Civic Pride: Peterborough – city of change, now that has quite a good ring to it

The gathering of Peterborough Poet Laureates - including columnist Toby Wood (back left)The gathering of Peterborough Poet Laureates - including columnist Toby Wood (back left)
The gathering of Peterborough Poet Laureates - including columnist Toby Wood (back left)
​Recently I took part in a film celebrating 25 years of the Peterborough Poet Laureate competition. I was lucky enough to be the city’s first poet laureate, winning with a poem called Infant School Hymn, writes​Toby Wood of Peterborough Civic Society.

While I’m at it I must acknowledge all those previous laureates, Andre Mackie, Joy Harris, Mark Wright, Peter Cox, Diana Millard, Chris Todd, Parminder Summon, Patricia Higham, Mark Grist, Keely Mills, Michael Riccardi, Nikki Digliovanni, Simon Stabler, Peter Irving, Charley Genever, Clare Currie, Malika Speaks and Kat Beeton.

The list continues to grow – let’s hope that Peterborough has a poet laureate for the next 25 years and beyond!

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Whilst we were filming, the poet laureates discussed the role and what makes Peterborough special. Of course this is a subject that we all wrestle with but two things stood out.

Walter Cornelius, the Peterborough legend who came from LatviaWalter Cornelius, the Peterborough legend who came from Latvia
Walter Cornelius, the Peterborough legend who came from Latvia

First, every single laureate writes, performs and communicates in a slightly different way, thus emphasising the varied nature of Peterborough and its citizens.

Second, we all recognised that the one thing that Peterborough is good at is – change. Just look at Peterborough’s various stages of development.

We are not a sleepy market town that has stayed the same and has merely become a twee museum of tea shops and noteworthy nostalgia. Of course Peterborough has its traditions, heritage and cultural legacies but it also has innovation and immigration.

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Those who raise an eyebrow to this statement would do well to remember that one of Peterborough’s most famous and well-liked sons, Walter Cornelius, that eccentric strongman and Lido lifesaver, came here from


When I was a child my favourite teacher, the one who encouraged me to write, was Mr Kuras who taught at All Souls (now St Thomas More primary school). He came to this country during WWII as part of the Polish Air Force. I remember him fondly 65 years later.

Over the years I have mixed with a people from other countries and cultures. Aged five my favourite country dancing partner was Dutch, later the goal scorers in the primary football team in which I was a keen if ungainly defender were Italian. My predecessor as house captain at Deacons School, the late Lloyd Watson, had a Jamaican father – I was always proud that blues guitarist Lloyd made it onto The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972.

During my teaching career perhaps the hardest working children I ever taught were the so-called Vietnamese boat people, fleeing terrible war and suffering. One of the girls, ten years old when she arrived with not one word of English, won an English language prize at secondary school four years later and became a successful NHS doctor in her early twenties. She was a star.

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Perhaps my favourite fairly recent interchange was with a five-year-old Russian girl in a local school who told me that she had ‘pot noodles’ in her legs. I replied that I think she might have meant pins and needles. She then proceeded to talk to me in English for five minutes about how she found learning English hard. How we laughed!!

I could quite easily fill this article with tales of people coming to Peterborough from Mirpur, the Punjab, Hong Kong, Poland, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Ukraine and many other places. I could also write about the Italian community and how they literally (by making bricks) helped to build the country. In fact I could go on for ages.

I recognise that I might be full of these anecdotes but I only use them to demonstrate that our city is good at welcoming newcomers and embracing change.

Peterborough rarely stands still.

Incidentally, this week I am taking a group of staff from the new ARU Peterborough for a taster walk round the city centre, they are looking at how best to attract overseas students to come to study in the city.

Once again this is surely a positive move for our city. Peterborough – city of change. Now that’s got quite a ring about it!