The Cambridgeshire Length 1.4: Fenland rivers to Ely

From Fen Ditton the way is to the north along the River Cam. Here I also leave Brooke’s cruel caricatures of the villages about Cambridge, “Ditton girls are mean and dirty”?; not that I could see in a rather pleasant village, where cricket was being played in the fields as ever it should be.

This idea I had, the bicycle-assisted walk, will not catch on. I found that while cycling expends less energy per mile, it far exceeds walking in energy per hour, and so if the idea is to telescope the time down to allow you to achieve a greater distance in the day, you will be more worn-out after that day than after a normal day’s walking. You will run out of energy sooner and may be unable to start day 2. Also, bicycles do not take well to footpaths and bridleways: the earthen surface pushes back at the wheels the way a metalled road does not and makes it very hard-going.

Much more of this route then I was walking for miles, not cycling but still having to lug a large bicycle with me. It is a lovely walk; I could have done without the burdensome machine though, except on the short stretches there were of good, smooth ways.

The first path from Fen Ditton is marked both with markers for the Harcamlow Way and the Fen Rivers Way. The latter would take me all the way to Ely. The Fen Rivers Way runs on both sides of the Cam and latterly the Great Ouse, so you have a choice. I crossed at Bait’s Bite Lock, where the University rowers finish their course, and north from there is a good, smooth (and very cyclable) path.

I crossed again at the bridge at Clayhithe, because I wanted to get to Upware on the way, and on that side it is not effectively cyclable – but this is a walking route I was exploring.

Endless miles it seemed, beside perfect azure waters, the landscape pancake flat but for the works of man: I walked on a bank thrown up to contain the waters. It is a broad stream, with boats – not the narrow rowing boats and the skiffs of Cambridge but proper, broad river cruisers and family yachts, some with masts (which must be collapsible for the bridges, rare as the latter are).

Other walkers were out: tired by this time I asked one if I was yet five miles from anywhere and was told that was another two and a half miles ahead. Sure enough after that time I came across my target: the inn at Upware famed across the county; the Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry Inn. The kitchen was closed that weekend but a pint of lemonade drunk deep in the garden overlooking the river where several boats lay moored was a blessed relief. It is a popular place, Upware, though it is further than 5 miles from anywhere of size.

North again, the path waymarking disappeared at a crucial point but I managed to pick it up again, or some path anyway. I crossed the river again at the next bridge, now walking in the narrowing tongue between the River Cam and the Great Ouse. Somewhere along here I at last caught sight of the Ship of the Fens: Ely Cathedral.

The two rivers join at a marina: here the Great Ouse upstream is known to boatmen as ‘the Old West’, as recounted by a boater with a Cambridgeshire flag flying from his cabin. I crossed the Old West on a semi-circular bridge and followed all the way downstream toward the mini city, Ely.

It was about 7 o’clock when I got there: six hours later than planned because I had not reckoned on how hard-going this bicycle business would be, and in no state for Day 2, which will wait a bit now.

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The Cambridgeshire Length 1.3: Cambridge waters hurry by

The City of Cambridge is the magnet for all the county, and for the scientific brains of the world, and has grown since the days I knew it. There is more to it than the University, but for the service of the latter it has grown.

I left Coton (which is not “full of nameless crimes” as Brooke insists) to carry on east, and from this point a dedicated cycle path has been provided, so my bicycle was now in its element at last. I was still on the Harcamlow Way and the Wimpole Way, and also found curious waymarkers with “GMT”, which turned out to mean “Greenwich Meridian Trail”; Cambridge is just east of the line.

The path goes by new developments – not just houses but after it clambers over the M11 are research campuses for the University (or some such) and it was a while before I reached the familiarity of Queen’s Road and thence Garrett Hostel Lane to the Backs and the river.

Stourbridge Common

Time for lunch on Market Hill. There’s always variety there. (The problem with the town is they remind you that there’s some epidemic or other going on and demand that I root deep in my backpack for the face-nappy I had happily been forgetting about all day.)

