The following article appeared in Ely Ensign in April 2003 on page 12.
As the evenings are getting lighter more people will be tempted to take a walk along the region’s footpaths. One of the recommendations from Cambridgeshire County Council’s countryside information team includes the route the former Bishops of Ely used to travel to their palace in Little Downham.
Hundreds of years ago, before the Fends were artificially drained, Downham-in-the-Isle was a real island among flat and boggy reed fen.
It was here that Athelwold, Bishop of Winchester set up his monastic community in 970 and played host to many bishops. In the summer months, when the roads were best, they travelled by horse along what is now Hurst Lane to the summer palace.
If you want to retrace the steps of Athelwold and his successors, allow yourself about four hours. The eight-mile circular route follows a series of medieval tracks out across the Fens to Little Downham.
Today’s fields are highly productive and produce thousands of tons of grain and root crops – very different from those the former bishops would have seen. The orchards, vineyards and pasture have all been replaced except around Chettisham to the east of Downham where cattle still graze. All along the route you can glimpse pieces of our medieval history along with the most modern farming methods.
The Bishop’s Palace in Downham has a long history of occupation and use. The Monastic property here was first described in 1086 when it was said to have sufficient meadow for all the plough teams, pasture for the cattle, woodland for 100 pigs and fisheries producing 300 eels a year. Little remains of the palace today.
Downham or Duneham means home of the dunes. The village is built on a ridge of sand and gravel that was excavated for building until the 1940’s. Downham is also Anglo-Saxon for Dune or hill.
Of the twenty pubs that used to exist in the parish only two remain, both on Downham High Street – the Anglo and the Plough.
The City of Ely, itself, contains many beautiful buildings including the great ‘ship of the Fens’, Ely Cathedral. The former Bishop’s Palace, built at the end of the 15th century, is now a Sue Ryder Home, which offers long-term care for adults with physical disability. Cromwell’s House, former home of Oliver Cromwell, is another notable building, now used as the Tourist Information Centre.
The lanes, which form most of the walk, and the meadows at Chettisham are rich in wildlife. Trees and hedgerows that are some 600 years old border the lanes. They offer food and shelter to many common birds such as blackbirds and thrushes, and to rarer ones like the wren.
The ditches provide wet conditions for bulrushes, water crowfoot and marsh marigold. The meadows at Chettisham are specially managed to keep the variety of plants, and are regularly mown and grazed by cattle. No fertilizers or herbicides are used.
As well as villages that have prospered on the “islands”, The Bishop’s Way goes through a village that no longer exists. Along Kettlesworth Drove, between Chettisham and Queen Adelaide, there used to be a village of thirty houses. The people who lived here worked on the land and used spring water to drink.
Today, the ‘village’ is a collection of trees maturing along the former hedgerows, with new houses and facilitates gradually being built.