Really Ely - Tour displacement therapy - CycleBlaze

Really Ely

Tentatively back on the trains

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Things are easing up virus-wise, and when a weekend came along which looked to be fine but with a strong wind from the south-west, I thought this was a good opportunity to try a linear ride and return by train again.

From our base, north-east takes us out into Cambridgeshire and the fens. While I can get a little sick of fen riding, rail connections back to Bedfordshire are comparatively good, as it's generally fairly easy to return to the communications hub of Peterborough and hence the East Coast mainline, which will take me within a few miles of home. The city - so designated because of its ancient cathedral and hence diocese, rather than its size, which is fairly tiny - of Ely is half way along the rail line between Cambridge and Peterborough, and would make a nice target some 60km or so away.

Ely is a historically interesting and rather quirky place. So near to Cambridge, historically before the ascendency of the University it was by far the more important city of the Fens. It is placed upon a strategic spur of high land which, in the medieval period, would have been the only real dry land rising above the marsh and open water which covered a huge region up to the wash. As a consequence, it was literally an island, and indeed to this day the borough is known as the "isle" of Ely. The high ground upon which it sits, and particularly the outsized cathedral with its enormous tower, can be seen for dozens of miles over the surrounding low fens.

My first step, as always for this route, was to leave the agreeable environs of Potton and make my way towards the heavily-populated corridor running along the edge of the fens, west of Cambridge and along the course of the Great Ouse. First I would follow, in reverse, the route me and Caroline previously took to Caxton. From there, it should be easy to take municipal cycleways between two of the new towns (of different vintage) along the Ouse valley: Cambourne and Bar hill. From there I could enter the fens proper, and approach Ely along the thousand year old Norman invasion route of the Aldreth causeway.

Leaving Potton it was a fine, if blowy day. I had the wind behind me as I headed out the village and up the hill towards Cockayne Hatley and the bridleways that would take me over the Bedfordshire border.

St Mary's church in Potton, which is about 800 years old and constructed from the local ironstone and cobblestone, which appears in a lot of other architecture in the village as well (particularly walls). There is quite an extensive wikipedia page on the church, though the section on the stained-glass windows only immediate remark is they have "little artistic merit". Harsh reviewer!
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Climbing out of Potton, with lots of poppies in the verges
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It is quite a steep hill, but the views and good
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Looking across to the church at Cockayne Hatley
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A beautiful day and not too many people out
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Trees along the path were victim of some of the bad weather in the previous week. This was actually quite badly blocked, but I managed to get the ungainly shift around the side with a little vigorous shoving.
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Heading across country towards the Gransdens - one of my favourite routes in the area
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Yep, it's pretty windy. Windsock at the grass airstrip near Great Gransden
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Every so often when I'm cycling across fields I'll hear a muffled bang. I've often assumed it's someone hunting pheasants or something in the distance, but today I spotted it was coming from this curious device. It looks to be a gas-powered noise-maker, presumably for scaring off birds when fields have just been sown...
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Great Gransden. I've always been returning here late in the day, and as a consequence I'm not sure the photos have really done the place justice. It really is a lovely village, probably the most picturesque in the area.
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Lovely old thatched house in Great Gransden. Got to be pre-1800, these.
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I like these sorts of brick terraces as well. These will be Victorian, 1850-1890, around the same vintage as ours.
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Authentic timber framed house, probably the oldest of the lot. The unevenness of the walls and roof are a sure sign of real antiquity. Could be 400 years old plus, I'd say.
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From the Gransdens I could go off-road again, following more lanes (past the "All By Myself" farm) to get to Caxton. Caxton is a prominent village, and has been a crossroads for the main highway from Cambridge to Bedford for centuries. The crossroads with the Huntingdon road was once used to display the bodies of criminals, particularly highwaymen, and is still known as Caxton Gibbet. It's still notorious, but now more for bad traffic jams.

