Off the Beaten Track Around Grafham Water

29983380_10215715220694145_8128658488843829248_nThe fog wreathed, dull iron grey waters of the lake sat sullenly under an overcast sky full of the threat of rain; the weather could be no more different to the bright summers day which had graced Huntingdon yesterday. Swigging down the last of my coffee I got up from the bench, breathed the fresh air in deeply and began to walk.

The lake in question is Grafham Water, an Anglian Water reservoir and area of Significant Scientific Interest five miles from Huntingdon, which contains 578,000,000 m3 of water, ranking it the eighth largest reservoir nationally by volume and third nationally by size. The lake itself is entirely synthetic, installed in 1965 to supply water to Milton Keynes and the rapidly expanding East Midland and Cambridgeshire towns. It was established by damming and flooding a valley which had previously contained 1,500 acres of farmland and four unfortunate farms. The reservoir was colonised almost immediately by assorted wildlife and is now home to rare species such as warty newts, great crested grebes, tufted ducks and a large colony of mute swans.

It was one of these mute swans, a brown speckled youth still growing his pure white feathers, who serenely slid past me as I slithered and slipped along a churned footpath lined with the vicious husks of dried teasels and populated by flying insects who had been, as I had, fooled by the previous days glorious weather. 

I was starting my walk from the furthest point that Vicky and I had walked around the lake on a previous trip, about half a mile around its ten mile circumference where we had been waylaid by picnic benches and an attractive vista. Most of the lake is shored with gradual sloping beaches or solid defensive rock groynes, but this section was lined with sturdy brick wall embankments. The embankments were just visible in the April gloom; though the increased water levels (following the damp segway from winter to spring) had left them submerged. They were laid out below the turgid waters, ghostly green outlines of ruined buildings like some ancient ruin lost beneath the waves.

Despite the grey hue of the terrain, spring was present and flourishing everywhere as I squelched along the saturated path; the fresh green shoots growing liberally on bramble, ash, beech, hawthorn and oak as spring breathed new life into old beings. I came around a bend and upon a clump of daffodils; late bloomers and the last survivors from the first flourish of better weather, surviving just a little longer on that near abandoned lakeside track.

A better path did exist, a nice path laid out with tarmac, properly edged and installed at great expense, however the road less travelled beckoned and so my route initially adhered to the desire ways, dogpaths, footpaths, tracks, byways, lostways and foundways which twisted their own passage through the topography. This explains why I was picking my way through the treacherous no-mans land of mud, hawthorn, briar and bramble to finally stumble out onto a perfect little beach, laid not with pebbles or shingle but with swan mussel shells, miniature driftwood and worn brick and tile. The beach ran for twenty foot or so along the end of a cove, bisected halfway by a woodland brook running from the tangled saplings and willows which grew to within a few foot of the lapping waters edge. All that was missing was the salt tang on the breeze and I could have been back in my childhood purlieu of Chichester Harbour. That landscape was one of the first I explored alone, travelling the muddy footpaths along coast and through marsh and ancient woodland, environments which evoked a golden nostalgia of summers gone before. There a similar bizarre meshing of landscapes occurs, with trees growing with their very roots in the muddy waters of the sea, and the highest tides lapping against wildflower groves.

The splashing of the lapping water, hissing sibilance of a field of dried wheat husks and droning of the first few busy worker bees of the year lulled me into a sense of peace and the track disappeared beneath my somnambulant feet with rapidity and ease. The fog prevented me looking out over the lake, so I took in my immediate surroundings; the spire of Grafham church disappearing behind a slight incline, a blue tit perched on a teasel wobbling in the breeze, stones washing around the flood defence boulders, a lone fisherman in a little white fishing boat which would look more at home pulled up on Hastings seafront than a Cambridgeshire lake. My reverie was broken only by the turning of the path as it cut around a cove, where a small sliver of woodland all moss and green shoots stark against the black and grey trunks and interlocking branches interspersed itself between the farmland and the water. The ongoing wheat husks, thus protected, thickened up into a veritable army or fortification; a six foot high unbroken yellow wall, stark against the horizon, hemming the footpath in still closer, hushing and whispering into the silence.

