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  • View the River Heritage Walks

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    The River Great Ouse is 150 miles long, rising in Buckinghamshire and discharging into The Wash at King’s Lynn. The route through Cambridgeshire has changed many times over the centuries. As the Industrial Revolution progressed there was a need to improve the navigation between the important inland dock at Littleport and the Cathedral City of Ely to allow larger vessels further upstream and shorten voyage times.

    In 1830 the excavation of Sandys Cut was completed from Littleport to Queen Adelaide. The River Lark was extended westward to join the new man-made channel and the old meandering course of the Ouse via Prickwillow became redundant. By then, the drainage of the fens had been underway for more than two hundred years with steam pumps replacing wind pumps at a time when agriculture was largely powered by heavy horses. The railway age reached the area in 1845 and an interchange dock was constructed near Ely station to enable heavy goods to be moved by barge to and from remote areas of the fens and to be transferred on and off the new rail network.

    The first University Boat Race had been contested at Henley-on-Thames on the 10th of June 1829 and later the Adelaide Course became Cambridge University Boat Club’s training base. On the 26th of February, 1944 the third wartime boat race was contested there to avoid the dangers of London and the Thames. At the time the crews and spectators were unaware of the number of munitions trains passing through the village in preparation for DDay. The history of Sandys Cut and the walks will help you retrace the rich heritage, linking generations of people who competed, lived and worked on and beside these local rivers.

    Walk 1: The Adelaide Course - Variable distance and time

    From Queen Adelaide Bridge head north towards Littleport on the Prickwillow bank. Find the large Portland Stone marker on top of the bank, which marks the line where the 1944 and 2004 Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Races finished. If you continue walking you will find another three markers at half-mile intervals before reaching the junction with The River Lark.

    Walk 2: Padnal Fen - 6 miles – 2 to 3 hours

    After visiting the Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum head along the south bank of the River Lark to the junction with the River Great Ouse and the start of the Adelaide Course. In 1944 the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race took place here and commemorative Portland Stone markers can be found on top of the bank at half-mile intervals leading to a finish marker near Queen Adelaide Bridge. Follow Prickwillow Road over the Norwich railway crossing and then a footpath to the right, which leads to the old river bank. Just after the Old Plough, once a riverside public house, there is an open, banana shaped field with a distinct meander, which was once the riverbed. Follow Old Bank back to the Museum in Prickwillow.

    The idea to straighten the circuitous route of the River Great Ouse between Littleport and Ely was first suggested in the 17th century by Sir Miles Sandys, Lord of the Manor of Littleport. He began to dig a channel at Littleport but his bankruptcy halted the work. It was not until 1826 that the Drainage & Navigation Commission decided to recommence the project. Work began in 1827 cutting the channel 74 feet wide, six feet deep and four miles in length. More than 400 labourers were employed on the excavation, which took three years to complete. The channel was officially opened on Monday 19th April, 1830.

    Walk 3: Old River Course. 9 miles - 4 to 5 hours including train journey back from Littleport

    From Ely Railway Station walk to the Quayside near The Old Boathouse Restaurant and follow the towpath along Ely’s riverside under the railway bridge and onto open meadowland leading to the water depot, Cuckoo Bridge and the iron footbridge across the River Great Ouse near Queen Adelaide. Looking towards Ely from the bridge you can clearly see where the old course once joined today’s river. Cross the road immediately over the bridge, turning right along the verge to track on the left leading to Prickwillow. The redundant pump house here was once a wind pump, which was replace by a steam pump in the 1830s and later to diesel.

    With the nature reserve on your left, walk along the track to the Old Plough, once a riverside public house, and find an open, banana shaped field with a distinct meander showing the old river course. Follow Old Bank and join the main road through the village, which is actually built on the old riverbed. Before reaching the Museum, take a note of the dates on the older buildings.

    After a break, continue by crossing bridge over The River Lark, taking the first left into Branch Bank road, passing under the railway bridge before climbing to the top of the river bank to view the surrounding countryside with Ely Cathedral in the distance. A World War Two pillbox across the road on your right marks the point where the old riverbed heads North and another ‘meandering’ fieldshape shows the old river course. This section of the walk is largely unmarked and Ordinance Survey Map – Explorer 228 shows the path along ditches, field edges and tracks to Littleport. Occasionally sections of old bank can be seen and when the land is freshly ploughed the riverbed clay is clearly visible. Visit the Black Horse Inn before catching a train back to Ely from Littleport Station.