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Whittlesey

Whittlesey (historically known as Whittlesea - the name of the railway station is still spelt this way - or Witesie) is an ancient Fenland market town around six miles (10 km) east of Peterborough in the county of Cambridgeshire in England. It has a population of around 15,000 (including the neighbouring parishes of Coates, Eastrea and Pondersbridge).

Location

Whittlesey is located between the city of Peterborough, 6 miles (10 km) to the west and the town of March, 11 miles (18 km) to the east, and is bordered to the north by the River Nene and to the south by Whittlesey Dyke. Historically it was connected to Peterborough and March by the Roman road Fen Causeway constructed in the first century AD, a route approximately followed by the modern A605. The rail station is on the line between Peterborough and Ely (historically the Great Eastern Line), with direct trains to Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Stansted Airport and others.

History and architecture

Whittlesey appears in the Domesday Book as Witesie, but it is probable that the name derives from Whittle's Ea, where Ea is a Saxon term for an island. Indeed the land was once owned and presided over by a man named 'Whittle', so the name literally translates as 'Whittle's Island'.

Before the draining of the fens, Whittlesey was an island of dry ground surrounded by the marshy fens. Excavations of nearby Flag Fen indicate thriving local settlements as far back as 1000 BC. In more recent times Whittlesey was linked to Peterborough in the west and March in the east by the Roman Fen Causeway, probably built in the 1st century AD, and Roman artifacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell.

At one time Whittlesey is thought to have had its own abbey, but subsequently the town's two parishes of St Mary's and St Andrew's were controlled by the abbeys in Thorney and Ely respectively until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (c.1540). St Mary's church dates back to the fifteenth century, but the majority of the building is later, and the church now boasts one of the largest buttressed spires in Cambridgeshire. St Andrew's is a mixture of perpendicular and decorated styles and has records back to 1635. The parishes were combined for administrative purposes by the Whittlesey Improvement Act of 1849. Despite the proximity of Peterborough, Whittlesey is in the Diocese of Ely.

Until its draining in 1851, nearby Whittlesey Mere was the largest lake in southern England, and the town is still accessible by water, connected to the river Nene by King's Dyke which forms part of the Nene Ouse Navigation link. Moorings can be found At Staffords Lock alongside the Manor Leisure Centre' Cricket and Football pitches.

Other notables include the market cross, known as the buttercross, dating back to 1680, the old town hall (once also serving as the fire station, and now the town museum) of 1857 and a number of thatched mud walls.

Whittlesey is twinned with Stadt Nettetal.

Straw Bear

The festival of the straw bear is an ancient custom in many English towns, but in Whittlesey is still celebrated today. Starting on Plough Monday (the first Monday after twelfth night) one of the locals was outfitted head to foot in straw and danced from house to house in exchange for gifts of money, food or more importantly beer. The festival was of a stature that farmers would often reserve their best straw for the making of the bear.

The custom died out at the beginning of the 20th century, but was resurrected by the Whittlesea Society in 1980.

Sir Harry Smith

Whittlesey's most famous son is undoubtedly Sir Harry George Waklyn Smith (1788-1860), hero of the Battle of Aliwal (India), whose life has been the subject of several books. His illustrious military career saw him rise from a cavalryman in the Whittlesea troop up to the rank of Major General, and Baronet of Aliwal. He was governor of the Cape of Good Hope from 1847-1852 during a period of intense unrest, and whilst he eventually lost the faith of his superiors, he was welcomed back to England a hero.

Recently he has been featured in Rifles by Mark Urban, about the 95th Rifles Napoleonic campaigns through Spain to Waterloo during which time he was a junior officer and served with his two brothers.

Sir Harry is commemorated throughout the Whittlesey area, giving his name to a local school and community centre, among others, and with statues in the centre of town and St Mary's church and a pub named "The Hero of Aliwal" in his honour.

L. P. Hartey

Another famous son of Whittlesey is the renowned author L. P. Hartley.

Brian J. Ford

A distinguished resident of Eastrea, a hamlet to the east of Whittlesey, is the scientist and author Brian J. Ford. He is well known for BBC programmes and his many books. Ford is chairman of the Bulls and Herds Grass, a local grant-giving charity also known as the Storers.

See also

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