Wisbech

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Wisbech (/ˈwɪzbiːtʃ/ wiz-beech) is a market town, inland port and civil parish with a population of 20,200 in the Fens of Cambridgeshire. The tidal River Nene runs through the centre of the town and is spanned by two bridges. The name is believed to mean on the back of the (River) Ouse, Ouse being a common Celtic word relating to ‘water’.  The Nene drains into The Wash, formerly proposed as a World Heritage Site. The fine Church of St Peter is in the nearby village of Walpole St Peter.

Before the Local Government Act 1972 came into force in 1974 Wisbech was a municipal borough; it is now a civil parish in the Fenland District.

During the Iron Age, the area where Wisbech would develop lay in the west of the Brythonic Iceni tribe’s territory. Like the rest of Cambridgeshire, Wisbech was part of the kingdom of East Anglia after the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

The first authentic reference to Wisbech occurs c. 1000, when Oswy and Leoflede, on the admission of their son Aelfwin as a monk, gave the vill to the monastery of Ely. (J. Bentham, Hist. Ely, 87). In 1086 Wisbech was held by the abbot, there may have been some 65 to 70 families, or about 300 to 350 persons, in Wisbech manor. It must be remembered, however, that Wisbech, which is the only one of the Marshland vills of the Isle to be mentioned in the Domesday book, probably comprised the whole area from Tydd Gote down to the far end of Upwell at Welney.

Wisbech Castle was built by William I to fortify the town, and in later Tudor times became a notorious prison, especially for political prisoners among Catholic priests and bishops, many who died there of insanitary conditions. Among those held there were John Feckenham, the last Abbot of Westminster, and later two of the key participants in the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham. The castle was rebuilt in the mid-17th century, and again in 1816 by Joseph Medworth, who also developed The Crescent, familiar as the setting in numerous costume dramas.

Peckover House, with its fine walled garden, was built for the Quaker banking family in 1722 and now owned by the National Trust. Formerly known as Bank House, the Peckover Bank later became part of Barclays Bank.

In the 17th century, the local inhabitants became known as the “Fen Tigers” because of their resistance to the draining of the fens, but the project turned Wisbech into a wealthy port handling agricultural produce. At this time Wisbech was on the estuary of the River Great Ouse, but silting caused the coastline to move north, and the River Nene was diverted to serve the town. The Wisbech Canal joining the River Nene at Wisbech was subsequently filled in and became the dual carriageway leading into the town from the east (now crossing the bypass).

On 27 June 1970, the heaviest point rainfall was recorded in Wisbech, when 2 inches (50.8 mm) fell in just 12 minutes during the Rose Fair.

On 21 September 1979, two Harrier jump jets on a training exercise collided over Wisbech. Both crashed – one into a field, and the other into a residential area. Two houses and a bungalow were demolished on Ramnoth Road, causing the death of Bob Bowers, his two-year-old son Jonathan Bowers, and Bill Trumpess – a former mayor of the town.

The 5-mile (8-kilometre) £6 million A47 Wisbech/West Walton Bypass opened in spring 1982.

The port now houses a large number of berths for yachts adjacent to the ‘Boathouse’ development.

Prior to the 1960s Beeching Axe, Wisbech had three railway branch lines: the 1847/1848-1968 GER March to Watlington (junction), Norfolk (on the Ely to King’s Lynn main line) via Wisbech East (Victoria Road); the 1866-1959 M&GN Peterborough to Sutton Bridge via Wisbech North (on Harecroft Road); and the 1883/1884-1966 GER Wisbech and Upwell Tramway. There were also harbour quay lines either side of the River Nene – M&GN Harbour West branch and GER Harbour East branch.

The Wisbech and March Bramleyline heritage railway are going to fully restore and re-open the remaining March to Wisbech line as a tourist line similar to the Mid-Norfolk Railway at Dereham. The Wisbech branch is Network Rail property and is still classed as a fully functioning goods line, although the last goods service was in Summer 2000, so the Bramleyline Heritage Railway will lease the track from NR on a 99-year lease. When the line has been fully re-opened, following HM Rail Inspectorate approval, rail services will run between March Elm Road (a new station next to Elm Road crossing, March) and Wisbech East (a new station on Weasenham Lane, Wisbech). It is hoped that a new station will be built at Coldham on the site of the old station’s Down (Wisbech bound) platform, with another at Waldersea to allow visitor access to where the group hope to have a depot.

