Huntingdonshire is steeped in history and this weekend, members of the public will be given the opportunity to delve into its past at a series of free open days across the district. CATHERINE BELL finds out more about some of the local landmarks.

The Heritage Open Weekend is a national scheme that opens up sites of historical or cultural interest so that the people can have the opportunity to explore the landmarks on their doorstep. Last year, the events attracted around one million visitors nationally, who enjoyed a unique opportunity to explore the hidden, curious and interesting places in their towns and villages.

One of the buildings that will be open is a true Huntingdonshire landmark.

Houghton Mill is the oldest working watermill on the River Great Ouse and staff and volunteers will welcome visitors on Saturday in Victorian costumes.

Steve Bellis, visitor service manager, said: "There has been a mill on this site since 974 and this is certainly the largest water mill in the county, if not the country.

"Houghton Mill had a major impact here and was linked to the development of the steam mills at St Ives and Godmanchester."

The mill has been operational again since 2000, after the water wheel was restored and visitors on Saturday will be able to watch the mill at work and buy freshly-milled flour.

Mr Bellis said the Heritage Open Days were an important event in the mill's calendar.

"I've lost count of the number of visitors we get on these days," he said. "It's fantastic - and it's surprising how many people come back afterwards."

It is hoped that within the next few months, the mill benefit from the installation of a new set of mill stones.

Mr Bellis said: "The Millstones project has been great - the parish council jumped on it straight away and really pushed to get it going. It's still an ongoing project but hopefully by the end of October we will see the new stones."

This weekend will mark the first opportunity for many people to see the results of a major facelift recently completed on another iconic local building.

Huntingdon town hall was refurbished after HM Court Service moved the magistrates' court to purpose-built facilities on Walden Road.

Richard Meredith, of the Huntingdon and Godmanchester Civic Society, is pleased that the building has been brought back into use.

"It will really add to the life of Huntingdon," he said. "It's a part of the history of the town."

As well as the modern improvements, visitors will have the chance to look at the 19th century court rooms.

"It will be like stepping straight into Garrow's Law," said Mr Meredith.

While many people will be familiar with the eponymous William Garrow from the BBC One drama, few will know that he sat as a trial judge in Huntingdon, and presided over cases including the notorious murder of a Little Paxton vicar…

Other sites to be opened up include a "lock up" in the picturesque village of Broughton. With its narrow, winding lanes and thatched cottages, it is the last place in Huntingdonshire that you would associate with crime but a placard on the village green describes the last time the village constable had to cause it, when a man smashed up stalls set out for a village event sometime between the two world wars.

In St Ives, the local civic society has once again taken on the organising of the town's heritage events.

The Bridge Chapel will be open with a 19th century drawing of the New Bridges Causeway on show, as well as other displays. The Norris Museum will have its latest exhibition plus the town's regalia to view, and All Saints Parish Church, the Free Church, Methodist Church and Sacred Heart Church will all be open at varying times, as well as the Islamic Prayer and Education Centre. Holt Island will also be open to visitors, with a demonstration of basket-weaving on Friday.

Buckden Towers will be open on Sunday. It is the site of the former palace of the Bishop of Lincoln with an additional Victorian house set in 15 acres of grounds, including a Tudor knot garden. The 15th century Tower and Gatehouses are still standing and in use as a Conference Centre. The Friends of Buckden Towers will open the grounds and Knot Garden to the public.

Barbara Brett, of the Huntingdon and Godmanchester Civic Society, said: "Heritage Open Days are one of the best ways for you to enjoy and understand local heritage a great opportunity to explore what is on your doorstep, but also to take an active interest in the work that is going on to safeguard your heritage in the future."

INFORMATION: Houghton Mill will be open on Saturday 11am to 4.30pm.

For full details of the Heritage Open Days here and further afield, go to www.heritageopendays.org.uk

<< "POSTCARDS" >>

Broughton

Village Church: Saturday and Sunday, 10am-6pm

Village Lockup: Saturday and Sunday, 10am-6pm

Buckden

Buckden Towers: Saturday, 1pm-7pm

St Mary's Church: Thursday and Friday, 9am-6pm; Saturday, 9am-1pm and 2pm-6pm; Sunday, 9am-6pm

Huntingdon

Town Hall: Saturday and Sunday, 10am-4pm

St Ives

Bridge Chapel: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 10am-4pm

Corn Exchange: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 10am-2pm

Holt Island Nature Reserve: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 10am-4pm

Norris Museum: Friday and Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday 2pm-5pm

Town Hall: Friday, 9am-4pm

Cambridgeshire County Council

Cold War Bunker, Shire Hall: Saturday, 10am-4pm

A chance to see inside this recently converted bunker, now being used to house the county's fragile and regularly-used archaeological finds and archives.