First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Before monks, adventurers and immigrant Dutchmen drained the fenland of East Anglia for agriculture, Ely was an island in a miasmic fen swamp. The town clings to a gentle swell of raised ground. Planted square across the summit of the hill above the surrounding flatlands, the graceful yet lopsided bulk of Ely Cathedral, the ‘Ship of the Fens’, draws the eye from ten miles off.
Seen from close up, the cathedral is a mighty essay in stonework superbly carved and finished, topped with an elaborate medieval lantern of wood, a unique and cunning replacement for the central tower that came crashing down in ruins in 1322.
Viewed from the banks of the River Great Ouse to the south, the building seems endearingly asymmetrical. On this afternoon of scorching summer heat, the towers and walls wavered as they sailed dusty seas of ripe barley.
Hops hung in the hedges, their jointed flowers not yet bloomed into that sticky, heady savour that Victorian rural writer Richard Jefferies likened to the ‘dreamy fragrance of the fabled haschish.’ The towpath alongside the slow-flowing Great Ouse had been cracked by the short, intense heatwave, and in the fields the sun-swollen barley ears hung low and full, awaiting the harvester.
We crossed the side arm of Braham Dock where the narrowboat Sun lay moored up under a limply flapping red flag. At Little Thetford half a dozen tyro rowers were roasting in their singlets, splashing and scooping the glittering water of the river under the barked instructions of their trainer. It looked a lot of effort on such a breathless afternoon, and we were glad to flop down in the shade of a willow for a drink and a nice long stare over the baking fields.
Above the barley the dark slim shape of a marsh harrier went cruising, slowly flapping its long vee of a wingspan as it searched the dusty rows for anything edible in this lean season.
In the distance a red and silver train bellowed like some fantastic beast. Dragonflies chased each other, and the tiny black silhouette of a hobby skimmed the trees on the lookout for dragonflies.
We followed the grassy track of Holt Fen Drove up to Little Thetford, and then the riverbank north again towards Ely and the high-perched Ship of the Fens as she rode the heatwave and the barley seas.
Start: Fore Hill car park, Ely CB7 4AF (OS ref TL 543801)
Getting there: Train to Ely. Bus 9 (Cambridge-Chatteris).
Road – A142 (Newmarket-Chatteris) or A10 (Cambridge-Downham Market).
Walk (9½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 226): From top right corner of car park, alley to Fore Hill. Left; ahead along High Street. At end, left along Minster Place past Ely Cathedral west end (540803). On along The Gallery. In 200m, left through monastic archway (540800). Ahead through The Park; cross Broad Street (543799); through Jubilee Gardens to river (544709). Right (south) on west bank of River Great Ouse for 3¾ miles. Pass marina at confluence with River Cam (534746); just beyond railway bridge, right across river path and follow Holt Fen Drove to road in Little Thetford (534760). Left; in 100m, right (‘Cawdle Fen Way’). Follow path beside Thetford and Grunty Fen Catchwater drains back to river at Braham Dock (540774). Left for 2¼ miles to Ely.
Short walk (4¼ miles): Little Thetford – Braham Dock – Great Ouse – Holt Fen Bridge
Lunch: Picnic by the river
Accommodation: Royal Standard, 24 Fore Hill, Ely CB7 4AF (01353-645104, theroyalstandardely.com)