Walk 147: St Neots town circular walk

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 1.93 miles (3.1km)

Time to walk: We visited the churches & other buildings, & this walk, which follows the ‘Town Trail’ still only took us just over 1 hour. It’s very much an orientation walk of the town as there’s opportunities to extend it with strolls along the river etc

Difficulty: Flat & all on hard surfaces

Parking: We parked in the pay & display Riverside Car Park & walked across the bridge into the town. Be sure to look at the magnificent local sculptures as you exit the car park

Public toilets: Riverside Car Park, Tebbutts Road & South Street

Map of the route:

It’s years since we visited St Neots…probably the mid 1980’s which is crazy as it’s only 30 miles from Northampton & in those days Paines Brewery still existed & its pint of EG was extremely tasty!

We’d forgotten what a lovely market town it was &, when we visited on a Thursday in February 2020, it was Market Day & the place was buzzing. Add to that the attractiveness of the wide River Great Ouse & you have a recipe for success

St Neots is named after the Cornish monk Saint Neot, whose bones were moved from the hamlet of St Neot on Bodmin Moor on consecration of the, now ruinous, Priory of St Neots around 980. Pilgrimage to the priory church & parish church brought prosperity to the settlement & it was granted a market charter in 1130

In the 18th & 19th centuries the town enjoyed further prosperity through corn milling, brewing, stagecoach traffic & railways. After the Second World War the town & its industry were chosen for rapid growth as London councils paid for new housing to be built in the town to rehouse families from London

We’ll visit the site of the priory & look at more of the town’s history throughout this walk so shall we go…

Let’s Walk!

1. We parked in the Riverside Car Park & walked across the bridge into the town to start this walk. There are other car parks, but this one’s the most picturesque. Make sure you see the amazing sculptures…

Walk over the bridge & turn left into New Street to start this walk outside St Neot’s Tourist Information Centre which also contains the local Museum

The museum & tourist office is located inside the old Victorian police station & Magistrates Court. The museum presents the history of the busy market town of St Neots & its relationship with the River Great Ouse, from prehistoric times onwards & includes the original early 20th century gaol cells where prisoners where detained

It also explains the life of St Neot himself, about the medieval priory that once thrived here, & the Civil War Battle of St Neots. The history of the Great North Road & the coaches that made the town such an important staging post are also explained

2. With your back to the Museum turn left & walk towards the crossroads…

Turn left into the busy High Street…

As the pub name tells you, the “Coach House”, St Neots was once a major staging post on the Great North Road

3. Keep straight on to the crossroads. You’ll see that the road widens as it was once where the local livestock market was held. On the left’s the United Reform Church with its impressive spire…

 The church was built in 1888, & 2010 saw the completion of a major redevelopment project

4. On arriving at the crossroads just stop & take it all in for a while. Directly across to the left is a large white building that was once a private house & home to a certain Mr John Bellingham..

John Bellingham was born in St Neots & brought up in London, where he was apprenticed to a jeweller, James Love, at age fourteen. Two years later, he went as a midshipman on the maiden voyage of the  Hartwell from Gravesend to China. A mutiny took place on 22nd May 1787, which led to the ship running aground & sinking off the coast of Africa

In autumn 1803, the Russian ship, Soleure was reported lost in the White Sea. Her owners filed a claim on their insurance, but an anonymous letter told Lloyd’s the ship had been sabotaged. Soloman Van Brienen believed Bellingham was the author, & retaliated by accusing him of a debt of 4,890 roubles to a bankruptcy of which he was an assignee. Bellingham, about to return from Russia to Britain on 16 November 1804, had his travelling pass withdrawn because of the alleged debt

Van Brienen persuaded the local Governor General to imprison Bellingham, & he was placed in a Russian jail. One year later, Bellingham secured his release & went to St Petersburg, where he attempted to impeach the Governor General. This angered the Russian authorities, who charged him with leaving Arkhangelsk in a clandestine manner. He was again imprisoned until October 1808, when he was put out onto the streets, but still without permission to leave. In desperation, he petitioned the Tsar. He was allowed to leave Russia in 1809, arriving in England in December