The city is very green – not just the Backs but with parks and commons, and I headed out to Midsummer Common, along the river and to Stourbridge Common and out of the city. There used to be a great merchant fair held on Stourbridge Common in past ages, described as comparable to that at Nizhny Novgorod (which is not a helpful comparison, to be frank). For now it is the greensward which reaches out to a little village that marks the beginning of the fen: Fen Ditton. Northward I would look for the Fen Rivers Way.

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The Cambridgeshire Length 1.2: Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton

Saturday was an interesting day, starting my odyssey in Odsey as planned and heading north-east to find a walking route across the county. It was, as I concluded in my opening post, not a cycle ride by a bicycle-assisted walk, because I was following footpaths and bridleways, and using a bicycle just to cut the time down. Crumbs, it is tiring doing that though.

There are in south-western Cambridgeshire two specific long-distance routes that can be followed through very pleasant country – the Harcamlow Way and the Wimpole Way: the latter coincides with the former but in places is better marked. These defined most of my track to Cambridge.

Cycling – Morden

The start, after I had headed half a mile in the wrong direction to take in the southernmost point of the county on the A505, was to slip behind the station and follow paths to Morden Grange Farm and north to an ancient, broad and straight track (a Roman road, perhaps? I don’t know) which runs for some miles to the east, to the main road at Bassingbourne. Just after this it meets the Harcamlow Way heading north on smaller paths.

I came across another part of the oddity that is the Harcamlow Way when walking the Hertfordshire Border Walk. It is a loose figure-of-eight route from Harlow to Cambridge and back again and seems to turn up everywhere. It served a purpose and led me to Wimpole Hall: I came up the long avenue of trees, past an abandoned ornamental lake, to the house itself – a magnificent Stuart-era / Georgian country mansion fallen into the clutches of the National Trust.

It struck me that I was going all round the houses to follow the paths – a straight route on the roads would have been half the distance, but it would have been on roads.

North of the Wimpole Estate, the Harcamlow Way signage fades and I followed the Wimpole Way, which led north through Kingston and to a sudden east turn directly towards Cambridge, on broader paths promising a destination, to Coton, and a brief pause.

(I didn’t go anywhere near Haslingfield – that’s just in the poem.)

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The Cambridgeshire Length 1.1: An Odsey start

Odsey, early morning. I pitched up at Ashwell and Morden Station in the early morning, in the very southernmost corner of Cambridgeshire. I have been here before, when replotting part of the Hertfordshire Border Walk but this time I am looking on the other side of the border: my target is Cambridgeshire, and I look north. It is the start of a gruelling day.

‘Cambridgeshire, of all England. the shire for men who understand’ said Rupert Brooke. His Grantchester, a true jewel of the county, is not on this morning’s route, alas. It could be a variant I suppose.

Actually I am writing this in advance, in anticipation. I may dip down to the actual southernmost point of the shire, but essentially is starts at the station and thence across the fields: there are some convenient bridleways hereabouts, which is just as well because this time I am on a bicycle: I am still going for paths in preference to roads, so the route which emerges can be walked, and because the back ways are where the charm is found.

The first target destination is Wimpole Hall, by which time I will have encountered the Harcamlow Way, and that will lead all the way into Cambridge.

I was feeling confident about getting a lot of distance done in the morning, because I have done so before, but typing this I recall two things: firstly I was much younger then, and secondly I was using good roads, when today I will be on slippery chalk and flint paths, but at least it should be dry. Some paths will be unsuitable for wheels, but I see this not as a cycle ride but as a bicycle-assisted walk.

I will see, anyway.

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The Cambridgeshire problem

Cambridgeshire is a beautiful county, where I spent many idyllic years, and I drove all over it and cycled over much of it, and walked too. However county walk, a Cambridgeshire Border Walk or Cambridgeshire Way, runs into a problem in the fens.

My challenge is to length the whole county in a way I can enjoy so that other may too, and open other, more accessible routes as I can.

Forget what you see on the conventional maps showing administrative areas; the real Cambridgeshire is a pleasingly banana/barbell-shaped county, broad in its village-dotted south, with a narrow waist opening into the steam-iron flat fenland in the north. The south of the county is laced with footpaths and bridleways and many walking routes can be drawn and enjoyed amongst the villages. The fenland though has a more austere beauty. The bulk of it has no meandering paths – just arrow-straight roads and droveways and these can be very tedious indeed to the walker.