It was then a frog croaked – I jumped bodily, nearly slipped, saved myself with my stick and swore loudly at the concealed amphibian who had ambushed me thus. My sudden shout launched a flurry of pigeons flapping, cooing and cracking from the treetops. I waited a short while to see if any further wildlife would be antagonised by this amphibious menace before cautiously proceeding. The route took a downwards turn (in a literal and metaphorical sense) a slipping, sliding quagmire on a slight incline presided over by a weather beaten elm tree, and eventually deposited me on the shore once more.

The cove here was graced by another miniature beach, albeit one where the land, being more eroded, had trees growing down to the very waterline; questing tree roots growing straight out into the lake with clusters of yellow flowering weeds living in the protection of their knotted roots. Having skimmed a few more stones, (and discovered that the weathered red brick shards made especially good skimmers) the path led me crunching over outlying wheat husks to a boulder-lined foreshore defence, bolstered by the addition of a tangled lake-weaved mesh of flotsam and jetsam; willow branch, rope, feather, plastic and vegetation strewn over the tree roots of the first of a whole grove of willows.

This willow grove is one of a multitude in Cambridgeshire. The trees naturally favour damp conditions near waterways and the oft flooded fens are ideal. All these weeping willows, and indeed every one in England, according to legend, came from a twig received by Alexander Pope binding up a parcel. He planted this primogenitor twig outside his riverside home in the early eighteenth century and the tree flourished and spread. Whatever the truth in that, willows really do grow up at the least provocation from fallen branches and even from cuttings or twigs stuck in the earth. The branches, being incredibly malleable and supple, have traditional uses of fence and coracle building as well, of course, as baskets. Furthermore the bark of willow has pain killing properties; the first aspirin were procured from salicylic acid distilled from willow bark. These majestic trees are often found growing at the edge of water as the willow roots form a tight interlocked net which helps to bond together eroding banks and prevent further damage. Despite their many uses they have an ill reputation, as according to English folklore willow trees could unroot themselves to stalk travellers.

These willows, however, seemed disinclined to pursue me and passing under the canopy of an especially gnarled tree into its green roofed and walled domain I found nothing but a peaceful atmosphere; the splashing of the waters seemed to drop away and the wind was turned from a noisome breeze whipping over the lake into a gentle whisper of stirring branches. A previous walker had evidently likewise enjoyed the peace under the willow for they had created a small stone circle using rocks picked from the flood defences in a ring around a central boulder. Dropping a small piece of driftwood I had picked up from the cove as an offering I passed out of the other side of the willow.

A small fir copse enhanced what would have otherwise been a stark headland, the evergreens sheltering from the wind whisked waves behind a piled granite flood defence, fresh greys against the thousand browns of the needle-lined shore. Stopping to perch on a tree stump by an old fire pit I poured a coffee from my thermos and surveyed the lake. The mist was thinning and through what remained the lake could be seen coming alive, dinghies, canoes, kayaks, windsurfers and fishing vessels stirring the waters; a spectral armada of sails and hulls against the monochrome lake and sky.

Turning away from the views, the path carried me down one edge of an inlet and onto a more sheltered shore. Here, lake and land were so intermingled that the trees themselves stood out in the clear water. The effect of this was tiny sandy beaches which lay protected between tree roots, idyllic strips of muted golden sands like West Country bays between cliff promontories, scoured by the increasingly choppy waters of the lake. Emerging from the lilliputian coastline I clambered an earthen bank under a bird cherry tree in full blossom to regain the path.

