Behind a high, modern wall in the centre of Peterborough lie the remains of the 12th-century Abbot’s Gaol; the city’s prison until 1842. When news hit of the sky-high pay and bonuses paid to Thomas Cook bosses in the run-up to the travel company’s collapse, one imagines that, once upon a time, an angry mob would have rounded up the fat cats and thrown them behind bars.
Feelings certainly run high in the Cambridgeshire city where 1,000 people were employed by Thomas Cook. “It’s disgusting,” says Marco Cereste to me, spinning around from the pasta at his table in the popular lunch spot Fratelli Tavola Calda.
He’s a regular here, and owner Lorna Femminile, who runs the restaurant with her husband Rocco, has referred me to him on all points Thomas Cook-related.
Everybody, it seems, knows everybody here in Peterborough. It’s this sense of tight-knit civic spirit that Thomas Cook’s demise has highlighted. A thousand people lost their jobs the instant the company went into liquidation, prompting offers from local businesses of everything from football tickets and taxi rides to interviews and haircuts. “They won’t be out of work for long,” says Cereste. Peterborough has historically low unemployment rates. Indeed it was a labour shortage after the Second World War that brought over many southern Italians to work in the city’s brick yards, and created a little Italy.
And so it was that last week a jobs fair was held in the Town Hall specifically for former staff of Thomas Cook. Of the local support, one ex-employee said it “restores my faith in humanity”. In the last few days, former Thomas Cook employees have seen fresh hope from Hays Travel, a Sunderland-based travel agent that has promised to re-open every one of Thomas Cook's stores and which says it has all but promised jobs to the defunct firm’s 2,500 retail staff.
Peterborough's community spirit proves you shouldn’t judge a provincial city by its identikit chain restaurants. When I first arrived in Cathedral Square and saw the Côte, spotted the Wagamamas, smelt the hot dogs from a food van, and observed the Vodafone sales reps pushing deals on the street, I felt the familiar dejection that the Late-Capitalist High Street stirs in my soul.
I shouldn’t have doubted Peterborough. There can be few sights in England to rival the moment one first gazes upon the west front of Peterborough Cathedral. Completed in 1238, in the centre is a statue of St Peter to whom the building is dedicated and from whom Peterborough takes its name.
The original church was founded in about 655 AD, during the reign of the Anglo-Saxon King Peada, followed, in the mid-10th century, by a Benedictine abbey, and a town grew up around it.
During my visit I saw numerous schoolchildren, eating tiny packed lunches and learning about the history of the building on tablets (the electronic kind). The cathedral, with its massive columns and rounded arches, one of the finest Norman buildings in England, still plays a central part in city life, and not just spiritually; next year it will host the Natural History Museum’s touring exhibition T rex: The Killer Question, from July 20 to Aug 31.
Leave behind the shops and meander down the cathedral trail, past the monks’ dormitory and refectory and down to the river. You’ll pass plaques reminding you of Peterborough’s past, and you might even come across the largest group of swans you’ve ever seen gathered in one place. I certainly did.
Peterborough might have had modernity thrust upon it rather inelegantly – the traffic-heavy ring road that slightly chokes the pedestrian centre; the dark and airless Queensgate Shopping Centre – but the city has weathered many tumultuous periods of history.
It’s been caught up in the Peasants’ Revolt, sacked during the War of the Roses, and the cathedral’s stained glass windows, altar and cloisters destroyed by Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War.
Each time, the people of Peterborough have rallied; in this era of corporate mismanagement and greed, history is on their side.
The charity shop
Sue Ryder Vintage and Retro is a superlative charity shop packed with gems. “People are so generous. My heart sank one day seeing a pile of black bin liners by the door, but when I opened them up they were full of pristine Fifties ball gowns,” says senior sales manager Nicola Hibbard. They’ve dressed everyone from women heading to Goodwood in West Sussex to drag queens.
The dolce vita
The red chequered tablecloths and dangling chianti bottles might look like a cliché, but the home-cooked food that Sicilian Rocco and his wife Lorna Femminile serve up at Fratelli Tavola Calda is the real deal. Open 8am to 6pm. Make sure to leave room for dessert.
For afternoon refreshment by the river, head to The Chalkboard, an independently run tea room and bistro in the Key Theatre building. Open for breakfast through to dinner.
The vegan restaurant
Polly Met Fergie recently opened in Westgate Arcade and has been warmly taken into the hearts of the locals. Co-owner Alastair has worked with Aldo Zilli and in kitchens including Le Gavroche. There’s a jazz bar upstairs.
The Peterborough Museum is home to an internationally important collection of Jurassic sea monster fossils as well as original manuscripts of the 19th-century poet John Clare, who lived in the nearby village of Helpston.
The wildlife haven
Established in 1985, Railworld includes a nature haven and a model railway. The picturesque park is located on a landscaped former coal storage yard by the Nene river.
English Heritage has launched an appeal to support the conservation of Longthorpe Tower’s famous medieval murals. The paintings, whitewashed over around the time of the Reformation and hidden until their rediscovery in the Forties, are at risk of damp. Open Saturday and Sunday.