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Cambridgeshire, UK

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To many, the name Cambridgeshire is synonymous with the county town, Cambridge, and with Cambridge University. There is in fact a great deal more of interest in Cambridgeshire. Read on to find out about many of the features of this county.


Cambridgeshire covers an area of some 3,200 sq kilometres, extending almost to The Wash in the north and bordering Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, in a clockwise direction.

It is the most westerly county of East Anglia, a largely low-lying area prone to icy winds from the North Sea. These conditions gave rise to a plain-speaking independent people. In olden times, those who undertook the hard life of hunting and fishing in the swampy fens were called Fen Tigers1.

The landscape is notably flat, with clay islands to the west and southeast over soft chalk, known as 'clunch', which was used extensively for building. Reclaimed fenland with rich peat beds makes up the northern half of the county. There are three principal rivers, the Nene in the north, the Cam to the south, which links to the Great Ouse in the northwest.

County formation

How did the county of Cambridgeshire form? A 'shire' was originally the name for an Anglo-Saxon area used for raising taxes, with a central fortified stronghold that became the shire/county town. A county was the name for a medieval lord's domain. When the kingdom of England was established, an area called Grantbridgeshire was defined, Granta being the Roman name for the river Cam. In 1888, county councils were formed as administrative areas; the Cambridgeshire of today encompasses the smaller administrative areas of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and the Isle of Ely.

Early History

Prehistoric and Roman settlements were largely eradicated by later occupants. However, there is plenty of evidence of habitation from Neolithic times onwards. Crossing from southwest to northeast is the Icknield Way, which claims to be the oldest road in Britain. It was composed of a series of prehistoric pathways which survive today as tracks and green lanes running along the chalk 'spine' of England.

The British Celtic tribe of Iceni inhabited much of the area until the Roman triumph over Boudicca in about 62 AD. Several Roman roads crossing the region are still evident today, such as Ermine street which led from London to York.

A peaceful society, with farming as the main occupation, thrived here until the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th and 6th Centuries. Defensive ditches, known as dykes, were built - Fleam Dyke and Devil's Dyke in the southeast still remain - but the invaders became integrated with the local population rather than conquering them.

During this period, abbeys were founded at Ely and Peterborough. Further conflict over the next 1,000 years came with the arrival of Vikings, Danes and Normans. Hereward the Wake, the Saxon hero resisting the Normans, made his last stand at Ely in 1071.

Middle Ages

This was a time of great increase in the number of settlements, destruction of woodland in favour of arable farming and the evolution of market towns. Cambridge boasts some fine examples of medieval architecture. Many Norman mottes, ecclesiastical buildings and bridges are still visible in the county, although a great number of buildings were radically altered or developed at a later date. Some villages disappeared as a result of the Black Death, but many are still in existence in some form today - from tiny hamlets to bustling towns.

Farming continued to be the principal activity in the south while fishing, fowling, and reed and rush gathering took place in the swampy fens. With the foundation and development of the university in the 13th century, the area acquired a new importance as a centre of learning.

Dissolution and Reform

With the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, the ecclesiastic control of the region was replaced by squires with newly-built manor houses. The local peasants had been exploited by the monasteries, but this change often meant even worse exploitation. This situation continued with little change until the English Civil War. Cambridgeshire was a largely parliamentarian region, supporting Oliver Cromwell of Huntingdon. The area was home to many garrisons, but did not see any battles. The county continued to contain a mixture of wealthy landowners, minor gentry and labourers, alongside academics and merchants.

In the mid 18th Century many great houses and parks were created; Capability Brown's landscaping altered the layout of several villages and even created some new ones. The region escaped the worst impact of the industrial age, though the advent of agricultural machinery led to increasing poverty for farm workers. This provoked sporadic protests and riots, eventually subsiding in the face of Victorian reforms and the creation of trade unions.

1840 brought the railways which criss-crossed the area until the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Cambridge station has remained largely unaltered since 1845. Only today (2005) are there serious plans for major redevelopment.

Modern Times

During the 20th Century, the area has seen some radical changes. The Agricultural Revolution meant that hedges and woodland were removed to create huge fields of crops. East Anglia today produces about one third of Britain's vegetables and is the leading producer of root crops, especially sugar beet.

