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

Links, maps and books

Henley and the Thames

In the hot sunshine, beside cool water, the Thames has many charms all along its length, and none better to my mind than the middle reaches below Oxford. here we wandered on a short family walk, just six or seven miles, from Hambleden Lock along the Berkshire bank up to Henley, then back over the hill.

We started at Mill End, Buckinghamshire, where there is a convenient car park. This is a boaters’ place, once built around a mill, Hambleden Mill (which still stands grandly by the river), but now a village with possibly more boats than people, some in its snug marina. The river is crossed here by an odd-looking crossing system: a long, narrow footbridge crosses slantwise across the river above a long weir, then reaches Hambleden Lock, which seemed constantly busy with pleasure craft, and it was a fine day for it.

Having reached the south bank, all in Berkshire, we met the Thames Path, which runs up beside the river, following a big loop. The houses we could see over the water on the Buckinghamshire bank are quite something, each with a garden running down to the water, some with private boathouses, and all no doubt with eye-watering price tags. The Berkshire bank at first is mainly green fields, though which estate it belongs to I could not say.

In time, the river bends round, and we were fortunate to encounter a cluster of boats moored up for a display which was officially cancelled but they came anyway: for the fortieth anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, several of the ‘little ships’ were there. It is astounding that such small vessels, designed only for the river, not the towering open sea, could take to the ocean to perform the miracle of Dunkirk, but there they were; small, heroic boats.

Passing on, Henley soon comes into view. Now there were boathouses on both banks, and a couple of private lodes (or that’s what they would be called in Cambridgeshire, about which I will be writing before too long) linking boathouses to the river.

We crossed the river on Henley’s stone bridge, pausing to admire the views up and down. This was our brief encounter with the Oxfordshire bank. This is also incidentally the end of the Oxfordshire Way, so I can say that I have walked the beginning and reached the end of the Oxfordshire Way; it’s just that I have not yet done the 68 miles between.

After a very pleasant lunch, we re-crossed the river and headed away from the Thames for the first time.

The way we took is part of the Chiltern Way Berkshire Loop (the other end of which I had encountered on the Buckinghamshire Way). It is a gentle climb over the hill cutting off the loop of the river, but with the river below always in evidence.

The path drops down to Aston, where there is a beautiful pub, the Flower Pot, seemingly in the midst of leaves, and a lane runs down to a riverside meadow full of revellers with picnics, canoes and paddleboards or just swimming.

The path then leads back upstream to Hambleden Lock again, busier still in the early afternoon, and over the weir-bridge back to the start.

Maps

Grafham Water, Huntingdonshire

It is a sweet, unexpected expanse in the sometimes forgotten western part of Huntingdonshire – Grafham Water. It is a lovely place to lose yourself in a walk, in the heart of a county which is astoundingly gorgeous in the summertime.

Covering 1,550 acres, this is a manmade reservoir dug to provide water for far-off towns. It is not Rutland Water, which is far better known, and no villages were drowned in its creation: it is a single shimmering expanse just west of Buckden, managed as a leisure lake for sailing and relaxation, and as a nature reserve.

A coupl of pleasant villages on the shoreline: Grafham on the north and Perry on the south, each with jetties.

All around the water are footpaths, which is makes for a single walk 9 miles long, so a pleasant afternoon’s walk, on which you will be accompanied by the lake water all the way. There is a visitor centre near Grafham, and cyclepaths running out form there, which are good for walking (if you listen out for speeding wheels). There are meadows and wooded stretches.

A variant form of the walk borrows a longer route, the Three Shires Way (which does indeed run through three shires: Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire). This provides a loop to the south towards the little River Kym and through the tiny village of Dillington before rejoining the west shore of Grafham Water.

Maps and books

Route map

Ivinghoe Beacon

I had never climbed Ivinghoe Beacon until the other weekend, which was a noticeable gap in my Chiltern explorations. It is one of the highest hills in Buckinghamshire, and though beaten in altitude by Haddington Hill and Combe Hill to the west, the Beacon is bare at its summit and presents a wide vista to all sides, especially over the precipitous scarp dropping away to the Vale of Aylesbury and all the pretty villages dotted across it.

It was a busy summit too: lockdown or not, the top was full of families enjoying the glorious sunshine, as well they might. I later found there is a car park near the top, on the dip slope, which is cheating.

The village, Ivinghoe, is a pretty one, set around a village green, its spired parish church blessing it. From the village a number of paths lead out, to the hills or the vale, and we took a way to the hills.

The narrow, hedged path soon opens up into the wide, green, chalk landscape and ahead rises the ridge of the Chiltern escarpment; a wave of little summits one following the other from south to north. The hills follow up from the Ashridge Estate, on the county border, to the south, and like that estate they are owned by the National Trust (though unlike Ashridge the Trust has mercifully restrained from filling these clean hills with kiosks).

Climbing crabwise across the slope on a well-trodden path there is a view down into a deep, precipitous and thorn-filled dip, the Incombe Hole (out of which one visitor was climbing, up the steep slope of Steps Hill).

I said that the tops are bare, but that is not quite try – the gorse and wild roses close over the slopes and the path wind through.

Having climbed to the clear air, we came across a road, which only slightly spoils the feeling of remoteness. (Anyone thinking of driving it: that would be cheating.)

Past the interloper road, is the last haul to the summit of Ivinghoe Beacon. lofty, lone; and covered in families out for a walk.

The view from the summit is a wonderful one in the sunshine and clear air. To the south is a sweep of hills running away to the woods of the Ashridge Estate, but to the north and west the slopes drop away suddenly and laid out beneath are the villages of Buckinghamshire stretching away across the Vale, and in the distance the grand, neglected Mentmore Towers.

Our path from here was down the face of the scarp – not an easy path (and while I walked it standing up, not all the party managed to). From there we followed a path to Ivinghoe’s daughter village, Ivinghoe Aston, form which there is a long path, possibly an old track or droveway, back to Ivinghoe.

You shouldn’t visit Ivinghoe without having a look at the Pitstone Windmill too. Like the Beacon itself, it is a National Trust property, and it was closed but can be admired form the outside. Maybe windmills and the workings of their ingenious engineering are a thing for another day.

Lockdown walks

Keep walking – keep healthy. Walk locally perhaps, but then discover the little parts of your home you never knew were there.

Those who wanted to lock us in our homes concede that we may go out and walk or cycle – so go out, as if commanded.

I like to find the wilder ways, far from home or deep in the wooded hillsides, standing where I can look for a mile and seen not another soul. This is a different, stranger time we are in though. We are told to stay local. It makes little sense really – walking out of your door into a hugger-mugger street and a busy urban park is permitted, but driving for three hours to an empty landscape with no one to breathe on is deemed criminally dangerous Rules are not set up to be logical though. So here we are, walking locally.

That may be a challenge, but actually it can be a helpful application of ingenuity. There are, in every corner of the land, paths to be explored. At the edge of the country it may be easy to disappear into empty places for hours on end, as I have, but even in the city there are unexplored ways. I keep thinking of Edinburgh and the snickets tumbling through the town, and its urban hills, but in the heart of London too there are endless little paths and alleys such that in the narrow confines of the square mile of the City itself you can get thoroughly and delightfully lost, even before exploring the rooftop walkways. Every town has its secrets to find and find afresh.

I am not going to publish an internal walk for every town and village I know – you go and find them. Get a map, and see what you didn’t know, the patterns you did not see before, the back ways and paths that never seemed to join up when you worked them out in your head (it’s because the roads are not straight and not level that they meet and miss in unexpected ways). Find your local walks.

Do it quickly too – the lockdown will be over before we know it.