something I mentioned in my manifesto in the local elections of May 2014.

One thing that was noticeable was the number of national flags flying compared to the south of the county. North Cambridgeshire is a Tory vs UKIP battleground (the latter with councillors representing the town) – a battle that helped squeeze out the Greens and Lib Dems from taking the final Euro Parliament seat. I noted the flood risk posters (along with appeals for volunteers to help teach basic IT skills) in the local library and council buildings. Put this together with UKIP’s electoral success in this part of the county alongside the lack of a party manifesto for the Euro elections along with a record of climate change scepticism and you get the sense that what’s going on here politically does not match the assumptions of the London politics and policy bubble.

Decades of political failure the cause of Wisbech’s decline?

I’m thinking in the wider historical sense. It’s actually quite a picturesque town that had clearly seen some better days economically. Given some of the plans they had (again, on display in the library), there are people that genuinely care about the town. So why has politics been failing Wisbech?

Certainly the loss of the rail line in the 1960s did not help. How can you have the capital of the Fens not connected to the rail network? Furthermore, as the town’s master plan for transport states, it only has two bridges across a wide river. It doesn’t take much to cause gridlock in the town. Finally, on the bus route into the town, I saw some developments on the edge of town that can only further suck the life out of the market town. A cinema and a large supermarket, followed up with further developments of more ‘out of town’ shops are not going to do any favours to the Georgian town centre. If anything, Wisbech has the potential to match, if not exceed what Bury St Edmunds has to offer – especially with local independent shops.

Instead, charity shops and discount shops, along with the traditional array of clone-town brands are all too prominent. Again, that’s not the fault of the local people (or the recent arrivals) – that’s the result of central government policies over the years. The sort of infrastructure needed to connect Wisbech is financially beyond the reach of the town and district councils.

Wisbech to Kings Lynn

Road-wise, this bit was particularly grim. Although the main roads had been resurfaced, they had not been flattened. Hence the suspension of what was a brand new bus was tested to its limits and made me feel so sick for the rest of the day that I ended up missing a school governors meeting, being bed-bound not eating much at all. This made me think what it must be like for those that have to use such routes regularly – in particular students & those on low incomes.

What struck be about two of the central squares of Wisbech and Kings Lynn (as with Bury St Edmunds and with St Ives just outside Cambridge) is how cars dominate them. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better, more imaginative way to use the central civic squares of our towns than as car parks. But again, this isn’t going to happen without sorting out the public and alternative transport issues. Our local government set up in East Anglia is simply not organised in a manner to have the resources or legal powers to solve these problems locally. All too often they’ve ended up in some quango or in the hands of some all-too-frequently-reshuffled minister in Whitehall.

…and back to Cambridge

It would have been so easy to have gone back to Cambridge, sulked and slept. In times gone by I probably would have done. But there was something in me that said: “You’ve got to do this – and do this carefully too”. Recall things such as this. Hence looking for potential rather than saying ‘Why aren’t you the same as Cambridge?’ (Did I get close with the Bury St Edmunds comparison?) Ditto with the problems & challenges. It’s pointless pretending they are not there, or diminishing their significance. At the same time, writing places off in their entirety means condemning the good as well as the bad.

Wisbech, as well as the villages and towns that surround Cambridge are part of the solutions to Cambridge’s problems of transport congestion and high housing costs. At the same time, the areas surrounding Cambridge could be benefiting more from Cambridge. For example I don’t see many posters at the guided bus stops showcasing some of the local towns and villages along the routes.

At the end of the day, I came away with a feeling of:

“Working together, we can be better than this”


2 thoughts on “An unscheduled tour of The Fens

  1. I was recently informed that house prices went up by 30% in Cambridge. House price growth was also pretty impressive in the surround villages and St Ives (presumably due to the guided bus way). Meanwhile in the Fenland there has been virtually no house price growth. It seems that people are prepared to pay a premium to live in the local hub town with its open, liberal and international atmosphere.

    Perhaps given this its a bit ironic that instead of trying to imitate the success of Cambridge by being dynamic and open, many fenland voters are instead attracted to UKIP who are typically inward-looking and reactionary! I appreciate the underlying dynamics are complex but when an area votes for UKIP councillors it sends a message that significant elements of the community are closed and outsiders are not exactly welcome!

    Equally perhaps given the need for investment to improve connections to the local hubs, its ironic that the local politics in the Fenlands is dominated by parties that sometimes skeptical (Tories) and outright hostile (UKIP) to government investment!

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