Situated in the north-east of Cambridgeshire, in the wide open Fens, Wisbech, capital of the Fens, is a market town with a population of around 30,000. Its name, which is often misspelt and mispronounced (it is Wizz-beach), is thought to be of Celtic derivation, meaning on the back of the Ouse. Other interpretations include the bank (bec) by the marshy meadow (Wisc). It was first recorded as a settlement in Anglo Saxon times, and is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
With the draining of the Fens in the 17th century, the boom in local agriculture led to Wisbech becoming a very prosperous port by the 19th century and it became the largest grain market outside London. However, severe silting of the river caused the coastline to move northwards towards the Wash. Eventually the problem was relieved by the drastic measure of diverting the River Nene through Wisbech, where nowadays it is tidal.
In the 20th century, Fenland was the most concentrated area of fruit growing in the country. Today, agriculture, horticulture and food processing continue to be dominant local industries. With the expansion of the EU and influx of immigrant workers, around a third of Wisbech's population are believed to be East Europeans.
Wisbech is noted for the elegant Georgian architecture of the North and South Brinks which flank the river Nene in the centre of town. The North Brink boasts a splendid variety of buildings, including the magnificent 18th century Peckover House, now owned by the National Trust and probably the most popular tourist attraction in the town. In his ‘Buildings of England’ Nikolaus Pevsner described the North Brink as one of the finest Georgian brick streets in England.
The Crescent, just to the west of the Market Place is another notable feature, with its centre piece being Wisbech castle (now a Regency villa), the original having been built in Norman times. Nearby are the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, one of the oldest purpose-built museums in the country, and the oldest building in Wisbech, the parish church of St Peter and St Paul. The award-winning church gardens are central to the annual Rose Fair, that takes place in the first week of July.
For a town of its size, Wisbech has more than its fair share of eminent citizens, including anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson, co-founder of the National Trust and housing reformer Octavia Hill quaker banking family the Peckovers, ship owner Richard Young, photographer Lilian Ream, and Mary Shelley's father William Godwin.
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Wisbech's classical Georgian North Brink