Mills of the River Great Ouse
Exploring the industrial legacy of a fine river
9 miles (14.5kms)
Milling on the Great Ouse goes back many centuries, although the only mill still working is the National Trust’s restored building at Houghton, situated on a small island in the middle of the river. There’s been a water mill on this site for over 1,000 years, when monks from the Benedictine abbey at Ramsey first harnessed the power of the river and peasants were under a feudal obligation to have their flour ground at the mill.
The present building dates from the mid-1700s, but after closing in the 1930s it fell into disrepair and faced demolition until local villagers mounted a campaign and successfully purchased the building. It was handed on to the National Trust and the five-storey building was fully renovated. Houghton Mill is open weekends year-round, and also Monday–Wednesday between March and September.
Grist to the mill
Elsewhere on the Great Ouse there were other mills, but sadly most have disappeared. The walk starts at Millyard, the site of Godmanchester Mill, a timber-and-brick mill that was large enough to house up to seven pairs of working stones, one reserved as a ‘grist stone’ to allow the poor of the parish to ground their grist for free (grist is simply grain that has been separated from its chaff before grinding). The earliest records of a mill on this site are from 1499, when a John Stokes purchased the mill. However, the lease came with a clause forbidding his wife from visiting the mill and interfering with the machinery! There were also other mills on the Godmanchester stretch of the river, though not expressly water mills, including an oil cake mill which pressed linseed for its oil to make into cattle feed.
As you leave Huntingdon the impressive building across the river by the old bridge is a former hosiery mill which closed in 1972 and was converted into residential flats.
The largest meadow in England
Between Godmanchester and Huntington is Port Holme, a vast water meadow that is said to be the largest in England. Owned by the London Anglers Association, each summer it’s cut for hay and at other times carefully grazed, so that it’s become an important site for ground-nesting birds like skylarks and corn buntings. However, in past centuries it’s had a far more colourful life. Until the late 1800s it was used for horse racing and a special three-day event was held each August, complete with grandstands and fairgrounds, that was said to be every bit as popular and fashionable as The Derby. The flat meadow was also used for early attempts at flight and during World War I was used as an airfield by the Royal Flying Corps.
From the the car park go over the sluice for the riverside path past the site of Godmanchester Mill. Continue over the main sluice bridge and on to cross Godmanchester Lock, then out on to the huge meadow called Port Holme.
Turn half right and walk across to the far side of the meadow, aiming to the left of the A14 bridge. Go over a bridge by houses for a lane under the A14 to reach Mill Common on the edge of Huntingdon. Turn right before a car park into Castle Hills, taking the alleyway to the left of the private road. Continue through Castle Hills park and out to the main road.
Turn right and cross by the Old Bridge Hotel for the riverside path ahead. Via Huntingdon Boat Club, continue along the main route, which eventually veers away from the river to emerge on a lane. Go right and at the end walk past the waterside All Saints Church.
Turn left and walk up the lane to Main Street. Turn right, then right again, to follow The Grove to its end. Turn right and walk along the road (no entry to vehicles), then go right on the pavement as far as Hartford Marina.
Cross the road via the pedestrian island and turn right, then left for a path by Hartford Lake. This bears right, across fields, and joins a lane. Where the lane bends right go straight on along a grassy bridleway which swings right, back to the main road. Cross over carefully, walk down Ware Lane opposite, then at the far end turn left to follow the road into the centre of Houghton.
At the clock tower cross over and walk down Mill Street to reach Houghton Mill. Turn right and go through the gap beneath the mill for a path to Houghton Lock. Turn right along the river bank, via a sluice and open bridge. Head right across fields via a raised footbridge to resume the waterside path, then after two more fields, back across to another footbridge.
On the far side head right on a path through the nature reserve, going ahead at a junction by a bridge and on between the river channel and a lake. At the far end go through a gate and turn right to walk round another lake. Cross a field and turn right along the embankment of an old railway.
Turn left to cross a field and footbridge for a path past another lake, then under the A14. Walk round a cricket pitch and ahead on the public footpath through the churchyard. Go to the right of the building and out on to Church Place to reach Godmanchester’s main street, with the car park opposite.
Firm tracks, pavements, meadow paths (may be slippery when wet)
Flat river valley with open meadows and patchy woodland
On lead on streets, in livestock fields and nature reserve, including Port Holme
OS Explorer 225 Huntingdon & St Ives
Millyard, Post Street, Godmanchester
Godmanchester, Huntingdon, Houghton Mill
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About the area
To the west of East Anglia is Cambridgeshire, a county best known as the home to the university that makes up the second half of ‘Oxbridge’ (the other half is Oxford). As well as its globally renowned educational credentials, it also has a rich natural history; much of its area is made up of reclaimed or untouched fens. These are low-lying areas which are marshy and prone to flooding. The lowest point in the UK is at Holme Fen, which is some 9 feet (2.75 metres) below sea level. Some of the fens had been drained before, but it was in the 19th and 20th centuries that wide-spread, successful drainage took place, expanding the amount of arable and inhabitable land available.
Ely Cathedral was built on an island among the swampy fens, but now sits among acres of productive farmland, albeit farmland criss-crossed by miles of flood-preventing watercourses. Oliver Cromwell was born in Ely, and his family home can still be visited. Cambridge itself is a beautiful and historic city, with any number of impressive old buildings, churches and colleges, and plenty of chances to mess about on the River Cam which gave the city its name.