Once home, Bellingham began petitioning the UK government for compensation over his imprisonment. This was refused, as the United Kingdom had broken off diplomatic relations with Russia in November 1808. Bellingham’s wife urged him to drop the matter, which he reluctantly did

In 1812, Bellingham renewed his attempts to win compensation. On 18 April, he went to the Foreign Office where a civil servant told him he was at liberty to take whatever measures he thought proper. On 20 April, Bellingham purchased two .50 calibre (12.7 mm) pistols from a gunsmith of 58 Skinner Street. He also had a tailor sew an inside pocket to his coat. At this time, he was often seen in the lobby of the House of Commons

After taking a friend’s family to a painting exhibition on 11 May 1812, Bellingham remarked that he had some business to attend to. He made his way to Parliament, where he waited in the lobby. When Prime Minister Spencer Perceval appeared, Bellingham stepped forward & shot him in the heart. He then calmly sat on a bench. Bellingham was immediately restrained & was identified by Isaac Gascoyne, MP for Liverpool

John Bellingham was tried on Friday 15 May 1812 at the Old Bailey, where he argued that he would have preferred to shoot the British Ambassador to Russia, but insisted as a wronged man he was justified in killing the representative of his oppressors. Evidence was presented that Bellingham was insane, but it was discounted by the trial judge, Sir James Mansfield. Bellingham was found guilty, & was sentenced to death

He was hanged in public three days later & his skull was preserved at Barts Pathology Museum

5. The large retail building on the other side of the road is not the first building to have stood on this site. In the 18th century you would have been able to partake of refreshments at the George Inn here. It’s thought that John Wesley once preached in the Assembly Rooms that were above the inn

6. Walk back to the wooden framed building at the corner of Church Walk…

This building lay undiscovered for many years, covered by brickwork. Underneath was the town’s oldest secular building dating back to the 16th century

Go down narrow Church Walk which is a delightful little alleyway with some very attractive cottages…

7. The Community Centre on the left was originally built as a Church School in 1860…

Opposite is the town’s war memorial which also contains a rather lovely “poppy” statue

8. The alley opens up into the churchyard of St Mary’s Church . There’s evidence that a church has stood on this site since 12th century. The one you see before you today was rebuilt in the 15th century, along with the church at nearby Eaton Socon. It left almost nothing of the previous church, & was made possible by Edward IV‘s policy of reducing taxation on his return from exile in Flanders in 1471

It resulted in the town having a uniformly perpendicular building with a prominent 130 ft tower, built in the Somerset style, which is still visible from miles around. Because of its size & grandeur, it became known as “the Cathedral of Huntingdonshire”

The church is normally open & was on the day we visited, so pop inside & have a look around…

9. Come out of the church & exit the grounds opposite the old vicarage which dates back to the 19th century & is now a care home…

Follow Church Street as it bends around the church where you get a much better view of the size of the building & can now see why it was referred to as a cathedral

10. The road now turns left & passes a rather unusual sight – a chimney in the middle of the path!

The area was well known for its brickworks & the chimney is a reminder of the factory that once stood on this site. It shared this area with ‘Steam Flour Mill’ which has now been converted into private dwellings

11. The road now crosses the attractive Hen Brook, which is a tributary of the River Great Ouse. As we’ll see later in this walk, Hen Brook allowed hops & malt to be brought into the former Paines Brewery

The area we’re now entering’s Eynesbury Conservation Area which began in the Saxon era, & takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon “Eanwulf’s or Arnulf’s Burgh”

Eynesbury is made up of a number of different areas, the oldest area of which, around the Berkley Street/St Mary’s Street area, predates any other part of St Neots. The Priory of St Neot was established after Benedictine monks stole the saint’s remains from the Cornish and brought them to Eynesbury around 980 AD. This theft had the backing of the royal court

12. The oldest property is probably the Chequers Inn, which is here on the left…

The Chequers Inn possibly dates back to the early 16th century, although there have been many later additions & much restoration. Manor Courts were held here in the 18th century

The pub is haunted!  A miracle took place in Eynesbury in 1853. A local woman who had been blind for 20 years, fell downstairs. The shock returned her sight. She appears to have been so ungrateful because she took up residence at the Chequers as a phantom. Another ghost is that of a local witch, Nanny Izzard. Witnesses have seen her flying her broomstick in the skies over the Chequers Inn. There have been reports over the years of her appearing in the pub as a black shape with a malevolent face!!

