Route details, maps, pubs, features, local history and folklore for a wide variety of walks focusing primarily on Norfolk and Suffolk

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Ouse Valley Way - Bedford to St Neots

River Ouse, Eaton Socon

A 17 mile riverside walk along the Ouse Valley Way between Bedford and St Neots

Despite the increasing urbanisation between Bedord and St Neots, the riverside sections of this walk provide some pleasant rambles. Particularly notable is the 15th century river bridge at Great Barford and the riverside parks at St Neots.

Bedford to St Neots Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
Bedford View in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
St Neots View in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
17 miles
Walk difficulty
Moderate
Terrain
Riverside paths, former railway trackbed, some road walking
Obstacles
The section from Wyboston into Eaton Socon is alongside the main A1 highway and the busy St Neots interchange. Be cautious at all times along these heavily used roads

Maps:

The following maps and services can assist in navigating this route. The links include published hard copy as well as online plots and downloadable GPX route data for importing into navigational software and apps.

Ordnance Survey Explorer Map
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Online Ordnance Survey Route
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Online OpenStreetMap Route
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Online Google Route
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ViewRanger App Route
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GPX data for route (download)

Details of Accommodation used when performing this walk

Accommodation:

Houghton Mill CampsiteView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Website
Description
St Neots Camping and Caravan Site. Excellent riverside location and close to town

Transport:

Details of public transport that is required for the walk

Stagecoach - Bus Service
Service Number
X5 - Stagecoach X5 Serrvice linking Cambridge, St Neots, Bedford, Milton Keynes and Oxford
Timetable

Walk Data

Date of Walk
2017-05-20
Walk Time
09:30 to 16:30
Walkers
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
Warm day, some heavy showers

Walk Notes

This walk was undertaken as a personal target to complete a missing gap in the Ouse Valley Way between the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire sections of this long distance trail. The walk would entail overnight accommodation both preceding and after the walk and the campsite at St Neots was chosen as a suitable base with public transport to link the start and end of the route. The campsite was a highly recommended site by friends and family; a river side location with a pleasant walk across the landscaped park to the town centre where there are plenty of restaurants and pubs.

The days leading up to the walk had been exceptionally wet. We had been warned that the site was susceptible to flooding and on arrival found vast areas under water. One would have been better off with a boat and a mooring rather than a tent and a pitch. Even so, the proprietor navigated us around the flooded areas to a small patch of higher ground, ironically right next to the river.

St Neots is a pleasant market town that has grown in size over recent decades with housing estates and business parks, the modern name for an industrial estate. The town centre retains a typical small market town feel that has not changed over the years. The main road through town had once been the route of the old A45 trunk road to the east coast. These days the town is bypassed and the A45 has been supplanted by the A14 highway some distance to the north. St Neots was renowned for its Paine's brewery which stood alongside Hen Brook on the south side of the market square. Paine's beers were an oasis of taste bud pleasures in the ale deserts of the 1970s and 80s. Their flagship brew was EG which was reputedly an acronym for both Eynesbury Giant and Extra Gravity. It was an awesome pint of beer with a lingering satisfaction. Full bodied, powerful, with a very morish character. Unfortunately the brewery closed in 1987 and the likes of EG was consoled to the history of ale books.

There is a regular coach service between St Neots and Bedford offered by Stagecoach's prestigious Oxford to Cambridge route. These large air conditioned coaches are somewhat different to the usual rattling buses that the company employ on their routes and as such, they provide a smooth, speedy and comfortable journey to the centre of Bedford and the start of this walk.

The river Ouse is a short distance from Bedford bus station from where there are riverside paths and parks that lead one out of the town in a little area of greenery amid the ever expanding urbanization. I would like to say Bedford is a town that is worthwhile spending time in but I am certainly no urbanite and the thought of lingering in such a place does not particularly enthral me. These days the town is expanding with such a veracity that the surrounding countryside and villages are being gobbled up in its unrelenting need for more space. Having been brought up just north of Bedford I knew it as a small county town. This is certainly not the case these days and the last memories I have of the place was it turning into a burgeoning beast whose nightlife was renowned for aggressive behaviour and the tendency for trouble.

