I have been planning this route for some while – the idea being to walk over to Wimpole Hall using footpaths as much as possible; have a break and some lunch at the restaurant, walking back a different route, again the challenge being to stay off-road. The route described below is easy to follow on the OS Explorer Map 209.
I set off from Shepreth on Sunday 15 April at 9.30 in the morning, reaching Wimpole by 11.45. I resumed the walk at 12.30 and got back to Shepreth by 3.30, stopping a while in Barrington to take cover from a hailstorm. The total distance was about 13 miles. For refreshments (and public toilets) there is Wimpole and also the shop on the green in Barrington and the recently opened tea shop in Shepreth (Teacake), which has a small courtyard garden, and is open Wednesday to Sunday. There is a regular train service to Shepreth Station from Cambridge, Royston and King’s Cross. If arriving by car you can park in the village hall car park and join the route by walking along Meldreth road towards the other railway crossing.
Shepreth to Wimpole:
Just before the railway crossing towards Meldreth is a delightful compact garden within the bounds of the original gatekeepers cottage. There is a sign welcoming plant lovers. Following the road out of the village for about a furlong (220 yds), you pass through the gate on the left into the L Moor:
and walk on parallel to the road. This is a pleasant piece of open ground maintained by the Cambridge Wildlife Trust. There were coprolite diggings here in the 19th century. You return to the road at the last gate and proceed into Meldreth, taking care of the traffic, eventually joining the footpath on the left.
There is an interesting mix of building styles along this stretch of the road, with the Maltings Studios on the right and several modern houses built to a high specification on the left. Interspersed with these are classic timber-frame thatched cottages and some fine Victorian villas set back from the road. An interesting feature of this village is that until enclosure in 1820 it was made up of six or more separate hamlets which have since merged along the two mile road which winds through the modern village.
Just as the road bears sharply to the left you cross over to the right down a short drive. Follow the footpath sign, pointing left, which takes a you across a meadow and over the river Melde:
which rises at Springs in Melbourn and flows down to the Rhee. The path runs along the back of the village church, which is unusual in being one of the few listed in the Cambridgeshire Domesday. In Saxon times it served as a ‘minster’ for the surrounding parishes.
Following the path round by the side of the the church you rejoin the road over a style and turn right for a short while before forking right along a singposted path to Whaddon. This takes you along an enclosed wooded path eventually leading out on to open fields. Turn right here and then after a short distance left across the fields towards the Eternit factory site. Out here in the open fields you get a strong sense of the low lying nature of the land in the middle of the valley, which is really a broad shallow basin which low chalk hills on either side. The Rape is just coming into flower:
Upon reaching the Eternit factory perimeter fence turn left on a path which takes you to the road, where you turn right towards Whaddon. The next stage is the only significant bit of road walking in the whole route. As you walk past the factory make sure to look for the circular stone symbol above the brick arch, depicting a male figure holding a globe on his shoulders; identifying the Atlas Stone Company, the forerunner of the modern Marley Eternit site:
Atlas Stone specialised in cement products using limestone extracted from local quarries. In it’s heyday a freight railway ran from the site to Meldreth station. At one time there were short branch lines for local freight leading to all the small village stations between Royston and Cambridge. (Integrated transport policy or what!)
Walking on along the road across the parish boundary into Whaddon, the long straight road eventually curves sharply to the right. Here you continue straight on, across the Green to the far side of the village. The ‘Great Green,’ as it was known, is a very large area of common land dating back to Saxon times, which extended over the parish boundary into Meldreth. Village settlement developed around three sides of the green with some encroachment by the Church and manor house and latterly a short golf course.
Eventually you come through a gate and bear right, bringing you out onto the public road. Turn right again back into the village, passing the small village hall and recreation ground. As the road turns sharply right uphill towards the elevated church, continue forward on the bridlepath, sign-posted to Ermine Street.
This track, forming part of Harcamlow Way, brings you to the South Avenue of the Wimpole estate. Turn right and follow the path along the right hand side of the Avenue towards Wimpole Hall, which you can make out in the distance. I have an ambivalent attitude to these large stately homes. As I walk along, the initial thought strikes me that landscaping a long avenue to create a view from the House seems a foolish and grandiose gesture, made simply because the owners had the means to do it. On the other hand the estate is an important record of the work and skill of the craftsmen and women, gardeners and servants who created and maintained the buildings, gardens and parkland without which the estate would not have existed. And of course the Avenue is now open to the public and provides a fine grassy approach to the Hall:
The Great South Avenue is over two miles long and was already in existence in 1721 when the landscape gardener, Charles Bridgeman, at the behest of the then owner Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, designed and built the Octagon, an unrevetted water filled basin of that shape, 500 feet across, as a feature of the Avenue. During the digging out of the basin human remains and iron fragments were found, not far from a later discovered 6th century cemetary.
