The Harcamlow Way runs for 140 miles, a figure of eight from Harlow to Cambridge and back. It takes in much unspoilt countryside, many pleasant villages and three stately homes.
There’s a little bit of fenland as you enter Cambridge, but mostly this is an area of gently rolling low hills, almost exclusively agricultural to this day, with the bonus of crossing the 482ft high point of Essex. A two-leaflet guide to the route was published by Phoebe Taplin in 2014, when the route was waymarked for the first time.
The Chelmer near Duton Hill
Or, the Cambridge Eight circuit
Perhaps the least attractive feature of the walk is its awkward portmanteau name. It conveys the route but without charm. What about an unofficial renaming as the Cambridge Eight – a sporting allusion, the one city on the route, and a plan of the route all in one. Indeed, it would be quite practical to walk the whole route in eight days while staying in Cambridge, so good are the transport links from the city to key points throughout. Here’s how to do it. Trains and buses need to be checked in advance of course, especially on Sundays.
return to Cambridge
||hourly bus, not Sundays
||Stansted Airport *
||train twice hourly
||varies: use traveline.info
||bus twice hourly (hourly Sundays)
* Access Stansted Airport station from the road just before Takeley church, at 559220, just under one mile from path (included in the distances shown)
Towns and villages
Cambridge is world-famous, of course, with its University one of the great and historic seats of learning. The River Cam helps lend the city its character, and walking along this path into the city beside the river you may well see college crews practising. Undoubtedly a major tourist centre, it’s a working town too, and there is a thriving open air market in the centre.
Harlow is a new town in Essex. That damns it already to many, but it’s home to more than 100 public sculptures, thanks to the still-extant vision of its original master planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd – five are passed on a sculpture trail taken by the Harcamlow Way along the River Stort, and it’s worth exploring some more (Rodin, Hepworth, Frink, Moore, …) if you have the time.
Saffron Walden and Thaxted are both prosperous and very pretty Essex market towns, although Saffron Walden in particular is perhaps a little touristy these days. Thaxted is much smaller than Saffron Walden, barely more than a village, but it has a fine church and Guildhall. Newport is at the centre of the figure-of-eight; formerly a coaching stop on the Cambridge road, it is quieter now the M11 forms a bypass, but with the railway it is well placed for Cambridge and London commuters.
The valleys of the little Hertfordshire rivers Ash and Rib, the latter especially, are splendid. Villages worth stopping in include Manuden, Coton, Arkesden and Debden (not the one on the Central Line). The path spends four miles on top of the ancient Fleam Dyke, and reaches the edge of fen country around Lode. Hatfield Forest is a stunning remnant of one of England’s great royal hunting forests. There are three major stately homes: Wimpole Hall, Audley End and Anglesey Abbey.
The parterre garden, Audley End
Transport and accommodation
Cambridge has two rail lines to London, but on this walk it is the junior – the Liverpool Street line – which is more useful. The Way passes Roydon and Newport stations, and is very close to Harlow Town (the walk’s official start), Harlow Mill, Sawbridgeworth and of course Cambridge. Stanstead Airport station, on a branch, is less than a mile off route. The stop at Meldreth on the King’s Cross line could be useful too. Places like Standon, Saffron Walden, Bartlow, Thaxted and Takeley have good bus services (other than on Sundays). By road, the M11 roughly follows the Liverpool Street line, but has no exits in the vicinity of Newport.
There are plenty of places to stay in Cambridge (all budgets) and Saffron Walden (pricey). Harlow has its share too but often functional and business-oriented. Both Harlow and Cambridge have hostels. The influence of Stansted Airport is not always bad, for it has increased the supply of accommodation in the south of the Way – B&Bs as well as impersonal hotels. A good number of the local pubs have rooms.
Walking the Harcamlow Way
These notes were made from my first experience of the Harcamlow Way, part with my walking partner Dave Travers and part solo, during 1993-98. I have revisited it often since, particularly in 2011-12 as I prepared my Cicerone guide Walking in Essex.
A cold Saturday early in 1997. Cambridge to Wimpole Hall, 14 miles.
Not a bad start at all, past the famous colleges. Leaving the city outskirts we passed two physics dons discussing Heisenberg, as one does on a chilly Saturday morning in Cambridge. Coton is quite early for a stop, but there is a good chance to rest by a pretty pond with the church beyond. Much of the walk is coincident with the waymarked Wimpole Way, but not all of it is; in particular the Harcamlow finds a better route towards Wimpole Hall itself.