The riverside parkland in Bedford makes for a pleasant stroll and does provide one with the sense that this is still an old county town. Swans glide by on the river away from the slipstreams of the ever present rowing eights that ply their sport up and down the river. The side streams through the parkland let their waters slide down weirs and then meander seemingly aimlessly through the manicured grassland. The weirs present an ever pleasing sight to stand and idly watch for a few minutes. Captivating. Groups of people amble by taking in the air. No-one in a rush apart from the joggers who don't seem to be in any particular hurry at breaking their personal best times. The numerous trees sport their new year leaves in the spring sunshine and the chirping of birds take ones thoughts away from the constant rumble of traffic that it always in the background if one stops and listens for the stillness and tranquillity. A cyclist hurries past. Not a bell of warning. Casting all asunder. A young upstart with a chip on his shoulder. A torrent of abuse is hurled at those who are potential obstacles to his direct path. A message of profanity that is somewhat limited in its array of adjectives. I told you Bedford was aggressive. In my humble experience you cannot go through Bedford without being the butt of abuse. That is how I last remembered the town and it gives an abrasive reminder that it has not changed as we leave.

The footpath leads out of the town and through an area of marinas and lakes formed from former gravel workings. This is all part of the Fenlake Nature Reserve and the Priory Country Park, a haven for the folk of Bedford to get away from their urban surroundings and probably an escape from the young urbanites with chips on their shoulders and a vocabulary that is limited to a few profane adjectives. It must be noted that the Ouse Valley Way is not clearly marked through the Country Park and, as on this occasion, it is easy to take the wrong direction. Where the path joins the asphalt track between the two lakes of the country park one needs to keep straight ahead rather than follow the asphalt track between the lakes. Even so, continuing ahead on the main track will lead one onto the old railway trackbed which eventually meets back up with the Ouse Valley Way. A little extra distance but a pleasant ramble nonetheless.

The railway track continues through to the village of Willington where the Danish Camp cafe offers a chance of rest and refreshment. This popular little Norwegian log cabin on the banks of the Ouse sits adjacent to a moated site that is said to date back to Viking days. Teas and coffee and a range of snacks and meals can be purchased and consumed whilst taking in the sight of the river from the seated veranda. Beyond this, the Ouse Valley Way departs the former trackbed and follows the course of the river through to Great Barford. The river is crossed prior to reaching the village at the location of the former Barford Water Mill. This was demolished in the 1950s after many centuries of operation. The Domesday book of 1068 records there being a mill here so it is truly an ancient site. Sadly all that remains are the islands created by the water courses that used to feed the mill and there is little clue that this is an ancient mill site. Footbridges allow access across the waters and the footpath then follows the opposite bank into the village of Great Barford with its magnificent 15th century bridge.

From Barford the Ouse Valley Way follows the river to the village of Roxton. Unfortunately on this expedition an official notice was placed on the waymarker post that led from the road back down to the river. You may know the sort of notice. Plain white paper protected from the elements by flimsy plastic. A map with a highlighted section. The official words about a blocking up order in force for six months. A double check is required to determine that is was not an old notice left behind from former works. No. It was current. There are works on the river banks. The order was put in place the previous month and it clearly stated in large uppercase characters NO ALTERNATIVE ROUTE which appeared to imply that one had two choices. Either stand and wait until the six months work had been completed, or return along the route one came, circumnavigate the globe and pick up the path on the western side.

After a consultation of the map, it was soon determined that one could follow the road out of Barford then take a footpath into the village of Roxton. Admittedly it was not a riverside walk but it was an alternative and a little shorter than circumnavigating the globe in order to get to the western side of the diversion. The road was not busy and this led onto the old main road through to Bedford. The Bedford bypass now takes the bulk of the traffic so even this is currently little used and there is a pavement along this section through to the footpath down to Roxton.

There is a pub at Roxton. The Royal Oak. This establishment boasts as being a Post Office, a shop, flats, a hotel, a restaurant as well as a pub. Despite all of these credentials it was closed which, at this point in time, was not the ideal situation since the heavens opened and the rain started to pour. Waterproofs donned and without adequate shelter we headed onwards. Luckily it was only a passing shower and by the time we got to the bridge over the main Bedford road the rain had ceased. There is a little field walking here through to the road that leads into the village of Wyboston. Anyone who has travelled the Great North Road through Cambridgeshire must know Wyboston. It is the village cut in half by the thundering highway. It used to have a pub with the curious name of Wait for the Wagon. The building still stands and the name is still present on the walls but it shut its doors for good in 2014.

