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Changing Peterborough

Peterborough stands at the junction where the open fenland landscape to the east and south meets the picturesque limestone uplands to the west. Its Iron and Bronze Age peoples were drawn to maximise the advantages of bountiful wet fens alongside rising dry land.

To the east of Peterborough is the story of the draining of the Fens by the monastic houses of medieval times and the big landowners and Adventurers up to the 19th Century. To the west are limestone villages with their distinctive Collyweston stone roofs. One such, the village of Barnack, was the source of Barnack stone, used throughout medieval times for the construction of the great cathedrals of the fens and Cambridge colleges.

Peterborough itself stands at a crossing of the River Nene where these two landscapes meet. It is a product of its varied history as medieval monastic centre, Cathedral City, Victorian railway town, progressive New Town, and now as a major regional centre serving large parts of five Counties. Each era has left its legacy on the townscape and character of the place.

Remains of human occupation from Neolithic to Roman times have been found in the Peterborough area. The most outstanding and accessible is the permanent Bronze Age site at Flag Fen open to visitors all year round on the eastern margins of the City. The story of Roman Peterborough comes alive in the galleries of Peterborough Museum

The present city owes its origins to the establishment of a Celtic monastery in about 655. The monastery became a major religious centre with lands extending far into the fenland, but was largely destroyed by marauding Danes in 870. Its reputation as a religious centre remained alive and in 963 a Benedictine monastery was established on the same site. The Benedictines were great traders; they had to be in order to farm their lands and provision their abbeys. So a settlement of tradesmen grew up outside the abbey. Gradually the settlement grew large enough to sustain itself, but it remained small.

Only in Victorian times did the city begin to grow outside its medieval streets, mainly due to its new role as a major railway centre. The population doubled to 14,500 between 1841 and 1871, and doubled again by 1901. The growth of this new industrial base was accompanied by the development of the Fletton brick industry in the late 19th Century. The commercial advantage achieved by a brick made from largely self-firing Jurassic clay is told in The Clay that Burns. The years of hand-dug clay were a bonanza for palaeontologists, and locally excavated Jurassic fossils take pride of place not only in Peterborough museum's excellent displays, but are well represented in London's Natural History Museum.

Although Peterborough attracted engineering firms from London in the early 20th Century, it was fully transformed as a place to live and work by its designation as a New Town in the late 1960's. Using the special powers of the New Towns Act, Peterborough Development Corporation, in the years 1970 to 1988, was instrumental in doubling the City's population from a starting point of 68,000. With New Town expansion came a greater range of employment opportunities. The central shopping area was transformed from that of a market town into a major regional centre mainly through the construction of the Queensgate shopping centre. And steps were taken to remedy some of the City's deficiencies- for instance by the creation of Nene Country Park and construction of new entertainment venues.

Peterborough is regarded as one of the most successful New Towns, effectively linking the Cathedral City to well-designed growth areas. Its story is told in a book, "The Peterborough Effect". The achievements of the Development Corporation provided a valuable springboard for further progressive actions by the local authority and the designation Environment City following a national competition in 1992. The city came of age when it secured status as a unitary authority, with the full range of local authority powers and responsibilities, in 1998.

Expansion continues, now focussed mainly on the township of Hampton, a private sector led settlement on reclaimed worked out brick-fields to the south of the city. Peterborough has now also been designated by the Government as part of the London-Stansted-Cambridge growth corridor. The opportunities and challenges of change and growth therefore accelerate.

The Civic Society supports the growth of the city, provided that it takes place in a carefully considered, sustainable manner. It supports it because it provides the opportunity to invest and renew, and to meet some of the remaining aspirations of its citizens.

The Society therefore supports growth which will:

  • Assist in revitalising the heart of the City Centre,
  • Transform the Opportunity areas set out in Peterborough's City Centre Master Plan, including the station and gateways into the centre,
  • Protect and achieve proper maintenance of the built heritage,
  • Remedy deficiencies, such as the absence of a University and a Concert Hall in the city,
  • Bring about regeneration of deteriorating Victorian and Edwardian neighbourhoods,
  • Strive to diversify the city's transport system and strengthen the provision for people who through lack of choice or conviction use public transport and the more sustainable modes of travel.
  • Protect and enhance biodiversity

page last changed 29 October 2020
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