Peterborough to Wansford

Tuesday 8 May 2018.

Stanground Lock marks the end of the Fenland Rivers, and the beginning of the Nene. Peterborough Cathedral is the sight that greets your eyes as the guillotine lock gate rises, and a visit to the city and its wonderful church marked the transition.


The river is full, and broad now, as we moor alongside the water front, and make our way up into the Cathedral Close.


It’s an ancient site – there was a monastery here from 655, which was destroyed by the Vikings in 870 (the same onslaught that murdered St Edmund in Suffolk), and rebuilt in the 10C. Hereward the Wake attacked the Abbey in 1069; there was a fire in 1116, and it was rebuilt in its present form between 1118 and 1238. The Gothic west front is glorious –


it engages the eye with dramatic intent, taking you from the depths of the three arches to the statues that gaze down upon you. The Nave extends away, with a stunning diamond ceiling.


I drop into the office to see if the new Dean, Chris Dalliston is around. He was Dean of Newcastle, and has stepped in to turn around the fortunes of Peterborough. It hit the news a year or so ago, prompting a Cathedrals’ Review into the leadership and management of these iconic buildings. Peterborough is a tough place to run – like all Cathedrals they rely on visitors, and apart from the Cathedral, there’s not much reason to visit Peterborough – compared with other Cathedral cities. Chris is on his way back from Leeds, and will be going straight into a Finance Meeting, says his PA. The life of a Dean today. I leave my best wishes.

We visited Katharine of Aragon’s grave who died in nearby Kimbolton Castle, dying, as she lived, still convinced of the indissolubility of her marriage to Henry VIII, despite his divorce of her to marry Ann Boleyn, with his rejection of the authority of the Pope and declaration of his headship of the English church.


Her burial there might have influenced Henry favourably to make the Abbey a Cathedral, and the Abbot, John Chambers, the first Bishop. Mary Queen of Scots was here, briefly, too, after death, before her son James I removed her body to Westminster Abbey in 1612. We go on, tomorrow, to Fotheringay, where she was executed.

Stopping in Peterborough gave me the chance to meet with Natalie Watson who lives in the Cathedral close. We find each other at Becket’s, with the West Front full in view. Natalie is the commissioning publisher for the book I’ve just finished, Full of Character, which will come out either in November, or January. We discussed the relative merits of before or after Christmas; possible venues for launches and the cover which I’m hoping will be a beautiful image of synapses firing off in the brain, looking like stars.

We wondered who to approach for endorsements, bandying around the names Iain McGilchrist, Nicky Morgan, Matthew Parker, Charlie Brooker, David Lammy – be great to get any of these. She’s pleased with it, which is a relief.

Back on board, and we head up river, following a light green narrow boat Sophia, to the first lock at Orton. It’s a stunning river, with green park and trees galore on either side. I hear – and then see! – a cuckoo. Common terns are fishing all around. Crested grebes, peewits, cormorants, moorhens – the birds seem more abundant than on the Fenland waters. I read in Mark Cocker’s book


that Great Crested Grebe numbers fell to only 32 breeding pairs in the 1860s, owing to the popularity of their feathers for the hat trade. Numbers are now in the region of 6,000 breeding pairs. It’s a gorgeous bird, with its strange crest, dramatic spear of a beak and striking colours.

We’re happy to be alongside Sophia as we tackle Orton Lock together. The couple live on board, and cruise the river pretty much continuously. They show us the ropes, and give us really helpful tips as we anticipate the 37 locks ahead. They also warn us not to be too ambitious with the distances – Fotheringay is six hours away. They advise us to moor up at Wansford. So on we go to Water Newton Lock which is simply beautiful, with its mill and manor house, close by the church. Long lawns and the light stone of the houses, and already England feels very different to the fens.

The greens of early May are breath-taking along the Nene, as it meanders through meadows and woods. We push on, to Wansford where the mooring is already taken, and through the small town, mooring just below Wansford Lock, ready to go through first thing tomorrow. It’s later than we thought, as we settle down to spare ribs, stuffed mushroom and peppers – a great concoction by Viv.

The weather’s turning – it won’t be so hot tomorrow.


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