Walk 161: The Huntingdon Town Trail

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 1.74 miles (2.8km)

Time to walk: No time limits. Just explore, have coffee etc

Difficulty: Flat & all on hard surfaces

Parking: Several Pay & Display car parks around the town. We would recommend the Mill Common Car Park but be aware you need to check out as well as check in

Public toilets: Cafes etc

Map of the route:

Huntingdon lies just over the border with Northamptonshire & is well worth spending a couple of hours wandering around, as we did on a cold, damp January 2022 day

We hate mud so are always looking for hard surface walks in winter & found Huntingdon had a town trail. What would it be like? There’s so much more to discover than we thought

The name itself means ‘Hill of the huntsman, or of a man called Hunta’. The town grew up during the time of the Anglo Saxons & Danes. In 1205 it was granted a charter by King John. More recently former Conservative Prime Minister (1990–1997) John Major served as its MP from 1979 until his retirement in 2001

The most notorious person that’s linked with the town though is Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, who was born & brought up here. During the Civil War the town was held by Parliament. In later years, due to its location, in the 17th & 18th century, the town became a major stop over on the coaching route

Shall we go & have a look?

Let’s Walk!

1. What better place to start this walk than bang in the middle of the town square outside the town hall…

The hall dates back to 1745 & contains two law courts that were established in the 19th century. The building also contains a fine ballroom

2. This is a big square & plenty to see within it, especially the attractive war memorial in the shape of the ‘Thinking Soldier’…

Designed by Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of ‘Scott of the Antarctic‘, it was unveiled in 1923 & is considered to be one of the UK’s top 100 war memorials

3. Follow the soldier’s gaze to the buildings directly ahead of him. This impressive building was once the Fountain Hotel…

Note the large window which was situated in the ballroom. We’ll have a look at the other major hotel in the town shortly

4. Behind the ‘soldier’ is the entrance to the 16th century Falcon Inn

The Falcons dates back to the 1520’s. For many years it was a coaching inn for freight rather than passengers. It closed its doors in 2008 & lay abandoned for six years until restoration work began in December 2014

Thought to be the oldest pub in Huntingdon, it’s said to have been used as a recruiting centre & headquarters by Oliver Cromwell in 1643 & as a base for the Parliamentary Commissioners in 1649

5. To the right of the Falcon’s the imposing Wykeham House which dates from the early to mid 18th Century & was re-fronted in the early 19th Century. Used as offices for many years, it was once the first home of the London & County Bank, which later became the Westminster Bank

Just to the right of this building’s the 17th century Walden House, which was the home of Sir Lionel Walden who was an English Member of Parliament between 1661-1679 & 1685-1687 & Mayor of Huntingdon for 1686–87

6. I love the way that Huntingdon has embraced its association with Oliver Cromwell & the line of benches outside the church are wonderful

Take your pick to pass the time of day

7. The one thing you can’t miss in this square is All Saints Church….

There have been multiple churches on the site of this one. The earliest mention of a church dates to 973 AD with the original dedication having been to either St Mary, or The Blessed Virgin and All Martyrs

The celebrated entry of the baptism of Oliver Cromwell occurs in the register of St John’s under the date of 1599, & there is a mention, about twenty years later, of his having done penance for some improper conduct. The name of Cromwell frequently occurs: Robert Cromwell father of the Protector, was buried in the church, 24 June 1617

There is also mention made of the resting within its walls of the body of Mary Queen of Scots on its way from Peterborough Cathedral to Westminster Abbey, to which latter place it was removed by order of her son, James I

8. Turn left up the side of the church along High Street…

Pass The Cromwell Museum…we’ll come back to this shortly. In the meantime look for the memorial on the left to the South African War which dates back to 1903…

9. Directly opposite is somewhere we like to recommend to you…the George Hotel. We’d had our young dog with us on this walk & had been rejected by all the modern coffee shops. Step forward the warm, welcoming George Hotel