The final part of the walk follows The Great North Road, the great roaring monster of a dual carriageway with its iron railing borders serving as a token pretence of protecting the pedestrian from its incessant screaming traffic. One would have thought there would be an alternative route alongside the river through the area known as Wyboston lakes but there is not, the land al appearing to be privately owne. The OS map does indicate a footpath that continues where the field path ends, this cuts diagonally across the fields and nurseries from the Wyboston road to Eaton Socon but by all accounts this appears to have been extinguished. There is public access through the nurseries to emerge on a track at a similar location in Eaton Socon. This would certainly be preferable to the unsavoury wander amid the dust and fumes of the traffic which is then followed by the need to cross the mass of junctions at the Eaton Socon interchange where bemused motorists glare at the audacity of people who have devised a method of using legs for perambulation. The urban monstrosities continue with the concrete and asphalt of a retail estate where constant streams of traffic parade past in their addiction to consumer therapy.

Eventually one is able to leave this environment and wander past Eaton Socon church and down to the river. There is a small brick building on the roadside opposite the church with a door but no windows. A plaque clearly states EATON SOCON CAGEand then details this as an ancient lock-up that had been used to confine local malefactors. One wonders why such cages are not more readily employed in this day and age.

The path then crosses the locks and follows the river bank into St Neots and journeys end. In conclusion this could be a pleasant riverside ramble but with the Great Barford diversion and the wander along the highways it ended on a low note. I would guess other walkers may appreciate this a lot more once the path has reopened (This was due to be completed autumn 2017) and to use the track and lane into Eaton Socon rather than use the torrid official route via Wyboston.

As an afternote, the following day we attempted to walk the short distance through to Little Paxton to the north of St Neots on the riverside path which continues along the riverside meadows. Given the wet conditions it was very marshy in parts and a local dog walker advised that under such conditions the route along the road is more advisable.

River Ouse, St Neots
River Ouse, St Neots

Directions

Riverside walk from St Neots to Houghton near Huntingdon

From Bedford Bus Station head out onto Greyfriars and turn left and continue for 400 yards. At the roundabout continue straight ahead and down to the riverside path. Turn left and follow the river. At the river bridge, cross over to the opposite bank and continue along the riverside path. Do not cross the footbridge by the weir but continue on the southern side of the channel. The path will eventually pass under a large road bridge after which there is a footbridge across the river. Take this and turn right immediately after. The path then crosses another footbridge and then follow the riverside. Just before the river meets a sluice take the path that almost turns back on itself, through some woodland and into the country park. The crosses a small footbridge and then joins an asphalt path around the lake. As the path turns left to follow the lake boundary there is a footpath on the right. Take this and follow it through to the old railway track bed. Turn right and cross the river bridge and follow the track bed.

Keep to this railway path bearing in mind that this is also a regularly used cycle path. It does take a diversion to get over the Bedford bypass but then continues on its straight course. There is a short stretch where the path deviates into some woodland which then returns back to the trackbed where it meets the lane into Willington. The OS map is misleading here as it depicts the trackbed being the main route throughout which is clearly not the case. Just keep following the path, then turn right back onto the trackbed at the Willington lane.

Keep on the track bed, past the Danish Camp cafe until the path leads off to the left and alongside the river. Keep to this this path and follow the route over the bridges where the Barford Mill once stood. The path then follows the river into the village of Great Barford with the Anchor pub at the road junction by the bridge.

Follow New Road away from the pub. There is a footpath on the right, just past the sewage works, which leads back down to the river side. Follow the river until the path leads away onto Ford Lane. Continue up Ford Lane into the village of Roxton. Follow the road as it bends round to the right and leads through the High Street. At the pub, turn right onto School Lane then take the footpath on the right that leads along the back of the houses. This emerges out onto the old main Bedford road. Turn right then take the left across the road bridge over the new road. Keep to the road into Chawston and take the first right. After 200yds take the footpath on the left. This leads across a field and onto a track then continues straight ahead into a small area of modern housing. Continue straight ahead and turn right onto the road. This emerges onto the very busy A1 highway. There is a path on the right which leads to a footbridge across the highway. On the opposite sideturn left and continue along the footpath. This follows the slip way down to a large roundabout. One needs to cross over to the road that leads into Eaton Socon. Be cautious when crossing as the roads are they are very busy and with fast moving traffic.

Continue on the road into Eaton Socon and take School Lane down by the side of the church. Continue to the end where there is the River Mill pub on the left and to the right are the locks which provide the method to cross the river. Turn left and follow the opposite bank. Across the river is the site of Eaton Socon Castle. Continue along the riverside path, past the campsite, through some woodland and onto the access road to the campsite. The land opposite is said to be the site of a Roman Encampment. Turn left over the large footbridge and follow the riverside path through to the main St Neots River Bridge. Cross the river. The bus stop is alongside the market square. Just past this, on the left is New Street where the Pig and Falson pub can be found.

