History is Now and England

The hushed-up glories of Huntingdonshire are worthy of praise

Culture & Anarchy
Eliot's secluded chapel: The church of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire (credit: Jon Page)

This has been a vintage 12 months for revisions of Pevsner’s Buildings of England. Last autumn a new North East and East Kent appeared, and a new Northamptonshire. Last spring we had Cornwall, last month Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (for the uninitiated, that’s just one volume), this month Cambridgeshire and next a new South and West Somerset. The project of revising Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s work, which took him from the 1940s to the 1970s, is now well advanced, though it will be years yet before it is completed, even at the astonishing rate Yale University Press are popping them out. Indeed, some early revisions in the “new” format — tall books so well-illustrated and packed with detail that they cannot fit in the glovebox, let alone the coat pocket — themselves are now out of date. It is over 30 years since the second (South) London volume, and nearly 18 since that covering the City, and the landscapes of both have been revolutionised since.

The revisions are thorough but tactful. Much of Pevsner himself persists in them, while the often superior scholarship of the revisers subtly comes in to expand or underpin what the Master wrote. Not all of his judgments persist: and I suspect I shan’t be the only one keen to see whether Pevsner’s earlier praise for James Stirling’s History Faculty at Cambridge survives into the revision when it appears in a few weeks. Pevsner’s worship of modernism blinded him to the deficiencies of a building whose denizens would testify to its resemblance in winter to a morgue and in summer to a greenhouse: if a building cannot be used practically, what is the point of it? Pevsner also despised the Victorians but, as earlier revisions have shown, there is no perpetuation of a policy that led to thousands of fine buildings around the country being entirely ignored and their considerable aesthetic qualities disregarded.

The latest revisions offer expert assessments of buildings as diverse as Truro, Peterborough and Canterbury Cathedrals, seaside towns from Newquay to Margate, and remote Fenland villages: and it is upon the last that I want to dwell. It is precisely because Huntingdonshire is such a remote, small and allegedly insignificant county that it merits close examination. Some will tell you that Huntingdonshire does not exist, and has not since the barbaric local government reforms of the Heath government 40 years ago. Do not believe them. Huntingdonshire is a construct based on history and geography, not on the whims of a civil servant, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, that were exercised without regard for either of those factors. To Beachcomber, with his list of Huntingdonshire cabmen, it was long ago a joke: but it is also, in a way, the backbone of the nation. The Great North Road runs through it, as does the railway from King’s Cross to Edinburgh. It is Huntingdonshire’s good fortune that these arteries speed people through the county, and do not invite them to stop off or stay there.

The county is not remote in that it is far away; it is remote in that it is largely undeveloped. Its population has doubled in the last 50 years, but is still a shade under 170,000. The east of the county is fens, the west more elevated and rolling, with the Great North Road roughly the boundary; but the architectural feature common to both is the Huntingdonshire spire. Though more common to the west, these spires are to be found on the wealth of Early English churches that are the county’s glory. It may have no cathedral (Peterborough now claims, like Huntingdonshire, to be in Cambridgeshire) but when a county has fine parish churches such as Ramsey, Alconbury, Fenstanton and Buckworth, it hardly needs one.

There are little towns such as St Ives, Ramsey and Kimbolton that signify an older, more sedate England, for all the occasional intrusions of modernity; and Huntingdon itself, though it has seen much of the county’s expansion in recent decades not least because of its proximity to Cambridge and the horrible A14 trunk road that runs past it, retains the odd charming feature. The Georgian town hall is handsome, and the museum dedicated to the memory of the most famous son of the locale, Oliver Cromwell, is partly the old Grammar School where he and Samuel Pepys were educated a few decades apart. The Commemoration Hall is a fine building of the 1840s in the Greek style, but for all the incursions of the late 20th century (and some of them are pretty horrible) one does not have to look too far for striking symbols of the ancient past. Perhaps the most arresting is the bridge over the Ouse that links Huntingdon to Godmanchester, and which the revised guide says was described as “lately built” in 1332.

To the west of the town is one of the county’s finest houses, Hinchingbrooke, once the property of the Cromwells who at the time of the dissolution acquired the gatehouse of Ramsey Abbey and brought it over to adorn their estate. To the east, in St Ives, is one of the rare surviving bridge chapels in the country, dedicated in 1426. Just to the south of St Ives is Hemingford Grey, whose former beauty the editors lament as having been compromised by a rash of bungalows: but the integrity of the place is not, we are reassured, spoilt entirely. Hemingford Grey again reminds us what an old part of the country Huntingdonshire is. The core of the Manor House is 12th century, making it of national importance, and the castle of Kimbolton is also noteworthy, being where Catherine of Aragon spent the last part of her life. But to show Huntingdonshire is a county of contrasts, the church in Kimbolton contains stained glass made by Tiffany of New York in 1902.

The county has two of the finest 17th-century churches in England in parishes a few miles apart in the west of the county, Leighton Bromswold and Little Gidding; the latter also has a literary relevance. All one has to decide is whether to see this almost forgotten part of England on a clear day of intense cold in winter, when the Fens feel as freezing as Russia, or on a day in the summer when the vast flat lands shimmer   in the heat. Since there is so much to see, I suggest both.