From King’s College Chapel and university courtyards to fertile fen farmland, Cambridgeshire is a county of contrasts. Rich market towns, pretty villages and remote windpumps and waterways tell a history of settlement and farming, religion, education, innovation and rebellion. River valleys, floodplains, peat fens, ancient woodland and chalk hills attract a wealth of wildlife in easy walking country with well-connected footpaths. These 40 inspiring and varied routes have been carefully selected to avoid busy roads. Featuring city pavements and new rights of way, as well as time-worn paths and bridleways, these walks visit panoramic hilltops, watery flatlands and everything in between.
About this guide
Cambridgeshire is expanding faster than ever. Top of the game for innovation and investment in science and technology (blame Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Stephen Hawking...), the cluster of software, electronics and bioscience has earned it the nickname Silicon Fen. Its famous hospital and medical campus are growing too. The rate of change is so fast it’s hard to keep up. The walks in this guide include the newest footpaths, as well as untouchable ancient ways such as Devil’s Dyke in the east and the Roman Road in the south. As towns and villages are built, old rights of way are incorporated and new paths forge a way across land previously off limits. Times are a rough estimate based on average walking speed of 3.5km per hour, allowing for time to look at the guide and OS map. ‘Pasture’ and ‘commons’ refer to land used for grazing – please be alert to the presence of horses, sheep and cattle. Access is usually easy, with modern kissing gates instead of stiles. Some nature reserves have wheelchair and buggy access, but the majority of the walks in this guide are cross-country over varied terrain that often gets waterlogged.
Anticipate harvest traffic and working machinery all year round in this intensively farmed county. To ensure dogs remain welcome on nature reserves and farms, please be responsible around livestock, wildlife and fragile habitats. Café culture has reached many of the villages. Pubs change hands frequently but community ownership and weekly street food vans are very popular. Double-check on refreshment options in advance or take a packed lunch.
Cambridgeshire is a big county centred around the historical city of Cambridge renowned the world over as a seat of learning and centre of research. Some of its record-breaking statistics seem to be for all the wrong reasons, however: the largest poverty gap; the least wooded; the lowest point below sea level. But it offers a huge variety of beautiful walks in landscapes with a fascinating history.
This guide includes the best of its woodland and hills and everything in between. Ely was historically a separate county, now in Cambridgeshire. Peterborough became a unitary authority in 1998 but Huntingdon, St Neots and St Ives are all Cambridgeshire towns. Wisbech, the ‘capital’ of the Cambridgeshire Fens, borders Norfolk and Lincolnshire and is not included in this volume.
The Cambridgeshire Fens and chalk hills and streams have attracted human settlement from Stone Age to Digital Age, but the marshes and floodplains also create vast areas of countryside that have not been built on. An inspiring network of footpaths with sections of long-distance ways means that despite the high population you can get away from it all here.
By Roman and Viking times, Cambridge was an important port and trading post at the river crossing below a Roman fort (Castle Hill mound). Fishing, wildfowling and farming the ‘black gold’ peat of the Fens helped develop the region’s wealth. Monasteries were established, funding Ely Cathedral and the University of Cambridge. Between the 13th and 20th centuries, the 31 colleges developed from a centre of ecclesiastical learning to a hub of scholarship and scientific innovation. Each college is an independent community with chapel, library, dining hall, bar and sports facilities. The ‘other’ university, Anglia Ruskin, dates back to 1858 when it opened as Cambridge School of Art.
Until drainage in the 17th century, the Fens north of Cambridge were a formidable expanse of water and marsh. The flat-bottomed punts you see on the River Cam today were used for hunting and travel. Stilt-walking and ice-skating were other ways of foiling the watery wilderness (contemporary Fen skaters await the next big freeze). Marsh Fever or ‘Fen Ague’ was rife. The Romans pioneered some of the drainage schemes, but it was a huge enterprise with Dutch engineers that transformed the Cambridgeshire landscape, creating rich farmland but making river to sea routes unnavigable.
Taking advantage of the chalk hills that reach a height of 146m, several ancient tracks and defensive earthworks cross the county’s higher ground. Around these features deployed by the Romans and Anglo-Saxons, archaeological hotspots reveal settlements and activity dating back to the Mesolithic period.
Legendary leader of the local resistance to William the Conqueror, Hereward the Wake, and 17th-century ‘Lord Protector’ of the British Isles, Oliver Cromwell, both have Cambridgeshire connections. Hereward the Wake used Ely as his base while leading a rebellion against the Norman conquest. His daring deeds were popularised by Charles Kingsley’s 1865 novel Hereward the Wake: the Last of the English which, along with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, helped create the image of a romantic Anglo-Saxon England violated by Norman tyranny. The long-distance way named after him leads to Ely. Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, lived in St Ives and Ely and was educated at Cambridge. Fanatically religious, he entered the English Civil Wars on the side of the Roundheads and soon demonstrated his abilities as a commander. As well as signing King Charles I’s death warrant in 1649, he led a brutal, near-genocidal campaign in Ireland. Although he died in 1658, he was symbolically ‘executed’ two years later following the restoration of Charles II and his head put on a spike. In 1960 his skull was interred at Sidney Sussex College where he had studied.
Joined-up thinking is the way nature conservation is going, with better connectivity for wildlife and humans the solution to precious habitat isolated and pressurised by farming and recreation. Ancient fenland, woodland and chalk grassland is being extended and connected in the Wicken Fen Vision, Great Fen Project and Great Ouse Valley Living Landscape schemes.
Black-tailed godwit, bittern, water vole and black hairstreak butterfly are some of the rare species at the forefront of these conservation efforts. The Ouse and Nene Washes, the county’s most watery reaches, attract up to 50,000 wildfowl and waders at a time. In 2019 a wildlife record was set at Wicken Fen when a European crane chick hatched, the first in 120 years. This 1m-tall bird with an evocative, bugling call and fabulous bustle tail is remarkably elusive, but watch out for it over Cambridgeshire’s skies. Cambridge city centre has nesting peregrines with their own social media page.
There are 11 city nature reserves and many more on the fringes. Wandlebury Country Park, only 4km from Addenbrooke’s, has several kilometres of woodland path. Ancient bluebell woods are found mostly to the east and west. Holme Fen near Peterborough in the north has the finest silver birch woodland in England.
Walking, weather and topography
In 2019 a British temperature high was recorded at Cambridge Botanic Garden. The region is classed as semi-arid. With half the average UK rainfall, you’ll rarely get a soaking, but it is noticeably breezy. The shallow North Sea, 80km away, brings winter gales from the Arctic, cutting straight across the flatlands. It never rains but it pours, so check weather reports for flood warnings if you’re planning a walk in river or fen areas. Go prepared for muddy conditions over farmland in the chalk and clay hills.
Located some 80km northeast of London, Cambridge has fast connections. St Ives and Huntingdon are also easy daytrip destinations, accessible from Cambridge on the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway. This shared-use route popular with cyclists and pedestrians is a sign of the times; access is improved as new villages and towns go up. Flat Cambridge has the highest concentration of cyclists of any British city, so keep your wits about you. Bus services are fairly good. Modern roads are becoming too busy for many of the existing rights of way that cross them, so for routes away from city pavements this guide offers quiet off-road walking as far as possible.