My choice of route was beginning to be dictated by the official footpath, now that its meanderous diversion via Grafham village was complete. Thus I followed for a cheerful mile along a windswept stretch, with rolling freshly planted fields to my right and the agitated lake waters blustering in the wind to my left. The fields filled in with shrubs, saplings and then full trees so gradually that the greenwood appeared to materialise before me, growing up from the gentle hills in an instant. The thoroughfare beneath my feet turned away from the turbulent reservoir and up into the trees of Savage’s Spinney.

In the cover of the oak, ash and bramble, the wind, which as a background noise I had hardly noticed, died away and even the murmur of the billions of litres of water invisible through the trees had fallen silent. The only things to be heard were the desultory chattering and singing of the birds and the whirr and natter of cyclists; in the near silence the words of John Muir jumped unbidden to mind “Allows nature’s peace to flow into you as sunshine flows into trees”. After a long repeating winter with several false starts for spring, the spinney was vividly verdant, greens of dozens of hues erupting from tree, shrub and leaf strewn ground, brightening and enlivening the grey brown branches and fallen boughs of the austere winter wood.

The track eventually wound out to a clear hillside, describing a circuitous way lined with layered hawthorn around the quiet waters of Savage’s Creek. 

The sun had finally burnt a passage through the fog bank which still lay as a pall over the countryside, and I took a moment to enjoy the sunshine and more coffee, resting by pylons crackling with raw energy. Sitting in the grass by the deserted path I was startled by the sudden swoop of a Red Kite flying a few meters above the hawthorn hedge in a hunting dive, before aborting its strike at the sight of me and climbing gracefully back up into the air.

Red Kites are both an ancient animal and one recently introduced in England. The hunter-scavenger birds are native to Northern and Western Europe and were valued in pre-medieval and medieval England for eating refuse and rodents, especially from towns and cities. This symbiotic relationship changed after several poor harvests resulted in Henry VIII’s administration introducing the “vermin laws”. Under this legislation a bounty was paid for each kite head, to prevent them despoiling the harvest or attacking valuable livestock. So followed two hundred years of excessive culling in which the Red Kite was pushed to the brink of extinction in the UK, a precipice the species tipped over in the late 19th century in England and Scotland. In Wales a few breeding pairs were maintained thanks to the forethought of a collection of landowners who prevented the complete extinction of the bird from the British Isles. These few survivors were bolstered by reintroducing Red Kites from continental Europe in the early 1990’s and now around two thousand breeding pairs are active in the UK. One of the centres for Red Kites is Northamptonshire, where kites were released into Rockingham forest (less than twenty miles from Savage’s Creek as the Kite flies).

I picked myself up and carried on along, crossing an overgrown brook shrouded by trees and shrubs, which trickled down into the creek — were it not for the bridge which reverberated under my tread it would have passed entirely unnoticed. The path climbed a gentle slope, a sheltered copse filling the gap between it and the creek, which was home to juvenile oak trees so protected that they still wore autumn’s leaves. The hedgerow to my right soon wore out and the walker is left open to the green sprouting fields as they rise and fall beneath the shade of full oak trees. They were age old behemoths, flourishing in their four-hundredth spring, solid roots home to the first intrepid bluebells of the year. This was a popular stretch of the circumnavigation of the lake and was busy with cyclists for almost my entire time along it, save for one brief interval where the whizzing of bikes and prattle of cyclists abruptly stopped, dropping me into the sudden silence of the trees and fields, disturbed only by the hissing of pylons growing out of the sylvan sliver of woodland to tower over the trees, a carpet of dandelions, nettles, cowslips and bluebells around their stout metal legs.

The spinneys around this area of the reservoir predate the reservoir, in some parts by hundreds of years, as much of the forestry is ancient woodland (defined as being over four hundred years old). The word spinney itself is an indicator of this, being the sixteenth century shortening of the Old French espinei, derived from the Latin spinetum or spina meaning “thorny”. It is entirely possible that some of the larger oak specimens are even older, the natural life span of an oak tree being around nine hundred years unless felled. The ancient species of trees began to be joined by fresh smelling fir trees; a plantation merging the gap between the oaks I had just passed and Littless Creek, an area continuously wooded since the early seventeenth century. The path plunged into Little Spinney, climbing from a muddy nadir through a hollowayed stream, past a little lumber yard home to several hive shaped charcoal burners, and out of the trees.

