An American visitor once remarked that the countryside of Cambridgeshire was too boring to be ugly. He can’t have looked very far or very closely. I have been rambling over the landscape of the southern part of the county for 25 years or so and have always felt this to be unfair. Its charm and subtle beauty have been gradually revealed to me as over the years I have tramped its old footpaths and ancient tracks; walked along the banks of its numerous chalk streams; sought out its quieter intimate places, its vast open fields and big skies. There is nothing more dramatic than the sky in this part of the country. We are in lowland England where the horizons are wide and the view is long.
From my garden in Shepreth I can see low ridges of chalk lying to the south and north; either side of a broad river basin. Through this shallow vale runs the river Rhee; one of the principal tributaries of the Cam, which flows down to the Ouse and on to the Wash at King’s Lynn. We have a distinct landscape quite separate from other parts of the county; to the north lies the open flat fenlands; to the north-west a clay plateau running on into the midlands – more heavily wooded, less densely settled. (More photos to follow – watch this blog)
To farm this land has required intensive drainage, since the land is low lying and water feeds down from the chalk ridges into a basin with underlying clay. The dense patchwork of field drains and streams are deeply cut and constantly flowing and above them sit acre upon acre of fertile arable land. There are numerous remains of old water mills. Just within easy walking distance of my home there is the mill in Shepreth, with its mill-rush leading down under the old bridge. In the adjacent village of Meldreth the footpath by the Melde takes you close by the old workings and brick foundations of the wheelhouse. You can see the large stream channelled through a narrow neck to plunge over a fall about a meter’s depth, just where the wheel would have stood. The footpath from Shepreth which leads down to the Rhee at Barrington passes in front of Bulbeck mill, a fine mid 19th century building of three storeys. Here the Rhee was dammed and a channel leads on to the now disused mill. The mill-water flows back over a graceful wier to rejoin the river.
In medieval times there were numerous mills on the river and its smaller tributaries – some 29 were listed at the time of Domesday. The large number of water mills led to flooding since during heavy rains the sluicing of the river and its tributaries would cause the waters to ‘back up’ further upstream. In medieval times irate villagers were not averse to breaking the sluices of mills further down. Today there is often flooding along the banks of the Rhee after persistent heavy rains. The river crossings are inundated and the adjacent fields and meadows become a broad expanse of shallow mere.
Shepreth, lying half a mile or more from the Rhee, is the watery parish, its boundaries defined by waterways and ditches; its pattern of settlement lying carefully along the higher ground. During the winter months the roads leading out from the village stand as narrow causeways, their side-ditches filled to the brim as the water table rises inexorably. The footpaths become miry and heavy boots are the order of the day.
The prehistoric un-drained landscape of the valley experienced by mesolithic migrating bands and later Neolithic farmers would have been one of marsh and mere bounded by reed-beds, with a mixed wildwood of lime, ash, hazel, oak and elm, growing thickly on the drier river terraces; standing together or as separate colonies. The low chalk escarpment either side of the valley would have been a natural line of passage.
There is little woodland in the valley now, only small pockets and tree-lined roads. Yet the banks of the watercourses remain graced by willow: great tall willows, their fine long branches dropping to lip the water; old cracked willows, the huge girth of their fallen trunks strewn along the bank, and new growth sprouting forth. In May of 1697 Celia Fiennes, riding north on her celebrated journey stopped to look at the view from the Gogmagog hills, ‘from whence you have a great prospect of the whole county and of Cambridge which lies in a bottom and marshy ground all about it for several miles, which is garnished with willows.’ Although the fields have been drained, the willows remain, still ‘garnishing’ the landscape. Here we see the banks of the Rhee near Barrington.
We are so well provided with footpaths and tracks – some of which are thought to be quite ancient – that walking in the valley of the Rhee and on its adjacent ridges provides for the widest variety of routes. From high points such as Chapel Hill, above Haslingfield, and the top of the clunch pit at Orwell you can cast your eyes across the whole sweep of the country, looking down on the fields and villages of south Cambridgeshire. The more southerly ridge, along which runs the Icknield Way, is the easterly end of the chalk escarpment of the Chilterns. This is our watershed. On our side of the ridge the waters run down to the Wash; on the far side lies the catchment area of the Thames. Historians now understand that such physical watersheds and drainage systems form ‘cultural landscapes’ or regions which local populations have always identified with; seen as their own, where they come from or where they belong. The French have a word for it, their Pays – to describe in succinct terms their idea of a distinct locality with its own characteristic soil and geology, its particular topographical, social and economic identity. The valley of the Rhee is our Pays.
This summer I have been using my local knowledge to put together a series of long circular walks, which I have written up as blogs, with directions, local notes and photos. This has been great fun and a rewarding creative experience. To work out good routes and explain them to others in written form causes you to look more closely at the countryside around you, looking at the landscape with a visual painterly eye – seeing things differently. In doing so it has lead to a fresh perspective on routes and local places which have become very familiar, like old friends – which ought never to have been taken for granted. (See the category – walks and runs in South Cambridegshire; for example)