Honey Hill Q&A: Liz Cotton interviews travel writer Phoebe Taplin, author of Country Walks around Cambridge.

a pond with many golden reeds.

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.

New waymark for the Harcamlow Way

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.

Baits Bite Lock between Fen Ditton and Horningsea

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?

Walking beside the River Cam towards Fen Ditton

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.

Over the fields near Horningsea

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.

The last glimpses of a sunset over Honey Hill?

Our local free amphitheatre for watching
the silent regional manoeuvring of clouds,
the molten kinetics of sunsets,.
dew’s disappearance after dawn …,
for hearing
the arrival of long distance breezes
and for sizing up the sky.

IMG 4633
(photo and words from David Yandell. Photo taken from Snout’s Corner. Just next to where the access to the sewage works will be constructed).

Thoughts on Honey Hill

When asked to pen a few lines about Honey Hill and what it meant to me I could not think of what to write other than it is beautiful and it would be a crime to desecrate it with the proposed, unneeded and unwanted sewage works… but everyone knows that. Everyone, that is, apart from the faceless ones determined to railroad it through.
On consideration, however I realise that Honey Hill has been known to me for many years and, in the course of horse riding, walking, jogging and cycling, plays a significant part in my life and I have many fond memories of it.
I moved to Fen Ditton in 1986 and first set eyes on Honey Hill on Boxing Day of that year when I was taken there by a well-known local character called “Barry the Horse”, (sadly no longer with us).
We stood near the Pink House and watched the local hunt gallop past in full cry and, whatever your views on hunting, seeing horses and hounds at full gallop in close proximity is a sight that cannot fail to stir the blood.
Since that day I have been a regular visitor to the area, even at one time, keeping a horse in the now disused, but rather pretty, hedged meadow on the left as you approach the Pink House from Fen Ditton.
The Pink House, I am assuming, was a crossing keeper’s cottage when the Honey Hill to Snouts Corner track was a vehicular road. There are the overgrown remains of another such crossing keepers cottage at the railway’s junction with another former road further towards Lode.
Most of my memories of Honey Hill area are equine related and I recall riding towards Snouts Corner when we saw in the distance a Harrier Jump jet rise into the sky in a vertical take-off, (which I knew they could do), and then, spectacularly, fly backwards (which I didn’t).
For several years I kept two horses at some old farm stables, (now Francis Court), in High Ditch Road, Fen Ditton and our daily hack out would be towards Honey Hill either turning right onto the railway track at the Pink House or carrying on towards Horningsea.
One frequently bumps into other horse riders or walkers also enjoying the peaceful haven Honey Hill offers together with frequent sightings of wildlife including foxes and deer all within sight of Cambridge’s urban sprawl.
Another well known character frequently encountered around Honey Hill until fairly recently was “cool hand luke”, a kindly eccentric who rode a stocky dun horse and dressed as an american civil war confederate soldier complete with stetson, six gun and sabre. His horse could be frequently be seen tethered outside various pubs in Fen Ditton, Horningsea and Quy!
The proposed sewage works is not needed -it is merely being relocated to facilitate building tract housing at Milton. The proposed desecration of this area, in the green belt and in defiance of all the mores of planning, conservation, ecology and traffic, is a crime, plain and simple.
It will deprive not only local people of a rural haven in a rapidly urbanising area but adversely impact the lives of the many people who will come to live in the area in the many years to come. Years which we may not live to see.
Once Honey Hill is gone, it will be gone forever.
Nick Dakin

Gayton farm – a farm and campsite on untouched prime agricultural land.

Gayton farm is a working farm and campsite in the village of Horningsea, on the edge of Cambridge with far reaching views over acres of open countryside. The proposed sewage works site on Honey Hill is adjacent to their farming land, and the initial consultation documents from Anglian Water shows that the trenched sewage pipeline that will connect with Waterbeach New town goes alongside the campsite.

Carolyn and I have farmed at Gayton Farm for 8 years. In this time we have diversified our small farm with a campsite and a couple of glamping units. People who stay with us enjoy the fact they are so close to the centre of Cambridge but they are in such a rural peaceful setting. With the potential construction of the sewage works this will dramatically change. The size of structure planned will become completely dominating in this rural area in untouched prime farmland. This massively industrial structure, alien to the surrounding landscape will be clearly visible from our campsite. This is bound to affect our reviews and booking numbers. This even without the potential smell.

