Huntingdonshire lies between Northamptonshire to the northwest and north, Bedfordshire to the Southwest and Cambridgeshire to the East. It is a small shire. After Rutland it is the smallest county in England. It is also a very flat county: the northern part is dominated by the fens, which are in places below sea level, while he south has low, green hills.
The county’s great river artery is the Great Ouse. The course of the Great Ouse as it passes through the county is the prettiest stretch of river in the land. The grace of the towns along its banks – St Neots, Huntingdon, St Ives – are barely to be equalled. The villages likewise have a charm all their own which you will not find elsewhere.
Now also there are commercial arteries. The A1 from London to Edinburgh runs right through the middle of the county, passing by St Neots and Huntingdon. The A14 from the Suffolk ports towards Birmingham crosses the A1 outside Huntingdon. Thus Huntingdonshire is on a vital economic crossroads. For that reason road distribution businesses are settling in the middle of the county. They have not spoilt yet though Huntingdonshire’s deep beauty.
Huntingdonshire is a largely rural county. The soil of the fens in the north was once under water. Now it provides some of the best growing soil in the land, and in the midst of this rich, flat land is the little town of Ramsey. The old county council’s motto is very appropriate: “Labore Omnia Florent”. It was the long, hard labour of drainage engineers which made the flourishing landscape. Without their work the fields of much of Huntingdonshire would be an inland sea (looking much as it does whenever the Great Ouse floods). The engineers and the adventurers who backed them gave the fenfolk and themselves somewhere to plant their crops and somewhere to put their feet down!
In Holme Fen near Ramsey is not only the lowest point in Huntingdonshire, but the lowest point of land in the whole of the United Kingdom; it lies at several feet below sea level. This is land trying to forget it was once seabed. (Of the hamlets in Ramsey parish, Ramsey Heights is so called because it is the highest of them: it is at sea level.)
The south of the county also serves as rich farmland. It has a gently rolling landscape in comparison to the north. In reality though nothing in the shire is truly hilly. The highest point in Huntingdonshire is at a place called Bush Ground, near Covington: it is at the dizzy height of 263 feet above sea level and is the lowest highest point in any county. Nearby is the Three Shire Stone, a stone that marks where the three counties of Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire meet. Huntingdonshire has thus both the lowest lowest point of any county but also the lowest highest point.
Within Huntingdonshire are some fine towns. The biggest town is St Neots in the south. The next, also on the Great Ouse, is Huntingdon itself: the county town. A few miles further downstream lies St Ives. North of those towns, among the fens, is Ramsey.
Between Huntingdon and Godmanchester lies the biggest meadow in Britain: Port Holme. It is a wondrous, flat and peaceful place, bounded by the Ouse to the north and its streams to the south. It used to even bigger, before the railway sliced a piece off. Luckily it survived destruction when the A14 (as it now is) was driven through the wet landscape here. When Samuel Pepys, himself a Huntingdon man, saw a sturgeon, caught in the Thames, he thought of the famous Huntingdon Sturgeon, hauled out of the Great Ouse at on Port Holme and argued over by the men of Huntingdon and Godmanchester. (After all the arguing over it, the sturgeon turned out to be the carcass of a donkey’s colt.) The meadow belongs to Brampton, which at least stops the ever-sparring towns from arguing over the dewy expanse itself.
Huntingdonshire lives in its villages. There are some ninety villages and hamlets to be found, each with its own local identity. Hunts has the distinction of being a county whose inhabitants tend to look at their parish first before looking at the wider world. The result is a local community spirit rarely encountered elsewhere these days.
The northern parishes of Huntingdonshire have become part of Peterborough’s new town. Peterborough itself is a Northamptonshire city. Peterborough City Council however has a wider municipal area which encompasses the very northern parts of Huntingdonshire. The parishes of northern Huntingdonshire hold their own identities, just about, but have been transformed by the inrush of settlers over the last twenty-odd years.
The utter contrast to the new-built modernity of the Peterborough fringe are the little villages, amongst which is Swineshead, a detached part forlornly surrounded by Bedfordshire and administered by its county council. It might be a place of just a hundred houses (many of them listed buildings) but its tiny beauty makes us proud to call Swineshead our own.
Huntingdonshire can boast a long history. It predates the Kingdom of England itself. England was united by King Athelstan. His father was King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, and it was Edward, in about 920 AD who cast the Danish occupiers out of Huntingdon and took submission of the land around it. What had been a Danish military district became an Anglo-Saxon shire.
(A trace of the Viking settlement remains though. In the north of the shire is the parish of Norman Cross. Norman Cross is also the name of one of the county’s four hundreds. The name means “Norseman’s Cross”.)
Since then a great number of things have happened and a great number of famous folk being born in and dwelt in Huntingdonshire. The most famous was Oliver Cromwell, born in Huntingdon. Apart from the man behind the murder of a king, our county can also “boast” the man who murdered Spencer Percival (the only Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated). The great observer of Cromwell’s rise and fall was his fellow townsman Samuel Pepys. Pepys is famous for his observations of London, but he dwelt, when not bound to his Admiralty desk, in Huntingdon and his heart was there. Thomas Cromwell, who held England in his hand under Henry VIII, providing the muscle for the Reformation, established a home at Hinchinbrooke. Catherine of Aragon, who was the Cromwell family’s first royal victim, was held imprisoned in Kimbolton Castle after her divorce, until she died just two years later. At Kimbolton too Harold Godwinesson, who became King Harold II, had a hunting lodge, from which he rode through the woods of Kimbolton and Swineshead, both his estates before that heroic king fell at the Battle of Hastings. (The Saxon font in the church though was not there at the time though, unfortunately for romantics.)
For a small county, Huntnigdonshire has had its fair share of famous folk, as any history will tell. Much of the history too is still there to be seen.
Perhaps the history of Huntingdonshire has been somewhat quieter than that of some wilder shires. While the county might not have had all the fire and bloodshed some others had, what it had was peace, contentedness, trade and a general getting on with life. The men of Huntingdonshire have not been docile though when tyrants threatened. The close identity of small villages and farms
does not take well to outside, city-dwelling interference. That has been shown on a number of occasions.
There are wonders aplenty in Huntingdonshire. Too many to describe, but to say “Go and see”
- About Huntingdonshire on Wikishire