Downham Market, a pretty town in the north-west of Norfolk, supported on each side by fenland fields and little villages that charm this part of the county, amongst open-hearted honest folk (some of my family amongst them). Downing Street; a byword for treachery, intrigue, constructive deceit and low dealing in the heart of a heaving city. Can there be a route from one to the other and can it be taken in your own time? This walk sets out to achieve the walk on quiet paths.
The proposed walk, mapped below, is of 115 miles, mainly on good and easy paths, and which might take six or seven days. It passes through five counties: Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, the edge of Essex, then Middlesex. The first sections of the walk are beside the great rivers of the fens; the Great Ouse and the Cam, and the last sections by the canalised River Lee and the Thames; between, it runs through southern Cambridgeshire and eastern Hertfordshire – and of the Ouse, Cam, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire I can write with some authority. Most of it, except the Hertfordshire section, could be cycled – and if there are sections unsuited for cycling, there are roads.
We start in Downham Market, at the station, and head west at once, to the Great Ouse. Here the Great Ouse Way leads south along the paths beside the river. The Ouse has been cut about and straightened to be transformed into a mighty drain for the fenlands and is fed by numerous streams and accompanied by auxiliary drains: mostly you will be going up the east side of the river or you might find you are going down the drain (which is a common occurrence for those trying to get to Downing Street).
By Ely the Cam joins the Ouse, and you follow the Fen Rivers Way – essentially follow the Cam up. By Wicken Fen and above, the lodes start joining the river from the south-east and it can be complicated with locks, sluices and rival channels, but don’t worry: you’re five miles from anywhere; no need to hurry. Eventually care and persistence will bring you to Baits Bite Lock; cross to the east bank here if you are not already and keep going into Stourbridge Meadow and the heart of Cambridge.
From Cambridge the obvious way south would be on the Granchester Grind; the very pretty path from the city to Granchester, then a mixture of roads and paths to Royston, but I have followed the Harcamlow Way (an odd route, but that is for another time) to Royston.
From Royston, the Hertfordshire Way leads on the Bishop’s Stortford: a good, established route, though I bypassed it to go further out on ‘Herts Embraced’) and our route does not go so far but turns south when the Hertfordshire Way next encounters the Harcamlow Way, having cut a corner from the latter route. This takes you close to Ware, where the route follows the River Lea south to the edge of the county where river, canal, railway and the New River meet.
Here, look out at the forlorn remains of Rye House – here plotters gathered in the last days of King Charles II to shape by force the future government of the land, but by a misstep they failed and answered for it with their necks. ‘Treason doth never prosper, and the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.’
From Rye House one route south would be by the towpath of the Lee Navigation, but I will lead you to my old ‘Herts Embraced’ route – by the New River. It leads out to the Lea eventually, and to Cheshunt, and from Cheshunt the road to Downing Street is southward, into Middlesex and Essex along the River Lee. The River Lea path is well signposted southwards. It is a strange landscape, starting in the pretty sections of the Lea Valley Regional Park (which is in fact an industrial landscape greened over; the pretty lakes are gravel diggings), then running into the land of reservoirs lying between the heavy towns of the conurbation, leavened at least by the Hackney Marshes (not as insalubrious as they sound).
Eventually there is no escaping the town: the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, then the industrial lands of Stratford, until by Bromley-by-Bow the Lea Valley Way heads off along the Limehouse Cut to the Thames.
Along the Thames Path westward then, by the City of London and on to Westminster Bridge by the Palace of Westminster; towering, imposing, and not quite impotent. Then it is a step up Whitehall to the gates barring entrance to Downing Street itself.
- Ordnance Survey Explorer (1:25 000):
- (to follow)
- Ordnance Survey Landranger (1:25 000):
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