Wildflowers outside of Great Gransden
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Cool tumbledown barn
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In Caxton, picking up another bridleway towards the planned town of Cambourne
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Extremely faded sign once indicated the right of way. Only the mysterious legend "321" remains...
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Cambourne is a bit of an oddity amongst all these quaint villages, in that its a planned new town, built as overspill to serve Cambridge, where pressure for housing and development is now intense - by many measures Cambridge is the fastest-expanding city in the country, and tens of thousands of students add to the demand. Cambourne doesn't deviate too much from the new-town pattern that we've seen in MK, more successfully in Letchworth (and arguably less so in Stevenage). Certainly lessons have been learnt from the last 50 years, but it's a solidly dormitory town, and as such there's little reason to visit unless you live there - or happen to be my brother-in-law, who's pursuing a PhD in town planning, and so has some professional interest.

Cambourne is still expanding, with a large western lobe of "Lower Cambourne" being actively developed. It does have a well-established perimeter cycleway, which I was happy to take to circumnavigate it and pick up the track to Bar Hill. This was a pleasant ride until I got to the eastern edge, where new development has meant that even short drives leading back to the road were blocked. After a little frustration I found my way back to the road and crossed over the Bedford highway.

The perimeter ride around Cambourne is actually pretty pleasant
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The edge of the new town. Not the most inspiring architecture to me, at least
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Scott AndersonNo, but an appealing presentation of it.
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1 week ago
Jon AylingTo Scott AndersonThanks Scott! I think my photography is (slowly) improving ... though it might just be having a better camera!
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Crossing the A428 Bedford road
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Mysterious green lanes leading to Bar Hill
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Soon into open country
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Some young cattle
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Another farm-cum-office block
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This close to Cambridge, you're much more likely to see walkers around the green lanes
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Ah, positive evidence of the "gas gun" noisemakers!
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Lol!
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After passing through the little village of Lolworth, I gained the outer ring-road of Bar Hill. Bar Hill is a much earlier overflow village, constructed in the 1950s a little closer to Cambridge. Similar to Letchworth, the village was built without any pubs in a gesture towards temperance - as a consequence, I think the village pub in Lolworth does very well. The "hill" part of the name is dramatic wishful thinking - it has an elevation of something like 30m. 

Unlike Cambourne which is almost entirely residential with a few shops, Bar Hill also has quite a big light industrial estate
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Bar Hill was constructed right alongside the major highway out of Cambridge, the mighty A14 which plies north-west towards Kettering and ultimately the midlands. For fast travel over the fens or around Cambridge, this is pretty much the only game in town, and so it has always been notoriously congested. A recent program has widened it to four lanes in each direction, with massive construction work along the whole area. They're almost finished now, and the last stage seems to be opening of pedestrian and cycle bridges over the huge carriageway, which you would certainly not want to tangle with in the saddle.

Coming out of Bar Hill I was somewhat perplexed by the giant roundabout I found myself on. Striking off at the first opportunity, I saw a tempting gravel track leading up to a beautiful shiny white suspension bridge, obviously intended for foot traffic. It looked a bit ... unfinished, but there were zero signs or barriers prohibiting access, so up I went.

The views from the bridge were great, and I was soon over the highway. I carefully picked my way down the equivalent gravel bank on the other side, only to see a construction truck far below me on the service road, with the driver gesturing slightly desperately, obviously to the effect that it wasn't open yet. I gave a cheery if slightly sheepish wave back, and continued on the bridleway. Whoops!

The under construction way up to the new bridge. In my defence, there really was absolutely nothing indicating that access wasn't open yet.
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Onto the bridge itself. Even under construction, it's much safer to be up here then dicing with the traffic below. There were quite a lot of other tyre-tracks in the gravel, so I'm clearly not the only one...
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To be fair, it's a really nice looking bridge
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The bridleway is surprisingly well maintained on the other side, even if it's quite difficult to reach at the moment
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The A14 bridge from the distance
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Almost the entire strip between the A14 and the Cambridge "guided busway" - a strange installation whereby buses travel on modified runners along the course of the old Cambridge-Huntingdon railway - is now a construction site for new roads, and the newest of the new towns we would pass through, Northstowe - currently completely under construction. 

