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Missing ‘Henry’ persuaded us to change rooms

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Wisbech as seen through the eyes of local historian and occasional visitor Mike Petty, offers a nostalgic and fascinating glimpse of the town.

We are delighted he allowed us to share an article he posted to his ever-popular Fenland History on Facebook.

Here is his report.  

Thirty years ago, I visited Wisbech with Lester Millbank to compile an ‘Off the Beaten Track’ feature for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire when we discovered some of the characters and tales of the ‘Capital of the Fens’.

I had been before and since, but this time it was to be different: I was going to stay the night.

Evison, one of the wonders of Wisbech shopping

The choice was easy as there seemed to be very few hotels within the town’s centre that were functioning.

One historic hotel just off the Market Place was (at least partially) open. There was no difficulty in finding a place in the car park, I could choose any one of the empty spots.

The receptionist allocated our room, and we headed up the magnificent wooden staircase, refreshing our memories of the grand meeting rooms that we had been shown by the then owner in 2017.

Five years on and a new owner was in process of taking over.

Moments later we retraced our footsteps to exchange our accommodation for a different room that the ‘Henry’ had not missed.

Although it had neither a view across the historic inn courtyard, or the Market, at least the lace curtains (almost) effectively disguised the brick wall just a few feet outside the window.

It was time for an in-room sachet of coffee – fortunately we had taken our own biscuits – before heading outside to explore the market stalls, not all of which were being cleared.

Lilian Ream Collection features in much of the history of Wisbech

Then it was time for some retail therapy in the fine selection of central charity shops.

Refreshed, it was time for a leisurely stroll along the North Brink to take in the beauties of the Peckover House gardens.

Sadly, we were too late, they had closed for the day. Only a short stroll further was the Elgoods brewery gardens.

Sadly, they were being redeveloped.

The brewery shop staff managed to find a bottle opener so we could refresh our stroll back with one of their ranges of fruit beers.

We finished it on a seat under a tree in the park near the church – obviously a popular local activity – and listened to the conversation of those passing by much of which was in English.

The doors to the fine Wisbech and Fenland Museum had been open when we had taken our seat. They were shut when we returned.

The castle too was closed.

But one wonderful piece of Wisbech history was open with the finest range of hard-toed work shoes, gloves, hats, and other clothing items one could wish to find.

Those were the days when Wisbech offered these prices for meals

One of the pleasures of a good hotel is good food. When I’d visited in it 2017 the menu had been advertising prime beef steak for 8/6. Sadly, we needed to dine too early to discover whether it had since gone digital.

The inn on Norfolk Street might not offer fine dining but was obviously meeting a need and even at 5pm was busy with young and old enjoying their curries or cod.

Back at the hotel it was time for a change before a walk to Wisbech library.

This, though closed, was providing the venue for my talk to the Fenland Family History Society.

They meet in an upstairs room adjacent to the ‘Fenland Collection’ of books, newspapers on microfilm and albums of some of the wonderful photographs taken by Lilian Ream that had featured in that 1992 radio broadcast.

By nine the rest of the evening was free to enjoy the Wisbech nightlife.

Though the hotel bar was closed the receptionist was able to recommend an inn not too far a stroll away where we could be assured of hospitality without incessant music or flashing lights and with staff who did not wear security cameras.

A wonderful reminder of the town of Wisbech

The bar stools were taken but there were tables from which we could inspect the menu of home-prepared food and listen to details of owls training their young at Gorefield.

As dusk was falling lights were showing in or two windows of the houses when we strolled back along North Brink, passing a property that had I had visited when it was home to the magnificent collection of an antiquarian bookseller that had attracted purchasers from around the world.

We passed the town hall with its wonderful council chamber where I had spoken on a previous visit while across the Nene was the Octavia Hill Museum which is truly a high-light of any visit to Wisbech.

It was then we remembered that we had forgotten the essential for any night’s sleep: hot chocolate.

With so much long closed it was good to see one shop open with helpful staff who could translate the labels on the foodstuffs they sold and supply a single sachet.

The front door to our hotel was securely closed – we had been warned that 10pm was bedtime.

But staff quickly responded to the bell, aware that over half their guests were out late. We never actually met our fellow residents, though we did awake early to the sound of their presence in the adjacent room.

There was plenty of choice at breakfast, with several cafes not too far away from the hotel’s closed kitchens.

Then all too soon it was time to check out – the receptionist was able to refund the over-charge – and head off back to the bustle of our fen village.

Wisbech is a wonderful place.

It was sad to see its charms so overlooked by other visitors whose presence would enable it to thrive.

Hopefully next time we stay it will have been restored to its past prosperity as a worthy Capital of the Fens.

You can hear the 1992 recording of ‘Wisbech: off the Beaten Track’ by clicking…/wisbech-off-the-beaten-track-1992







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