This is a long and essentially flat stroll heading south across the Fens. It crosses the Welney Washes before following the floodbank of the New Bedford River southwestwards. The rest of the day is spent following tracks southwards, reaching the pretty little village of Little Downham and continuing on towards the spectacular Ely Cathedral, nestled at the top of the small city.
It should be noted that the Welney Washes are sometimes flooded in the winter. If they are then that stretch will be impassable on foot, and you will need to get a lift via the Mepal Bridge a long way to the southwest. It may be best avoiding doing this stretch if the A1101 is flooded - the Welney Website contains some useful information.
3 hours 42 minutes
Map of the leg
Maps courtesy of Google Maps. Route for indicative purposes only, and may have been plotted after the walk. Please let me have comments on what you think of this new format.
This leg starts off at the Lamb and Flag Inn in Welney at TL527937.
Follow the A1101 southwards from the pub, following it as it immediately climbs up to cross the Old Bedford River and then the River Delph on two bridges. Immediately after crossing the River Delph the road descends to reach the Welney Washes. This next stretch of path may be closed by floodwater after periods of wet weather, and care needs to be taken. If the barriers are erected across the road then do not attempt to continue further.
The road twists and turns for two-thirds of a mile southeastwards across the washes. The road is busy and the verge is narrow, so care needs to be taken on this stretch. Eventually the road reaches the New Bedford River at the misnamed Suspension Bridge. Cross the bridge to reach the eastern river bank, and on the other side follow the road as it curves sharply to the right to head southwestwards. The road can be busy and it is far better to follow the top of the bank on the right.
When the A1101 curves sharply to the left after a mile continue straight on along the B1141 road or the bank for another 1.8 miles until a drain called Engine Basin. Just before a large white building containing an old pumping station is reached at the basin (TL507891), turn left along a rough track. This crosses a ditch into another field and continues on with the drain to the right.
Follow the drain southeastwards for half a mile until a narrow footbridge over a stream is reached; cross this to reach a surfaced track beside Headfen Farm. Turn right along the track, immediately crossing the drain on a bridge before continuing southwards for a quarter of a mile to reach at a T-junction with another road at TL513881. Cross this and turn half-left to head south-southeastwards along a rough track called 'A Furlong Drove'. Follow this for 1.4 miles; it crosses a level crossing over the Ely to March railway line before ending at a road at TL520860.
Turn right to head west along this road for 250 yards; immediately after crossing the Thirty Foot Drain at Dunkirk Bridge turn left and follow a footpath with the Thirty Foot Drain on the left. At the end of the first field turn right for a short distance to reach a green metal footbridge over another ditch. Cross this and continue straight on along a footpath that runs across a field.
The footpath crosses another drain and becomes a rough path that heads southwards. In places it passes between two hedges and at others through scrubland, before passing the end of a ditch on the left to enter a field. Continue on with a ditch on the right until it squeezes through a gap in a hedge to reach another grassy field. Turn half-left across the field towards the left-hand hedge; about halfway down this a gap between two concrete posts grants access to the recreation ground on the other side. Continue straight on across this to reach the surfaced car park and the access road to leave the recreation ground.
Do not join the lane outside the car park and instead turn right along a grassy footpath that runs between hedges. The path becomes concrete as it continues west-southwestwards; after a fifth of a mile it curves to the left to end at a bend in Eagle's Lane. Continue straight on along this to head south-southeastwards for a couple of hundred yards until it ends at a T-junction with the B1411 road in Little Downham at TL522838.
Turn left along the B1411 for a few yards and then almost immediately to the right to head down Chapel Lane, which soon ends at a T-junction with Cannon Street. Cross this and continue on down Hurst Lane, which passes Little Downham Nature Reserve on the right. After 0.4 miles the track curves to the left, passing The Paddocks on the right and passes through some metal gates.
Here it becomes a green lane that heads southwards; it is easy to follow if you just stay on the main track. Eventually the track passes Hurst Farm on the right before ending at West Fen Road. Turn left and follow this road southeastwards for about fifty yards until it reaches the A10 at TL528809.
Carefully cross the A10 and continue on along West Fen Road for two-thirds of a mile as it approaches the centre of Ely. When West Fen Road ends at a T-junction with Downham Road, turn right to continue along West Fen Road for another 50 yards until it ends at another T-junction with St Mary's Street. Turn left and follow St Mary's Street as it curves to the right; when the Lamb Hotel is ahead, turn right into Minster Place and then immediately left down the High Street, with the cathedral behind buildings to the right. Continue on until the Market Place is reached on the left at TL452803.
