January 2022 walks

Happy New Year. Hopefully this year, we will finish our project to complete 52 different local-ish circular walks (one for each week of the year). Our first walk this month will be our 38th.

14 Jan – Ely – Little Downham – Chettisham

7.8 miles. A shorter version of walk 27 in Cambridgeshire Circular Walks. Out of Ely on West Fen Road, following Hurst Lane to Little Downham then cross country to Chettisham and back into Ely via Lynn Road, footpaths and High Barns.

We didn’t want to take on the full 10.5 miles of this route in the Cambridgeshire walks book, so constructed a shorter version based on the western half of the loop. We set out from Ely on a beautiful, sunny morning, but with the temperature barely above freezing. This ended up helping us, since stretches of the route were on grass tracks that were turning muddy and water-logged. An added coating of ice actually made them more passable.

After crossing the busy A10, it becomes an agreeable walk along the grass drove of Hurst Lane to Little Downham. The village is an island in the Fen, with a rather neat, well-kept main street, and an attractive church in St Leonard’s. Having found quite a few churches locked on these walks, and the rest unoccupied, it was nice to find one where they were preparing for a service. I think they were a little disappointed that we weren’t actually joining them, but we had a warm welcome while we looked around, noting particularly the ancient carved frieze of human and animal heads around the front door and the massive painted George III coat of arms on the back wall.

St Leonard’s, Little Downham

We headed out of the village on the Ely road, past a marvellous conversion connecting an old windmill to a new house, before cutting off on more grass tracks and eventually back across the A10 at Chettisham. There, we found the 13th century chapel of St Michael and All Angels locked, but sat for a coffee in the sun on a bench in its peaceful churchyard. Here we left the route as given in the book, and headed back to Ely along Lynn Road.

After a few hundred yards, we cut off the road on what was marked as a public footpath. The path turned out to be barely visible (rendering the sign asking you to stick to the marked footpath a little laughable) and it soon crossed a ploughed field and became a complete mudbath. We emerged on the other side with feet caked in mud. If repeating this walk, it is probably best to just stay on Lynn Road into Ely – this is evidently one of those paths that the landowner does not want used.

We walked off the mud on an easy (if unremarkable) final mile through the north of Ely town, with the cathedral soon looming into view, and finished with a late lunch in the Prince Albert pub. This is a good walk, though maybe to be avoided in winter if it has been wet. We will probably come back for the other half of the walk in the book.

21 Jan – Sawtry – Steeple Gidding – Little Gidding

7.2 miles. Walk 21 in Cambridgeshire Circular Walks. From Sawtry, leaving from the end of St Judith’s Lane, cross-country loop via Steeple Gidding and Little Gidding.

To Sawtry on a dull, chilly winter’s day. Very similar to November’s walk at Stilton, this is another village perched just off the A1(M) motorway and another walk that climbs quickly away from the limited appeal of the village into the low-rolling landscape to the west, with views back over the edge of the Fens. On a still morning, it took quite a while to really shake off the loud motorway hum. And, like last week, mud clung to our boots, weighing us down, including on another short stretch through the middle of a ploughed field.

Having said that, this is actually not bad as a winter walk. In this better-drained landscape, while the mud was sticky, there were no places where the paths threatened to turn to the unpassable quagmire found on some of the Fen routes. The route is well-described in the book and the paths are generally good and well way-marked (we were temporarily thrown by a missing marker at the turn to Grange Farm).

The route soon drops and climbs again through Aversley Wood – an ancient oak woodland, crossed by broad grass tracks and well maintained by the Woodlands Trust. I imagine this is even more worthy of a visit when the spring flowers are out. We then crossed open farmland to Steeple Gidding, with its abandoned church and vanished village, and on to Little Gidding, the focal point of this walk.

Here, in the early 17th Century, Nicholas Ferrar set up what became a well-known spiritual community, restoring the abandoned chapel. The tradition of prayer and reflection continues to this day with the Ferrar House retreat centre. The place is strongly associated with T.S.Eliot, who visited in 1936 and subsequently wrote the poem Little Gidding as the fourth of his quartet poems.

Chapel at Little Gidding
Interior of chapel

You can certainly find something of the peace and space that Eliot found here in the wood-panelled chapel and its grounds, with quiet views over the fields beyond.

There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

Whether this really is the place nearest to the world’s end in England is perhaps debatable, not least because today you can still just about hear that motorway, but it is worth a visit and it was a good place to sit, drink our mid-walk coffee, and think a bit. After that, we headed back across country to Sawtry. It has a pretty limited offer for hungry / thirsty lunchtime walkers, so we headed a few miles down the road and found a very nice sandwich and beer at the White Hart in Alconbury.

We were happy to have ticked off another walk on our big circular walks project – but perhaps we should be reflecting, with Eliot, on the meaning of all this tramping around.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

28 Jan – Comberton – Hardwick – Toft

7.3 miles following a route published on the Great Shelford village website here, which in turn acknowledges a sponsored walk for Alzheimers Research UK as its original source. A loop from Comberton encompassing Hardwick village, Hardwick wood, and Toft.

This was a very decent country walk between these three villages to the west of Cambridge on a fresh, pleasant morning, with the sun breaking through towards the end. The waymarking is clear and the paths are in good nick, except for the section alongside Hardwick wood: it might actually work out better to avoid this in winter by diverting through the wood itself (although we did not test this theory!).

The route starts by leaving Comberton along Green End lane and then joining the public footpath which climbs gently between hedges all the way to Hardwick. It emerges opposite the Blue Lion pub, of which more later. We walked south through the village, taking the path off to the right just as the village ends, crossing open countryside until, just short of Caldecote village, we turned down what became that muddy woodside track.

Beyond the wood, the path drops across fields to Toft, with a view towards the radio telescopes at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. At Toft, we departed slightly from the published directions linked above to walk down the village main street. We visited the tidy church of St Andrews before following the footpath back to Comberton. It crosses the Meridian Golf Course, a reminder that this route took us from the eastern to the western hemisphere, and back.

We elected to hop into the car and head back to the Blue Lion for a post-walk lunch. We may well do this walk again and, as the pub is on the route, it might be a good option to start and finish there.