Saturday, 9 November 2013

Peterborough: a Cornishman, a Queen, choral singing and cake

On with the holiday report. In the afternoon of my first full day I went to Peterborough, a place I'd never visited before. I'd simply passed it by on the A1, or navigated through it on the A15 towards Lincoln and the Wolds. Hitherto it had seemed no more than a vastly enlarged regional commuter town set in flat countryside, no doubt with the usual shops and services, but of no interest whatever. Except that it had an ancient cathedral. I decided to take a closer look.

I had the usual trouble making my way to the town centre. All towns and cities that were originally small, but now have their old centres embedded in a vast surrounding encrustation of new housing and industrial estates, suffer from seeming very homogeneous. All parts look the same, especially from the interconnecting network of local dual carriageways which, to keep noise levels down, are sunk into cuttings or lined with dense trees and shrubbery. That may help the inhabitants sleep better, but it robs you, the traveller, of the horizon and glimpses of landmarks to head for. I didn't spot the massive bulk of Peterborough Cathedral until I'd actually parked.

The roundabouts and exit roads are confusing, and often show only local placenames, somewhat unnecessary for the residents who already know their way around, and very unhelpful for the visitor. If you have a specific address to get to, then SatNav will certainly get around this problem, but, if you have no definite objective, and simply want to find the centre and then decide where to go to, it isn't any good. I'm a dab hand at ordinary maps, but readily admit that endless lookalike road junctions will confuse me, especially of course when I have to drive while finding my way. Showing road numbers on inner-city signs would help, but often these are not repeated once you get well into the built-up area. Thank goodness Fiona can display the compass direction! Eventually I did see a 'town centre' sign, and older buildings that indicated I was getting near to where I wanted to be.

Once parked, I walked the short distance to the pedestrianised city centre. It was actually less soulless than I thought it would be. I expected and saw the usual decent shops, but there was a handsome Town Hall, and an impressively large and open Market Square further along, studded with fine buildings: a big church, and in front of it, an old Guildhall, from beneath which came the lively sound of a Caribbean oil drum band in concert.

The magnificent Cathedral was through a gateway.

I walked up one side of the Cathedral first. It was huge. Then inside, to be confronted with a massed choir occupying half the nave, with a conductor firmly in charge. Apparently three choirs had been brought together to sing for an event that was being held at 6.00pm, less than three hours away. This was the final rehearsal. It was pretty powerful stuff, the male and female voices combining to blast you with a wall of exalted sound. The sharp orders and exhortations of the conductor made you jump! Even when I was at the far end, near the altar, I was started by a sudden explosion of instructions from him. There were loudspeakers everywhere - none of the usual peace and quiet you can hope for in most cathedrals. I don't like loud noises, except thrilling natural ones like thunder or crashing waves. But I'll grant that the singing was highly accomplished.

The Cathedral's sheer size was impressive. But I noticed in particular the decorated ceilings and fan-vaulting, and the canopied altar:

There were also some much smaller things. One was the heating system, which used the Gurney Patented Stove:

There's a reason for the Scottish Royal Flag in the lower picture, which I'll come to shortly. Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875) was a nineteenth-century scientist and inventor, born in Cornwall. See I'd last come across him when in Bude. The Castle there (now the Council HQ, and the home of the local museum, art gallery, and a nice restaurant, but once Gurney's home) has on display one of his famous stoves, which are intended to heat large buildings while at the same time maintaining the proper humidity. The fins propagate heat much more effectively than a simple barrel stove would, and the whole apparatus stands in a circular trough of water, so that water vapour as well as heat circulates throughout the building. It was a great surprise to find a number of his stoves still in use at Peterborough Cathedral! Cornwall in Cambridgeshire, no less.

Now the flag. On one side of the altar is a spot where Mary Queen of Scots was buried, before her body was moved to Westminster Abbey. On the opposite side was another burial, this one still containing the body. It was Katharine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, and Queen of England while she lived.

Those are my black boots in the bottom shot. Poor lady! So ruthlessly cast aside by a single-minded king who would not be thwarted, just so that he could get himself a male heir with a younger woman. What consequences hung on that! And here she was, beneath a simple slab in a provincial cathedral. I was astonished that her grave was so accessible, and that I could stand so near. She had adopted the pomegranate as her symbol, and members of the public had placed some there, along with a card and a bouquet. Somebody had tied a ribbon in Spanish colours - red and yellow - onto the iron work above. May she rest in peace, knowing at least that she is not forgotten, nor the contrived injustice done to her.

There was a side room. In it was the Cathedral's collection of silver flagons and plate. I like old silver, and enjoyed examining these pieces through the glass of the cabinets. There was another lady looking at them too. We kept dodging around each other. Speaking was inevitable. She was visiting Peterborough with friends. She was from Diss, a town south of Norwich in East Anglia. I said I'd been there myself, some years back. Her name was Maria. She was a little older than me, but that didn't seem to be so, as she had a lively personality. She had much to do with the local parish church at Diss. She had come with her friends to hear the choir sing later on. Was I there for the same reason? No, I was just having a quick look at Peterborough before heading back to Stamford, as I was booked in for a meal at 7.00pm. She clearly took to me, though, and when one of her friends came in to collect her for something else they were going to do, Maria introduced me to her with enthusiasm. The friend was called Sandra. After a little more chat, I left them to continue my exploration of the Cathedral.

Not long afterwards, I sat down next to one of the Cathedral's robed staff, an important-looking dog-collared lady with appraising eyes, to listen to the choir finishing off. We exchanged smiles. Then I felt in need of refreshment. I got to the café just in time. A pot of tea for one, please. Would I like some cake? It had to be eaten, and was only 50p for a big slice! Well, in that case...! And then, from a nearby table, 'It's Lucy! Lucy! Come and join us!' It was Maria, Sandra and another lady called Miriam. So that's how I spent the next twenty minutes, wolfing tea and cake and swapping conversation with three churchgoing ladies from Diss. We stayed till the café closed. By that time, I really had to leave anyway, if I were to get back to the caravan and get ready for my posh meal at The George Hotel in good time.

So despite the ragged start to my visit, losing my way on Peterborough's confusing road system, the afternoon turned out very pleasantly. I continue to be amazed that such a variety of ordinary people treat me normally and well, and enjoy my company, and don't just spit in my face.


  1. Why on earth do they always ruin music with amplification? The acoustics in those old cathedrals is great, badly placed speakers and amplification just spoil the effect…

    The English do like to hang flags all over their cathedrals but thankfully Peterborough is not festooned. I missed the bargain teas!

  2. Just what is meant by 'rest in peace'? A dead body lies in the grave. She is elsewhere. Where? I'll leave that one for you to figure out. Lovely Cathedral, a monument to God but only a building remember.

    Shirley Anne x

  3. Yet again our Lucy demonstrates her infectious charm and this time bags some church-going ladies from Diss. Well done!

    I am, of course, intensely proud of that Cornish stove. Good enough to warm pasties on, I reckon.

  4. So much beauty and history! The Cathedral is just lovely.

    So nice to hear of your new friends, Lucy. And the mention of cake reminded me of my good friend, Nicky (who you may know or know of).

    Calie xx


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