228: Littleport

OS Explorer map 228, March & Ely: Chatteris, Littleport, Welney & Denver Sluice – I do not own this map, and had not visited the area before starting this blog. Visited for this post 3rd October 2021.

Google Maps location links: Ely, Littleport

Since I moved out of my childhood home to go to off university, nine years ago now, I’ve moved house every summer: while at university, there was a new room every academic year; and since I left somehow there’s always been someone moving out or in with my household, so we’ve always ended up moving at the end of our one-year tenancies. 2021 was no exception, as Vesper moved to a different house in Cambridge so that Erithacus could move back in with us, after her year away attending university in the Netherlands.

Our move date was 1st September, a Wednesday, so when planning the move (and how much time I’d need to take off work) I’d naturally planned for the preceding weekend to be full of packing. However, I’d forgotten that Monday 30th was the late August bank holiday, so it would be a three-day weekend. I felt like doing something with the extra day and so, on the Saturday (to leave the other two for packing), I left home early, and walked to Ely.

I’d been to Ely before, of course (and written about it on this blog), however I’ve always taken the train (or once, I think, was driven by my parents). It’s around 16 miles from Cambridge to Ely, and I’d been wanting to walk it for a while. And so, on that Saturday, I did! It was nice – it’s not the most thrilling scenery ever, being a river walk along the Cam then the Great Ouse the whole way, through pancake-flat fenland; but I really enjoyed it. It gave a nice sense of accomplishment having walked a distance that’s clearly visible on a map of the whole of East Anglia. I reached Ely at about 5pm that day, having seen the cathedral looming gradually closer for the previous six miles or so, and, tired out, got the train right back home.

Ely Cathedral, which I could see for about the last five miles of my Cambridge-Ely walk!

This map area

Attentive readers may have noticed something a bit odd here: if I’ve posted about Ely before, why am I writing about this walk now? Why, indeed, did I narrate that walk so concisely, compared to my usual aimless rambling? That, my friends, is because this post isn’t about that walk at all! You see, at some point, I think during that walk, I had an idea: why not, sometime in the future, return to Ely and carry on walking northwards? Courtesy of the long-distance walking route the Fen Rivers Way, there’s a good footpath along the rest of the Great Ouse’s length, to King’s Lynn on the Wash; furthermore the Fen Line railway runs practically the same route, with regular trains from Cambridge, making it easy to stop and start wherever I’d like.

Me on the train to Ely to start the walk that this post is actually about! It’s an 8-car Great Northern train, of the type that I’m now regularly using in the other direction to get to and from my London workplace. [1]

It would therefore be easy to, whenever I had free a weekend day, get the train back to Ely and walk to Downham Market. Another time, I could continue to King’s Lynn, and maybe on a third day on to Hunstanton; and then I’d have walked all the way from my Cambridge home to the seaside! I’ve done connected long-distance walks only a couple of times before, namely in North Wales in my schooldays, and St Cuthbert’s Way more recently; I’d really like to do more; I find them very satisfying. (Who knows, maybe from there, over a long period, I could continue walking along the North Norfolk coast, and on around Suffolk and Essex and back to Cambridge, having circumscribed East Anglia. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and transport would be a lot less straightforward for that route.)

I really liked this idea so, finding myself at a loose end one Sunday a month or so later, I got the train back to Ely to carry on walking. I wasn’t feeling quite energetic enough to be excited about the 17 miles to Downham Market, so I decided to just do the much more relaxed 7 miles to Littleport – there was no deadline by which I needed to complete this route, after all!

Rather than sticking strictly to the Fen Rivers Way beside the Great Ouse, I decided to start my walk by going through the centre of Ely, since at the end of my last walk I’d just gone straight home from the station. I’ve been in Ely plenty of times before, of course, but it was still very nice; other than the obviously spectacular cathedral, the centre of town is very pretty, plus there was a market on, which was nice to have a quick browse around. From there, my route took me through some quite cute residential areas, and then past Ely Country Park, which I’d not been to before.