From a farming perspective, the link pipe to Waterbeach will cause massive disruption. The work will dissect our farm in half, not only causing difficulties in working the land but also accessing it. It will also cause huge disturbance to the wildlife that live on the farm.

CowsAtGaytonFarmCows grazing where the pipeline from the sewage works will go

Farmland is a valuable resource and it is disgusting that so much prime farmland is to be lost forever, especially in an area supposedly protected by being in the greenbelt.

Robin and Carolyn Truss
Gayton Farm

www.gaytonfarm.co.uk

HoneyHill 1

“I used to think how important, socially, the network of paths linking the four villages must have been in the past”

“We moved to Fen Ditton in 1970 with two small children.  The following summer my parents came down and ‘borrowed’ the kids for a weekend.  That was an unexpected sudden release from responsibility.  We had got to know the surrounding countryside and so headed to Honey Hill as a place for celebrating freedom and spending a warm, low-budget evening.
 
In those pre A14 days there was no bridge, just the dusty Low Fen Drove bending through the flat landscape with a perspective consisting of backdrops behind backdrops, avenues of trees, thick thorny hedges and rush fringed ditches.
 
When I was playing cricket for Quy, I would cycle that way, down High Ditch Road, along the drove way, up the old railway line and into the village past the Hall.  Sometimes I remember taking my little boy and my cricket bag in the basket of an old butcher’s bike.  The journey home after the match into the sunset, singing victoriously, was memorable – picking up a bottle of cider at The Blue Lion as we got back to Fen Ditton.
 
One sunny Christmas Day, at a time when we were looking after an old nag (which resembled an armchair) and an escapologist pony, we took the kids for a ride round Honey Hill.  Our dog, an unruly mongrel, unsuccessfully chased a hare over two fields and a ditch.
 
That same dog used to accompany me on runs on slippery winter days down round the drove way to Biggin Abbey and back home.  As he got older he was less inclined to do this until eventually, one afternoon, he turned his back on me and made his own way home the way we had come.
 
Another occasion involving the dog and the boy was when, due to adverse conditions, we adopted the procedure known as ‘walkies in the motor’ – so in a blizzard, headlamps on full beam, we tried to follow the mongrel from the comfort of the car.  The old grey Renault slid sideways into a ditch near Snout’s Corner.  It was difficult to persuade the AA that the location was accessible and the car retrievable.
 
After gales, I would sometimes search in the thickets up there for fallen boughs to scavenge as firewood.  One day, Major Francis, from Quy Hall, confronted me, thinking I was a poacher or other reprobate.  We later became good friends.  Once, when we needed stakes for a village tree planting campaign, he invited us to make these from saplings cut from along the old railway line.
 
I used to think how important, socially, the network of paths linking the four villages must have been in the past.   Maybe their development had been encouraged by the Bishops of Ely, in times gone by, to combat in-breeding in the communities.  They must also have provided ways to work for that considerable number of farm workers which lived in each village.
 
When the Covid lockdowns started, early in 2020, we rediscovered these pathways and found them so attractive and benign that we mapped them as a guide for others.  I suppose we trespassed a bit on these wanderings but I do remember a picnic lunch by a grass covered brick bridge not far off Low Fen Drove during which the spirit was definitely lifted well clear of those miserable times.  Also picking blackberries at Snout’s Corner with the distant hum of traffic muffled by the sound of the wind in the trees strengthens one’s love for the place.
 
I offer these reminiscences to demonstrate what this area of simple countryside has meant to one person, living beside it for the best part of a lifetime. It’s the purpose of the Green Belt – to provide the city and its surrounding villages with a peaceful, pastoral, restorative resource.  It is tragic to think that if this area comes to be dominated by a massive offensive and repulsive sewage plant, these types of life-affirming experiences, on our doorstep, will never be available again.”
 
 
Many thanks to David Yandell, long time resident of Fen Ditton and exponent of the importance of preserving this valuable local amenity.