Where the Roman road Ermine Street crosses the third-longest river in England, Huntingdon is a small but charming town with a Market Square dating back to the 1100s.
Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon in 1599, and on Market Square there is arguably England’s best museum for the Lord Protector housed in a 12th-century hospital where Cromwell later went to school.
There’s an itinerary of beautiful little sights to hunt down on the Historic Town Trail, like half-timbered pubs and the mound of Huntingdon Castle.
You’ll return to River Great Ouse, to laze in the Riverside Park, take canoe trips or visit wonderful places downstream like Houghton Mill and the Medieval chapel bridge in nearby St Ives.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Huntigdon:
1. Houghton Mill
The National Trust owns this historic mill in very picturesque scenery on the River Great Ouse to the east of Huntingdon.
Houghton Mill has roots going back to the 10th century, but the current building is from the 1600s and was enlarged 200 years later.
The mill stopped producing flour in the 1930s and after being donated to the National Trust was used as a youth hostel for most of the 20th century.
New millstones were installed in 1999, and the stoneground flour is used for baking cakes and other treats at the Houghton Mill Tearoom.
From Huntingdon, you can walk beside the Great Ouse to reach the mill, and from there you can follow the meandering course around to St Ives.
Houghton Mill also offers canoe hire, and you can paddle down the Houghton Trout Stream to Hemingford Lock and back via the Great Ouse, or try the two-hour round trip to St Ives.
2. Cromwell Museum
The museum for the Lord Protector is in part of the grammar school where he received his early education.
This was adapted from the 12th-century Medieval Hospital of St John, and you can see the preserved Romanesque design in the bricked-up portal with archivolts and the row of five windows above.
The museum has the best collection of artefacts from the Protectorate in the UK. There are several contemporary portraits of Cromwell and his family, as well as coins and portrait medals.
You can also pore over an absorbing display of personal effects, like his personal powder flask and the very hat he wore to the dissolution of the Long Parliament in 1653. Some important contemporary documents are on show, like the Humble Petition & Advice of 1657, along with Cromwell’s personal apothecary cabinet and a Florentine Cabinet gifted to him by the Duke of Tuscany.
3. Hinchingbrooke Country Park
A brief walk from Huntingdon train station will deposit you in a pastoral landscape surrounded by open countryside.
On the Alconbury Brook, the 170-acre Hinchingbrooke Country Park has lakes, wide open meadows and mature oak woodland.
Even though there’s untouched nature everywhere you look, the park is coursed with hard-surface paths so is fine for pushchairs and wheelchairs.
In summer you can use the barbecue stands or bring a picnic, while the cafe is stocked with home-baked cakes, hot and cold savoury snacks and ice cream.
All three species of British woodpecker can be spotted in the park, and if you go slowly by the water you may sight a kingfisher or otter.
4. Historic Town Trail
“Huntingdon First” has a downloadable leaflet on its website for a circular trail showing off more than 40 worthwhile sights around the town.
You’ll begin on the Market Square in front of the regal Georgian Town Hall (1745) and the Falcon Inn.
Dating to the 16th century, the Falcon Inn is the oldest pub in the town and is thought to have been used by Cromwell during the Civil War.
Cromwell House on the High Street is a 19th-century building built on the site of an older house where Cromwell was born in 1599. The half-timbered Market Inn behind the Town Hall is in a little network of historic passages, while at the far southeastern end of the high street is the old County and Borough Gaol used for debtors and felons.
Castle Hills on the Great Ouse is the earthwork of Huntingdon’s Norman castle raised in 1068 but demolished following a siege in 1174 during the Great Revolt.
5. The Manor, Hemingford Grey
A few miles down the River Great Ouse is one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in the UK. The Manor dates back to 1130, and although its garden offers free access all year round, you do have to get in touch if you want to see the house, or join a daily tour during the month of May.
The resident for most of the 20th century was the children’s writer, Lucy M. Boston, who wrote the Green Knowe series here.
The house has changed little since she passed away in 1990. For those acquainted with Lucy M. Boston’s work, the Manor is filled with reminders of Green Knowe, as well as beautiful patchworks sewed by Lucy herself.
She also designed the gardens, which are ringed by a moat and planted with whimsical topiary, award-winning irises, old roses and herbaceous borders.
6. All Saints’ Church
One of a few churches to have stood on the north side of Market Square, All Saints’ Church is a Perpendicular Gothic building from the turn of the 16th century.
It’s a fine building to behold from the outside, with lots of original stonework on the battlements, broad window tracery, statue niches and crocketed pinnacles.
The interior was reworked by the master restorer Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century when the nave’s oak roof and choir stalls were added (the chancel’s magnificent roof is original from around 1500). But there’s a holdover from the Medieval period in the form of the 12th-century font with polygonal bowl and stem.
This is believed to have come from the old Church of St John and would have been used for Oliver Cromwell’s baptism.
7. Riverside Park
A long stretch of the River Great Ouse in Huntingdon has been left clear of development, offering an idyllic space for walks, bike rides, nature spotting and concerts by the water in summer.
You could also just sit and watch the narrowboats floating by on a warm afternoon.
Winding for two kilometres down to Hartford Church, the park has a boathouse for canoeing, as well as Purvis Marine, which hires out larger boats by the hour or by the day.
