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.

Freeland: a celebration

Freeland is an Oxfordshire village, in the green middle of the county, the star and finish of a celebration walk of 17½  miles.

The walk takes in some pretty, hidden villages, a canal built for industry but now serving leisure, broad farmland, and the mighty estate of Blenheim Palace. It takes in at one point part of Shakespeare’s Way, reminding us of where we are in the middle of the British imagination.

The path through the estate runs to the north end of one of the great lakes of the park, and round the Column of Victory, celebrating the feats of arms achieved by the Duke of Marlborough, and on through some of the finest of the grounds.

Even at the end of January, or the dawn of a new age, there is no better way to wash the old air out of your lungs than with a vigorous walk n some of the loveliest countryside.

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Wellies along the Colne: London Colney and Colney Hatch

Just before New Year we headed out for another family welly walk, starting in an unfamiliar place by a familiar river: a six mile walk along the upper course of the River Colne, from London Colney, south-west of St Albans.

London Colney has the heart of a pretty village round a green by the little river, if you ignore the overwhelming grey modern development brought by the motorway junction.  Or destination eastwards was Colney Hatch.

We started for convenience in the main car park in London Colney, threading through alleys to avoid the main road before we needed it, and thence down to the village’s interesting bridge over the River Colne:  a fine, elegant, brick-built bridge with seven arches, and all this for a river little bigger than a brook, though it spreads into a wide pool above the bridge.

The path follows the river upstream, eastward, and very soon comes upon a children’s petting farm (which even in the after-Christmas frost was open with eager, short customers.  Beyond the farm you depart from the riverside to a series of fishing lakes, created from old gravel pits, whose banks are being reclaimed by nature.

Beyond here the path suddenly comes upon and crosses over a quarry conveyer belt, serving Tyttenhanger Quarry.

Approaching Colney Heath, there is a model railway centre created by the North London Society of Model Engineers. Not much to say as it was closed when I passed and nothing could be seen.

Instead of taking the path through the common on the south side of the river, we went to see the village which was after all the interim destination, Colney Hatch.  Through the edge of the village and along the north edge of the common, we had lunch before the return leg.

The river must be crossed, and here there is a ford: wellies were needed in the cold water.

The conveyor belt

This is the return leg. Again, it is possible to follow a path west and south-west to Tyttenhanger Farm, but the route chosen here follows through the common close to the road, and along field-edges until the farm’s entrance track, when the route heads north-east a short way, not to the farm, but the path turns off again, once again to encounter the long conveyor belt.

Here there are little woods and the river again; scrubby riverside land, until it reaches the petting farm again.

Under the A1081, it is soon back to London Colney and to the bridge.

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New Year’s Day welly walk in Stokenchurch

A Happy New Year to all.  Today the family enjoyed a gloriously muddy walk in the Chilterns to greet the new year and see if we approve of it.

It was a welly walk, as so often and just five and a half miles across fields and woods and valleys on the intertangled border of Oxfordshire with Buckinghamshire, beginning at Stokenchurch, in Oxfordshire.

Stokenchurch is a pretty place to start, at the village’s wide, scattered village green, and soon you escape the village, turning north into fields which were almost deserted.

The path climbed up and down, reaching the Buckinghamshire border invisibly at the edge of Crowell Wood at another fold in the land, before a short climb up to a lane. More woods followed, to Town End, one of the hamlets which makes up Radnage.

Radnage is a scattered place – not a village as such, it appears, but a collection of hamlets.  The path leads to one of these, ‘Town End’, though with no town in sight.  (At the south end of the parish, not on this walk, is a hamlet called ‘The City’. That might have to come into another walk some time.)  The parish church is not on the planned route either, but wander down the hill a little into Town End and it is across the fields, and worth a visit.  We had a picnic lunch at Radnage.

The return journey is on part of the Chiltern Way, over the fields to Grange Farm, where the lane marks the county border again so it is back into Oxfordshire. Then up and over the hill again – very muddy in winter, with many warnings to keep dogs away from sheep – but we had no dog with us, and saw no sheep – there was a llama though, and two great, black, hairy pigs rooting with delight on their snouts in the mire they had made.