My route through Ely North Junction! (Map from OS Maps online)

Before my route rejoined the Fen Rivers Way, I had the fun of not one, not two, but three level crossings. This is because the footpath I was on took me right through Ely North Junction, where the line north out of Ely station splits three ways, giving access to the the continued Fen Line to King’s Lynn (which I’d be following to Littleport), the line to Peterborough (which a poster I saw in Ely station told me has been branded the Hereward Line), and the Breckland Line to Norwich, the only one I didn’t cross today. (The third, or rather first, line that I crossed in quick succession was the the lightly-used Ely West Curve, which allows trains from Peterborough and the Midlands to continue to Norwich or King’s Lynn without reversing.) While I know that it’s important to remove railway foot crossings, to allow increasing linespeeds and decreasing risk of injury; I do enjoy them for getting to walk across the railway safely and legally.

The foot crossing of the Ely West Curve, the first of my three railway crossings in quick succession.

Once I rejoined the Fen Rivers Way, the rest of my walk was much the same as the previous one: several miles of walking along the raised riverbank, through a pancake-flat landscape (albeit with the slightly raised Isle of Ely visible behind me). The Great Ouse has been diverted time and time again in the past several centuries, and the bit I was walking runs arrow-straight for several miles, sitting a very long way from its pre-human course, with raised banks on each side to prevent flooding.

A representative Fen Rivers Way view along the Great Ouse between Ely and Littleport

It wasn’t long before I reached the edge of Littleport, which for me began with a caravan park along the river, which gave way to half a mile or so of residential area before I came to the centre of the village. Littleport is a huge village – it could definitely be considered a town – of about 8500 inhabitants. It was fairly nice though unremarkable; neither notably pretty nor very run-down. There was a fair selection of shops and a few restaurants, cafés and pubs; having finished my walk I treated myself to some chips and curry sauce from a chip shop, which I supplemented with a tiny pack of vegetable sushi and a little grated cheese from the nearby Co-op. I sat down with my back against a tree on the village green outside the church to eat my lunch, and then, finding that the next train wasn’t for nearly an hour, lay around reading my book for a little bit. It was cool enough to lie in the sun, and I had a nice time!

Notably, when a group of fourteen-ish-year-old boys rode past me on their bicycles, the last of their group swung back and went past me again. “You alright?”, he asked me. “I am, thanks”, I replied. Then came, rather unexpectedly: “Want to buy some weed?”. I told him I was okay, thanks, and he rode off amiably to rejoin his friends. (I went back to my book.)

And that was it! After my read, I walked over to the station and caught the hourly train back to Cambridge, listening on the way to a group of early-teen boys talk about the adventures they were going to have in Cambridge for the afternoon. (Walking around and buying lunch, mainly, it seemed; they were also hatching plans for grander trips in future once Christmas money was available, to Peterborough or London.) It was a nice little trip!

[1] I started my regular London commute in September 2021, travelling to the offices of my employer, the Center on Long-term Risk. I’ve worked for CLR for a year and a half now (doing general administration, HR, accounting, compliance, things like that), but having joined at the inauspicious time that was March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning, I worked entirely remotely until at last, in September 2021, I was fully vaccinated against the disease. I therefore now work from the London office 2 days per week, usually travelling down on a Thursday, working that day, staying the night in London, and returning on the Friday evening. (It was always the plan for me to work partly-remotely when I accepted the offer in pre-pandemic days, so I was just finally starting on that long-delauyed arrangement.)

For my travel into London, I have the choice of these Great Northern trains, which are the fastest, taking just under an hour into Kings Cross from Cambridge North. There are also Greater Anglia trains, which on the one hand are slower, and get to the somewhat less convenient Liverpool Street station (though I usually get off a little earlier, at Tottenham Hale); but on the other hand are very spacious and comfortable (allowing me to do some work at my laptop if I feel like it, meaning I can have a shorter working day once I get to the office). The third option is Thameslink, which is also fairly fast and conveniently stops at Finsbury Park before its St Pancras terminus; but is horribly cramped as well as having uncomfortable seats: I can’t really get my knees in unless I sit bolt upright. Thameslink also only goes from Cambridge central station, meaning I have an extra change. I’ve settled on usually taking the Great Northern. I have to say, I’m quite enjoying my weekly train commute so far!

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