13. There are some beautiful houses along this, St Mary’s Street & we quite fancy this one which dates back to the late 17th century…

The Curate’s Cottage is also quirky

14. Directly ahead’s the imposing St Mary’s Church which, in main, dates back to the 12th century, although that have been many additions over the years…

Eynesbury was the birthplace in 1798 of James Toller, known as the Eynesbury Giant who lived in a small cottage near the old Rectory. By the age of ten James was already five feet tall, & by the time he was eighteen years old he was over eight feet!

As news of the young man from Huntingdonshire who had grown into a giant spread across the country, James became famous. In 1815 he was exhibited in London & was presented to the Emperor of Russia & the King of Prussia. After touring the country in a show, he enlisted in the Life Guards, but his health was not good & he had to leave the army and return home to Eynesbury

James Toller returned to Eynesbury to live with his mother in Rectory Lane, & the local Rector allowed him to walk in the rectory gardens to avoid being seen by the public. He died on the 4 February 1818, aged only 20 years of age. It was rumoured that a doctor had offered £20 (a year’s wages for an ordinary working person) for James’s body, so that it could be dissected, & his family feared that it might be stolen by body-snatchers once he had been buried. He was therefore buried inside the church rather than in the churchyard

Sadly there is no mark or initials on the church floor to indicate the exact spot where Toller is buried & his fame has diminished over the last two hundred years, but his story is still told to the children in local schools

15. Turn into Montagu Street & then immediately right down the side of the attractive St Mary’s School into School Lane…

Built around 1868, the school is now a private residence & the new school is behind the original. Continue walking down School Lane to the river at the end

16. Follow the narrow path as it initially bends through trees, keeping left at the Bowls Club to arrive alongside the Hen Brook once more…

The riverside park’s a tranquil area of town. Cross the footbridge & maybe just dally a while in the middle to have a moment of calm before moving on again

17. From the halfway point of the bridge look straight ahead at the elegant & imposing Brook House. The Georgian listed building dates back to the 17th century

Turn left along Brook Street. At the end was once Paines Brewery, so it’s no surprise that many of the building along this street used to be pubs, including the tall one ahead…

18. As the road bends right the old brewery was on the corner, but the main entrance was on the Market Square so we’ll look at the history then. In the meantime continue up South Street…

…& turn left into the Market Square. When we visited, it was a bustling market day so we couldn’t get a true picture of the Square, apart from saying that it’s a vast area & one of the largest in the Country

19. Spend some time exploring this area. On the left is the grand facade that was once the entrance to Paines Brewery, which was founded 1831 when James Paine acquired the brewery site. It was destroyed by fire on 19th October 1905 but rebuilt following year

The brewery & about 24 tied houses were acquired by Tollemache Breweries Ltd in 1987 & brewing in the town ceased. The listed brewery buildings were converted into riverside apartments, with the Market Square facade we see today being retained. Their beer was never lauded amongst real ale drinkers, but we admit to rather liking their Paines EG (Eynesbury Giant)

20. If you fancy a cuppa, then Betty Bumbles Vintage Tea Room, almost next door looks attractive…

The large white, vacant building at the end of the square used to be the Old Falcon Inn which dates back to the 18th century. Plans are still ongoing to bring it back to life in one guise or another

21. There’s a couple of interesting things to have a look at in the middle of the square itself. Firstly it’s impossible to miss the ‘Day Column’, a large cast iron street lamp set on a stone plinth, erected in 1822 by local brewer John Day, to provide lighting in the square. It’s a popular meeting place for locals to sit & chat, especially on Market Day

Walk across to the south-west side of the square & look down to see the ‘Mosaic of the King Alfred Jewel’…

The story goes that Neot was a saint of the ninth century who lived as a monk & hermit in Cornwall. He is venerated as a Saint in the Roman Catholic & Western Orthodoxy. His legend is preserved in two Latin “lives” & one Old English “life,” dating from the 11th & 12th centuries, with other mentions preserved in later chronicles

His bones were preserved as a holy relic in the Cornish village of St Neot. St Neot’s body was removed from Cornwall to Eynesbury in around 980. The bones were housed in the priory for many years but were finally ‘lost’ during the reign of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries

22. Cross the road past the ‘Bridge House’ & walk out onto the bridge itself…

The site of The Bridge House dates back to at least the 16th century & it became The Bridge Hotel in 1914. Look at the 17th century plaster panel with a curious design on the wall. This was once situated on the side of the butchers shop which was behind the property, but when it was demolished in 1913 the panel was placed in its present position

It’s meaning is a mystery!