All too soon it was back to Stokenchurch. A lovely day, and yes – we approve of the new year.

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High Force

High Force is a spectacular waterfall on the upper course of the River Tees, which forms the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.  It is also a popular place to visit, and there are a number of walks in and above Teesdale around the waterfall.

The main family route starts at Bowlees, on the Durham bank.  From here, you cross the road and a field into the wood edging the river, and to a swaying footbridge high above the gorge of the Tees – there are warning signs against having more that one cross the bridge at once, but whether that depend on how overweight they are is not a detail it explains.  Here you cross to the Yorkshire side of the river and start walking upstream.

Soon you reach Low Force, where the Tees tumbles in a complex of steps. The path here, along the Yorkshire bank of the Tees, is part of the Pennine Way: the Way comes up the dale from Middleton and past the waterfalls to get to the watershed ridge of Pennines.  This is a gentle walk still, and will stop short of the high fells.

In time you come to a private bridge across the river in to the Raby Estate.  For the moment, carry on past it.  The path then climbs above the dale past wilder heath, and eventually a sound of roaring thunder becomes distinct, and soon the path reveals a vantage at the top of High Force (which is a good place for  picnic). The power of the water is clear by its edge. You can see that were any poor beast to tumble into the water it would be churned and crushed mercilessly against and between rocks repeatedly and would be pulp before it were hurled far below down the fall. Its adds a grim remembrance to an otherwise lovely scene. Keep children away from the edge!

From the vantage at the top, the main route retraces your steps down to the estate bridge. Across, back to the County Durham bank, and through the meadow.  The path leads back up through the wooded fringe to the road to the High Force Hotel: buy tickets for the waterfall, then back across the road through a gate and down through the woods.

Daniel Defoe wrote “The Force is an august scene; the noblest cascade I ever beheld; description is beggared in the subject”. As we stood admiring, there was something like a small earthquake – the rocks trembled and several visitors in different parts started and commented on it. A Victorian writer wrote that “the concussion of the waters produces a sensible tremor in the earth for some distance; and the noise of the fall is heard for many miles round the country”.

Climbing from High Force back to the hotel, there is a path up over the hill, to a farm with the name “Dirt Pit”, and from there up and over and down again to Bowlees.

Other, wider routes are traceable around Teesdale, past the waterfalls or above them.

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Maps and books

  • Ordnance Survey Landranger series (1:50 000):
  • Ordnance Survey Explorer series (1:25 000), irksomely, on the border of two maps:

Route map

The Icknield Way Path

The Icknield Way Path carried one of my favourite sections of the Hertfordshire Border Walk, as I could hardly avoid expressing on the first ‘Herts Embraced’ walk (on Day 3).  The path carries a heritage with it that connects you to the walkers of ancient ages, for it follows a road that was ancient even before the Romans came, and which in Anglo-Saxon days was noted as one of the Great Roads of Britain.

Much of the ancient Icknield Way is now tarmacked road, but other parts are remarkably left as footpath and bridleway, as they would have been in ancient days.  It runs roughly along the chalk ridge of the Chilterns, above the scarp, and the Icknield Way Path follows the ancient road, or close by it, from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, and thence in an east-north-easterly direction across into Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, for much of its length forming the borders of counties.  (It was in the latter capacity of course that it recommended itself to the Hertfordshire Border Walk.)

That is not quite the end either – Ivinghoe Beacon is the beginning of the Ridgeway long-distance route, and the north-easternmost end at Knettleshall Heath is the start of the Peddar’s Way.

To describe the walk is beyond a single, brief post. I have walk long, lovely stretches, but not the whole thing.  The rest of it is bookmarked for later explorations.  I’ll take a picnic: those chalk grasslands looking out far over the lower land below the escarpment are as if created for picnics.

Links

Route map

Maps and books

The route is long, stretching across several maps.  It might be done with standard Landranger maps, though the additional detail of an Explorer map can be very helpful.

In the Ordnance Survey Explorer, 1:50 000 series:

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