As such, the bridleways were pretty fragmented, and I had the churned-up landscape pretty much to myself.

Crossing another relief road under construction. I'm not even sure where this one will ultimately go.
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The bridleways are kept intact, fortunately
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Strange pillbox-type structure near Longstanton
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Longstanton has a great church, but no spice museum
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Rural Crime! #5. Fly-tipping annoys everyone.
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Following Longstanton I squeezed around the perimeter of the gigantic building site that is Northstowe. To be honest, I wasn't sure these bridleways are officially open, but there's nothing prominent preventing access.
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Some of the new buildings in Northstowe. If you think this architecture looks identical to Cambourne and reflects an unfortunate absence of imagination and taste ... you might be right.
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Northstowe is intentionally placed right alongside the guided busway, which is now a major mass-transit link into Cambridge. This is the strange structure along which modified buses are chaneled at around 60mph. Once or twice a year a hapless driver manages to somehow get their car onto the busway - typically what then happens is their tyres are punctured by car traps, the busway has to close down while they're recovered, and they end up being mocked in the local paper for a few weeks.
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"Grossly Foul and Bad Ways" ... this information board is brought to you by the Cambridgeshire Tourism Service.
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Once crossing over the guided busway, I could take to the quiet lanes and enter the fen proper. Flatness and desertion was very much the vibe.

The day was getting quite overcast now, as I headed into the fens.
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I passed this mysteriously grounded crow, which didn't move even as I cycled past it.
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Kathleen JonesCould be a groundling. Fledged but not yet sure of its wings. Crows are one species that do that.
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1 week ago
Jon AylingTo Kathleen JonesAh, thanks, yep could be. I wasn't sure if it was injured or sick in some way at first, but it looked quite intact when I passed it, so that would make sense!
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Some of the "hills" in the surrounding area are in fact iron-age earthworks
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Cambridgeshire county council will repossess your horse if you abandon it here...
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It's the fens. It's bloody flat.
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To my astonishment as I emerged from the lane, there actually *were* two abandoned horses. It's bizarre: I suppose they get left here because it's an extremely quiet lane and they'll pretty much look after themselves, so you can avoid paying for stabling.
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The other abandoned horse out in the fens
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I could soon pick up the long-grassed and little-used green lanes that would take me to the Aldreth causeway. After leaving St. Ives, the main drain of the great basin of the fens, the Great Ouse, flows a meandering course through this region before getting to Ely. In medieval times, this was a particularly low-lying region, being well below sea level and as a consequence was almost completely impassable. As a consequence, the rare high-ground crossings became important passing points - causeways - leading to the isle of Ely and the important local centre. The Aldreth causeway was the most important of these - and has a strange history.

The most famous event associated with the causeway is the defence of Ely against the Normans by the Anglo-Saxon rebel leader, Hereward the Wake. Hereward was certainly a historical character, and gave the invading Normans a lot of trouble, assisted by their distant cousins the Danes - he certainly was involved in the ransacking of Peterborough cathedral, another important centre at the time. The story goes that the Normans eventually drove Hereward's army back to Ely, which being a fortified island was incredibly well defended. After many months of fruitless siege, he was eventually betrayed by a monk of the abbey, who showed the Normans the secret route through the fens. They attacked over the Aldreth causeway, defeating Hereward and completing the conquest of East Anglia.

Legend has it that Hereward escaped and became something of a Robin Hood figure, harrying the new Norman rulers. Of course, very little of this is historically verifiable.

On a quirkier note, my good friend and college flatmate Jonny once went out with a guy called Hereward, which amused us greatly.

The green lanes leading to the causeway. Very typical flat fenland country, this.
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Crossing one of the big artificial drains which prevent the fenland from disappearing underwater
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This is the causeway itself, crossing the Great Ouse. It's always amazing how tiny these ancient thoroughfares look, especially compared to the A14 I'd crossed earlier in the day.
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Some information on the Aldreth Causeway and Hereward the Wake
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Me, and the Shift, had a little rest here
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One stream of the Great Ouse which the causeway crosses
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I continued over the causeway, and into the small, cut-off village of Aldreth. Despite being less than 10 miles away from the high-tech cosmopolitan centre of Cambridge, its location cut off by the river means Aldreth has very much a rural, fenland vibe.

