For two days in July, the Heritage Festival – organised by Vivacity and Peterborough Cathedral, with support from Perkins Engines – brings the city centre to life with sights, sounds and smells from over 3,500 years of Peterborough’s history. Last year, the highlight was a dramatically recreated jousting tournament in the Cathedral precincts – so how were the organisers going to top that? One word: VIKINGS! Lots of Vikings... And ‘wreak havoc’ is top of their to-do list. We talked to Festival Director Stuart Orme about what’s in store and what it all means for the city
This year’s main event commemorates one of the darker episodes of the city’s history. What can you tell us about it?
There’s an ‘Invaders and Settlers’ theme this year – different peoples coming into Peterborough over the centuries, which is obviously a substantial part of our history. One of the more dramatic and less pleasant invasions, however, is that which took place during the Anglo-Saxon period. The Saxons really established Peterborough as it is today, with the founding of the first monastery in 655.
Then, in 870, that great monastery – which was by that time already becoming one of the wealthiest in England – was completely destroyed by rampaging Vikings. We’re told that a Viking raid – quite probably the ‘Great Heathen Army’ that had invaded East Anglia that year – put the population to the sword and left not a stone standing. So, we’ve got a number of Viking and Anglo-Saxon groups recreating those dramatic events in Cathedral Square. The aim is to have some scenery to represent the monastery and the defences of Peterborough at the time – Saxon fortifications that were known as ‘burghs’ – and then see what happens when the Great Heathen Army arrives and attacks the place! Fire, sword and destruction will undoubtedly follow – with some smoke effects to represent the destruction of the monastery. That battle will be happening twice a day over the Festival weekend.
How many Vikings are we talking about..?
This year we have brought together four different Viking groups. Previously we’ve had members of the local branch of The Vikings society, Ousekjarr, and they are back this year along with two local groups and members of Regia Anglorum, which is one of the really big Viking societies. The reason we’ve used four societies is to ensure we can get the numbers. For the battle we’re looking to put 70-100 Vikings and Saxons into the arena, rather than the 15-20 we normally have. It should be quite a spectacle! Then, on top of that we have all the civilians who come with the living history camp which is basically taking over the whole of the Bishop’s gardens. It should be quite magical just to walk around there and experience this huge Dark Age encampment. They’ll also be bringing with them a Viking ship, so you can get to see an example of the sorts of boats that made the Vikings such an awesome military force, being able to hit and run not only along the coastline but also up rivers, as they did again along the Nene in 1070.
The Festival isn’t just about Vikings, of course – what are some of the other highlights?
Something completely different this year is the country’s only original 1960s mobile cinema. The government in the 1960s commissioned a number of lorries to be converted into mobile cinemas so they could go to remote regions and provide cinematic entertainment. Most of these have long since gone, but one has been lovingly restored and is coming to us over the weekend to be set up on St John’s Square. This particular mobile cinema has access to all the Pathé News archive – all these two minute films on something quirky or interesting, or something to improve the mind. There are about 90,000 films in the Pathé News archive, within which there are a number which are about Peterborough. These include the foundation stone of the Town Hall being laid in 1929, which is interesting because you see the royal procession – Prince George, as he was then – driving down the original, narrow, medieval Bridge Street and giving you a view of what Peterborough was like before that was developed.
What we’ve done is select remarkable visitors’ books from Peterborough railway station in 1916 and 1917. Servicemen passing through the city on their way home or heading back to the Front were encouraged by the ladies of the Temperance Society to stop and have improving cups of tea or coffee rather than going to the pub to get drunk, and there were visitors’ books on the tea stall which they were invited to write in. And so there are these remarkable records by these men who just happened to be passing through – messages, cartoons, poems and so on. Volunteers have been transcribing the messages and researching the people who wrote them and this information is now all online, with messages going out live on social media on the anniversary dates of these men passing through Peterborough. And there are some remarkable stories. There is a touring exhibition that is going around which tells the story about that and that will also be at the Festival, so there’s an opportunity over the weekend to go along and chat to some of the team who have been involved, and find out some of the information that has been discovered so far. So, in addition to the fun of the reenactment, which brings the period to life, there’s an opportunity to get involved and explore those very real human stories.
The Peterborough and District Family HistorySociety bring along a mobile research facility, so if you’re interested in finding out more about local history or researching your family tree, there are people there who can advise you about how best to do that. eight or nine of those films which are being edited together to make a 12-15 minute film showing a variety of newsreels from the 1930s to the 1970s, and providing the opportunity to see how the city has changed. There’s one about Walter Cornelius, the Peterborough strongman, who is being commemorated at the Lido this year. There’s another from the 1950s showing the Royal Navy visiting Perkins Engines. At the time they were making engines for midget submarines, and there’s lovely footage of them coming along and shaking hands with Frank Perkins and being toured around the plant. As Perkins is our sponsor it’s really nice to have that connection. They’ll be showing regularly 2-3 times and hour, so you can go into the cinema and see a bit of our past on the big screen. Their archive is also now all online at www.britishpathe.com, and there are about 40 relating to Peterborough – just type in ‘Peterborough’ they will all come up.
How is the Festival tying in with the ongoing anniversaries of various World War One events?
As always there will be WWI re-enactors that weekend – particularly appropriate given that it is the centenary of Battle of the Somme. In relation to WWI and Peterborough’s connections to it, there’s also an ongoing project run by Vivacity and its volunteers which now has a website (www.peterboroughww1.com) featuring material from some remarkable visitors’ books from Peterborough railway station in 1916 and 1917. Servicemen passing through the city on their way home or heading back to the Front were encouraged by the ladies of the Temperance Society to stop and have improving cups of tea or coffee rather than going to the pub to get drunk, and there were visitors’ books on the tea stall which they were invited to write in. And so there are these remarkable records by these men who just happened to be passing through – messages, cartoons, poems and so on.
Volunteers have been transcribing the messages and researching the people who wrote them and this information is now all online, with messages going out live on social media on the anniversary dates of these men passing through Peterborough. And there are some… [cont]
Peterborough Heritage Festival 2016: the Vikings are coming! 1 2