Wartime had a tremendous impact with the creation of many airfields, most of which are now disused. The Imperial War Museum at Duxford is an exception, as is RAF Alconbury.

In the 1930s the county's education chief, Henry Morris, created the first village college (Sawston) to bridge the gap between private and rural schools. These village colleges for 11 to 16 year olds still form the mainstay of secondary education in the region. Sixth form colleges provide further education.

The latter half of the 20th Century has seen rapid growth in building, both residential and business, particularly in South Cambridgshire. New settlements have sprung up such as Bar Hill. In 1999, work on Cambourne, the largest new settlement in Britain, began. When complete, there will be more than 3,000 houses, divided into three areas, each with a village green. Shops, schools, medical services, fire and police services, open spaces, a business park, a multi-denominational church and a cemetery are all included in the development.

1970 saw the foundation of Cambridge Science Park, which now houses over 70 hi-tech industries and, since 2001, the William Gates building. The area has earned the nickname Silicon Fen as it is home to a multitude of small businesses, predominantly related to computer software.

Cambridgeshire today

The county has a population of 552,658 (2001 census), with over 90 per cent of its people being white and born in the UK. There are striking contrasts between wealth and poverty in the region: Cambridgeshire contains the largest traveller population of the country as well as some of the most affluent homeowners. Oakington Immigration Reception Centre at Longstanton houses about 400 refugees.

Unemployment is low - at about two per cent - and with fast rail links to London, Birmingham and Stansted, there are many commuters as well as those employed within the region. A recent Channel 4 programme voted South Cambridgeshire the seventh most popular place in the UK to live. However, some fear the county is in danger of becoming a victim of its own popularity; as more people look to move there, the demand for housing increases which means that this pleasant semi-rural region is actually under threat of erosion thanks to the development of new housing estates.


The Fenlands extend across much of the northern part of Cambridgeshire as well as parts of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Due to its low-lying nature, the area is prone to flooding. Fenlanders claim that ice-skating was invented here as a means of travel and entertainment using the wide expanses of ice during severe winters.

Ely stands on high ground within the Fens, hence the name the Isle of Ely. The cathedral, visible from miles around, is often known as 'the Ship of the Fens'.

Both the Romans and Normans attempted to drain the land, appreciating its value for farming, but it wasn't until the early 17th Century that the Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, was successful in draining the landscape we see today using water channels. The two greatest of these channels are the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River, running parallel for some 35 kilometres across the Fens from Earith to Denver in Norfolk. The area between these channels floods in Winter, providing a habitat for water fowl.

Other surviving drains are the Twenty Foot and Forty Foot drains near Chatteris. They are now higher than the surrounding land where peat has shrunk when the water was removed. First windmills and later, steam engines, were used to pump water into the drainage channels. Nowadays electric pumps are used. Little of the traditional wet fenland remains - the original sea around Ely is now farmland containing mainly wheat, sugar beet and carrot.

Mysteries, myths and legends

  • The county flower is the pasqueflower (pulsatilla vulgaris), said to grow on the graves of Viking warriors.

  • In recent years there have been many sightings of an animal thought to be a puma in the area, nicknamed the Fen Tiger.

  • The George Hotel in Buckden is said to be haunted by Dick Turpin. Other places that are rumoured to be haunted include Caxton Gibbet, where a former landlord is said to have murdered three travellers, and Nun's Bridge, Huntindon, where a nun was put to death after a forbidden liaison with her lover.

  • Warboys was the scene of an unusual case of witchcraft in the 16th Century. Alice Gammer Samuel is said to have bewitched the five daughters of Sir Robert Thockmorton. She was tried and sentenced to death, despite her plea for clemency on the grounds of pregnancy, much to the amusement of all concerned (she was at least 60 years old). The husband of the eldest daughter is reputed to have bequeathed funding for annual anti-witchcraft sermons. Such preaching continued in Huntingdon into the 1800s. The bewitching is now thought to have been convulsions as a result of eating fungus-contaminated rye.

Many other villages and landmarks have legends associated with them.

Buildings to Visit

  • English Heritage properties: Denny Abbey (Benedictines, 1159) and Farmland Museum, Duxford Chapel (a medieval building, once part of a hospital), Isleham priory church (early Norman and long used as a barn), Longthorpe tower (containing fine 14th Century wall-paintings of both secular and spiritual themes).

