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.

Cycling and the promise of freedom

He shot off like a comet, the glee showing in every pore – this in a boy of nine just learning to cycle was a reminder of what a bicycle is all about:  it is about the sudden realisation of freedom.  Where once you could go nowhere faster than your little legs would take you, and soon be caught up with, the bicycle gives you wings, and all by your own strength.  Suddenly the horizon is within reach and you can dream of what lies beyond.

I followed on and felt the rush too.  Yes, we only hared around the village and the lanes about it, and explored paths nearly forgotten, but knowing that anything beyond it is just a question of not turning round and going back to finish that homework.  The glimpse of freedom is there, and should never be lost.

With that in mind I will do what I always intended, and add some cycle routes and pages about cycling to WildþingUK, starting today with the Alban Way, a cycle route between St Albans and Hatfield.

I can be more ambitious though, now I can see the horizon.

Boots v Bike

There is nothing like planting your well-mudded boots in new turf, gazing ahead to yet unexplored vistas. Or is there?

There is nothing like the coursing of wind through your hair as you slip with ease past green fields and far cottages. Or is there?

Walking away, far from the oppressive bustle of life and the tyranny of the clock, with all modernity shut away in its own box and just you and the seasonable clothes on your back, and a bag with a rough hunk of bread and meat, as could have been carried by an ancestor who walked similarly equipped and talked on the way with Chaucer, or Caesar, and spending all the day immersed in new, energetic endeavours is not to be bettered in any age. Unless. . .

Stepping from the concrete and tarmac and the petrol fumes, from confinement in steel boxes and in regulations, a little frame of metal with two wheels awaits and no more power than your thighs can supply awaits, but what power those thighs can supply even unmetalled, out to the road where a subtle increase in the press of your feet set you at dazzling speed along the lane to new horizons.

On foot you are part of the land, connected intimately with creation in all its wonders, if not feeling every bump (not if you have good boots) then still rising and falling with each rise and fall of the breathing path, tempering your walk to whatever the ground provides in mud, rock, bog, heath, sand or water. Each moment is yours and you are challenging yourself alone. If you walk all day across twenty miles, you feel the richness of every yard as you are part of it. You feel alive because you have exercised the very essence of life and been once again a part of nature, in which you were born.

On a bicycle, twenty miles is nothing: I have zipped off to have lunch forty miles away. The speed shames the plodding feet, but it is all the same strength of the same legs, not faked by a machine, not burning choking oil into the good air but all from the force of your own muscles; you own every thrust, turn, bump and swerve. When you want to stop, you stop – you do not need to patrol around to find a car park and fiddle with change, but just haul your bicycle onto the verge and pull out a sandwich. Where even a bicycle cannot go, lift it onto your shoulder and carry it to the next bridleway or road (now just try doing that with a car). This is a machine of liberty: nothing but the clothes on your back and the light bike beneath you, and off you go.

So, bike or boots; wheels or walking? Make your own decision, but stop reading this and get out there and find out.