The Great Ouse is one of England’s finest and longest rivers. It is a watercourse that has shaped the gentle lands through which it flows, forging their often unique character and fascinating history. The river supports communities that have in turn harnessed its energy. It powers industry, provides havens for wildlife and feeds verdant pastures for crops and livestock.
Winding through this gorgeous land, hand-in-hand with the river, is the Ouse Valley Way long-distance trail. The Way travels 150 miles (241 km), from the Ouse’s source near Syresham, Northamptonshire, through historic market towns, grand country parks, vibrant nature reserves, a majestic cathedral city and the enchanting, pancake-flat landscape of the Fens.
The Way ends at King’s Lynn, beyond which the Ouse empties into the Wash and flows out into the North Sea. It is a wonderful journey that gets under the skin of this remarkable watercourse and the spellbinding landscapes it passes through.
The Ouse is a river that has been shaped by human influence over the centuries, providing transport, turning the cogs of industry and rewarding leisure seekers. What would have once been a wilful river, prone to great extremes in volume and shifting its course with every coming flood, is today a river that has been harnessed, channelled and drained.
Yet it is no less beautiful for it. This transformation has led to pools, lagoons and lakes brimming with wildlife. New, artificial channels carry barges and rowing boats, provide fertile land for agriculture and the energy that powered the Industrial Revolution. Along the Way, you experience the slow evolution in the river’s character, from its meandering course through the verdant home counties to the managed, navigable channel it becomes in the fertile Fens.
As you hike the Way, you will grow an appreciation for the river and its history. It is a long-distance route suitable for all levels of fitness and experience, as it follows remarkably flat trails that are mostly straightforward to follow.
The warmer months are ideal, particularly for nature lovers, as there’s a plethora of wildlife to discover. History buffs will also be in heaven, as the tale of the river unfurls with each mill, town, engine house and church.
Highlights along the Way include: Stowe House, a Grade I-listed country house with sumptuous landscaped gardens; Harrold-Odell Country Park, a tranquil parkland with picturesque lakes and vibrant water meadows; Bedford, a county town boasting tremendous riverside parkland and nature reserves; Houghton Mill, a working watermill in a truly idyllic setting; St Ives, a lovely town most notable for its 15th-century bridge and adorning chapel; Ely, a small city that rises above the Fens, crowned by its magnificent Romanesque cathedral; and King’s Lynn, the historic port town at the mouth of the Great Ouse.
In this Collection, I have split the Way into 12 stages of between 10 and 17 miles (16 to 27 km) that each end at accommodation and evening meal options. Where options are sparse, I name specifics in the stage descriptions.
You can plan in rest days en route, as the river winds through many historic towns with lots of things to see and do. There are many riverside pubs to relax in at the end of a long day and the best thing is all the drinks are on the Ouse (please excuse). There’s also nothing to stop you doing the whole thing in reverse, should you choose.
The very nature of this walk means sturdy, waterproof boots are recommended. You have the option of exploring numerous wetland reserves en route and some of the woodland trails are prone to be boggy. Sun cream is essential in the warmer months and it’s a good idea to carry water and snacks. This is particularly recommended during the latter stages in the Fens, when settlements are less frequent.
Syresham, at the start of the Way, is not easily accessed by public transport. The closest mainline stations are Banbury, Bicester and Milton Keynes, however you would still need to get a taxi from any of those options. A better alternative is the number 87 bus service between Northampton and Brackley, which occasionally stops in Syresham. For motorists, it is relatively close to the M1 and the M40.
At the end of the Way, King’s Lynn is less than a two-hour train ride from Central London, as well as being easily accessed by car.
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Last updated: December 7, 2021
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The Way begins in Syresham outside the King’s Head Inn. You hike south and cross a bridge over the A43 Bypass. Between here and the village of Biddlesden, you make your first acquaintance with the Great Ouse, a mere stream at this point.
A track takes you through pockets of beautiful woodland towards…
This stage shadows the Ouse as it meanders across Milton Keynes’ northern reaches, through the floodplains of the splendid Ouse Valley Park. A trio of fantastic nature reserves, Stony Stratford, Floodplain Forest and Linford Lakes are well worth exploring at length. The industrial heritage of the region…
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Delightful little settlements are the order of the day during this stage. The Way first snakes north to Emberton Country Park and the charming market town of Olney. From here it continues west through verdant countryside, visiting the pretty village of Newton Blossomville, before crossing into Bedfordshire…
This stage explores some gorgeous North Bedfordshire villages, as well as discovering Harrold-Odell country park and its scenic lakes. The ancient causeway and equally ancient bridge on the way into the village of Harrold are endlessly charming and there are a number of tempting pit stops en route to…
In this stage, the Way ventures into the centre of the historic county town of Bedford. Before this, you discover two contrasting mills: the striking Stevington Windmill and Bromham Watermill in the villages of the same names. Stevington is particularly lovely, with a number of attractive old buildings…
This stage explores the Bedford River Valley Park, a region of archaeological intrigue, vibrant wildlife and sublime scenery on the Great Ouse’s floodplain. The Way then ventures north west, past the grand Great Barford Bridge and onwards to the small village of Roxton.
From Bedford Town Centre, cross…
In this stage you follow the Great Ouse north into Cambridgeshire and through the charming town of St Neots. The market town’s many amenities are a good opportunity for a restock, while its riverside parkland and nearby nature reserves are a delight to explore. The stage ends in the historic village…
During this stage you explore the course of the Great Ouse as it meanders between the lovely Cambridgeshire towns of Huntingdon and St Ives. Two beautiful yet contrasting nature reserves lie in wait, as well as a magnificent working watermill at Houghton.
From Buckden, head east to rejoin the Way by…
This stage follows the Great Ouse across Cambridgeshire Fenland countryside, through two extensive nature reserves and a landscape that’s as pretty as it is flat. At 16.3 miles (26.2 km), this is one of the longest stages. Accommodation is sparse en route, with a stay at Bramble Corner B&B in Bluntisham…
Further acquaintance with the remarkable landscape of the Fens awaits in this stage. After a brief visit to an historic drainage engine, the Way heads for the majestic cathedral city of Ely, which dominates the landscape for many miles.
Find your way back to the Lazy Otter Marina and follow the Great…
In the penultimate stage, you cross from Cambridgeshire into Norfolk as the end of the Ouse Valley Way draws near. It is an extremely rural hike through the Fens’ fertile agricultural land. Towards the end of the hike, various watercourses meet at Denver Sluice, a vital cog in the management of the Fenlands…
The final stage weaves along with the river through more sumptuous Norfolk scenery. Dotted across this remarkably flat landscape are various historic sites to explore, before you arrive in King’s Lynn, once one of Britain’s most important ports.
After rejoining the river from Downham Market, you venture…
Hiking Collection by Alex Foxfield
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