At the upper end there’s a grand sight across the water at the 19th-century Riverside Mill, which has served as an oil cake factory, wartime military clothing depot and a hosiery factory, before being turned into apartments.
8. Grafham Water
England’s eight largest reservoir is a few miles southwest of Huntingdon at Grafham Water.
Almost 2,000 acres in size, the reservoir was built in 1965 and is filled with water from the River Great Ouse.
No sooner was it built than Grafham Water began to attract wildlife, and on the western shore is a wildlife reserve made up of 400-year-old ancient woodland.
Coots, tufted ducks and great crested grebes all spend winter at the lake if you’re here for a walk or bike ride in the colder months.
Before you come take a look at the Grafham Water Centre’s website, as it organises a series of “Pay and Play” paddlesport hire days in summer when you can just show up and make use of a kayak, canoe or paddleboard for 30 minutes or 60 minutes without pre-booking.
9. Norris Museum
Open all year, this free museum, close by in St Ives, documents 160 million years of Huntingdonshire history.
With a historic riverside setting, the Norris Museum was established in 1933 after the antiquarian Herbert Norris donated his vast collection of Huntingdonshire relics to the town.
The museum is better than ever thanks to a £1.5m refit and expansion completed in2017. In the galleries are historic artefacts from that collection of almost 33,000 items, along with smart interactive displays and pithy information boards to keep children on board.
Some of the many thrilling curios include Jurassic fossils, a mammoth tusk, Roman pottery, Bronze Age tools and spearheads.
Also awaiting you are Huntingdonshire-specific paintings, textiles, tools, furniture and photographs, while you can step inside Herbert Norris’ former study.
10. Buckden Towers
Something you have to see if you’re in the area is this 12th-century fortified manor house in the nearby village of Buckden, first built for the Bishops of Lincoln.
Initially this was a wooden building before it was rebuilt in brick in the 1470s.
A big portion of the complex was then demolished on the orders of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1632, but the inner gatehouse, great tower and fragments of the battlemented inner wall remain, all defended by an outer gate and wall.
Buckden Towers is owned by the Claretians, a Roman Catholic order – and while the building is closed to visitors you are free to walk the grounds, inspecting the former moat and ornate knot garden in the courtyard.
Outside the wall is an orchard and an open field with grazing sheep.
11. Johnsons of Old Hurst
On the face of it Johnsons of Old Hurst is a farm shop, albeit a well-stocked one, with its own bakery, butcher and counters for fruit and veg, cheese, delicatessen and specialty foods.
But along with the onsite steak house and tearoom, Johnsons also has a lot for families to see.
The farm keeps ostriches, cows, fish, ducks, parrots, goats, donkeys and a variety of fish.
But most bizarrely of all there are crocodiles.
These make more sense than you might think as they’re used for waste disposal from the butchers shop.
You can also amble along the woodland walk for some post-lunch fresh air, while there’s a playground for children.
12. St Ives Bridge
An essential sight in St Ives is the 15th-century bridge crossing the River Great Ouse.
This is one of only four bridges in the country to retain a chapel.
You can go inside by asking for a key from the Norris Museum or the town hall.
The chapel is unusual for its crypt, which sits just two metres above the waterline.
It was restored in 1930 after centuries of being put to strange uses, like a doctor’s surgery, pub and even a brothel in the 18th century when St Ives was a key stop in the droving road to London.
Standing on the bank you’ll notice that the bridge has two round arches on the south side, contrasting with the other Gothic pointed arches.
This dates to when the bridge was partially demolished in 1645 during the Civil War, and a drawbridge was set up for defensive purposes.
13. Hamerton Zoo Park
This animal attraction is a bit further away, but is not to be missed if you’re holidaying with children.
Hamerton Zoo Park is dedicated to primates, cats and birds, counting more than 100 species, many of which are rare or endangered.
Among the primates there’s a range of different lemurs, including black and white ruffed, collared and ring-tailed.
The park has big cats like cheetahs and Malayan and white Bengal tigers, while some of the wild diversity of other mammals includes giant anteaters, Chilean pudu, Damara zebras and marsupials like Bennetts wallabies, Parma wallabies, long-nosed potoroos and black pademelons.
Kid will also be able to feed domestic animals like donkeys and goats, while the “Express Railroad Train” carries you from the donkey paddocks to the lion enclosures during the school holidays and on weekends.
14. Winwick Barn Alpacas
A different sort of animal encounter can be had at this working farm that rears Huacaya Alpacas for wool.
There are roughly 70 alpacas in the fields here, and while Winwick Barn is a private farm, you can log onto its website to book a two-hour Alpaca walking experience.
Here, grown-ups and children over the age of six can spend two hours leading these docile animals around the large paddocks, meeting their crias (babies) and learning about their behaviour, diet and individual personalities.
15. Holt Island Nature Reserve
Something else you have to do in St Ives is take the footbridge across to this island in the Great Ouse.
Open in summer, the island is a nature reserve on a site that until the 20th century was a thriving osier bed.
You can still walk among the willows that used to be coppiced and harvested for basket-weaving.
Since the osier beds were abandoned after the Second World War the island has become a habitat for foxes and many birds including kingfishers, reed warblers, sedge warblers, dunnocks and blackcaps.
Among the plants are comfrey, yellow flag iris and purple loosestrife, while the nettles provide nourishment for caterpillars that become red admiral, peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies in summer.