Leaving the spinney with mixed feelings (I love spending time in woodland but the dark overhead linking branches on such a gloomy day had begun to feel oppressive), I emerged into open fields. The path twisted up what a passing cyclist referred to as a “veritable Cambridgeshire mountain” and ascended the very modest summit. Enjoying the glorious and now much clearer view out over the water, I set off down the other side of the hill, passing under a living archway of hawthorn and bird-cherry in full blossom into a field of grazing geese. A half trod desire-way across the semi-saturated field led into another wooded area along a boggy miresome path.

This young forest was one which would be perpetually young, standing as it did on a headland with little cover, and the forest floor was liberally lined with the rotting trunks of larger trees; a shrewd reminder of the importance of not growing too big for your roots in so damp and unsheltered a spot. I carried on through the forest over a little wooden bridge and out onto the official track where a half-mile stroll in the wan sunlight brought me down to the harbour office outside Perry.

Stopping for lunch of bread, cheese and apples washed down with coffee from the thermos, perched on a flood defence earthen bank, which felt as though it were an iron age fortification. The harbour cafe was full of people; unsurprising at lunchtime on a weekend in the Easter holidays. In contrast the little manmade harbour, projecting moles protecting the moored dinghies, was almost empty, the lake now populated with the vessels instead, an armada of light craft holding an ad hoc regatta.

Having lunched, I turned away from the lake and followed the path inland as it left the confines of Grafham Water and became a suburban road lined with standard 1960’s detached bungalows. 

This was Perry, a relatively new construct of two hamlets, East & West Perry. The etymology of the village’s name is unknown, however a document from 1208 giving monks at nearby Warden Abbey (whose coat of arms featured golden pears) the right to make clearings in the woods here suggests that the village could have been involved in the manufacture of “Perry” or pear-cider. The parish is less salubriously home to Her Majesties Prison Littlehey. Before it was a prison the site was Gaynes Hall, a small stately home that was home to Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord Admiral of the fleet for Elizabeth I and James I. The hall was later leased to Richard Cromwell, who had a young Oliver Cromwell visit, before eventually passing into the hands of the Duberly family. The wife of Captain Henry Duberly of the 8th Hussars published one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

Once you have turned left past the Wheatsheaf, Perry peters out very quickly, with none of the drawn out suburbia you so often encounter, and the path turns into a slightly muddy, sandy track which leads back down to the lake. The route merrily meanders through a green and pleasant band of land between the lake and the road, past small pockets of trees and shrubs laced with the ramshackle homes of nesting birds, and interspersed with boggy areas where gently bubbling springs can be witnessed, flowing from the earth after their long sojourn in the depths. The sun, always semi-absent in April, was disappearing and reappearing with increasing regularity behind clouds which promised rain and in the dim cloud-wreathed afternoon light it was bitterly cold.

Through gaps in the undergrowth I could now see the dam, a slab of concrete, impersonal, precise and foreign in the landscape, gargantuan, rearing over the medieval oaks. It seemed to create its own landscape, bending the terrain and topography to fit it, this bleak lichen encrusted border between the deep mysteries of the lake and the flat fens of Cambridgeshire.

At the final approach to the dam, the intermittent tree cover cleared away, revealing in a rare sun-dappled moment the undulating pastel green hills and awakening spring spinneys I had walked earlier in the day, framed by the grey forbidding waters of the lake. A cacophony of geese on the shoreline distracted my attention from the view, as the louring sky finally broke to silently dimple and mark the quiet waters, bringing the water alive with the sudden movements. I looked back out over the vista as it was fading beneath the soft grey rain, the storm blowing down over the lake, to engulf me.

Matthew Callen is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

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