From Aldreth, it was an easy ride through the lanes of the fens, with the now-strong wind behind me, through the villages of Haddenham and Witchford. The cathedral of Ely started to appear on the flat horizon, drawing me to my destination. I generally don't much like cycling on the fen roads, them being flat, straight and ridden with fast traffic, but I didn't mind this last stretch.

"Under the Sea!" #2. The countryside is really very low around here.
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Picking up the road again in Aldreth
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I don't know what it is about the fens that tends to such preposterous displays of bad taste
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On the other hand, here's a lovely disused windmill
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Haddenham is a nice little village. I like these houses a lot.
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Ely cathedral dominated the landscape, even 10 miles away. It's amazing that a structure 950 years old is still so prominent.
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The sun came out and the wind was behind me, making the fen riding positively agreeable
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...and the area I'd just come through is indeed called "Grunty Fen"
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After some minor tangling with the bypass, before I knew it I was coming into the centre of Ely. It's not a big place, but it is very trim really.

Coming into Ely. It really is dominated by ecclesiastical buildings.
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Ely is also the location of the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, and his house is now a tourist information centre. Cromwell is generally fairly unequivocally celebrated in East Anglia - despite his status as effectively the only English despot.
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Impressive spire
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It's not difficult to find the cathedral. Sadly it's still not open, and indeed I have never been inside (it is, apparently, ruinously expensive to get in, so maybe I'm coming out ahead here).
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The early Gothic cathedral of Ely, which was constructed around 1083 and granted as a cathedral in 1109. A previous Anglo-Saxon abbey had existed on the site since 672 - that is over 1,300 years ago.
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Incredible detail on the limestone facade
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Good gargoyles
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Imagine building this with only man power and without a crane!
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The city is still an ecclesiastical centre - I think these are related to the cathedral in some way
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Interesting brick patterning
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It was then an easy ride around to the station. I was slightly hesitant as to what I would find - it was extremely quiet, and I found myself cursing myself somewhat when I accidentally bought a ticket via Cambridge (which I wanted to avoid) on the automatic machine. But there was actually someone at the ticket counter! After I explained my mistake, they re-issued the ticket and charged me the few quid difference. "That's the most exciting thing I've had to do all day!" she let me know - glancing around the deserted station I could well believe it.

Yeah, this is pretty typical for a provincial cycle lane. It literally just stops for no reason.
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Ely station, looking a bit down-at-heel if I'm honest.
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The very empty train - not my one - towards Cambridge. My train was due at the same platform at the same time, but there was no-one around to ask. Eventually it turned up at the other end of the (very long) platform.
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In Peterborough I had some kurfuffle in the station trying to find a train to the south. It took me a good few minutes to realise that trains marked Horsham - on the south coast, well on the other side of London - were actually the one I wanted. I boarded a near empty train - after a couple of stops another chap with a bike got on. He turned out to be an affable hippie type, who (coincidentally enough) asked me why I wouldn't just camp if I got stuck with the bike. "Well, funnily enough..." I said.

The sun was just going down as I arrived back in Bedfordshire, and started the pull up the Greensand back to Potton. A success I think, and no virological risks taken.

Sun setting over the RSPB reserve near Potton
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Today's ride: 75 km (47 miles)
Total: 1,345 km (835 miles)

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Kathleen JonesAnother great ride. Appreciated the history a lot. The fort was cool, as was the causeway. I was surprised some of the fens are still below sea level. You ride, I learn.
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1 week ago
Jon AylingTo Kathleen JonesThanks Kathleen, glad it's enjoyable! Yep, the fens are a really strange landscape, quite atypical really, and are certainly the lowest elevation in the country. If the pumps (now electric, but originally these were all wind powered and set up by Dutch engineers) are ever turned off, the whole area would eventually slowly flood again.
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