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Ely to Welney Wetland Centre

Walked by Sally and Richard, Saturday 12th January 2013
About 11.5 miles (just over 4.5 hours); 10.5 miles on Hereward Way (to Welney Washes)
We woke to a cold, bright morning with colder weather and snow forecast for the next few days, so we decided that today (Saturday) was the best day of the weekend for walking. We parked one car at the Welney Wetland Trust (TL546944), which opens at 7am on Saturdays in January to enable people to watch the swans flying out, so there were several other cars there. The drive to Welney was delightful, with a low sun and flocks of birds in abundance, and as we drove on to Ely, we had good views of the Cathedral (which had been missing last weekend because of the fog). We left the other car in Ely's Barton Road car park (free all day parking after 8.30am) and we were walking around 9.20am. We photographed Ely Cathedral, St Mary's Church, The Old Fire Engine House (one of our favourite restaurants) and Oliver Cromwell's House, then left Ely by way of West Fen Road.
We crossed the A10, still on West Fen Road, then turned right onto Hurst Lane. I'd expected a tarmacked track - it wasn't (which was good), but it was extremely muddy (which was less good!). There were good views back to Ely Cathedral, living up to its description as 'The Ship of the Fens'. The track eventually became a tarmacked lane and we reached Little Downham. We crossed over one more major road then reached Main Street. The next section was the only bit of today's walk where the route was less than 100% clear - at Main Street you need to turn left and then right, down Eagle's Lane, then at the bottom of Eagle's Lane you need to turn right towards the recreation ground. All of this is as shown on the OS map, but at this point I would advise you to ignore the map and take a footpath left before the recreation ground, then follow the route others have used, diagonally right across a field. If you go as far of the recreation ground (we did) you end up cutting back to the point at which you go diagonally right across the field.
From this point the route was very clear, and lovely. We descended a slight hill, and reached a path alongside a drainage ditch. Eventually we emerged at the delightfully named 'Dunkirk'. To the north-west of Dunkirk is 'Furlong Drove', running towards the railway, but the route follows 'A Furlong Drove', to the north-east of Dunkirk and also running towards the railway. It was all very clearly signposted, but again rather muddy. The railway here is the line between Ely and Peterborough and a number of trains passed us.
Eventually we crossed the railway and continued on 'A Furlong', past a house in the middle of the fen, then across a road and down 'Head Fen' to another house in the middle of the fen. Here we turned left on a bridge across one drainage ditch and then followed another drainage ditch to the 'Hundred Foot Pumping Station'. The old pumping station (presumably built to pump water from the drainage ditch we'd been following to the New Bedford River) is derelict but very impressive.
We climbed up the bank by the New Bedford River (also known as 'Hundred Foot Drain') and there were superb views of the flooded Ouse Washes (between the New and Old Bedford Rivers, all part of a complicated fen drainage system that dates back to the work of Cornelius Vermuyden in the 17th Century). We had our lunch sitting on the edge of conveniently placed building, probably the outfall from the (now very much smaller) pumping station. We watched trains crossing the flooded washes on raised track.
After lunch our route was straightfoward - about 4 miles along Hundred Foot Bank. It was a bit chilly, and slightly rough underfoot in places, but the views to the flooded washes, with lots of birds, were very good, and we were pleased not to have to walk on the road. Three miles along the bank we reached the point at which the A1101 'Wash Road' heads off across the washes. Wash Road closed sooner than usual this winter, following the exceptionally wet weather we've had, so we were surprised to see cars heading off across the washes and we eventually realised that the road has reopened. If wonder if it will still be open when we walk the next leg of the Hereward Way or whether we will have to start in Welney village, missing out the section along Wash Road. We'll see.
For now, we climbed over a gate to get off Hundred Foot Bank (mutter, mutter, it is clearly shown on the map as a public right of way), then walked down onto the washes which were delightfully atmospheric. We could have got back onto Hundred Foot Bank to the north of Wash Road but we decided not too, anxious (correctly) that we would have to negotiate a barbed wire fence in order to get back to the road at the Welney Wetland Centre - so we walked along the road beneath the bank for the final mile back to the car park.