The Angles Theatre is a thriving professional theatre, run almost entirely by volunteers and backed by many leading names including Derek Jacobi, Jo Brand and Cameron Mackintosh. It is also the home of the “Nine Lives” theatre company, which was formed as part of Performing Arts programme run by the Isle College.

The amateur dramatic group the Wisbech Players has been performing for over 50 years. They currently perform twice a year in spring and autumn at the Angles Theatre.

Amateur dramatic group the Wisbech Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (WAODS) have been providing musicals to the town since 1905 and a yearly pantomime since 1975. The society’s home is at the local Thomas Clarkson Community College, where rehearsals and performances take place.

Every summer a “Rose Fair” is held in aid of St Peter’s Church. The church is decorated with floral displays sponsored by local organisations and businesses. A parade of floats forms up in Queens Road and circuits the town. Strawberry and cream teas are served and stalls raise funds for local charities. Coaches bring visitors from a wide area. Details are available from the local tourist office.

Notable buildings include:

  • Peckover House (1722; owned by the National Trust)
  • Thomas Clarkson Memorial (1881)
  • Richard Young MP Memorial (1871) sited in Wisbech Park.
  • St Peter and St Paul’s Parish Church. There are some pictures and a description of the church at the Cambridgeshire Churches website.
  • St Mary’s Parish church, also on the Cambridgeshire Churches website.
  • Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum where she was born before the family’s move to London.
  • Wisbech & Fenland Museum; extensive collections of local records and other items. Notable artifacts include: Napoleon’s Sèvres breakfast service, said to have been captured at the Battle of Waterloo; Thomas Clarkson’s chest, containing examples of 18th century African textiles, seeds and leatherwork which he used to illustrate his case for direct trade with Africa; and the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The manuscript can be viewed on the first Saturday of each month.
  • Elgood’s Brewery; The brewery was founded in 1795, and bought soon after by the Elgood family. It is a traditional brewery, but produces less than some modern micro-breweries, with output at around 90-100 barrels per week. The beers produced include: “Black Dog Mild”, “Golden Newt”, “Cambridge Bitter, “Greyhound Strong Bitter”, “Old Smoothie Mild”, “Old Smoothie Bitter”, “Brookes Ale”, “Reinbeer” and “Jingle Ale”. Recently the brewery has won the Champion Beer of Britain award for its Cambridge Bitter. The brewery is also known for its gardens, which are open to the public.

Wisbech is noted for its unspoilt Georgian architecture, particularly along North Brink and The Crescent. It has been used in BBC One’s 1999 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and ITV1’s Micawber, starring David Jason. A “Wisbech Rock Festival” appears in the film Still Crazy. The 2008 feature film Dean Spanley starring Peter O’Toole was largely filmed in Wisbech.

There are two free newspapers distributed within the town, the Wisbech Standard (owned by Archant) and the Fenland Citizen.

The Tesco store in Cromwell Road was one of three stores (the other two being in Kent) chosen to run an initial trial of the Clubcard loyalty card. The trial ran from October 1993 and due to the success of this trial, the Clubcard programme was rolled out nationwide in February 1995.

The “rabbits on the roundabout” caused considerable discussion. A number of rabbits took up residence on a town centre roundabout, causing damage to the flowers and shrubs. Locals compounded the issue by dumping piles of salad ‘seconds’ on the roundabout for the rabbits to eat. Despite calls to remove the rabbits, local opposition prevailed. The rabbits remained, much to the humour of outside observers. The roundabout has now been landscaped with maritime ‘rabbit-friendly’ features to link to the nearby riverside redevelopment. Since then, an outbreak of myxomatosis took hold of the ‘Wisbech warren’, and killed many of the animals. A pest control company removed the rest. Rabbits are now conspicuous by their absence from the roundabout, which remains professionally landscaped.

AWisbech is twinned with Arles, France.

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