[This walk was completed on the 11th June, 2021]
I chain my bike to a fence in the little parking area on the east bank of the River Nene, and set off walking down the road towards Sutton Bridge.
I’m nervous about leaving my bike, despite its hefty chain, because two campervans are parked close by, with their doors open and their inhabitants packing up after a night spent in the layby. It would be all to easy to pick up my bike and carry it off in a campervan. All you need are some heavy-duty bolt cutters to separate the bike from the fence.
Well, I have to leave the bike somewhere. Stop worrying. Onwards.
For some reason, the bridge at Sutton Bridge is actually called Cross Keys Bridge on my map. It’s a swing bridge. Since I’ve never seen any boats on the river, I assume it isn’t working.
On the other side, a little path takes me past a very pretty cottage, with a garden full of flowers.
I join a side road, and start walking towards the river bank. On a curve before the river, I spot this sign, “PLEASE SWITCH OFF HEADLIGHTS WHEN SHIPPING PASSING.” It seems an odd instruction, as there is a huge hedge obscuring the river.
As I’m puzzling over this pointless sign, a rather dishevelled man comes up to me. Yes, it is a genuine sign, and it really is there to stop the ship’s captains being dazzled.
Do I know much about the history of Sutton Bridge, he asks me. No, I confess. He and an ex-girlfriend put together an information leaflet a few years ago. Would I like a copy?
I follow him back to his cottage – the very same, pretty, cottage with the flower-filled garden that I’ve just walked past, and he goes inside to get the leaflet.
He also tells me that the swing bridge really does work. In fact, he saw it in action this morning when a large ship came through.
It’s funny how the most unlikely people are often the most helpful and interesting. I take the leaflet and tell him I’ll read it later.
Back on the road, I pass a large brick building. The windows are boarded and the place seems derelict. According to a sign, it was once the Bridge Hotel. I imagine seafarers staying there – a welcome refuge after weeks on the waves. Not much use for the place now.
Further along, and here’s a sweet little brick cottage. Oh, it’s the old Customs House.
The road runs up the west side of the river, although the banks are high and you can’t see the water from the road. A sign tells me this is Crosskeys Marina.
It seems an unlikely place for a marina, until I climb onto the bank, and realise the place basically consists of a jetty running along the side of the river. Not many pleasure boats here either, just a series of working vessels – including a fisheries research vessel and a pilot boat.
Further along, the road enters an industrial area and bends around to the left. This is, apparently, the Port of Sutton Bridge. A series of signs tell me to follow the “Advisory Route”, which is simply a footpath that keeps to one side of the road
Looking across the river, I see I’ve drawn level with the parking spot where I left my bike earlier. Of course, my bike is too small to see, and is hidden by a mass of weeds anyway. I notice one of the camper vans has left, and I hope it hasn’t taken my bike with it.
Meanwhile, on this side of the river, I’m faced with a wide stretch of empty concrete. At this point, the Advisory Route crosses the road and takes me along the opposite pavement.
There are some industrial buildings off to left – modern, featureless storage places – where a few large lorries appear to be standing. But the Port itself is absolutely empty. No boats. No vehicles. No activity. Nothing
So, walking through the empty port, while carefully following the Advisory Route to keep myself out of danger, is a rather surreal experience.
Finally, I come to the end of the port area. A sign says this is the “Fire Assembly Point”, and also “No Exit for Port Traffic.”
The road continues as a tarmac lane, and soon deteriorates into a track of sand and grass.
The surface is marked by tyre tracks – so I realise that some vehicles must drive along here. In fact, my map shows this particular section of the bank is a “public byway open to all traffic”. Anyway, it’s a very pleasant walk, with wide open banks, and a clear view of the river.
The sound of an engine takes me by surprise, and I step aside to let a small blue car inch past me. I wonder where it’s going?
A short time later, the same blue car comes slowly back towards me and returns to wherever it came from. Did they come for a scenic drive? Or were they simply lost?
After 2-3 miles, the track crosses over a cattle grid (Cattle? I’m glad I haven’t seen any!) and rejoins a proper road.
