Fenland Rush - Tour displacement therapy - CycleBlaze

February 22, 2020

Fenland Rush

March madness

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As February continued, the whole UK was shook by strong storms coming in off the Atlantic. One Saturday, there was no rain forecast, just a howling gale coming from the south-west gusting up to 45-55mph. For some reason I decided that this would be a good day to go out on the bike. Hey, as long as I kept going in that direction I'd be fine, right?

So my destination was pretty fixed. North-east would take me out into the fens, a region of open skies, fertile land and flatness, flatness, flatness that was once so completely waterlogged that the main form of transport was boats. The towns of the region, like Ely, were perched on rare patches of high ground: so Ely was effectively an island, and the area is still known as "the isle of Ely". A series of, for then, epic drainage projects - with the help of the expertise of Dutch engineers, who knew a thing about draining lowlands - reclaimed massive stretches of the fens, and turned them into some of the best farmland in the country. The flatness stretches all the way from Cambridge to Norfolk and the North Sea, where it grades with little fuss into the water at the Wash. It's a landscape I still haven't got used to: epic in a dramatic way on a good day, rather bleak on a bad one. It's surprisingly remote, despite the proximity of Cambridge and its "silicon fen". There's no cover, and you don't want the wind against you. Did I mention it's quite flat?

Measuring a 70km line to the north-east would take me to March. This is convenient as March is on a rail line that could take me to Peterborough on the north-east mainline, so it would be easy to return to Sandy (going further means you have to go via Cambridge, for a three-change multi-hour extravaganza). I've also never been to March. The 90s Radio 4 show For One Horrible Moment, which remains one of the funniest things I've ever heard, is set in the Fens and describes it as "the suicide capital of the UK". I've subsequently learnt this is very far from the case, but the fact it sounds plausible is intriguing enough.

The weather had been so appalling I wanted to avoid any off-roading until I'd made decent progress, so opted for back-roads to take me north to the Ouse and ("the other") St. Ives. St. Ives is a pretty place, and the last town in historical Huntingdonshire before the fens start properly. Once there, I'd scoped out a couple of likely looking off-road tracks that follow the course of the old St. Ives to March railway line. I hoped it wouldn't be too muddy and I'd have the wind at my back the whole time.

I made the same mistake as before by not taking any photos of the familiar stretch to me up beyond St. Neots. Instead we have some windswept scenery near Croxton.

Off we go. Somewhere north of St. Neots. The clouds are scooting along up ahead; the Potton mast is visible in the distance.
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These signs always amuse me. "Shit!!!"
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The wind turbines were going like billy-oh
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Through Croxton I turned north-east towards Papworth and got the wind full in the back. Suddenly, all my fitness and grace returned in an instance, and I sped along at 40kph with no effort. I knew it had been hiding somewhere.

Some nicely irregular architecture in Gravely
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A really solid old house. Probably 18th century I reckon.
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Before I could get to the Ouse, the major river that flows out of Bedfordshire joining the Cam and into the Fens, I would need to cross the Cambridge transport corridor of the A14. This is the road to get to Cambridge through Huntingdon and Godmanchester - so much so that it's nearly always jammed with traffic, and they've finally buckled and decided to rebuild it in bigger and better form a few miles south. This means that there is now not one but two large highways to cross before the river. Fortunately, the bridleways abide, and they've handily built nice bridges where the tracks cross the new motorway.

I picked up this track just outside Hilton.

The start of the bridleway heading across the transit corridor near the village of Hilton. Even massive construction projects need to respect the existing ancient rights of way - bridges and underpasses are usually put in to allow them to keep being used.
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This is an excellent route. Not all have such good a surface - and this is after heavy rain.
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Climbing up to cross the "new" A14
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The brand new shiny A14, and the dedicated bridge over it
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The area between the two roads is now weirdly marooned. A few miles north is the "old" A14, which now looks a bit threadbare.
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It was then a simple matter to work my way through Hemingford Grey and cross the old bridge, closed to cars, over into St. Ives. The waterfront there seemed a good place to sit and have lunch.

Funny narrow way into Hemingford Grey
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The water-meadows at the back of the river Ouse. The area to the front of the modern hotel is supposed to be the car park - it's rather flooded following all the storms we'd been having.
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Crossing the old bridge into the middle of St. Ives, which is a pretty town. I had a rather wind-blown lunch amongst the bread-obsessed swans.
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The centre of St. Ives is lovely but very compact - it's surrounded by an enormous and prototypically bland housing estate, with roads names after famous artists. Whoever comes up with these names is immune to irony: Van Gough Place is a short cul-de-sac full of suburban semis.

I wanted to get to the north, but the enormous airfield of RAF Wyton blocks most of the ways across country. There apparently used to be a track, but the runway was extended in the 70s for new supersonic aircraft from the US airforce, and it was cruelly truncated. The two stubs of track now end in dead ends.

