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England’s forgotten shire, that lives on in spirit if not in name

Christopher Winn - Fri, Aug 18th 2023

England’s forgotten shire, that lives on in spirit if not in name

St Ives, a charming old town made up of narrow winding streets lined with Georgian and Victorian architecture


St Ives, a charming old town made up of narrow winding streets lined with Georgian and Victorian architecture - Getty


Where would you go to find the lowest point in Great Britain, England’s biggest meadow, oldest house, earliest church spire and oldest inn, the loveliest of England’s four bridge chapels, the castle where a Queen of England died of a broken heart, England’s most picturesque water mill and the village that gave its name to the king of cheeses?

Huntingdonshire, England’s Forgotten Shire, that’s where. You won’t find it on any modern map, for it was erased in 1974, and yet this most English of counties lives on in spirit if not in name.

Huntingdon, the handsome county town, slumbers by the River Great Ouse surrounded by what Daniel Defoe described as “the most beautiful meadows that I think are to be seen in England”. One of them, Portholme Meadow, is said to be the largest water meadow in the country.

Huntingdon high street


The high street of Huntingdon is lined with handsome Georgian shop fronts - Alamy


The long High Street, with its mostly Georgian shop fronts, follows the line of the Roman Ermine Street from London to York. At the top, Cromwell House occupies the site of the house where Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599. A short walk away is the schoolroom (now a museum) where Cromwell, and later Samuel Pepys, studied.


Their grammar school later moved out to Hinchingbrooke House, on the edge of town. Built around an 11th-century nunnery, the house was acquired by the Cromwell family after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Pepys lived down the hill in his uncle’s farmhouse on the edge of Brampton, “the largest and most flowery spot the sun ever beheld.” A ‘scare attraction’ comes to Hinchingbrooke in October.

At the bottom of Huntingdon High Street, Ermine Street crosses the tranquil Great Ouse on its way to Godmanchester by a picturesque bridge built in 1322. The medieval builders began from both river banks at once but failed to line it up – so the bridge sports a noticeable kink.

River Great Ouse at Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire


A picturesque bridge over the Ouse links Huntingdon to Godmanchester - iStockphoto/Getty




Godmanchester, the Roman Durovigutum, is approached across the flood plains by a 13th-century arched causeway lined with lime trees. Rich in history the town boasts more than 100 listed buildings, many timber framed and from the 16th century or earlier.

Downstream the pretty villages of Hemingford Abbots and Hemingford Grey moved the travel writer Arthur Mee to exclaim, “the delicate loveliness of England is seen here at its best”.

The 12th-century moated Manor at Hemingford Grey (open to visitors) has a claim to being the oldest continually inhabited house in Britain. The Gunnings sisters, whose beauty cut a swathe through Georgian high society, were born and grew up in the Manor, which later became the home of Lucy Boston who based her Green Knowe children’s books on the house.

The Hemingfords together host Britain’s oldest village rowing regatta, held on the Great Ouse since 1904.

Across the river is Houghton Mill, one of the oldest working water mills in the country, now run by the National Trust. There is a tea room where freshly milled flour can be bought.

The River Ouse at Hemingford Grey


Discover waterfront pubs and historic mills along the banks of the Great Ouse - Alamy


A mile east is St Ives, a charming old town made up of narrow winding streets lined with Georgian and Victorian architecture. The best way to approach it is across the six arched bridge of 1415, with its rare bridge chapel. A couple of miles downstream, The Olde Ferry Boat has been serving drinks since – it claims – 560AD, making it a contender for England’s oldest inn.

Upstream from Huntingdon, St Neots is a collection of delightful streets clustered around one of England’s biggest market squares, where the Battle of St Neots was fought in 1648, one of the last clashes of the Civil War.

A few miles to the north are two noble villages associated with Henry VIII’s tragic Queen, Catherine of Aragon. Buckden, all ancient coaching inns and brick cottages, was the site of a vast palace to which Catherine was exiled in 1533. An impressive red-brick Great Tower of 1475 is the best of what remains.

A year later Catherine was sent to Kimbolton Castle, six miles west, amid gorgeous parkland, where she died in 1536. Kimbolton has one of the loveliest high streets imaginable, with crooked Tudor cottages and shops tucked in between stately Georgian houses, and a fine church with a window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany’s in New York.

Cheese rolling in Stilton


Cheese rolling in Stilton - Getty


Ten miles north is Little Gidding, one of England’s quietest corners, where a simple chapel lies hidden down a long lane bordered with hedgerows. In 1626, merchant Nicolas Ferrar and his family, refugees from the plague in London, set up a religious community here and lived their lives to the rhythms of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and helping the local poor. Charles I visited three times and described it as ‘‘a happy place”. Three hundred years later, T. S. Eliot went and was inspired to write Little Gidding, the final part of his poetical reflections, the Four Quartets.

North on the A1 lies Stilton, with its magnificent 17th-century Bell Inn, once a popular coaching stop on the Great North Road. In the 18th century it became renowned for serving a local cheese, brought in from neighbouring Leicestershire by landlord Cooper Thornhill, and travellers took tales with them of “that delicious cheese we tasted at Stilton”. So did England’s ‘King of Cheeses’ take the name of this humble Huntingdonshire village around the world.

Another whose fame has spread beyond its borders is Barnack, in the county’s far north. Barnack limestone was quarried as far back as Roman times and used to build Peterborough and Ely cathedrals as well as many other abbeys and churches. The village church of St John the Baptist has one of the finest Saxon towers in the country, topped by the earliest church spire in England.

Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire, UK


At nine feet below sea level, Holme Fen is the lowest point in Great Britain - Alamy


One cannot leave Huntingdonshire without visiting Holme Fen, where the lowest point in Great Britain, nine feet below sea level, is marked by two cast-iron posts that measure the fall of the peaty soil as it drains. One was buried in 1851 so that its top was level with the soil surface and today over 13 feet of it is exposed.

With so much to see and do, it’s just a shame one can’t find Huntingdonshire on the map.

Have you heard of Huntingdonshire? Could you point it out on a map? Please share your experiences of visiting the English county in the comments section below

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