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

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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.

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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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Buckinghamshire Way revisited: Thames to Cliveden

I set off again this afternoon to walk new route for part of the Day 1 walk.  I was unhappy about the walk north of Taplow last time:  the riverside is not accessible, I found, and so I had to walk along the Cliveden Road, which can be very busy and without a pavement not ever a verge for much of it:  I kept having to dive into thorn bushes – that and being unhappy about extended road walking.

So, today I parked at Dorney Reach, which is where the M4 crosses the Thames to try a different route.  The Thames is gorgeous here, if you can ignore the extensive works on the M4 bridge.  (The path is closed under the motorway bridge and so diverted onto a floating path at present, on pontoons bobbing on the river.)

After the first house, I turned off onto a track and a bridleway off that, heading north-west to cut a loop off the river, and this brought me to the Jubilee River, and across a footbridge.  A track north then passed under the railway and emerged at the A4, but the road and attendant garages were soon passed, and past a sports field and an entrance, a path leads north-east across fields to emerge at Boundary Road, at the south edge of Taplow.  The map shows the path continuing directly ahead – I had to retrace my steps though, as that was a farm entrance and not a public footpath, which runs from south of the hedgerow. (Apologies delivered in person to the farm.)  From this footpath is a last, distant view to Windsor Castle.

After a short way up a lane is a little hamlet which I took to be called Burnham from the map, but Burnham is now a swollen suburb of Slough, a mile off, and this is just the bit which has so far escaped.  None of my route this afternoon was urban, though there were hints that I was close to the edge of the town here, as there had been by the A4.  Over the fields though and all that was left behind.

From this hamlet of Burnham, the path lay north, by fields, a golf course and through a wood.  The woods around here are lovely and had I been able to do so, I would have plotted a route all through the woods to meet a further path I could see, but the woods at this point are private and closed.  Therefore some road walking is unavoidable, but this rote was to minimise it.  Emerging then at Taplow Common Road, I found it to be a B road with some traffic, so I went instead north up a narrow lane called Rose Hill, only to cut back to the B-road at the end of it.

The remaining stretch of Taplow Common Road is without pavement and little verge, but it is a far quieter road than the main Cliveden Road (to which it runs), and with no insane drivers, so where I did step off the tarmac it was more out of courtesy than necessity, and the verge is more accessible, mostly.  The road emerges opposite the main entrance to Cliveden House, now a national Trust house. The main Cliveden Road here is back to the route I walked on Day 1, but I had bypassed the deathly stretch of road.  North of this point, the road has broad verges or pavement all the way.

Immediately here though was The Feathers, a fine pub.  I unlocked my bicycle, which I had left here earlier before driving to my start point, and cycled back to Dorney Reach.

An alternative revised route emerged though as I was walking. I had left the riverside soon after the motorway bridge, but if you want to carry on with the river a little longer, do, as far as Maidenhead Bridge.  It is a pleasant stretch.  From the bridge (and this is the way  walked on Day 1) is park with a path which crosses the Jubilee River and heads uphill to Taplow Village (as I did on Day 1).  It is a little more road, but you can stroll through the village, past the pub and the church up to the top, and emerge at Boundary Road just above the path I walked this afternoon.

I will mark the new route up on my online map on the project page shortly.  That is the last link in the Buckinghamshire Way complete.

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Buckinghamshire Way 4.4: Completed

North of Clifton Reynes is a straight haul north.  There are farms, but no more villages, and the route is on good, farm tracks.  This is the ‘Three Shires Way’ again; it rejoined me at Clifton Reyes.

The first sight is a last sight of the Great Ouse, at Lavendon Mill, then up past a lone, riverside house, it is back to farm tracks. Abbey Farm seems to have some mediaeval remains, had I had a moment to look, but I was determined to finish this.

Across an A road, further up hill to a thorn-choked brook and the destination came into sight: Northey Farm, at the top of the hill. I turned to the ‘Milton Keynes Boundary Walk’ – that is a reminder that although this is wide open farmland and gorgeous rural being, it is classified by Whitehall as ‘Milton Keynes’, which it clearly is not.

It was a happier trudge with the final point ahead of me, so I stepped up the pace and followed the path along the book all the way to the farm. The path here is meant to run north of the farm buildings but has become overgrown and obscured, so I crossed through the farmyard, which the farmer tells me most walkers do. (I explored the right path later.) In fact while the farm is the northernmost farm n Buckinghamshire, and the path to reach it is in its final stretch a county border path, there is a stop a few dozen yards further north, so I crossed the road, following a field edge footpath, and here at the apex of the field boundary, where the footpath turms sharply north, here is northernmost point, and here I finished the Buckinghamshire Way.

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Buckinghamshire Way 4.3: Olney the Lonely

Out of Tyringham, I climbed up to the practical farmlands, aiming north towards Olney.  This was still the ‘Three Shires Way’, mostly.

Recyled path

Soon after I had emerged from a plantation wood I found the most bizarre path I have encountered. It was made of old bits of rag, flannel and recycled textiles; it was broad and it went on a long way.  I started walked it, and while the souls of my feet were blessing me for this soft surface and relief, it was too soft and very hard going so I switched to the grass path beside it and while my feet cursed me, I have little sympathy: the must do their duty along with my other limbs.

Further north, over a road and at the crest of a gentle hill, my route switched to the Ouse Valley Way which took me down to the valley, through a caravan park and past a series of manmade lakes by the river, in Emberton Country Park, of which I had never heard before but it was very popular with families who had come out from the town.  I was going past though.

The path emerged on the road just outside Olney, the largest village of this northernmost part of Buckinghamshire.  The Great Ouse flows lazily past, with the church spire looking down to it, and here I sat contemplating the divine while eating sandwiches. The village’s most famous vicar lies in a large memorial tomb here – John Newton, the slave-ship captain who repented and became a priest, and wrote several hymns, including his most personal, Amazing Grace.

Olney is a pretty place, and the one with shops, so it is a local capital.  I was not stopping long though.

The path continues along the north bank of the Ouse, through heathland until another bridge on the river, after which is a climb up a steep bank to head for Clifton Reynes. This was the last village before the end.  I grabbed a long lemonade in the Robin Hood and set off.

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