Fabulous friendly staff, great sandwiches etc, warm & also an amazing range of beers, this is well worth a stop. Don’t miss out going out the back into the wonderful 17th century courtyard with its wrought iron staircase, galleries & large clock which was used to time the stage coaches. In summer Shakespeare’s plays are performed here

10. Suitably refreshed continue along the High Street. As you walk around Huntingdon you’ll notice there are lots of small alleyways & it’s well worth exploring some of these. A typical one is on the left called Royal Oak Passage

Almost next door, now occupied by an Indian restaurant, is the building that was formally the offices & off licence of Jenkins & Jones’ Falcon brewery. Brewing ceased in 1919 & their beers were produced by Marshall Brothers. All brewing stopped in 1954

11. The green space on the left is St John’s churchyard. The church itself no longer exists, having been damaged during the Civil War & demolished around 1660

Eight of Oliver Cromwell’s children were baptised in St John’s

12. The area around the junction with Ferrars Road contains some of the town’s finest Georgian Houses, including directly ahead, Whitwell House which was originally Queen Anne design, but was remodelled in 1727

13. To the right’s the imposing Cromwell House. The house you see today was built around 1830 on the site of another house where it’s said Oliver Cromwell was born on 25th April 1599. His family were one of the wealthiest in the county

Now a nursing home, the family coat of arms still sits above the door

14. Turn around & retrace your steps back down the High Street to the square once more…

Opposite the church, on the left’s The Cromwell Museum, which is located in the old grammar school building attended by Cromwell & the diarist Samuel Pepys

The building retains fragments of the medieval infirmary hall of the Hospital of St John the Baptist, which was an almshouse for the poor founded by David Earl of Huntingdon

The Museum opened in 1962 & contains a vast range of Cromwell items

15. Continue straight ahead past the left of the Town Hall. Have a look in the passages behind it to see the timber framed Market Inn…

The Market Inn dates back over 400 years & was once a series of tied cottages serving the former Fountain Hotel Brewery. It retains its original roof & three listed fireplaces

16. Continue down the High Street…

The paved area on the right, with a fountain, called St Benedict’s Court was once a churchyard. The tower of the church was demolished in 1804 & what now remains of the rest of the church lies under the nearby modern shops

17. Further along the High Street’s the Commemoration Hall which opened to the public in 1842 as the Huntingdon Literary & Scientific Institution. Throughout the Victorian era the Institution provided a venue for various church activities, public events such as celebrations of royal weddings, entertainments, lectures & social meetings of local groups

During WW2 the cellars were converted into an air raid shelter. After the war use of the building declined, but was reopened in 1959 as The Commemoration Hall

18. The impressive building next door is actually three houses dating back to the early 19th century…

Continue along to the Three Tuns…

19. On the right’s Cowper House (No’s 29-30), once home of the poet William Cowper. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th-century nature poetry by writing of everyday life & scenes of the English countryside

After being institutionalised for insanity, Cowper found refuge in Christianity. He continued to suffer doubt and, after a dream in 1773, believed that he was doomed to eternal damnation. He recovered and wrote more religious hymns…

He also wrote a number of anti-slavery poems & his friendship with Newton, who was an avid anti-slavery campaigner, resulted in Cowper being asked to write in support of the Abolitionist campaign. Cowper wrote a poem called “The Negro’s Complaint” (1788) which rapidly became very famous, & was often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. during the 20th-century civil rights movement

​20. Continue straight ahead past St Mary’s Church…

The church is said to have been the “Mother Church of Huntingdon” & occupies what is probably the original site of Huntingdon Priory of Austin Canons, founded in 1140 by Eustace de Lovetot. It seems to have been used initially as a parochial church upon the removal of the priory to the east end of town during the reign of Henry II

In July 1607, the building fell down, & construction of the present church commenced in March of the following year & was finished in 1620

21. Over the road’s Castle Hill House. The “Trail” tells us that it was built in 1787. I love the story that the building is now known as ‘Pathfinder House’ after being named after the RAF Pathfinder Force Group HQ who were based here….

