Liz Cotton interviews travel writer Phoebe Taplin, author of Country Walks around Cambridge.
LC: Phoebe, you have been writing about walks all over Great Britain for many years. What makes for a really great walk, in your opinion?
PT: You can have a great walk in all kinds of landscapes, but my favourites usually have a mix of natural and historical interest plus somewhere to stop for refreshments.
LC: Can you tell us about the Harcamlow Way and why you wanted to walk it and write about it?
PT: The Harcamlow Way is a 140-mile walk, devised in the late 1970s by Fred Matthews and Harry Bitten. The whole route, as the slightly awkward portmanteau name hints, runs from Harlow to Cambridge and back in a giant figure-of-eight. When I first moved to the area, more than a decade ago, I saw the Harcamlow marked on Ordnance Survey maps and followed it to discover the local countryside in more detail. I loved it so much I walked it all several times and, when I realised the original guidebook was long out of print, I decided to write two new ones to help celebrate and preserve the route. The walk now has some colourful figure-of-eight waymarks along the way, which were put up by the Redbridge ramblers’ group.
LC: So you must have walked all around Honey Hill?
PT: Absolutely! The Harcamlow runs near the River Cam through Fen Ditton and Horningsea and through the fen to Anglesey Abbey. Then it turns south again along Quy Water and over the fields to Quy Mill before it heads off towards Fulbourn. So the route makes a big loop around Honey Hill and it’s actually one of my favourite walks: past Baits Bite Lock, Biggin Abbey and the wild areas around Quy Fen. It passes the line of Fleam Dyke, a huge earthen bank and gully that survives further south and was probably built in the seventh century to defend East Anglia from the Mercians. It’s the ditch that gave Fen Ditton its name.
LC: And what have you most enjoyed on your walks here?
PT: So many things! I love the variety of wildflowers out in the fields and fens in summer: the water lilies and forget-me-nots, meadowsweet and bedstraw, clouds of white blackthorn blossom in early spring, the hops in the hedges and carpets of golden buttercups in summer, and the sound of the skylarks singing as they rise out of the fields.
LC: Did anything surprise you?
PT: I was amazed by how beautiful the landscapes around here are. I had an image in my head of Cambridgeshire countryside as flat and monotonous, but there’s really varied scenery along the Harcamlow Way here: river and fen, ancient churches in pretty thatched villages, wide open fields and tree-shaded corners. And I was really delighted to find how rich in history these peaceful landscapes are. The idea that Horningsea was a major centre for the Roman ceramics industry, churning out big pottery storage jars, is so cool.
LC: I know you’ve also written about other nearby villages, but can you tell the reader more about why Horningsea and Fen Ditton are so popular for visitors?
PT: People who live here already know why they are popular! As well as the wildlife and the history, there are some outstanding pubs here. Step into the little whitewashed Plough and Fleece on a Thursday night and it’s full of music and song with those gleaming horse brasses over the fireplaces and big candles in the cast iron range at the front. And the garden has those rattan chairs, ringed by hawthorn, sycamore and eucalyptus trees with a view over a field of horses.
There’s some lovely food at the Crown and Punchbowl too, a few doors down. And, heading the other way, that incredible riverside garden at the Plough in Fen Ditton… and that’s even before you get to the King’s Head and the Shepherds! These have to be the best villages in Britain for a rural pub crawl. We’ve had some great family walks along the Cam: spotting dozens of different types of geese and ducks in Ditton Meadows, the cherry blossom in the churchyard and rowing boat-shaped weather vane on top of St Mary’s. And watching the real-life boats on the river, of course, training in all weathers.
LC: You must have been shocked to learn of the plan to build a sewage plant on Honey Hill?
PT: Horrified. What could they be thinking of? The landscapes around Honey Hill are so full of wildlife and so rich in history. It seems quite cynical to abuse the regulations in this way that are meant to stop people building on the green belt.
LC: Finally, where can we buy a copy of your book “Country Walks Around Cambridge”?
PT: Since the Visitor Information Centre in Cambridge closed, you can only get it on Amazon now – or in the half-timbered Tourist Info Centre by Saffron Walden’s market. I wrote in the introduction back in 2015 about this area’s sights: “windmills and watermills, landscaped gardens and wild woodland, fields of poppies or glades of snowdrops.” So often, as the old Joni Mitchell song goes: “you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone”. I want to say thank you to everyone campaigning to celebrate and protect these beautiful places.