Instead, I decided to work my way around the back to the old village of Woodhurst. I escaped the suburbs via a muddy and glamorous track around the sewage works. It's actually only a footpath and not a great surface, but I wanted to go this way to see the waystation of the Via Beata. This is an attempt at a sort of modern pilgrimage route: according to the organisers, apparently "gradually it became clear we should establish a pilgrimage route across the UK from east to west at its widest point". This seems fabulously arbitrary to me, and indeed the (impressive) carving in the waystation is hidden in precisely the middle of nowhere.

The waystation of the Via Beata
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Which is here, hidden on a footpath that doesn't get much use
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Fortunately the surface improved as I made my way down the amusingly named Butt lane
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Popping out in the Saxon ring village of Woodhurst. This is a village built in a ring shape: in the centre would have been common grazing land. The "private" sign to the right has been moved out the road (and would have been illegitimate anyway - this is a public right of way).
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From Woodhurst I followed the line of the river east towards Earith. Earith is the end of the huge drainage system of the hundred foot drain and new Bedford river. Built in the 17th century by Dutch engineers for the Earl of Bedford, this was the principal drainage scheme for the western fens, creating a huge expanse of farmland called the Bedford levels. I had the wind at my back again and flew over the countryside to Somersham

This, of all things, is a compost research centre. It was surprisingly pleasant smelling, considering.
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The sun came out and I had the wind at my back
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In Somersham I was going to pick up the first extended off-road section, following the old course of the St. Ives - March railway. Some is through the town park, some of it of it is bridleways ... and some of it is sketchy, and seems to run through an old quarry. So I had a little trepidation about how good the surface would be and whether I could get through.

From the Somersham end it was fine, if a touch muddy: running through the park and out the small town.
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Then the old quarry, which is fully flooded, and the paths disappear
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The water had burst the "banks" of the quarry and flooded the old path. I had to go the "wrong" way around, studiously avoiding the signs. You can see the water being driven up into wavelets by the strong wind. Even a short distance going west against the wind was murder.
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The track improved, and if not a tailwind, at least it wasn't in front of me. It's ruddy flat.
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This is not a major trail, by any stretch of the imagination. Didn't see a soul.
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Drop some heavy beets! Farmers seem to be able to get thousands of these buggers out a single field. They'll be made into sugar (almost) as good as sugar cane.
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The track took me all the way to Chatteris, very much a fen town that was also new to me. It's surprisingly handsome, and has an odd line in murals painted on some of the old buildings.

Chatteris and handsome buildings. A bit of a rat-run for traffic, mind.
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Church in Chatteris
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A mural rendering of the principal characters from "Open All Hours", a sitcom from the 70s, on an old shop. While it's a charming idea, they're just sufficiently distorted to make it a little horrifying in my eyes.
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The Green Wellie cafe, an independent diner by the main road. Quite an unusual sight in this part of the world.
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From Chatteris I had no choice but to take the trafficked road towards Wimblington. To make this worse, this involved cutting west. It was a bit of a bleak slog into the wind and the endless flatness, the road was lined with horribly pretentious new-builds with cast iron gates, and it was a blessed relief to get the Wimblington. 

Crossing one of the huge drainage works, the Forty Foot Drain. Looking east, flat as a pancake...
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...looking west, straight as a die
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Wimblington. More villages should have ornamental free-standing clock towers.
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Curious octagonal thatched house in Wimblington. It was only later examining this photograph that I realised that the birdbox attached to the telegraph pole, left, has tiny lettering on. Saying "birds". Well, I didn't think it was for dogs.
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From Wimblington I was meant to pick up a track that followed the old rail line again. This one has a name: the Woodman's Way. Unfortunately this made it sound much more fancy than it was, and for the first time in the ride I encountered really deep, impenetrable mud. Fortunately after half a kilometer of pushing I got through it and the surface improved. It wasn't signed and dwindled to virtually nothing on the outskirts of March - and by the end I had to lift the Shift over a style (breaking a bottle cage by my clumsiness). Shouldn't complain, as it got me off the road and to March, but it's probably not a route I would seek out.

The "Woodsman's Way" also follows the course of the old March line. This was the better-surfaced part.
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"Under the sea! Under the sea!"
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It didn't help that the landscape was a little ... bleak
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I arrived in March, and briefly poked around to take some photos and buy some beer for the pannier bag. It was still incredibly windy, and pedestrians were being blown about in fairly comical fashion. A friendly lady closing up her shop expressed some surprise I was on a bike, and bid me take care. Just as I approached the station, the first rain drops fell down and I was glad to get undercover and neck an entire bag of dolly mixture that I'd been carrying from Bedfordshire.

Seems a bit harsh on Elgood, really
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March has some handsome buildings, like the clocktower in the market square. It's much nicer than I'd been lead to believe, and the folk were friendly too.
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March high street, just as the rain came down
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We are pretty out in the country here
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I hopped on the train for the short ride to Peterborough. It was crammed - as usual there is no real place to put the bike, so I was sharing the vestibule with six other people, all assiduously avoiding any physical contact (not easy on a tilting train). 20 minutes later I was released, shot over the overpass and just about made the train departing for Sandy. Then it was the familiar 10km ride home up the hill out of the Ivel valley.

Today's ride: 80 km (50 miles)
Total: 150 km (93 miles)

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