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Park Stories

Over the coming months we will be adding a series of articles which capture the Park's past written by Graham Whyte.

Hard Times - An Alwalton miller's son who went from rags to untold riches

A Brief History of the Park

Present residents of Peterborough are only the latest in a long line of residents of the lower end of the Nene Valley, much of which is now Nene Park. A surprising number of remains of their predecessors' presence are still visible.

A stone axe probably made in the Lake District and brought to Peterborough through trade or exchange is a relic of occupation by the first farming communities about 5,000 years ago. Other archaeological remains found in Ferry Meadows indicate that this area was settled and farmed, and that pottery was being made here by about 1600 BC. By then, at least, patches had been cleared from the forest which became established in the valley after the tumultuous river flows at the end of the ice age finished about ten thousand years ago.

The Romans

The Romans arrived in the first century (43AD), quickly establishing a fort overlooking the river, where Thorpe Wood Golf Course now is. Within a year or two of their arrival, the Romans built Ermine Street - the Roman A1 from London to York. On the south bank, where it crossed the River Nene south of Castor the Romans established the town of Durobrivae 'The bridge by the fort' and later a pottery industry and suburbs developed on the north bank.

Numerous villa sites have been found in and alongside the valley indicating a prosperous Roman and Romano-British period with a substantial population. In Ferry Meadows, remains of a farmstead were discovered and alongside was a barn, the layout of this has been replicated on the ground.

The Saxons

There is evidence of Saxon life from the burial ground found at Alwalton next to Lynch Wood overlooking the river valley. Ridge and furrow remains and the pattern of the open fields which were ploughed in strips, signs of a possible manor site in Ailsworth, and documentary evidence such as the granting of free passage over the Gunwade (Milton) Ferry in 1020 for stone for Bury St Edmunds Abbey shows that occupation of the valley continued through the early mediaeval period while Peterborough developed around the religious community centred on what became the cathedral.


The continuing agricultural prosperity of the valley some centuries later is reflected in the number of mills that exist in the valley. Large water mills at Waternewton and at Castor, which also has an adjacent windmill, indicate that a considerable amount of cereals was being grown and milled in the area. The scale of the construction of the mills together with the necessary channels and controls to manage the river flow indicate that a healthy financial return was anticipated.

Old maps of the west end of Nene Park show large fields suitable for arable farming with a scatter of smaller fields or paddocks for horses and livestock. The fields closest to the river, liable to flooding, were kept as grass for summer grazing or hay. In the villages either side of the valley - Orton Longueville and Orton Waterville, Castor and Ailsworth, Sutton and Waternewton - are many impressive stone built houses and buildings of the last two hundred years and some much older.

The Willow Industry

For a fascinating glimpse of village life visit the Castor and Ailsworth village site or the complementary archive which is being established. While agriculture, its produce and supporting trades and occupations dominated the valley, at the east end raw material for one of Peterborough's early industries was grown. The soil and conditions produced some of the best quality willow in the country to supply the basketmaking trade in Peterborough. The last factory closed in 1932.

The Industrial Age

The industrial age brought the railway to Peterborough. The first line to arrive was the Blisworth Branch line, via Northampton, Thrapston, Oundle and Wansford with the very first passenger train along the Nene Valley departing Peterborough at 7 o'clock on Monday 2 June 1845. This opened up new and larger markets and Peterborough grew in prosperity and accordingly in population.

The Expansion Of Peterborough

One of the greatest changes to affect the city was the New Town development in the 1970's. In 1961, the population of the city was 62,300 by 1988 this figure had nearly doubled. Part of the legacy of this expansion was the creation by Peterborough Development Corporation of Nene Park, changing the land use of this area from agriculture to leisure and recreation.

Nene Park Trust

As the work of the Peterborough Development Corporation wound down in the mid 1980's, there was a strong desire to ensure that Nene Park would be managed, on a long term basis, by a secure and financially stable organisation solely dedicated to this task.

Consequently, a new and innovative solution was developed through the creation, in 1988, of Nene Park Trust, a registered charity.  Along with a 999 year lease on the park, the Trust was endowed with commercial properties and other assets to enable the Trust to generate the income required to manage Nene Park.

Nene Park Today

Nene Park continues to be shaped by the River Nene and its flood plain.  It is maturing into a diverse and fascinating landscape, with extensive heritage, archaeology and biodiversity throughout its parkland, woodlands and waterways.  But it is also an important place for people; somewhere that everyone should feel welcome to visit and be active, creative, involved, or simply to relax.

In addition to the numerous park and visitor attractions provided by the Trust, Nene Park contains a wide range of facilities managed by Trust tenants, and extensive land and amenities let to a number of commercial tenants to generate further income to fund provision of the Park.

The Future

But what does the future hold for Nene Park? With further development to the south of the city, the use of the Park has increased, especially mid-week, evening and winter. The current management philosophy is to maintain the Park very much as you see it today, as a pleasant green space of woods, meadows and lakes, maintained and used for the enjoyment of the people of Peterborough and visitors to the city.

As the managing organisation for Nene Park, the Trust continues to have both a great responsibility and a great opportunity.  Ensuring long term financial stability remains one of the Trust's key strategic priorities.

So, whether 5, 25 or 250 years from now, we would like to think that the Park will look and feel the same. Only time will tell.

Places To Go
Heritage Attractions in and around Peterborough

Click on any of the links below to visit the attraction's website.

Burghley House
Flag Fen
Longthorpe Tower
Nene Valley Railway
Norman Cross Gallery
Peterborough Cathedral
Peterborough Museum
Prebendal Manor
Sacrewell Farm and Country Centre
The Great Fen
Thorney Society & Heritage Museum