Places of interest
Welney, the Washes and the Bedford Rivers
Three massive rivers cut for twenty miles through the Fens from Earith in the southwest to Denver in the northeast. These are the Old Bedford River and the River Delph to the north, and the New Bedford River to the south. Work on the Old Bedford River started in 1630, and the massive channel granted the waters of the Great Ouse a much more direct route to the sea.
Twenty years later Cornelius Vermuyden built the New Bedford River, which runs about half a mile to the south and parallel to the old river. Unlike the old river the New Bedford River is tidal, and it is strange to see water flowing the 'wrong' way (i.e. inland) so far from the sea. The land between the rivers is low-lying and can be used to store flood waters after periods of heavy rain. Because of this it became known as the Welney Washes.
A third river, the Delph, runs parallel to the Old River for most of the way. This is used to help drain the washes after periods of flooding, and is much less regarded than the Bedford rivers.
Certain unfarmed areas of the washes are a haven for birdlife, and the ornithology Mecca of Welney Wetland Centre sits on the washes just to the north of the Hereward Way.
location UID #285
Little Downham is a small village situated a couple of miles to the northwest of Ely. It sits on the same island of high ground as Ely, and the two settlements must have had a coincident history. Whilst Ely has turned into a beautiful Cathedral city, Little Downham has remained a small village. Fortunately it is relatively unspoilt with a main street of pretty houses, many of which have been whitewashed.
location UID #286
Ely is a small city, scarcely larger than a town, built on a hill that rises up from the surrounding flat Fenland. In historic times this land was flooded, meaning the city was an island rising out of the surrounding marshes. Its remote and inaccessible location was ideal for early monks, and an abbey was built on the hill in the 7th Century.
The modern city is dominated by the infamous cathedral, whose position on the top of the hill grants it the name 'the Ship of the Fens'. The rest of the town is also pleasant, with shops that have been tastefully incorporated into the historic buildings.
Water still dominates the lower reaches of the city, with the Great Ouse flowing northwards towards its outfall into the Wash. A particularly pleasant riverside walk can be made along the western bank of the river.
location UID #287
Ely and the Lord Protector
Ely's most famous son is undoubtedly Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Born in nearby Huntingdon in 1599, he became an MP in 1628 and then a local tax collector in Ely in 1636. When the Civil War broke out in 1642 he recruited local troops for the parliamentary cause. Over the ensuing years and battles he grew in stature amongst the parliamentarians until he became the Lord Protector four years after King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. When he died in 1658 his son, Richard, was made Lord Protector, a decision that only lasted a year before the monarchy was restored in the form of King Charles I's son, Charles II. In an example of bitter retribution, in 1661 Charles II had Cromwell's body exhumed and posthumously executed.
Cromwell's home in the city is now the local tourist information office, and also houses a rather good museum about his life. The best that can be said about Cromwell is that he is a controversial figure; he is hated by the Irish for his actions in his Irish Campaign, and he will always be known as the man who removed the monarchy, only to have it come back later.
location UID #288
Ely Cathedral has to be one of Britain's most spectacularly-sited cathedrals. Sitting on the top of an island that rises out of the surrounding Fens, it is visible for miles around and is known as the 'Ship of the Fens' because of the way the towers appear like masts sticking up from the body, or hull, of the cathedral.
An abbey was first founded on the island by Etheldreda, a Saxon Princess whose first husband granted her land in what is now Ely. After her first husband died, she married Egfrith, who later became the King of Northumbria. A deeply religious woman she founded a double monastery (i.e. that supported both monks and nuns) in 673 AD, much to the chagrin of her husband.
It is believed that the abbey was destroyed by a Danish invasion in the 9th Century, but a new Benedictine monastery was founded in 970. These buildings were slowly demolished as the current ones were built, with work starting in 1083. The complex became classified as a cathedral in 1109.
The cathedral is topped by a unique wooden lantern that is an engineering masterpiece; guided tours are often given of the lantern. The free-standing Lady Chapel is a superb piece of architecture, and is perhaps my favourite part of the cathedral; it is not as grand as the nave, but its reduced size just brings the superb stone and wordwork closer to the viewer. Much of the cathedral is built in Gothic and Romanesque styles, although the exterior is marred by large abutments where the northwest transept collapsed in Medieval times.
Because of its location, the cathedral has fitted rather well into the town that grew up around it. The town owes its existence to the cathedral, and bows to it to this day.
location UID #289
Ely has good links by both bus and train; however Welney has few bus services. Traveline East Anglia can give you details of these.