Back in June, for a combination of reasons, I was away from work for a few weeks and with options for things to do still limited, we took the opportunity to explore some more of England. Whilst I will continue to travel and explore new places internationally post Covid-19, I also want to be more environmentally conscious and so have decided to start the ‘Exploring England’ category of post in which I’ll share my adventures around some of England’s stunning countryside and natural beauty!
Living near Peterborough, in the north-west of Cambridgeshire, we’re extremely fortunate in that we have a range of walks and areas of countryside near us. The Cambridgeshire Fens are at the bottom of our village and there is plenty of open green space along the Nene Valley, whilst Lincolnshire, Rutland and Northamptonshire are just a 15-minute drive away, all of which provide plentiful opportunities to explore.
The first place we explored during my time off was the nearby woods on the outskirts of the village of Holme, Cambridgeshire. A large proportion of the surrounding area, including the woods, are part of Holme Fen, a 270-hectare Site of Special Scientific Interest located at the southwestern edge of what used to be Whittlesey Mere. You can read more about the history of the mere and local fens in this fabulous blog post by the Huntingdonshire History Festival!
Due to the draining of the mere and fenland in the nineteenth century, the woods are also home to the lowest point in Great Britain (at 2.75m/9ft below sea level) which is marked by two iron posts. The right-hand post was driven into the peat in 1852 until only its tip was visible and used to monitor the subsidence of the peat with the post now rising 4 meters above the ground level. The left-hand post was added in 1957 and has markers to show the level of the ground in various years which show the astonishing changes to the level in some short periods.
The area is now part of The Great Fen project which is aiming to bring a large area of the fenlands back to their former state by supporting the wide diversity of plants and animals that are found here. They have a few marked trails around their area, including the mile long ‘The Lost Lake and other Holme Histories’ trail that we walked. Even on some of the hottest days during my time off we were able to complete this walk as 2/3rds of it is within the woodland and therefore shady. If you fancy heading to Holme Woods, they’re about a 15-minute drive from junctions 15 or 16 of the A1(M). Annoyingly, despite being just half a mile from the East Coast Mainline, they’re a bit trickier to visit if you’re coming by public transport as the nearest station is at Peterborough. From there, it’s the number 5 bus to Yaxley and then a 3-mile walk from the bottom of the village, across the fens, to the Holme Posts.
Another of our favourite Cambridgeshire walks is from the small village of Wansford, just a couple of miles from the Lincolnshire border. Our walks don’t start in the village itself, but at the former station of the Northampton and Peterborough Railway (N&PR) and now the headquarters of the Nene Valley Railway (NVR). The station served passengers for over 100 years from its opening in 1845 until closure in 1957. The heritage line opened in 1977 and operates across 7.5 miles of line between Yarwell Junction (west of Wansford) and Peterborough Nene Valley (a short walk from the city centre).
One of the advantages of our walks from Wansford is that there is a short-cut midway round, allowing you to either do a 1.5-mile loop or a longer loop that’s just under 3 miles. You start off crossing the River Nene on the railway bridge before following the railway for the first half a mile or so. After heading through a couple of fields, there is a rather overgrown footpath for a short distance before you arrive at a weir where the River Nene and River Nene Navigation diverge.
It’s at the weir where you can head straight back along the river to Wansford or continue following the Nene itself for another half a mile until a bridge at the bottom of Station Road, Ailsworth. You can either head straight over the bridge onto the island between the two branches of the Nene or head up Station Road for 200m to the site of the former Castor station. Another former station of the N&PR, this closed along with Wansford in 1957, however hasn’t reopened and pretty much nothing is evident of a station here, with just a level crossing remaining.
After crossing the bridge, you can either head to the left around the end of the island or cut straight across it to the navigable branch of the Nene and the village of Water Newton. When we first crossed the little bridge to the riverside at Water Newton, we were absolutely stunned. This tiny village is beautiful and the area by the river and lock is so peaceful and seems to be the perfect image of quintessential English countryside.
From Water Newton it’s just over a mile back to Wansford along the banks of the Nene, via the weir from earlier in the walk. Wansford station is just off the Stibbington junction of the A1 and has brown signs to the NVR. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get to Wansford by public transport, but when the NVR is up and running again, you’ll be able to get a heritage service from Peterborough, go for a walk and then head back into the city.
New Decoy Farm
Back over in the fens, to the south side of Holme Woods, and part of The Great Fen project mentioned above, is New Decoy Farm. The Great Fen project has a couple of walks from here, the 6.5 mile ‘Last of the Meres Trail’ and the 1.5 mile ‘Dragonfly Trail’ that we followed. The starting point for the Dragonfly trail is the Great Fen Information Point alongside Long Drove.
Heading south-west for a short distance before turning to the north-west and following one of the smaller droves between drainage ditches, the walk eventually leads to a small copse of woods with young Alder, Birch and Oak trees. Just as you enter the woods is a former railway crossing from where the Ramsey branch of the Great Northern Railway passed through the area. This branch was just 6 miles long and ran from Holme on the East Coast Mainline to Ramsey North station just outside the town of Ramsey. The only real evidence of the line in this area now is a cutting through the trees in the southern end of Holme Woods and small copse being named ‘Railway Covert’.
The Dragonfly Trail continues through the copse, with a small path leading down to a hide overlooking the fenland, before leading you along another of the fenland drains to New Decoy Farm. Turning south-east the path takes you along more of the fenland being restored towards Long Drove. The final half a mile of the walk brings you back between Long Drove and the fenland to the information point, providing great views of the wildlife across the open fens. Most of the Dragonfly Trail is also covered as part of the longer Last of the Meres Trail (except the 0.4 miles between the eastern edge of Railway Covert and New Decoy Farm).
As with the Holme Woods walks, public transport is slightly limited, with the best bet being a train to Peterborough, the number 31 bus to Ramsey St. Mary’s (1005, 1405 & 1730 from Peterborough bus station) and then a 2.5-mile walk to the information point. Given the ‘home-straight’ of the walk is pretty much along Long Drove, you could do a round walk from Ramsey, including the Dragonfly Trail that’s just under 6 miles, or a loop including the Last of the Meres Trail that’s just over 10 miles.
The final trail we’ve explored within Cambridgeshire is the ‘Northern Loop Trail’ which starts near Engine Farm, to the north-east of Holme. This trail is just over 2 miles and covers the northern area of The Great Fen project across some of the land recovered from Whittlesey Mere. This is a pretty flat walk and we were able to complete the full circuit in just over 45 minutes. There is something oddly beautiful about the sheer emptiness of fenland and knowing we were the only people in a couple of miles. This is another tricky one for public transport, with your best bet being the number 5 bus from Peterborough to Farcet and then you can do a loop, including the ‘Northern Loop’ which would be about 8.5 miles.
Hopefully this post has inspired you to get and about in your local area if you haven’t been already. If, once lockdown is properly over, you fancy undertaking any of the walks the easiest way is to drive, however all are within 25 minutes taxi of Peterborough station and some buses are available. Let me know if you’ve completed any of these or you have any suggestions for walks near you! You can contact me on social media or via the contact page of the blog.