The poet John Clare (1793-1864) was born in Helpston to a poor labouring family, and had little education. His genius lay in passionately observing and recording the English countryside at a time when Enclosure Acts were gradually restricting public access to former open fields and common land. The poignancy of his poems reflects his sadness at being denied the freedom to explore the countryside he loved. This route takes in the village and cottage where Clare lived and the landscapes that inspired him, via bridleways and winding country lanes.
Park in Helpston and admire the stone memorial to John Clare, which lies under ancient horse chestnut trees. Cycle down Woodgate. The white-washed cottage next to the Blue Bell Inn was formerly five dark, tiny dwellings. John Clare lived in the end nearest the pub and described it in My Early Home Was This: “The old house stooped just like a cave, Thatched o’er
with mosses green; Winter around the walls would rave, But all was calm within”.
The cottages have now been sympathetically restored into a museum and tea rooms by the John Clare Trust. Explore them and then, with Clare’s poetry in mind, cycle on and turn right down Broad Wheel Road.
Just before houses peter out to fields, turn left along a grassy bridleway, which follows the edge of a field next to Rice Wood. At a wooden signpost turn right, and cycle to reach King Street.
1. ONE MILE
Turn left here and cycle with Hilly Wood, one of Clare’s favourite walking areas, on your right. In a poem dedicated to the wood, Clare wrote: “How sweet to be thus nestling deep in boughs, Upon an ashen stoven pillowing me.” Turn right at the cross roads and follow Stamford Road into Ufford.
2. THREE MILES
Turn left along Walcot Road, left again onto Main Street and then cycle past the many farms of Southorpe. A long straight road leads through open countryside beyond, passing wildflower-rich Southorpe Meadow Nature Reserve. The ridge and furrow structure created by a mediaeval oxen-plough is still visible there. Remember the line: “I found the poems in the fields and only wrote them down”, written by Clare in Sighing for Retirement, as you pass.
3. SIX MILES
Take the next road left for Upton, then look out for a bridleway on your right. Follow it past the picturesque Model Farm. Cross the road and follow the bridleway on the other side, which winds through woodland, across fields and along a broad gravel track to a sign-posted cross-section of bridleways.
4. EIGHT MILES
Here, turn left and follow the bridleway straight through Castor Hanglands. This Nature Reserve comprises four ancient habitats: grassland, scrubland, woodland and wetland. Long ago the grassland was common grazing land for villagers. The scrubland is still home to many bird species and the thousand year-old forest camouflages herds of fallow deer. Although much of the countryside around it has changed, Castor Hanglands must look much as it did in Clare’s time.
After the reserve, turn right to reach a lane. Turn left along it and cycle to a cross roads. Continue straight over onto Heath Road and follow the twists and turns of the country lane through pleasant countryside back to Helpston.
Picturesque country lanes and bridleways, with fields, woodland and traditional villages all around. Few hills, so great for pedal-cruising. Some bridleways can be muddy after rain.
HOW TO GET THERE
Helpston is close to the intersection of the A1 and the A47, and just 15 minutes from Peterborough.
By public transport:
From Peterborough train station, cross the footbridge to reach the bus station. Buses depart for Helpston from Bay 9 hourly from 09.00-16.15 then at 16.15, 17.15 (not Sat) and 18.00. Buses return to Peterborough from Helpston Church; hourly 09.17-16.17 then at 17.32.
The White Hart,
Ufford PE9 3BH
Tel: 01780 740250
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 142. Grid ref: TF 125 055
Clare Cottage, 12 Woodgate, Helpston PE6 7ED
Open all year, Mon-Fri 09.00-16.30, Sat-Sun 10.30-15.00. Entry: £3.75 adults, £3.15 children, £12 family. % 01733 253330 www.clarecottage.org
Rowan House, Barnack, Stamford PE9 3DW
Tel: 01780 740705
Cambridgeshire Tourist Information