Just before the Octagon, which is now more of a circular reed-filled pond, cross over the electrified fence using the low metal safety steps and continue over the bridge, which crosses the river Rhee. At this point in its journey it is an insignificant stream. Built in 1744, the bridge is constructed of brick with one large and two small arches.
The Avenue is crossed by the A603, a Roman road, leading west from Cambridge – known to 19th century antiquarians as Akeman Street. The A603 crosses another Roman road, Ermine Street at the Arrington roundabout. There are stiles giving access out of and then back into the Avenue on the far side of the A603. A further 15 minutes pleasant walking brings you to the Hall. It is lambing season and the thick grassland is alive with the sound of bleating sheep.
The Rectory restuarant is an ideal spot for some lunch. I spent about 45 minutes here writing up my notes of the walk whilst eating (a large sausage roll, cheese scone and pot of tea did it for me) and then had a look around the plant shop and second hand bookstore in the stable block before heading home.
Wimpole to Shepreth:
Take the track past the main car park, leading back to the public road. At the junction cross over and pass through the gate leading onto Victoria Drive, which winds its way through Cobb’s wood back to the A603. Proceed in to Orwell village, (called ‘Orueuuelle’ in Domesday, after the spring which rises here) which is very pleasant with an interesting mix of vernacular building styles. Orwell is one of only two larger village settlements on the west side of the river, (Barrington is the other). It lies along the base of a chalk ridge, into which a large clunch pit has been dug over many centuries for local building material. See my article on the Clunch pits of South Cambs.
The church stands on a fine elevated site:
Although it is now late in the walk it is worth the effort to climb the short steep path just after the church, leading up onto the hillside. The grass is kept cropped by grazing sheep. Before you pass through to the top of the Clunch pit there is a bench where you can rest awhile and enjoy a panoramic view of the whole valley. An even better view awaits you from the top of the clunch pit:
Away to the left is the Heydon ridge leading towards Royston – the low chalk hills fading away to the horizon as far as the eye can see. From the top of the clunch pit there is a short sharp descent which brings you back to the road.
Continue left until the junction with Malton Lane, where you turn right and walk on for a short while before turning left along a signposted track, leading you gently downhill towards the Barrington road. There is a kink in the path by the gate leading left into Lilac Farm.
Looking across the valley the skies are always bold and dramatic in their ‘bigness.’
At this point the OS map shows you close by ‘Edics Hill’, the site of a famous Anglo-Saxon cemetary, first discovered during coprolite diggings in the 19th century. Further late 20th century excavations revealed a site of national importance. There is also evidence of a Bronze Age barrow and an important late iron age site with large storage pits, enclosure ditches, trackways and buildings with related pottery finds. The land here is open and well drained, falling away down to the river, affording an ample site for settlement with access to good arable land, pasture for livestock near to the river and of course water.
The path turns left through an opening in the hedge and then continues in a straight line, passing plantations of low trees on the right, before coming out on the public road by some houses. Turn right and walk down into Barrington village and then left along the green towards the village store. Barrington is the classic linear pattern village with a central green half a mile long and 200 yards at its widest.
Shortly after the shop turn right to the bottom of Boot Lane and on through a gate onto an enclosed footpath leading you down to the bridge across the Rhee, which at this lower point is much more substantial:
For most of its course the Rhee forms a natural boundary for parishes on either side of the river but at Barrington water meadows on the eastern side lie within the parish boundary, now a wildlife reserve. This may have been an ancient accommodation because the village settlement lies very close to the river on rising ground.
Crossing a further bridge leading into the corner of a field, take the path running round the left side of the field to the top corner. Near the turn at the far corner there are some raised ponds, which are often with busy with wildfowl. At the corner turn right until you reach the path running left to the railway line.
Wait for the green light before crossing and pass into Angle Lane which brings you back to the centre of Shepreth just before the old bridge. The car park is a short way further on after the bridge. To reach the tea shop turn right into Meldreth road, past Docwras Manor and Gardens, which are also open to the public.
As a tonic there is nothing like a whole day’s walk. It’s a great way to slow the pace of your life down, to relax and let your thoughts flow and your cares and worries drift away. You have time to let the rhythm of the walk work its calming effect.
Then there is the direct physical experience of our dynamic and ever changing weather. As you can see from the photos, when I started the walk in the morning the weather was bright and sunny with only a few clouds of white cumulus. A brisk and chill wind was blowing and I was glad of the gloves I had brought along. Gradually as the day progressed darker cumulus developed and in the afternoon I could see a squall front building over my shouder from the west. At Barrington I was hit by it and made a dash for the local shop. The squall soon passed on and some blue sky appeared, but the weather was still threatening as I hurried on back to Shepreth. However I returned feeling nicely tired from the exertions of the day, to wallow in the warmth of a log fire and hot tea.
Such days are blessed.