To the east of Ely there are bridleways in abundance between the villages and the Isle of Ely from here looks a little less unearthly than the acres beyond, but they are village paths and not a route.

The landscape of the drained fenland, with its lodes and droveways, fills the whole of the north of Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely, and comes right to the edge of Cambridge too, where I have walked extensively.

Standing in the fenland, paused looking at vast horizons, nothing but fields and hedges, distant grain silos and far away the tower of Ely Cathedral, you feels small in the vastness of creation. This is a land which should not be shunned just for ease. The fenland must be penetrated.

The plan then: take a bicycle to the southernmost point of Cambridgeshire at Odsey, and then walk and cycle north, all the way to the northernmost point at Tydd Gote, by way of the two cities, Cambridge and Ely, and the fenland towns, keeping within the county and finding a pretty, yet practical, route, off the road where possible and on quiet roads where not.

(One certain point of the route is Mepal: any route across Cambridgeshire must cross the great drainage system of the fens, Old Bedford River and New Bedford River slicing in a straight line southwest to northeast across Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, and within Cambridgeshire there are only two crossing points; a pair of bridges at Mepal and the old bridges a mile to the south.)

It will not be a heavy-boot route as previous expeditions have been; it should be cycled most of the way, but others may wish to follow on foot.

There is only one way to find out if it is practical, and that is to go out and do it.

The Eildon Hills and the Tweed

They stand stark in the view from many miles around: three mountains alone. In the lands of the Tweed the three peaks of the Eildon Hills command the attention.

The hills rise up to the south of Melrose in Roxburghshire, and there is a good path leading up from the wee town to the top, which is part of the St Cuthbert’s Way (running from Melrose to Lindisfarne). Melrose itself is a fine town to visit: its main attractions are Melrose Abbey (which was closed for the COVID-19 thing) and the River Tweed (which isn’t).

We started in the town; a mediaeval town graced by the shattered ruin of Melrose Abbey. Climbing from the market square past the ring-road viaduct (a road the town tries to ignore, the feeling being mutual), there is an almost hidden path on the left between houses which plunges into woodland, to emerge onto the straight haul up the slopes.

The day was sunny and the hills were quite popular, by local standards, as we got higher: there was even a cyclist coming down at one point – he must have had very good brakes, as the path is unrelenting.

The first haul up comes to the saddle between the two highest hills – Mid Hill and East Hill. To continue round would be to head for the East Hill, but we turned right to climb the steep path up to Mid Hill – the highest of the Eildon Hills. It was worth it as the view from here extends far out over the Tweed valley to the north, to the Southern Uplands, reaching far to the horizon, and over Teviotdale to the south and the Cheviot beyond. South Hill looks up from just t the south: we did not descend to climb it, but there is a longer route which does take it in.

Then we clomped back down to the saddle and climbed East Hill. East Hill is lower than Mid Hill but is a greater bulk of mountain with a broad top. This was the site of a Roman signal station in that era, signalling down to the Roman fort, Trimontium, which was laid out in the fields below, where Lauderdale comes down to the Tweed.

Down runs the winding path off the hill, between heather, gorse and bilberry (it’s paved after a few hundred yards as the hill above that is a scheduled ancient monument). It is a delightful wander down towards the valley, eventually to a path that forms part of the Border Abbeys Way (that’s another season’s challenge). Then the latter path strolls down to the old road, close to the Rhymer’s Stone.

There are variations on the tale of Thomas the Rhymer and his meeting with the Queen of the Faeries here, and which you tell depends on how innocent or lascivious you like your tales….

Here within sight of the River Tweed we followed down and under the bypass to Newstead, the village next to Melrose, and through it to the deep, head-high reeds that fringe the river.

It is a beautiful river – broad, peaceful, shallow enough for fishermen to stand it its midst up to their waists. A path led upstream. At one point it encounters a wall, the Battery Dyke, the top of which was once the public footpath along the riverside, and which is still perfectly walkable, though a less perilous path is provided now behind it. It leads eventually to the back of Melrose and the Abbey and the market square again.

Had we carried on a couple of hundred yards we might have tried the Chain Bridge or Gattonside Bridge; a footbridge over the Tweed – but that may wait for another day out.

Route map

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