This section of road runs straight for a mile. I’m approaching the duo of lighthouses – Peter Scott’s lighthouse is on the other side, while the lighthouse on this side is obscured by a ring of dense vegetation.
As I draw level with the lighthouses, I pass a funny little box on stilts. “HM Coastguard Sutton Bridge” says the sign. The place is empty, so I’m not sure if the coastguard station is only manned at high tide, or if it is manned at all nowadays.
There’s a small parking area here, with a couple of cars, and after this the road curves round to the left to avoid the lighthouse. I was hoping to get a good view of this building, but it is obscured by trees and is clearly not open to the public.
A footpath carries on, running around the river-side of the lighthouse. A sign tells me that shooting rights on the bank are reserved for members of the Gedney Drove End District Wildfowlers Association. Hope I don’t meet any.
Beyond the lighthouse, the bank runs straight ahead towards the mouth of the river. I meet a couple of walkers, returning to the little car park, I assume.
I reach a sluice – one of hundreds of dykes that intersect the fens and keep the landscape drained. It’s gone 1pm, and the steps down to the sluice gates provide a handy seat, so I decide to stop here for my picnic lunch. Ah, this is lovely.
The tranquil scene is broken by a sudden movement, and I spot a rat running along the bank below. A rat! Urgh!
My appetite disappears. I hastily finish my food, sling my rucksack over my shoulders, and carry on.
This section of the River Nene has an odd name on my map – Tycho Wing’s Channel.
Tycho Wing? Why give this final stretch of the river a name at all, and why Tycho Wing? Sounds like a chinese pirate.
Before I reach the mouth of the river, the bank swings round to the left. But a path seems to continue straight on, past an information board about The Wash, National Nature Reserve.
Hoping the path might lead me to the mouth of the river, I follow it for a short distance, past a rather stagnant pool of water, until I end up trudging through sticky mud and bog.
Uh oh. Too much mud. Too slippery. Not worth the risk.
I turn back and regain the bank, following its route as it curves away from the water.
This is the point where the Nene empties into the sea. I can only see it from a distance, across a field of marsh and mud. And… oh, there’s that artificial-looking island again. The Outer Trial Bank. I take a photograph using the fullest zoom on my little lens.
This is the closest I will get to that odd construction.
I follow the sea bank for another couple of miles. There are two bright spots to this section. I see a beautiful white egret out on the marshes, and a couple of red kites slowly wheeling above the farmland.
But, I’m suffering. Fields full of grasses to my left. Marsh full of grasses to my right. It’s the second week in June and, statistically, this is the peak of the pollen season. Hay fever strikes again! I sniff and sneeze, and try to stop myself scratching at my eyes.
Yes, I’m feeling pretty miserable. And I’m nearly out of tissues for my nose.
As I get closer to Gedney Drove End, the footpath bends away from the sea wall and follows a track back to the road.
I was planning to continue along the sea wall. It’s only 1/2 a mile until the footpath starts again, but there is a sign on a stile with a warning of cattle ahead. Oh yes. There they are.
I decide to stick to the official path, and start walking down the track. It is very pretty, with the hedgerow in flower and… sneeze.. pollen everywhere.
I join the road, and a few metres later come to the turn off for Marsh Lane. My van is parked just along here.
Years ago, when my husband and I were living in a village to the east of Peterborough, and were new to the fens, we set off to drive to the seaside. We reached a place that the map suggested was close to the water, climbed excitedly onto the sea wall… and stared disconsolately across hundreds of yards of marsh and mud, with the sea nowhere to be seen.
I’m not entirely certain, but I think this is where we came in search of the sea. Gedney Drove End. It’s a name that became a bit of a joke between us – a place at the back-of-beyond and on the edge of the world.
Later, driving back through the village, I realise Gedney Drove End is quite a pretty place, with some fine buildings and a real sense of community.
You’ll be pleased to know my bike was not stolen, but was waiting for me when I returned to pick it up.
Also, Tycho Wing wasn’t a chinese pirate after all, but was an english surveyor who mapped this area of the Wash in the 18th Century. You can read more about him here: http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.php?aid=263&ctid=1&cid=13
Miles walked today = 6 miles (yes, I know, a very short walk!)
Total around coast = 4,545 miles