1 March 1997. Wimpole Hall to Heydon, 14 miles.
The dull bit. Let’s be honest, the bit you really wouldn’t want to have to do. A very promising start through Wimpole’s grounds soon becomes a dull trudge along litter-strewn bridleways and arrow-straight tarmacked roads. Shortly beyond Melbourn, our lunchtime break was a Little Chef, and that’s since closed. Nuff said. At the very end, some contours: promise of better to come.
26 April 1997. Heydon to Debden, 13 miles.
Much better than before: gentle, varied countryside, with a picture book village in Arkesden and its famous pub the Axe and Compasses. I’ve since found out that the Way misses a better descent into Arkesden, via the old corpse road of Steven’s Lane. The crossing-point of the figure-of-eight is at Newport, soon after. Debden was a surprise to us: it’s nothing like its namesake the bleak Central Line Debden, a vast housing estate, but has a perfect little green on which morris dancers were performing that sunny afternoon (though the pub is now an Indian restaurant).
31 May 1997. Debden to Takeley, 13 miles.
Thaxted is a deservedly famous little town: make a note to come back if you cannot stay long. From here you follow the infant River Chelmer for a few miles, with Stansted Airport supplying the aerial distractions. The tiny little chapel at Tilty is worth a look, and there is a brief dip to the valley of the River Roding, not far from its source.
8 November 1997. Takeley to Harlow, 13 miles.
Hatfield Forest is the highlight of this section, a relic of the royal hunting forests of southern England long ago (well OK, not the bit by the lake with the car park). Pishiobury Park in commuterland Sawbridgeworth is a welcome surprise before you join the River Stort towpath on its way along the top of Harlow: look one way, greenery; look the other, warehouses; look on the river, maybe kingfishers. There’s now a sculpture trail along here, which I describe in Walking in Essex.
29 March 1993 and 31 January 1998. Harlow to Standon, 16 miles.
You continue from Harlow along the river Stort, though the A414 dual carriageway is often close by across open fields, to the village of Roydon. Two other tributaries of the Lea, the Ash and the Rib, provide this day’s highlights, and the second in particular has one of the prettiest little valleys in the home counties. It really does feel quite remote. I remember, on the first day, getting thoroughly confused around TL 409 137, the path junction near Hunsdon, trying to follow the original guidebook, only to find the turn easily the second time, relying more thoroughly on the map. Lunch both times was in Wareside, a bit of a diversion from the route, partly using the old Buntingford railway. On the solo trip, I stayed at a B&B in Puckeridge, but as it had a Standon address I unnecessarily walked all through Standon to find it.
30 March 1993 and 30 October 1998. Standon to Newport, 17 miles.
Not much that is all that special, in the first half at least, though there are some nice manor houses to look at. Manuden, in the upper Stort valley, is a pretty village with pub at the half way point, and after the isolated Rickling church a green lane descends to Newport. One of the ‘Essex extra’ walks on this site uses the Harcamlow Way out of Manuden.
16 September 1995. Newport to Bartlow, 12 miles.
This is an eventful day by any standards. You are in another catchment area now, that of the Cam, with its outflow to the Wash, instead of the Thames-bound Lea. The crossover point on the figure 8 is by a tiny tributary of the Cam, Debden Water; just above here there are good retrospective views. The park and house at Audley End, and soon after it the town of Saffron Walden, are tourist destinations in their own right. The little village of Ashdon is a relic of a once-prosperous small town worthy of a guild hall, and you pass also its long-closed railway halt and preserved post mill – rickety in 1995, I noted, but in much better shape in 2012 when I came back this way to prepare an Ashdon circular for ‘Walking in Essex’. Finally, the three Romano-British burial mounds of Bartlow Hills include the largest barrow in Britain.
Author in the Rib valley, 1995
13 April 1996. Bartlow to Fulbourn, 13 miles.
A Roman road and a Saxon earthwork are the dominant features. Both run west-noth-west, the first from just outside Horseheath village and the second from Balsham. You are on top of this latter, the Fleam Dyke, for an hour of walking, which gives plenty of time for reflection on the effort to construct it 1200 years ago – but it has a still greater twin, the Devil’s Ditch, a few miles to the north. (The Stour Valley Path, just outside Newmarket, takes in part of the Devil’s Ditch.)
27 April 1996. Fulbourn to Cambridge, 14 miles.
A day on the edge of the fens, finishing with a memorable march in to Cambridge along the Cam. Before this, the highlight is the mile beside Quy Water into Lode – I remember the hawthorn being in full bloom. In Lode itself, you should (although we did not) make time to visit either Anglesey Abbey or Lode Mill, if not both.