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CANTAB86 – October 2016

CANTAB86 – October 2016 published on

** Please note that this is an archive of the CANTAB publication and contains out-of-date information **


Network Rail’s Level Crossings
Ramblers are very concerned regarding plans by Network Rail to close or divert 130 level crossings in East Anglia, under the Transport and Works Act, 1992.

Some ten percent of these are in South and East Cambs. Taking advice from Ramblers London Office, Lisa Woodburn Chair of Cambridge Group, has made the Ramblers’ Case for South Cambs paths, and Alysoun Hodges the case for East Cambs crossings.

Additionally, Alysoun has discovered that Network Rail has closed Ely Footpaths 17 and 57 (which cross the railway line to Norwich, on either side of the River Lark) without following prescribed legal procedures. A Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) is said to be imminent, but had not been made by the end of September. Alysoun has complained about this unlawful closure to Cambridgeshire County Council, in its role as Highway Authority.

Pits and Holes
Cambridgeshire may be largely flat in a general way, but on a smaller scale, the countryside is enlivened by the presence of quite a number of pits and holes, ranging in size from small holes to huge lakes.

In times past, farmers dug lime pits in the middle of fields, to spread the contents on the land, to improve the tilth. This is the origin of the smallest holes, now often filled with water, and surrounded by a few attractive trees in the middle of a field.

Larger holes were due to quarrying on a larger scale, sometimes for building purposes very close at hand, such as the chalk blocks (clunch) taken to build the church at Orwell, from the adjacent pit, now a nature reserve. Commercial chalk pits, such as at Steeple Morden may still be operational, with public footpaths adjacent. Barrington Fp 11, along the top of a hill above the commercial chalk quarry needed to be legally re-aligned in 2005, because of anxieties regarding the safety of the edge of the quarry (which has now closed).

Quarrying for sand and gravel has been very common in Cambridgeshire, sometimes in the quite recent past, such as at Fen Drayton Lakes, now an important RSPB reserve, and sometimes ongoing. such as at Needingworth/ Overcote and Paxton Pits (both still in use for gravel extraction), and the new sand pit at Sawston. Worked-out commercial sand and gravel pits, which usually fill with water, have been developed as recreational amenities and environmental reserves, sometimes such a concluding phase being written into their planning permission.

In the C19th, shallow quarrying for coprolites occurred over a wide band, from Leighton Buzzard to Burwell, but only in a few cases do the signs of such activity remain. Copralite “cuts” (generally holes filled with water), are quite frequent in the Lode, Stow cum Quy and Horningsea localities.

The biggest “holes” filled with water to become reservoirs such as Graffham Water are not holes at all, but flooding of valleys by creating vast dams. Similarly, Cambourne lakes are of a different nature, as they are really balancing ponds, following the development of a now considerable built-up area. However, both these sites have evolved hand-in-hand with a network of new paths.

Accessible Parish pits (chalk), are to be found at Litlington, Guilden Morden, Harlton, Stapleford, Reach, Little Wilbraham, and elsewhere. The pit at Orwell was a source of superior chalk called “clunch” used as a building stone.

The object this month is to look at examples of “holes” which are publicly accessible, and add interest to a ramble. I certainly do not wish to encourage readers to investigate private or dangerous pits!

Examples of Large Sites
Paxton Pits
The Nature Reserve here operates alongside on-going sand and gravel extraction. The present reserve of 77 ha is set to expand to over 280ha “within the next decade”. Presently available paths include part of the Ouse Valley Way. Well marked routes comprise The Heron Trail (2 miles) and The Meadow Trail (1.5 miles). Attractions include riverside & meadow flora, and excellent birdwatching.

There is a bus service from St Neots to Little Paxton Village.
Facilities on the reserve include visitor centre, toilets, free car park, tea facilities (weekends, holidays), leaflets, and possible hire of motorised boggy for disabled usage. See:

RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes
The RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton Lakes was established in 2007, with the purchase of a privately owned nature reserve, and some adjacent lakes and washland. The previous sand and gravel quarrying had left large deep lakes, sometimes with islands. Birdwatching has been possible here since the 1950s, and over 250 species of birds have been recorded.

There is an impressive network of public rights of way and permissive paths around the lakes, which are best accessed by guided bus from either Cambridge or St Ives. A walk of less than 2 miles along the Busway bridleway from St Ives to the reserve in Summer can reward the keen observer with a list of nearly 100 wildflower species. Also accessible from the lakes is the Ouse Valley Way.

Adjacent to the guided bus stop is a shelter and information point, with free leaflets available. Across the Busway is a free carpark, with WC, both accessible down a short drive. Please be reminded that both the bridleway beside the Guided Busway, and the paths in the reserve are liable to flooding in Winter, occasionally making access impossible. More RSPB info may be found at:

Milton Country Park
The site owes its present appearance to commercial extraction of sand and gravel for house construction and road building between ca 1930 and 1960. However, some 1800 years ago, part of the site had been used for extraction of clay by Romano- British potters! South Cambs District Council acquired the site in 1990, and by 1993 the country park was open to the public. The park is now managed by a commercial concern, with a charge for carparking. Café and WCs are available.

There is quite a complicated network of paths around the pits, and the walking can readily be extended along Fen Road, to join the River Cam towpath.

Examples of Smaller Sites
Guilden Morden
The parish has a typical chalk pit, originally for use of the villagers. It is attractive with wild flowers in Summer, and is best accessed from Ashwell, along Ashwell Street to TL 282 402, then turn SE down Guilden Morden Bp 51, turning left onto a field-edge track at TL 283 398. Pass a Countryside Access Scheme notice, and access the former chalk pit over a stile at TL 284 400, and down a ramp into a riot of shrubs, wildflowers and nettles. This is a place for solitude. A Romano-British cemetery was excavated near the chalk pit in the early C20th, but no signs remain.

The Three Cherry Hinton Pits
Lime Kiln Close Nature Reserve
This is one of three chalk pits available in the locality, accessed at TL 486 562. The reserve was a medieval chalk quarry, and much of the chalk was probably used to make lime mortar for houses in Cherry Hinton and Cambridge. Nature has taken time to reclaim this pit for trees and bushes, with secondary woodland of ash, field maple, and wild cherry.

West Pit, at TL 483 555 off Lime Kiln Hill is an SSSI and a more open habitat, full of wild flowers in Summer – and home to the rare moon carrot.

The newest and largest reserve , East Pit, off Lime Kiln Hill at TL 484 557 is an interesting expanse of bare chalk, rapidly being colonised with interesting flora, and has prehistoric remains, with good information boards.

Orwell Clunch Pit
The village website describes The Clunch Pit as an environmental treasure. The old quarry site of 1.6ha is accessible from High Street, by steps going up beside the church, or from the lane leading to the carpark. A public footpath leads to the top of the pit from the A 603. The Pit has been owned by the Parish Council since 1974, designated as an SSSI in 1985, in recognition of valuable chalk grassland flora and fauna. There was major scrub clearance in 1999, and the pit is now managed by light Summer grazing by sheep, and an annual cutting of brambles.

Coprolite Diggings
Coprolite is the name given to fossilised bones of dinosaurs, found in bands of the chalk belt running across Cambridgeshire and beyond. These deposits were generally rich in inorganic phosphates, a valuable source of fertiliser, before the establishment of modern chemical industries.

The C19th technique of open cast or shallow-pit mining for coprolite generally left land fairly level. The diggings at Parkers Piece have left no trace, although the bumps on Coldham’s Common may well be poor restoration after mining.

In Lode and Stow cum Quy, however, there are some actual water-filled pits, in a pleasant situation. From Lode village by the Millpond, take a footpath N to cross the track of the old railway at TL 530 629, then go E on the wide Lode Byway 15, which continues as a footpath across a field to the waterfilled pit set attractively in trees at TL 521 627. Continue along the path and over a footbridge onto Stow cum Quy Fen, and cross the grass towards the next pit at TL 515 626. This has interesting Spring plants, including the scarce water violet. Exit W, picking up Horningsea Bp 8, with useful parking at TL 498 630.

Steeple Morden Chalk Pit
Here, one can appreciate the effects of quarrying in the making. The Steeple Morden chalk pit has paths going round its perimeter, and one can actually cross a little footbridge over the conveyor belt. The chalk is very pure, and used in applications like pharmaceutical products, toothpaste, and as a filler in car tyres!

From Ashwell Street at Upper Gatley, TL 295 409, take Fp 42 going roughly S uphill. At TL 298 405, fp 42 turns off right, round the bushes at the edge of an arable field. At the field corner, TL 296 404, the path enters the edge of the wood containing the chalk quarry. The path continues round the wood, passing buildings, and crossing a conveyor belt on a bridge and the quarry access road at TL 295 401. Fp 42 exits down the quarry road, but follow fp 43 ahead, still round the edge of the quarry. At TL 300 400, go through a clear gap in the wood, and return N to Ashwell Street on Fp 47, with the wood on the left.

There is a high density of paths in this area, and a longer walk would prove rewarding. There is another large chalk pit near Ashwell & Morden station at Odsey.

Commissioners Pit, near Wicken Fen
This fenland pit is typical of the depressions left following embankment of the nearby fen lodes.

It is best approached from the pub near Upware, “Five Miles from Anywhere, No Hurry”. From the drive to the pub, find the signposted footpath over a bridge and stile, running N through low lying fields. Later, the path bends right and left, and joins a hedged track (Fodder Fen Drove) which passes Commissioners Pit Nature reserve. Descend a flight of steps into the reserve. There is a display board. In 1998, in the unstable bank of the reserve, after rain, I found a bivalve fossil and a fossil scallop, which were identified by my evening class tutor as being from the Jurassic period, 200 Million years old.

Harlton Chalk Pit
This delightful, wooded pit is owned by the Parish Council, which allows free access. Go up Fp 4, which starts at TL 389 523. This wooded lane leads up to the base of the pit. Fp 4 is waymarked through the pit, which has a mostly bare chalk floor, and whose slopes can be very slippery after rain. Ascend by one of a number of trodden routes. The steepest ways are to the left. The longer, easier routes are found by first bearing right. In 2000, the definitive line of Fp 4 was extended to the top of the pit at TL 391 520, from whence a narrow wooded path leads through spurge laurel bushes to join Barrington Fp11 along the top of chapel hill. From here, it is possible to look down on the huge, recently closed commercial chalk pit behind Barrington.

Litlington Chalk Pit
A description of this pit is included as a reminder that not all old pits are attractive. From Royston Road at TL 318 419, a grassy lane, Byway 11, runs WSW from locked gates, with access space each side. The track runs to a patch of open downland, with the remains of an old pit beyond. The right of way terminates at TL 316 417 but regular access continues over a wider area. The pit is also accessible from Ashwell Street. When last seen, it contained some dumped material.
Janet Moreton

Cantab Rambler by E-Mail & Post
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Janet Moreton 01223 356889
Cantab86 © Janet Moreton, 2016.