Travel: The anti-hero of Huntingdon

Four hundred years after the birth of Oliver Cromwell, Donald Hiscock explores his old Cambridgeshire stomping grounds
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The Independent Culture
Though he is captured in a million holiday snaps every year for no reason beyond the fact that his statue stands outside the Houses of Parliament, Oliver Cromwell doesn't have much in the way of tourism devoted to him. But tomorrow is the 400th anniversary of his birth, and all that could change.

Being responsible for bumping off Charles I and creating a commonwealth - and thereby becoming the only commoner to be head of the British state - doesn't gain you much respect in a country that is heavy on royalist history. Nor is he fondly remembered in Scotland and Ireland, countries he brutally suppressed. But the Cambridgeshire towns connected with Cromwell are doing their best to raise awareness of the man who was Lord Protector of England for five years, and who cast a long shadow over the course of British history.

The three Fenland towns that claim the closest Cromwell association are Huntingdon, St Ives and Ely. All are close together and all are connected by the slow-moving River Ouse. Cromwell's birthplace, Huntingdon, is famous for being the constituency of another, present-day parliamentarian, John Major; it is at one end of the High Street (at the heart of the town's linear layout) that Cromwell was born on 25 April 1599. A mid-19th-century house stands on the site these days.

No one knows how they celebrated the start of the 1600s in Huntingdon, but there are a few taverns still surviving from those years. One of them, the Falcon Inn on Market Hill, was where Cromwell made his Civil War headquarters later in life, at the height of his powers. Just across the street is the old grammar school where Cromwell was educated. The building, which had once been part of the 12th-century Hospital of St John, now houses the Cromwell Museum. Amongst the compact series of displays here you can piece together the story of a man who was born into the gentry, and became a landowner before getting a taste for national politics, military action and notoriety.

His felt hat and gaiters rest on one display, while the other bits and pieces on view may well have belonged to the great man. The death mask definitely fits the likeness of the portraits that hang on the walls. My sons and I tried to imagine what he would have looked like in the flesh, but we couldn't get beyond the hat. It was some hat; you would have bumped into the brim long before shaking its wearer by the hand.

For Cromwell's tercentenary in 1899 the people of Huntingdon were not prepared to celebrate their famous son by having his statue erected in the town. Neighbouring St Ives, further down the Ouse, put up a statue instead. An unassuming-looking Cromwell, dressed in civilian clothes, stands in the market-place there today, commemorating the six years he spent as a St Ives citizen in the 1630s. The town has an attractive, solid 15th-century stone bridge by its quayside; on the bridge is a tiny chapel that opens out on to a precarious balcony over the Ouse. After a filling breakfast at Connie's Tea Rooms we accepted the waitress' offer of the key to the chapel and got a brief slice of the life of the solitary priest who lived here long ago. He must have been tough, we thought, since the place was uncomfortably cold and damp.

The Norris Museum is further up the river. The building houses another small but interesting collection of exhibits, this time of general local history. There's not too much to take in so there's no risk of aching feet, and the children aren't forever dragging you into the next room.

In fact, there are only two rooms. I enjoyed the fen-skating exhibits and the boys liked the spade that had broken in two while turning the first sod in the construction of the town's by-pass. There's a sense of humour about this place, and none of the Cromwell-might-have-owned-this- maybe approach. Indeed, the museum doesn't have a single piece of Cromwell memorabilia.

For more on Cromwell, head north-east to Ely. The town's striking cathedral, which was once closed down by the Lord Protector for 17 years, can be seen for miles across the flat fens, but our time was spent tracking down signs of Cromwell. The Tourist Information Office is located in the home in which Cromwell lived with his family from 1636 to 1647. This was also the place from which he rose to prominence as a tax collector.

The audio-visual tour through the various rooms reveals that, although famously a Puritan, Cromwell led a far from dull life. He was fond of music, drink and hunting, and his table was well laid out with good food - eels, fish and waterfowl included.

If the supposedly haunted room showing a model of Cromwell on his deathbed (a re-creation of an event that, in real life, occurred in Whitehall) was too scary for the children to enjoy, then the Civil War room was a hit. Here you can try on costumes from Cromwell's time. Heavy soldiers' helmets, tunics and dresses are available for a bit of historical cross- dressing and there is even a full-length mirror for posing.

A few days exploring the Cromwell triangle will reveal sleepy villages, flat, open landscapes and a sense of history stretching back to well before Cromwell's time. The past is out there, buried under the peat in this corner of Cambridgeshire. Oliver Cromwell's past is there too, but, as a nation, I don't think we really know how to celebrate him. Happy birthday, Oliver, anyway.

A 17th-century street-market takes place from 10am to 4pm tomorrow in Huntingdon (details, 01480 388249). The Cromwell Museum is at Old Grammar School Walk, Huntingdon, and entrance is free (01480 375830 for opening hours). The Norris Museum is also free and is at The Broadway, St Ives (01480 465101 for opening hours). Oliver Cromwell's House is at 29 St Mary's Street, Ely (01353 662062) and is open daily between 10am and 5.30pm. Adults pounds 2.50, concessions pounds 2.10, family ticket pounds 5. An ecumenical service to commemorate Huntingdon's famous son will take place tomorrow in Hinchingbrooke House, which once belonged to the Cromwell family. For details of all further events, visit the Cromwell 400th anniversary website: