December 2021 walks

Into our second year of regular weekly walks. As the month starts, talk of the new Omicron virus variant is darkening the horizon, but the footpaths, lanes, and pubs of Cambridgeshire are still open for business. And we were able to get to Northern Ireland for Christmas, where we did a little urban walking.

3 Dec – Kingfishers Bridge Nature Reserve – Barway – rivers loop

6.0 miles. From Kingfishers Bridge Nature Reserve via Sheepwalk Drove and Padway Drove to Barway, returning along the rivers Great Ouse and Cam.

The Kingfishers Bridge Nature Reserve sits on the river Cam between Stretham and Wicken – 250 acres of wetland habitat with a mission to protect endangered species of the Fens and also, less obviously, a herd of Asian Water buffalo. We started by leaving the reserve through its front gate and picking up Sheepwalk Drove, a grass and later concrete track that cuts across fields to the road at Padway Drove. After a little over a mile this quiet lane turns briefly into a bridleway before swinging across the Soham Lode. We took the path along the Lode, skirting to the south of Barway village. A good view across the Fens to Ely cathedral opens up before the path reaches the Great Ouse.

We then returned along the riverbank to the Nature Reserve. For a short stretch we were walking on the opposite bank of the river to our Ely-to-Little Thetford route back in March. About halfway along the river, we reached the point where the Great Ouse and Cam meet, at the Fish and Duck Marina. I’d not previously been here (although we did come close when we walked out from Chittering in July) and I’d always been a bit confused about the geography of the Cam’s disappearance between Cambridge and Ely – now it’s all clear.

Another source of confusion was the proliferation of empty shellfish shells along the path. Our best guess is that the local birdlife had been busy with some source of freshwater mussels – although neither of us knows anything about whether, where, or how such creatures grow locally.

We finished by re-entering the Nature Reserve by its rear gate and walking through it, past some of the birdlife (a circling heron) and the buffalo, before a short drive to Wicken for a good lunch in the Maid’s Head.

17 Dec – Horningsea – Clayhithe – Bait’s Bite Lock

4.6 miles. Horningsea to Clayhithe by public footpaths, south along the river Cam to Bait’s Bite Lock, footpath back to Horningsea.

We kept it relatively short and local today, as we had a family vaccine booster appointment to keep – part of the belated drive against the Omicron Covid variant, the threat of which is now hanging gloomily over the country, like today’s Cambridgeshire fog. It was good to leave that all behind for a bit and get out in the fresh air. If the views were a little restricted, the fog made it pleasingly atmospheric, like the opening scene of a murder mystery TV episode.

Atmospheric. Boats in the fog at Horningsea.

We were on familiar territory – particularly the riverside stretch along the Cam from Clayhithe near Waterbeach to Bait’s Bite Lock near Milton. This has been a favoured family walk for many years, and rightly so – it’s a very pleasant stretch of river. But we’d never previously made it into a loop. We did so on this occasion by starting on the other side of the river, at Horningsea, and following the public footpaths that are set back in the fields, first to the left, then to the right of the Clayhithe Road, until we reached the Clayhithe bridge. Crossing allowed us to join our usual route along the river for a couple of miles to Bait’s Bite Lock, where we re-crossed and took the footpath back to Horningsea. On another day we might have considered lunch or a drink at the excellent Crown and Punchbowl, but today we had appointments to keep and Christmas preparation to do.

A good solid walk – with more time, it could be extended staying on the path to join the river further up than Clayhithe. We’ll be back.

27 Dec – Belfast riverside and city walk

5 miles. From the Titanic quarter along the Lagan towpath to the Botanic gardens and back via Botanic Avenue and the city.

Our local walks project is on hold because we’ve made the long drive to Northern Ireland for Christmas. So here is another in our occasional series of walks from further afield. If Boxing Day is the traditional post-Christmas walking day, then today must be the traditional day for the walk that you didn’t get around to on Boxing Day. So, taking advantage of a break in the constant rain, we stirred ourselves to make the short trip into Belfast. This was a proper family walk – we we were joined by Ella, Martha, and Grandad Robert.

We parked where the River Lagan flows into the port of Belfast and out into Belfast Lough, beside what was originally the Odyssey Arena, currently named for its latest sponsor, one of the centrepieces of the regeneration of the old docks area. We looked along the river towards the sea, taking in the impressive profile of another such attraction, the Titanic Centre, before crossing the Lagan via the footbridge and turning inland. We followed the well-kept towpath for a couple of miles, as far as the Botanic gardens. Architecturally, there’s not much to inspire, from the well-meaning but generic architecture of the hotels and civic amenities around the Waterfront Hall, past offices and insipid apartment blocks, to the back of the terraced streets in the area known as the Holy Land (due to street names such as Jerusalem Street and Palestine Street). But the walk still gives an interesting perspective on the city and is pleasant-enough walking, as the river widens and the green space of Ormeau Park appears on the opposite bank.

It’s then an attractive stroll up through the Botanic Gardens area to the Ulster Museum and the impressive frontage of Queen’s University – always a sentimental spot for me, as my parents met here. We stopped at a street stall for coffee and hot chocolates, glad in this time of the Omicron variant to be able to pick up refreshments in the fresh air. We walked back through the city – the smarter area around the University becoming shabbier as we proceeded down Botanic Avenue, before we were into city centre office blocks, hotels, and retail, punctuated by the Edwardian splendour of Belfast City Hall.

We’re currently 4 seasons into watching the Line of Duty TV series, so the Invest NI Building on Bedford Street was another landmark, since this passes itself off as the headquarters of the AC-12 anti-corruption unit in the program, much of which is filmed around here.

This makes for a varied all-weather, urban walk, with plenty of points-of-interest and opportunities for diversion or refreshment (particularly when we are again more comfortable with joining crowds indoors). So, given our regular N Ireland visits, we will no doubt be back for some variant of this.