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.

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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Buckinghamshire Way 4.2: the meadows of the Ouse

I set out along the Grand Union Canal in such glorious sunshine and by the calm, shining water it would have been easy to go into a dreamy state and walk there forever.  There came a time to turn off though, which took me to the River Ouse, and past a ruined church, which had some stories behind it, at the site of a grand house which has completely vanished.  The over the river, which  is a beautiful river for its whole length and in the sunshine is a delight.  Then away following the ‘Swan’s Way’, a route which I brushed by before.

The way led through broad, open fields then into a wood, where I switched to the ‘Three Shires Way’, then in time under the M1.  After a little way on the road (not the M1; a local road) I passed under a gateway arch on the road leading to Tyringham House, and over the Great Ouse again, which makes a loop here.

Past the house, up the hill is the parish church.  It stands alone.  There is no village.  The name ‘Tyringham’ may be a parish or a memory of a lost place.  Here I sat a short while, looking back to the river and the bridge in a perfect setting before setting off again.

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Buckinghamshire Way 4.1: the last leg

Today I set out to finish the Buckinghamshire Way.  Beginning at Wolverton, the route should take me along the Grand Union Canal and down the Great Ouse northwards, then striking inland in the plains of the Ouse to Olney, the main village of this northernmost part of Buckinghamshire.  From here I walk further north though open, green countryside to a farm, Northey Farm, which is at the northernmost point of the county.  How I get away again I will work out at the time.

This is a shorter day than previous legs, at just 17 or 18 miles.  It is also all on one map: the Ordnance Survey Explorer 207 (Newport Pagnell & Northampton South) and all on one side of the map, but it does wind about the paths so must not be underestimated.

I aim to start at 9:30 am, depending on the train I get to the starting point.  I will report back this evening.

As I have not done it yet, I do not have a picture of the day, so instead here is a crowd of admirers who gathered to see me yesterday.

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