23. The view from the bridge along the River Great Ouse with its boats moored is stunning &, in summer, the town plays host to river festivals & regattas. The Great Ouse flows from Syresham in our own Northamptonshire, into East Anglia before entering The Wash. With a course of 143 miles, mostly flowing north & east, it’s one of the longest rivers in the UK

 The Great Ouse has been historically important for commercial navigation, & for draining the low-lying region through which it flows

24. Walk down the side of ‘The Bridge’ pub along a lane called ‘The Priory’…

Look out for a stone plaque on the house on the left, which shows where the Gatehouse to the Priory is alleged to have stood until it was demolished in 1814

25. Walk past the rather beautiful ‘Priory House’ keeping left along the road…

…to arrive at the Oast House & Maltings. This whole site was once a large brewery & the 18th century buildings we see today are all that’s left. John Day’s brewery was acquired from William Fowler

26. Turn round & then left past the library to arrive in a large car park. As an information board tells you, you’re now standing on the site of the old Priory. A monastery was first founded here in about 974 by Earl Aelric (or Leofric) & his wife Aelfleda (or Ethelfleda), who granted it two hides of land, part of the manor of Eynesbury, later called the manor of St Neots

Saint Anselm, Abbot of Bec Abbey in Normandy, & later to be Archbishop of Canterbury, apparently visited the shrine of St Neot in 1078-9. In 1081 he sent eighteen monks from Bec to replace the Saxon monks, & had it re-founded by Richard Fitz Gilbert & his wife Rothais, lords of the manor, as a male Benedictine priory dependent on Bec. In 1113 Rothais granted the whole manor of St. Neot’s to the priory, which it held until its suppression

The Anglo-Norman nobility gave considerable support to Bec Abbey, enriching it with extensive properties in England, where in addition to St Neots, Bec possessed in the 15th century several priories, namely, Stoke-by-Clare, Wilsford, Steventon, Cowick, Ogbourne & at some point, also Blakenham Priory & Povington Priory

At some point, quite possibly at the time of its re-foundation as a Benedictine priory, the monastery moved to a site on the riverside adjacent to a ford subsequently replaced by a bridge, a little way north of the present Market Square. Because it was an alien priory, it suffered difficulties whenever there were hostilities between France & England, particularly during the Hundred Years’ War. Its property was continually seized for this reason, until like certain other alien priories, it was eventually given its independence from Bec in 1409 by the quasi-naturalisation process known as denization

The priory was finally seized during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, after which the buildings were pulled down & the materials were then to be sold for the profit of the Crown. Of the priory nothing now remains above ground, the last remaining structure, a gateway, the plaque of which we saw earlier, having been demolished in the late 18th century

27. Look across the car park to the left to see the top of Paine’s Flour Mill

Built in 1847 for John Medlock, it was sold in 1855 to Joshua Malden, thence to Thomas Smith in 1859. He sold it to William Paine in 1865 who undertook extensive improvements to the operating systems. In 1879 the original mill building was pulled down to make way for a more modern combined millstone & roller flour mill. Here’s how it would have looked in its heyday…

On the 10 January 1909, the mill was completely destroyed by a fire, but was quickly rebuilt, with a complete modern roller plant & reopened in January 1910. Milling continued until 1990 when the business was voluntarily liquidated

You can only see the top from the car park, but this is how it looks today…still an impressive building

28. Turn to the right & walk through Cross Keys Mews…

…& at the end enter the market square area again

29. Turn left & walk back along the High Street, turning left into New Street once more to arrive back at the Museum to complete this walk

So that’s our look around a beautiful town that’s just over the Northamptonshire border that we haven’t visited for a while

Next time we shouldn’t leave it so long…& neither should you. We can highly recommend it

Go Walk!