First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A cloudy, blustering, boisterous day on the Cambridgeshire/Northamptonshire border. The wind roared in the trees and spat in my face as I walked out of Elton. Even in weather like this, Elton is a postcard picture of an English village with its cottages of creamy limestone packed with fossils, sturdy and enduring under heavy brows of thatch.
In the fields, dandelion clocks by the million, wrens and chaffinches loud and persistent in the willows along the broad and slow-flowing River Nene. By the river I met a flock of cheerful youngsters on a Duke of Edinburgh Award trudge, wrapped like small parcels against the wind and rain.
Low-rolling countryside like this catches plenty of weather – one moment a bright blaze of sunlight bringing skylarks out in full voice over the barley, the next a slash of rain and a burst of wind to silence the birds and turn the field paths sticky. I went on, whistling, towards Nassington’s graceful church spire. King Cnut dined and played chess at Nassington in a great wooden hall a thousand years ago. The Time Team discovered remnants of the structure in 2003, under and around the ancient stone-built manor house opposite the church.
History lies thick on this corner of the countryside. It was at Fotheringhay, a couple of miles to the south, that Mary Queen of Scots met her end in 1587 in the castle by the River Nene. Mired in Catholic plots, real or imaginary, Mary was too much of a threat to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, to be permitted to live.
I came into Fotheringhay along the Nene Way, a beautiful pathway across yellow rape fields and between hedges laden thickly with may blossom. The bare castle mound, innocent of all masonry, lay isolated in a field beyond the village’s mellow stone houses and the grand and stately church. I climbed to the top of the mound and found it thick with self-heal and scotch thistles – a poignant flora; for here in the early morning above the sinuating bends of the Nene, the pale and self-controlled Queen of the Scots knelt for the two axe blows that severed her head.
Walking back to Elton across the fields, a flash of red and white stopped me in my tracks. A magnificent red kite hung in the wind on elbow-crooked wings as it searched the barley for prey, utterly indifferent to my existence – a lordly presence above the rain-pearled land.
Start: Elton, Cambs, PE8 6RQ (OS ref TL 086940)
Getting there: Bus service 24 (Oundle-Peterborough)
Road: Elton is signed off A605 (Oundle-Peterborough). Park (neatly!) on village green.
Walk (8½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 227): From village green walk north up Duck Street passing Crown Inn on your right (pavement along road). In 450m, fork right on left bend (086945; Yarwell Mill, Sibson’). Follow this track north for 1 and a half miles; then left (081968) for 700m to meet Nene Way (076969). Left to meet Fotheringay Road in Nassington (068961).
Right to pass Black Horse Inn; left along Nassington village street. Opposite church, and just short of Nassington Manor, left (064961, fingerpost) down path and on over field. In 400m, right along Nene Way/NW (065958). Follow NW (BLAs) for 4 miles via Model Cottages (052937), Falcon Inn (059933) and castle mound (062930) at Fotheringhay, and mill at Eaglethorpe (074916) to go under A605 and on to road at Eaglethorpe sign (076915). Left round right bend; in 100m, left (fingerpost) through kissing gate/KG; right over stile; left between fence and polytunnels. In 300m, left through KG to cross A605 (077918 – please take care!).
Right; in 50m, left through KG; then another. Right up slope; in 50m, left through KG (079919). Follow path north for 1⅓ miles, past quarry heaps, then across Elton Park (occasional BLA) to road in Elton (085939). Left to reach village centre.
Accommodation: Crown Inn, Elton (01832-280232, thecrowninn.org)