A Walk from Ely to Cambridge along the Great Ouse and Cam
One of the most enjoyable long walks I've done recently is from Ely to Cambridge along the banks of the Great Ouse and the Cam, then on to Cambridge station returning by train. The path is well maintained, mowed when the grass is growing and has no awkward obstacles to obstruct you. Almost all the way is far from roads and traffic, it's flat, easily navigable and has numerous interesting things to see on the way. All in all, strongly recommended for someone who enjoys a good walk of some twenty miles or so. Below are some directions, photos taken on the way and timings given for my reasonably brisk walking speed of four miles per hour. Click on any of the photos to have them open full-size in a new browser window. This walk was done on a grey and overcast but warm day (early September, 2011).
The walk starts on the Great Ouse where it's crossed by the A142 about 300 yards south east of Ely Station. Although you may be able to walk along both sides of the river, I choose the left flood bank and have never tried the other. The path is well paved at this point and is signposted as you can see in the photo, claiming that it's 16 miles to Cambridge. I suspect that's slightly optimistic and probably refers to the outskirts of Cambridge. Cambridge station is some two or three miles further and my best estimate is that you will have covered between nineteen and twenty miles by the time you get there.
The signpost and start of the path is just past the river bridge, away from the railway station. Most of the route is along the top of the flood bank, giving excellent views of the surrounding countryside and the waterfowl inhabiting the river just to your right.
It's particularly easy walking at this point and you occasionally bump into the odd soul walking up towards Ely in the first two or three miles, after which, in my experience you, are on your own for most of the route until you approach Cambridge where runners and walkers start to appear again.
The route follows the cycle path for a while, passing a curious piece of sculpture, then half an hour into the walk the cycle track diverges to the left at Soham Lode pumping station. Either the poor cyclists get a raw deal, or the signpost is in kilometres - 22 miles seems excessive. I don't follow the cycle track, keeping right, in front of the pumping station, along the top of the floodbank and following the river.
After some 50 minutes, the Ouse splits into the Cam and a tributary to St Ives, with a marina on the far bank. The path to Cambridge continues along the Cam and is signposted 12 miles to Cambridge if you take the trouble to walk down to the sign to read it where it faces the river. The bank continues to keep you high above the water as you head south. On the day I took the pictures, some cattle were grazing nearby on offcuts from the celery harvest.
The path gradually diverges from the river bank after this and at some points is a few hundred yards from the river as you walk through an avenue of willow on the right and birch trees to your left, followed by a tunnel through shrubs, remaining clear and easy to pass. At the end of the shrubby avenue is a T-junction - when in doubt head back to the river and the signpost reinforces this as you follow the Fen Rivers Way, about an hour and a quarter from the start. Ten minutes further takes you to one of the few road crossings straight across the Stretham-Wicken road.
The bridleway carries you in splendid isolation away from the road and on towards Upware, usually completely alone, hearing only the birdsong and sounds of startled pigeons crashing out of the bushes as you pass them. The bridleway comes to an abrupt stop and you might feel tempted to follow the tractor tracks round to the left, but in fact the path turns right and along the edge of the large field in front of you. Following the path past this field and through another, you emerge onto a minor road in Upware: turn right here and after a few dozen yards you reach the Fives Miles from Anywhere inn, one and three quarter hours into the journey, Ely being signposted as seven and a half miles. This may be a useful spot to stop and refresh yourself if you feel the need.
At the inn, the Cam turns away from you and there appears to be no crossing. Turn left for 100 yards, then right onto the road, cross Reach Lode which has forced you left and then 400 yards later rejoin the floodbank where a sign tells you that it's 4 miles to Clayhithe and 10 to Cambridge.
An hour-long stretch takes you past marinas and the occasional building, when eventually the sight of Bottisham lock gives early warning of your forthcoming arrival at Clayhithe. As you near Clayhithe you pass residential moorings, a boat club and then the road bridge at Clayhithe comes into view almost exactly on the three hour mark. On your right just over the road bridge is a handy refreshment stop and if your legs are giving way, some three hundred yards further up the road is Waterbeach station where you can get a return train to Ely.
At Clayhithe you turn right over the bridge to cross the Cam and continue your journey along the towpath, signposted six miles to Cambridge. Two miles further on is Baits Bite lock at three and half hours after departure and your heart leaps as you find that Cambridge is now not four miles away but two. Some piece of curious geographic magic seems to have swallowed two miles of the six from Clayhithe.
The towpath runs all the way into Cambridge, crossing under the noisy A14, then the railway bridge at a little under four hours into the walk. Eventually the towpath gives way and you briefly walk along the road, past the scruffy Penny Ferry Pub, then after about 400 yards re-crossing the Cam on a footbridge opposite the Green Dragon pub, where a signpost tells you that you are 16 miles from Ely. From here it's signposted all the way (2-3 miles) to Cambridge railway station, which I usually reach in somewhere between five and five and a half hours of walking. The single ticket back to Ely makes me wince at the outrageous price.