Bedford Bridge
Bedford Bridge

Pubs

The Anchor Inn, Great Barford View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Address
High Street, Great Barford
Website

Riverside pub adjacent to Barford Bridge. Parts of the building date from the late 1600s with 19th century additions. There is some evidence that the pub was originally named the Black Bull with its name changing after the 19th century rebuilding. Currently a Charles Wells tied house with standard pub food and the usual Wells and Youngs ales

Review

Busy pub and a satisfying ale and sandwich

Pig and Falcon, St Neots View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Address
New Street, St Neots
Website

Award winning pub that boasts an ever changing selection of eight real ales, micro brewery craft ales and eight real ciders. A must for any discerning drinker. Friendly, welcoming and rustic the way a traditional pub should be. Highly recommended.

Review

Selecting a pub is always a bit of a hit and miss affair but luckily I had done a few web searches for the pubs in St Neots and this one stood out a mile. It certainly did not let us down. A fantastic array of ale and every drop in tip top condition. A veritable goldmine for any ale enthusiast.

Priory Countryside Park
Priory Countryside Park

Features

The Eynesbury GiantView in OS Map | View in Google Map

St Neots is not a place one would associate with giants but run a search across the Internet and you will be greeted with a mass of websites detailing the history of The Eynesbury Giant, sometimes known as the Huntingdonshire Giant.

This story of a giant is placed in the not-too-distant-past and there are many accounts attesting to the existence of the person to whom this epithet was attributed. The man in question was named James Toller, born in St Neots sometime around the end of the 18th century, either 1795 or 1798 depending upon the account that is read.

The reasons he was known as a giant are clear. At 10 years old he was 5ft in height, at 18, 8ft and at his premature death in 1819 he measured 8ft 6 inches. His renown spread far and wide and in his short life he was paraded in front of many notable personalities including the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Russia.

If one digs a little deeper then there is another Eynesbury Giant that dates back far more centuries. The tale is related in George Gorham's History and Antiquities of Eynesbury. He places the story upon a hill, which is no more than an area of raised ground to the east of the river close to the modern day campsite. This land is traditionally known as the site of an ancient Roman Encampment. Gorham quotes the piece of folklore in full:

It is a popular legend, that a giant, stationed upon this hill, was accustomed to throw a weapon to another giant posted upon the Norman Keep on the River bank at Eaton (distant three-quarters of a mile), which was returned, in a similar way, by the latter. Vulgar tradition (however absurd) is generally formed around some nucleus of fact. Probably in this case, the tradition originated in the circumstance of there having been a military Defence at Eynesbury, as there certainly has been a Norman Earth-Work at Eaton.

There is archaeological evidence that suggests the area commonly known as the Roman Camp may have been under Roman occupation. The area referred to as the Norman Keep at Eaton is undoubtedly the Castle Hills area of Eaton Socon which is on the West bank of the River Ouse. Little remains of the Norman Castle which once stood here other than the raised earth works. There is also evidence that a Saxon Vill preceded the castle which makes this a truly ancient site. But why or how the legend of the giants came about is unknown. The Saxons arrived in Britain around the time of the collapse of the Western Roman empire so it is probably not correct to say that the Saxon Vill and Roman Camp existed during the same time period.

Unfortunately, I can find no further references to this tale other than the account in Gorhams book. George Cornelius Gorham was born in St Neots in 1787 and lived his early years in the town. He graduated at Queens' College, Cambridge in 1805 and was ordained as a priest in 1811, and then from 1814 served the curacy of parishes in Kent and then Surrey. During this period, in 1820, he published his book, The history and Antiquities of Eyensbury. He eventually moved to Cornwall in 1847 to take up the post of a vicar at St Just.

It is therefore clear that having been brought up in St Neots he would have probably been knowledgeable of the legends and folklore of the area. Such tales were probably local and may well have been spread by word of mouth rather than published accounts which may explain why no other published account preceding the modern era can be found.

It is curious that a legend involving Giants is associated with this area. Such folklore is not generally known in this part of Britain. The south west is the land of the myths and tales of Giants but Gorham had yet to move down there so it is unlikely that he mixed Cornish folklore with the local history. A link maybe found in the fact that his book concentrates on the historic account of the Cornish Saint Neot who the town had been named after (see feature below). Could this link have shaped the folklore over the centuries? Could the Cornish link have supplied the original seed for such a tale? Perhaps we will never know.

