On its journey from central England, the River Great Ouse, the fourth longest river in the UK, makes its way through the heart of Cambridgeshire visiting some of the most beautiful towns and villages. It also takes in the character and immense beauty of the Ouse Washes Landscape, a hugely important area of rich washland with internationally significant wildlife habitats and significant drainage engineering heritage.
As Daniel Defoe once said ‘Here are the most beautiful meadows on the banks of the River Ouse, that are to be seen in any part of England, and to see them in the summer season, covered with such innumerable stocks of cattle and sheep, is one of the most agreeable sights in the world.’
Just within the Cambridgeshire border with Bedfordshire, you will find the charming riverside town of St Neots. Here you can visit the award-winning St Neots Museum, which tells the story of the town from prehistoric times to the present day. There are several beautiful green spaces to enjoy including Riverside Park, set amongst huge weeping willow trees, boasting a boating lake, putting green, picnic areas and many marked cycle and footpaths. You might even catch a concert on Sundays throughout summer.
As the River Great Ouse leaves St Neots, you will find Paxton Pits Nature Reserve with its rich mosaic of wildlife habitats and network of marked paths you can explore the lakes, meadows, reed beds and woodland for nightingales, cormorants and a whole host of birds, insects, mammals and flora. A perfect place to relax over dinner is The Brampton Mill. Positioned on the river towards Huntingdon, this converted mill provides an idyllic setting.
In historic Huntingdon, the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, don’t miss The Cromwell Museum to learn about his life and legacy, or take a walk in the 170 beautiful acres of Hinchingbrooke Country Park. Along the river from Huntingdon, you will find the impressive 18th-century Houghton Mill where you can have a go at making your own flour, and a visit to the twin villages of Hemingford Abbots and Hemingford Grey is a must. Amongst the agreeable rural setting and thatched cottages, you will find The Manor, once home to Lucy Boston, the famous children’s author.
Slightly eastwards is the historic market town of St Ives, steeped in history and the southern gateway to the Ouse Washes Landscape. St Ives has enjoyed river traffic since the Bronze Age and remains a major inland waterway. Pay a visit to The Old Riverport and Norris Museum and you will gain an insight into some of the town’s past, including the fascinating Fen Skating history. For a spot of nature, visit Holt Nature Reserve for native tree species and wildlife or nearby RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. If you’re feeling a little peckish, check out Chai Kai Tea House for a huge selection of teas and mouth-watering Indian street food.
The River Great Ouse continues its journey eastwards through beautiful countryside taking in the picturesque villages of Holywell, Needingworth and Earith, before reaching the spectacular city of Ely. The magnificent cathedral dominates the skyline for miles around and you can scale the 165 steps to the top of the Octagon Tower for unrivalled views of the surrounding landscape and marvel at this masterpiece of medieval engineering. The riverside in Ely is a charming spot to while away a few hours with several pubs and eateries and the fantastic Babylon Gallery for exhibitions showing local art and photography.
Ely is the perfect place to learn about the important heritage of the area by visiting one of the fantastic museums including Ely Museum, Oliver Cromwell’s House and just outside of the city, the Prickwillow Engine Museum. Stop off at Samovar Tea House for lunch or cake and choose from their huge menu of teas. For something stronger, visit one of Ely’s lively pubs including Liberty Belle or The Prince Albert.
As the River Great Ouse heads towards Norfolk, you will find Littleport, the largest village in East Cambridgeshire. Here you can relax at The Swan on the River idyllically situated on the banks of the river and sample their locally sourced food and drinks. Nearby you can visit the diverse wetland habitats of the Ouse Washes Landscape and have incredible wildlife encounters throughout the year at WWT Welney Wetland Centre and RSPB Ouse Washes. Both are crucial for the survival of a large number of rare species, including booming bitterns, Bewick’s swans and barn owls.
With all this talk of water, a visit wouldn’t be complete without exploring the waterways. Boat trips and boat hire are available in Ely, St Ives and Huntingdon. The whole area is also rich with distinctive customs, traditions, folklore and arts and a huge programme of festivals, exhibitions and performances take place throughout the year, including the Isle of Ely Arts Festival and OuseFest.
For more ideas for things to do visit the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership’s What’s On Calendar and Interactive Map (www.ousewashes.org.uk/whats-on). The Fenland Tourism (http://www.visitcambridgeshirefens.org) and Visit Cambridge & Beyond (http://www.visitcambridge.org) websites are also great sources of information.
Article by Sara Marshall