Geography of Huntingdonshire, England

Introduction

Huntingdonshire, although now the northern district of Cambridgeshire, is a "county" of two halves, one with the hills and valleys that are quintessentially what is perceived to be "English Countryside" and the other half being a landscape that would not be out-of-place in Holland. Some writers have remarked that the county of Huntingdonshire is unremarkable but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Although Huntingdonshire is a very small county, only the county of Rutland is smaller, it exhibits many unique and interesting characteristics.

Why are Godmanchester and Huntingdon where they are?

To understand the locations of Godmanchester and Huntingdon it is necessary to understand the extent of the Great Fen. The map below shows the approximate boundary of the Great Fen at the 15m contour. The Isles of Ely, Witcham, Sutton and Haddenham become immediately apparent as does the promontory upon which Ramsey Abbey was built. Although the area is coloured 'blue' it was not a lake but more like a swamp. There were numerous track ways built out across the fen, the most famous of which is now that exposed at Flag Fen near Peterborough.

Great Fen

Map of Huntingdonshire showing the approximate extent of the Great Fen in Roman Times

Map of Huntingdonshire showing the approximate extent of the Great Fen in Roman Times

 

The River Great Ouse passing between what is now Huntingdon and Godmanchester would have also been a formidable barrier, the narrows formed by the high ground between the two locations offering the most eastern crossing point. This fact was not lost on the Romans as can be seen by overlaying their roads, shown highlighted in yellow, on the map below.

Roman Roads

Map showing the lines of the Roman Roads in the vicinity of Godmanchester and Huntingdon, Huntingdonshire, UK

Map showing the lines of the Roman Roads in the vicinity of Godmanchester and Huntingdon, Huntingdonshire, UK

 

Moving up country from the south it was natural from the Roman perspective to build their fort and settlement on the south side of the river at what is now the town of Godmanchester however from the subsequent Norse invasion moving southward from Northumberland and Yorkshire they built their defence on the northern banks of the river at what would become Huntingdon. Neither would have wanted the river at their backs in times of conflict.

However from either point of view Ermine Street was the principle military and commercial north-south artery in the country and in those early days of turmoil the bridgehead over the River Great Ouse was a very important place.

We do not know what the Romans called the road. It was the Saxons that gave it the name we know today which was derived from the Earningas, a group of people who inhabited an area around Armingford in Cambridgeshire through which the road passed. Beware though as the road from Silchester to Gloucester is also called Ermine Street. It is believed that the road running through Cambridge, through and crossing Ermine Street at Godmanchester and onwards towards Thrapston was called the Via Devena.