References

St Neots PrioryView in OS Map | View in Google Map

The urban area of St Neots which encompasses both modern day towns of St Neots itself and Eynesbury to the south, has an interesting history. It does, at first instance, appear strange that the name of a 9th century Cornish Saint was given to a municipality in this part of the world. St Neot was a ninth century monk and hermit and spent all his life in the west country, initially serving as a sacristan at Glastobury Abbey and then joining a group of monks close to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. He was reputedly only 4ft tall and was a contemporary of King Alfred, and some even suggest a direct relation to the King, for it was Neot's writings that associated Alfred with the legend of the burning of the cakes. Yet throughout Neots life, he had no known association or connection with Huntingdonshire or the East of England. He died around 870AD and he was buried in a Chapel on the southern side of Bodmin Moor in what is today the town named after him. His remains were subsequently translated to an opening in the wall of the church, close to the high altar.

One hundred years after Neots passing a local Huntingdonshire Nobleman by the name of Earl Alric and his Countess Ethelfleda established a Priory on the banks of the River Ouse at what was then probably known as Bury or Burgh, the Saxon name of Eynesbury. Back in those days a priory needed the prestige of a patron Saint and this was somewhat lacking in the case of the newly formed Priory. Quite how Alric arrived at the determination that the Cornish St Neot was a suitable candidate for their patronage was uncertain, but this was the decision taken. However, merely taking the name of a Saint for its patron was never sufficient in those days and to heighten its status and prestige, a priory required to have the relics of the saint such that the common god fearing people would make the effort to pilgrimage to the priory, and no doubt provide a vital income to the place.

It was therefore decided by the incumbents of the priory that they should pop down to Cornwall and acquire the bones of St Neot as a suitable relic. Of course one could not just acquire such precious and holy remains which were guarded and watched over by their loyal Cornish benefactors. A plan was required. The remains of St Neot were under the direct guardianship of a man named Barius, said to be the saints attendant at the time of his death. This is somewhat dubious if nearly a century had passed since the saints death. Some accounts do not name this person who was charged with the title of Warden of the Shrine. Now some accounts state that Barius had a dream where St Neot instructed him to take the relics to Huntingdonshire whilst other accounts assert that he was bribed to steal the relics and take them to the newly formed priory. Either way it was a long journey, some 230 miles as the crow flies and undertaken in the onset of winter during seven days in which storms hampered his progress.

Whatever initiated the transformation of the relics, the local populous was not best pleased when they discovered the relics missing. They must have been given a tip off for after searching the local area for the missing Warden they then armed themselves and set off for Huntingdonshire with the task of forcibly retrieving the relics and returning them to Cornwall, as well as giving the perpetrators of the act a bloody nose in the process.

However, providence was not on their side for when they arrived at Eynesbury, fired up for battle. They were met by the soldiers of King Edgar who, we are told, had licensed the removal of the relics in the first instance. He was so determined that the relics should stay in Eynesbury that he had detailed his army to drive the Cornishmen out of the village and put them to the sword in case of resistance. It appears almost ironic that such a bloodthirsty act was requisitioned by a man who was known as Edgar the Peaceful. The Cornishmen, not wanting a battle to death, returned home and Earl Alric constructed a chapel to house the relics of St Neot on the eastern side of the River Ouse on the land that is now a supermarket. To further honour the Saint, the village was renamed St Neotsbury eventually becoming St Neots that we now today.

There is much contention with this story, its dates and what precipitated the removal of St Neots relics from their original location. In some accounts part of the relics remained in Cornwall. Saints relics were a highly prized commodity in Anglo-Saxon times. They were said to perform miracles, to cure the sick and almost undoubtedly would have provided an income for the monasteries and chapels that housed them. One may state that the greatest relic of all, although not a Saints relic, is the Holy Grail whose legend emanates from the Saxon times of King Arthur and which people still search for even today.

The Priory was established around AD974 which is a year prior to King Edgars death in Winchester, Hampshire. King Edgar was known to be proponent of the revival of monasteries in the 10th century which may well establish why he got involved in sending troops to counter the force of the disgruntled Cornishmen. It is said that more than 40 monasteries owed their existence to his favours. The details contained here are primarily taken from George Gorhams History and Antiquitie's of Eynesbury which contains many footnotes about the sources of the information. It is recommended that those interested in this feature should read his work.

References
Eynesbury campsite location
Eynesbury campsite location

Gallery

Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on an image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: 2018-04-08

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