Fifty feet up and on top of the world

THE SUNDAY WALK; Cambridgeshire is often thought too flat for proper hiking but it provides decent walking for families and some terrific views
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The Independent Online
East Anglia does not always appeal to walkers - as everybody knows, it's fairly flat. But when you walk, as I do, with a toddler on your back, it's perfect. The slopes are gentle, the views stretch for miles - and what's wrong with an easy walk anyway?

On a cold, crisp winter morning, I set off with my wife, Kate, and 15- month-old Adam to explore the area around the Devil's Dyke on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The Devil's Dyke is a massive embankment, seven miles long and up to 50 feet high, built in the seventh century to defend the East Anglian kingdom from Mercia. A footpath runs along its entire length, from Reach to Woodditton; we chose to tackle two short stretches as part of a seven-mile circular walk.

We parked in Burwell, by the bus stop opposite St Mary's Church. Like every village hereabouts, Burwell has its Heath Road - an ancient track leading to higher ground. A steady climb of about a mile brought us to Lower Portland Farm and a footpath to the dyke. We crossed a wooden bridge and joined the path, walking beside a hedge alive with winter berries.

Soon we were climbing on to the dyke itself. Suddenly you realise just how flat the surrounding countryside is; 50 feet up, you feel on top of the world. As if on cue, a rainbow appeared and a sheep came up to investigate us. A flock of Caer ewes is kept on the dyke to keep the chalk grassland in order.

A short distance along the dyke we crossed a stile and had a choice. Keep going and you have a free view of Newmarket racecourse - very popular in summer; but we took the steps down to our right and crossed the fields to Swaffham Prior. The village is dominated by its twin windmills and a pair of churches sharing a single churchyard. One of the mills still turns and the stoneground flour is on sale in the post office.

Barston Drove is an old cart track connecting Swaffham Prior to Reach. Close to Reach, it turns into a metalled road; a quick left-then-right took us into the village the back way, passing a farmhouse and stables before arriving at Reach Lode, an old Roman canal.

Reach was a significant medieval port, with boats from London and beyond travelling up the Lode until 1650. With the draining of the fens the coast moved north and Reach is now just a small village. The north end of Devil's Dyke was demolished in the 13th century to make way for Fair Green, the site of an annual fair at which horses and brides were traded. The fair still takes place each May and the green remains the heart of the village, with a war memorial, a massive chestnut tree and, best of all, a pub.

The King's free house is a treat for winter walkers: a real fire, home- cooked food at reasonable prices in enormous portions and a good range of real ales. One word of warning - there was nothing on the menu for vegetarians.

Two glasses of strong, sweet Black Baron ale fortified us for the final stretch of the walk. We climbed back on to the dyke for a pretty half- mile, with the hedges forming a canopy over our heads. When we came to a clearing by the old Cambridge-to-Mildenhall rail line, the dyke stretched away into the distance and we could trace our entire walk. A flight of steps led to a footpath back to Burwell, arriving beside the ruins of a 12th-century castle, now covered by a grass mound. The walk ended in the nearby churchyard, where we found the memorial to 78 victims of a barn fire in 1727, who died when a match set light to the hay as they sat watching a magician's show.

We'd been walking for about three hours, enough to feel pleasantly tired but not worn out, apart from Adam that is. He had fallen fast asleep in his backpack, with his head on Daddy's shoulders. Now that really is what I call an easy walk.

Use OS Landranger map 154. Burwell is on the B1102, 10 miles north-east of Cambridge. Details of buses from Cambus: 01223 423554. A shorter version of this walk is described in 'Pub Walks in Cambridgeshire' by Jean and Geoff Pratt (pounds 4.99).

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