The ‘Pathfinders’ have a link with our County having been based at Harrington

22. Slightly further along on the same side’s Huntingdon Methodist Church which was built in 1878…

Walk towards the end of the street…

…but before reaching it, turn left into Orchard Lane

23. Look at the house on the right with the bars on the window. The buildings here were once the County & Borough Jail & the ground floor room with the bars was the condemned cell

24. Across the road on the right’s the imposing Old Bridge Hotel. The building went through many uses, including a bank, but finally became a hotel around 1919

Keep to the left & walk down to the riverside. The river here, as it is all the way along this stretch through St Ives is wide & wandering. The warehouse across the river is imposing & dates back to the 19th century. 

The town has long been an important bridgehead, with Ermine Street (connecting London to Lincoln & York), as well as various east–west trade routes, crossing the Great Ouse here. Ermine Street would have first crossed the river here via a ford, believed to be some way to the west of the present bridge. Edward the Elder built a wooden bridge in the early 10th century a few yards to the west of the current bridge, & also ordered the nearby Huntingdon Castle to be rebuilt. Until the 1107 construction of the first bridge in St Ives, it is believed that there was no bridge further downstream, & foreign trade would navigate the river as far upstream as Huntingdon

Responsibility for the bridge’s repair was for centuries a matter of dispute. In 1259 a court ruling finally ordered that the county should pay to keep it repaired in return for rendering the bridge toll-free. Nonetheless, the bridge remained in a poorly maintained state, & by 1329 was declared to be in severe danger of collapse

The current bridge was constructed around 1332, with work starting on both banks or the river. The slight kink near the central pier was a result of the lack of alignment of the two halves. Consisting of six arches & faced with ashlar, the parapets which form recesses for pedestrians, are triangular in shape on the north side, & semi-hexagonal on the south

25. Have a stroll down by the river through Riverside Park passing some grand old willow trees…

We walked as far as the lovely footbridge before turning back as it was starting rain

26. Return back to the Old Bridge Hotel & walk past it & round to the left. Pass through the gate in the picture below into Castle Hills…

This wonderful, rolling grassland area was once the site of Huntingdon Castle. In 1068 a Norman motte & bailey castle was built for William the Conqueror. During the Anarchy the castle was held by David, King of Scotland through his marriage to Maud, 2nd Countess of Huntingdon. He supported Empress Matilda in a battle of succession & the castle was much damaged at this time. However, when the succession was settled, David’s son Henry paid homage to King Stephen who in turn gave him the borough of Huntingdon in addition to the castle

By 1173 the castle was still held by the Kings of Scotland, at that time by William the Lion. He had sided with Henry, the rebel son of Henry II, during the Revolt of 1173–1174, & the castle was besieged by Richard de Luci. The siege was taken over by Simon de St. Lis but it did not end until Henry II (who had just performed penance at the tomb of Thomas Becket) arrived at Huntingdon. The siege ended the following day & Henry then ordered that the castle be dismantled. According to historian Sidney Painter, it was one of at least 21 castles demolished on Henry II’s instructions

Parts of the castle did remain, including the chapel, & its ownership passed through a number of hands. The castle was refortified during the Civil War. For a time it served as the county gaol, & later a windmill stood on the castle mound. Nothing now remains of the castle itself apart from its earthworks, although the site is a scheduled ancient monument

27. Follow the hard path through the site & down the narrow alley by the cottages to a small car park (this is where we actually parked!)

If you wish to visit Mill Common turn left under the road bridge…

28. We’re turning right though, crossing the road towards the bus station…

Have a look at the fire engine model on the green

29. Pass the rather ornate building on the right which was once the maltings & then became the TA Depot…

Walk down St Mary’s Street passing the library & archive

30. At the end of the street is the square where we started this walk. Note the old drinking fountain built into the wall of the Town Hall

So that’s the end of our stroll & look at Huntingdon’s Town Trail. We can highly recommend spending an hour so doing this & don’t forget to stop off & enjoy the hospitality of The George Hotel

Go Walk!