Fen Rivers Way Walk, Part 1

by Sunita

We skipped Thanksgiving this year in favor of another walking holiday. We didn’t have much time, because the semester is not yet over (*cries*) but we were able to put together a week and go to England. Given it was late November and therefore likely to be cold, rainy, and dark, we looked for a path that would be doable under a variety of conditions. We settled on the Fen Rivers Way, which runs from Cambridge to King’s Lynn along the Cam and Great Ouse rivers.

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in Cambridge (TheH has lived in or near there for stretches of time since he was a teenager), and we’ve visited Ely and its magnificent cathedral, as well as surrounding villages. And we’ve even walked part of the river path from Cambridge. But we’d never been to King’s Lynn or that corner of Norfolk. It is very flat, but the Fens are beautiful in their own way. Efforts to drain the Fens and make them agriculturally productive began in the 17th century and there are some impressive feats of engineering. In addition, people live in narrowboats along the rivers, so you have that culture as well. It can be very windy, but that part of southeast England gets less rain than a lot of the country, so we decided to chance it.

The path itself is 48-50 miles, and we allotted three days. These would be longer days mileage-wise than we averaged in Wales, but with no elevation and slightly lighter packs, we thought we could manage it. The main constraint was going to be the light: there would only be about 7 1/2 hours of sun a day at this time of year, and sunset would come by 4pm. The temperature was forecast to be in the 40s, with low 50s a couple of days, and the rain was supposed to be intermittent and rarely heavy (unlike the Midlands and the North, where there had been significant rain and flooding the week before).

I consulted my Wales packing list as well as the #onebag post I did here after the trip and adjusted accordingly. I cut back on underwear and socks and ditched the separate camera (TheH took the Olympus but with a smaller lens). I kept more or less the same number of tops but with long sleeved merinos, and I substituted a heavier merino hoodie. I packed a grid fleece, which is lighter and more compressible than the one I took to Wales, and I added my convertible stole to wear as a scarf or poncho. After some deliberation I kept my merino skirt and leggings combination, and I’m really glad I did because they were great for evenings. I added a second pair of leggings to wear as pajama bottoms and as an extra layer under the same hiking pants I wore in the summer. I swapped a down sweater for the down vest and kept the thin rainshell, as well as the Buff, and I added a warm beanie and lightweight gloves. Oh, and we got taller gaiters. Overall, my pack was slightly lighter but not as much as I’d hoped. Warmer clothing weighs more. But at least it was a couple of pounds lighter!

We took the National Express bus connection to Cambridge and got there at lunchtime. It was cool and drizzling, and the winter festival was set up on Parker’s Piece. We went to Heffers bookstore and spent much time deciding how many Ordnance Survey maps to buy. In the end we only bought one, for the second day’s walk. We were pretty sure Cambridge to Ely was not complicated, and the third day from Downham Market to King’s Lynn is a straight shot on the river.

We started out at 8:40 am, which was about the earliest we could leave given when breakfast was served. We made our way through Cambridge, across Midsummer Common and over to the path along the Cam. It was Saturday morning and there were a ton of people sculling on the river, some with their coaches bicycling alongside on the path. This is a very well traveled and maintained path, especially the first six miles from Cambridge to Waterbeach. In addition to humans, we saw many swans.

I had hoped we would see varied birdlife even though it was winter, and we weren’t disappointed. There were ducks, geese, swans, and herons on this first day. Mostly swans, believe it or not. I had forgotten about the prohibitions against hunting swans, or that all unmarked swans are technically the property of the Queen. Mute swans (the species that is found here) are large and very impressive. We saw mostly pairs but also a few groups with younger members:

After Waterbeach we hit the cow fields. We weren’t wearing our gaiters, which was a mistake we didn’t repeat the following two days. Cows make for very muddy fields. They were mostly uninterested in us, but the terrain became extremely muddy and uneven, and our pace slowed down considerably.

And there was nowhere to sit on the path; there was a pub at Waterbeach but that was earlier than we wanted to stop, and then we were basically walking atop the bank of the Cam until we hit the confluence of the Cam and the Great Ouse.

In compensation, though, we were eventually rewarded with the famous view of Ely Cathedral, “the ship of the Fens,” rising up and becoming visible about five miles from Ely.

It really is a spectacular view, even on a gray, cloudy day, and it sustained us as we covered the last leg. We made it to the road to the train station by about 3pm.

We hadn’t been able to find lodgings in Ely for the night, so we’d booked a room in an inn in Littleport, about five miles up the path. It was too dark to walk it (and after 17+ miles our feet were not interested), and we missed the once-an-hour train, so we splurged and took a taxi to the inn. Our driver was mystified by our decision to walk and reminded us that there were both trains and buses between Cambridge and Ely. But the innkeepers were more sympathetic, perhaps because one of them lives on a narrowboat herself.

We had a lovely meal and a comfortable room and were lights out before 9:30.