  • Hemingford Grey Manor: one of the oldest inhabited houses in Britain2

  • Hinchingbroke House

  • Kimbolton Castle

  • Madingley: the American Cemetery where 3,811 WWII servicemen are buried, with an additional 5,125 named on a wall.

  • National Trust properties: Anglesey Abbey (a 1600s house on the site of a 12th Century Augustinian priory with a large collection of paintings and clocks, 98 acres of landscaped garden, an arboretum and 100 pieces of sculpture), Lode mill, Houghton mill (an 18th Century timber watermill which is still operational), Peckover House and garden (a Georgian town house owned by the Quaker family), Ramsey Abbey gatehouse (the remains of a Benedictine abbey in school grounds), Wimpole Hall and Home Farm (which contains fine 18th Century interiors, servant quarters, gardens, parkland, rare breeds and historic farm equipment).

Heritage Towns

  • Cambridge - many interesting museums, botanic gardens, fine architecture.

  • Ely - Norman cathedral and stained glass museum.

  • Huntingdon - originally a Roman settlement and the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, whose old school is now the Cromwell Museum.

  • March - 1,400 years of history.

  • Peterborough - one of Britain's oldest settlements, despite its designation as a new town in 1967.

  • St Neots

  • St Ives (as in the riddle)3 - Museum of Skates, boating and market town

  • Wisbech - a medieval port before the fens were drained, which later became a Georgian market town.

Other historic places

  • Barrington - claims to have the longest village green in England.

  • Flag Fen - Bronze age excavations, semi-floating visitor centre and museum.

  • Grantchester - former residence of the poet Rupert Brooke.

  • Wandlebury Ring - an iron age hill fort. Situated on the Gog Magog hills, the eastern end of chalk outcrops reaching from the southwest to Dunstable and the Chilterns.

  • Wicken Fen - nature reserve (visitor centre and nature trails).

Other places of interest

  • Docwra's Manor Garden (Shepreth) - at one time famous for extending alongside the railway.

  • Duxford Imperial War Museum

  • Grafham Water - a 1960s reservoir used for water sports and an educational activity centre.

  • Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory (on the Haslingfield - Barton road).

  • Nene Valley Railway - 15 mile steam railway (featured in Octopussy, Goldeneye and London's Burning).

  • Stilton - famous for its cheese market, rather than being the origin of Stilton cheese.

  • Water/windmills - Bourn, Soham, Hinxton, Houghton.

  • Wildlife - Linton Zoo, Willers Mill Wildlife Park (Shepreth), Wood Green animal shelter, Raptor Foundation (Woodhurst).

Famous people born in or associated with Cambridgeshire

  • Hereward the Wake
  • Thomas Clarkson (1760 - 1846), the anti-slavery campaigner
  • Samuel Pepys, the diarist, attended school in Huntingdon
  • Ronald Searle, the cartoonist
  • Jack Hobbs, the cricketer
  • John Maynard Keynes, the mathematician/economist
  • Olivia Newton-John, the singer4
  • Clement Freud, former MP for Isle of Ely
  • Octavia Hill, the co-founder of the National Trust, was born at Wisbech
  • Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and creator of this website, was born in Cambridge

There are of course many famous alumni of Cambridge University - too numerous to list here.

Famous residents

  • Jill Paton Walsh, the writer
  • Phillippa Pearce, the writer
  • Syd Barrett, the Pink Floyd guitarist
  • Jeffrey Archer, disgraced politician
  • P D James, the writer
  • John Major, former Prime Minister and former MP for Huntingdon
  • Stephen Saunders, the TV chef and former proprietor of The Pink Geranium
  • Mickey Dolenz, former member of The Monkees
  • Jean Adamson, the author of the Topsy and Tim books
  • Professor Stephen Hawking
1A name now used by Mildenhall Speedway Team (Suffolk), Peterborough Ice Hockey team and Chatteris Football team.2Hemingford Grey Manor is also known as the house of Green Knowe in the children's books by Lucy Boston.3 As I was going to St Ives I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, Each sack had seven cats, Each cat had seven kits; Kits, cats, sacks and wives - How many were going to St Ives?4Born in Cambridge and raised in Melbourne, Australia.

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