A town of real thatchers

As the Tories head Bournemouth, Teresa Allen visits John Major's constituency
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The Independent Travel
Huntingdon is a place of wartime memories, passionate regionalism, rural regeneration and Stilton cheese. Its political heritage includes Oliver Cromwell as well as John Major. Its first Earl, one William Clinton (possibly known as Bill to his mates), took office in 1339.

This is Fen country, which is not necessarily an excuse for describing its politicians, past and present, as "wet". Ancient churches dominate a landscape which the novelist Dorothy L Sayers described as resembling a chessboard. And indeed there is a Dorothy L Sayers car trail which starts at Bluntisham, where she lived as a child, just north of Huntingdon.

Perhaps this is one reason why road users are treated with respect in Huntingdon. Parking in the town centre of the Prime Minister's constituency, my companion cried "50p for 24 hours. Aren't Conservative authorities wonderful!" Walkers are also treated with consideration. The 26-mile Great Ouse Valley path, detailed by the local authority in a thoughtful seven- stage plan, winds its way around Huntingdon, encompassing some interesting bridges.

Walking south to north, just outside Huntingdon, you come across a bridge that looks as if it has been lifted off a Willow Pattern plate. Further along is the Old River Bridge on the Roman road between Huntingdon and Godmanchester. Locals tend to describe this as "not quite meeting in the middle". A helpful barman at the nearby Old Bridge Inn explained that this is due to the bridge's joint construction by the Huntingdon and Godmanchester town councils. A closer inspection revealed tasteful decoration on the Huntingdon side and a puritanical design on the Godmanchester side. Cromwell would have approved of the latter.

The Oliver Cromwell industry thrives here. Young Oliver, and his near- contemporary, the diarist Samuel Pepys, were both educated in a small, 11th-century building in Huntingdon town centre, now the Cromwell Museum. The centrepiece is a huge, wide-brimmed hat, once worn by Oliver Cromwell. Neighbouring St Ives, which also lays claim to Cromwell, has a museum with a proud collection of Cromwellian artefacts. And there's more: Hinchingbrooke House, just outside Huntingdon - now a school but occasionally open to the public - advertises itself as Cromwell's childhood home.

Activities at adjoining Hinchingbrooke Country Park have clearly been motivated by contemporary political leadership as much as that of the 17th century. One of the many activity breaks offered is a weekend of "Back to the Iron Age", which may perhaps be taking "Back to Basics" to an extreme.

"Back to the Iron Age" happens twice a year - dates for next year's events have not yet been confirmed but are likely to be in May and September. During these weekends you learn about wattle and daub, domestic crafts and thatching. Judging by the many well preserved thatched cottages, skilled thatchers have always been in demand in the area. It is also possible to "get on your bike" (or hire one) at nearby Grafham Water, and cycle around the park.

The District Council supplies tourist information which states, a little peevishly: "As subsidies diminish and competition from the European market increases, farmers are looking towards diversification to make a living". Fruit picking at local farms, flour milling for tourists at the 17th-century watermill at Houghton and "watching the mysterious honey bee at work" at Grays Honey Farm in the village of Warboys, are flourishing. But another farm en route, where we had hoped to stop and watch cheeses being made, rang us back sounding sad after our enquiry. "We're sorry, but we don't make cheese here at the moment, because we can't sell our existing stocks rapidly enough."

To get a different taste of the past we moved on to Warboys, one of 12 World War Two air bases in the area, chiefly used by American pilots. American bandleader Glenn Miller used a transport plane from RAF Alconbury on his last flight. Alconbury remains a US Airbase and offers tours for groups. A local authority leaflet suggests that Huntingdon is more regularly flown over by military aircraft than by the birds. Perhaps that's appropriate in a region of political high fliers.

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