In the 11th century, the village of Aldreth stood at the southern tip of the Isle of Ely, which was then surrounded by water, swamps and marshes. From here, Saxon leader Hereward the Wake used his local knowledge to cross the marshes and attack the invading Normans.
Frustrated at his lack of progress, William the Conqueror built a timber causeway across the marshes, in an attempt to capture Ely. His plan ended in catastrophe when the causeway sank under the weight of chain mail and armour, and hundreds of his men perished. On a second attempt Hereward the Wake and his men set fire to the surrounding reeds.
Eventually, the monks of Ely showed William a secret way onto the isle, so ending Saxon resistance. Hereward evaded capture however, and became legend. Much of this route takes you along the Aldreth Causeway, which follows the same course taken by William centuries ago.
1 From Aldreth, head southwest along High Street and cross a lane. Pass a metal gate and continue along the Aldreth Causeway. After passing disused barns on your right, cross the bridge and enjoy views along the River Great Ouse. Norman weapons and other military equipment have been found in this area.
Once across the bridge, turn right to leave the causeway. Go through a kissing gate and walk along a raised bank, keeping the river to your right. Keep an eye out for several pole-mounted nest boxes along the route, used by kestrels and barn owls. Further ahead you may see swans or great-crested grebes on the water. Go through a metal gate, as you pass Queenholme Farm to the left, then pass a pumping station on the opposite bank and keep to the path until you reach a narrow lane.
2 Turn left, passing a farm on your right and barns to your left. Soon after, follow the lane to the left. Ignore a bridleway to the right and continue to a T-junction. Turn right, pass Meadow Road and continue towards Willingham. Pass a bus stop and walk on to a road junction. To visit the Duke of Wellington pub, turn right here. Otherwise, turn left along Priest Lane. Once past the houses, there are good views across open fenland. Pass a signed byway on the right and continue for about 100m.
3 Turn left to rejoin the historic causeway. After 200m the path bisects Belsar’s Hill. This Iron Age ringwork may have been refortified by William and used as a base. Belsar is thought to be a corruption of the name Belasius, one of William’s knights. You can see a curving ditch and bank to the left of the track, at the monument’s northern perimeter.
Further ahead, walk along a short stretch of road, before continuing along the causeway. This section is more obviously raised above the surrounding fields and there are good views ahead. Walk straight ahead to return to the bridge spanning the River Great Ouse.
4 Cross the bridge and continue on the causeway used earlier. At the end of the track, cross the lane to return to High Street.
TERRAIN: Clear paths over flat ground and short stretches along country lanes.
HOW TO GET THERE
- BY CAR: Aldreth is 1½ miles southwest of Haddenham and is accessible off the A1123. Park at the southern end of High Street.
- BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Bus 106 runs between Ely and Cottenham, stopping at Aldreth from Monday to Saturday. Buses 15 and 15A run between Cambridge and St Ives, stopping at Willingham from Monday to Saturday.
Oliver Cromwell House
29 St Mary Street,
Ely CB7 4HF
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 225.
Grid ref: TL 445 733
Call 01353 662062
The Three Kings
6 Station Road, Haddenham CB6 3XD
Call 01353 749080
55 Church Street, Willingham CB24 5HS
Call 01954 261622
The ancient city of Ely, seven miles northeast of Aldreth, has a fine Norman cathedral. The house, which is now the Tourist Information Centre, was once home to Oliver Cromwell and his family.