22: Racecourse Road, Soke of Peterborough

Cyclist in Easton-on-the-Hill
A cyclist passes through the village of Easton-on-the-Hill.

Date: 22nd December 2020 (with Clare and Joe).

Weather conditions: Grey, but mild and still, so for the time of year, decent for walking.

County Top bagged: Racecourse Road, which at grid reference TF035041 reaches an altitude of 266 feet/81m above sea level, making it the highest point in the local authority of Peterborough — formerly known as the Soke of Peterborough (see below).

Don’t expect to see a recognisable summit on the ground; firstly because it is unmarked except by a bend in the road, and secondly because there is higher ground immediately to the west. The nearby spot height of 86m shown on the OS map at TF023042 is over the border in Northamptonshire. (And the bridge over the A1 to the north of this point surely reaches a higher altitude.)

Racecourse Road sign
The sign at the beginning of Racecourse Road (still a mile or more from the summit).

It took three years of this project before I finally decided that Peterborough should count as a historic as well as modern county — see the discussion of ‘The Area’ below. Therefore, this top appears on both lists. By altitude, Racecourse Road ranks 92nd of the historic tops, 163rd of the modern tops, and 188th of the full list. It takes over from the brief reign of Saxby Wold as the lowest-altitude one I have bagged so far.

[ << Hanging Hill, South Gloucestershire (21) | Beacon Hill, Norfolk (23) >> ]

Start and end point of walk: Stamford railway station, which sees services to various locations including Cambridge, Nottingham and Birmingham. We started walking at 12.15pm and finished at 2.45, completing the walk in 2½ hours.

View over Stamford
View back over Stamford, from our lunch spot.

Although relatively short, this walk traverses the territory of four different counties. Starting in Lincolnshire, the route includes about a hundred yards of Rutland, then passes through the northern tip of Northamptonshire before finally reaching Peterborough. [Geography geeks: take a look at the note at the bottom of the page.]

Pub at end: Ideally, the William Cecil, which we went past on the way back into Stamford. But it was not open today, thanks to The Great Fear.

Distance walked: 6 miles/9.6km approximately.

Feet of ascent: 230 feet/70m approximately.

This robin carefully watched us having lunch.

Difficulty: ★★. The distance and ascent figures indicate that this is a straightforward walk, with easy gradients. But I am not giving it one star, thanks to the foul mud through which one must tramp for the first 2½ miles or so. Outside of times of drought it looks like anyone doing this walk without proper hiking (or wellington) boots will regret it.

Ease of access: ★★★★. The route starts and ends at a well-served railway station, and this, in turn, lies just off the A1 — a highway with which you become very familiar en route. I’m not giving it five stars only because it’s not on a main line, but it’s not far off that score.

Scenic qualities: ★. I had been saving the dubious distinction of one star for walks that were obviously going to be highly suburban. However, none of us felt like today was anything more than a duty bag. The summit itself is just a bend in a road, the path along the river meadows is blighted by mud, and while the village of Easton-on-the-Hill is trying hard to be hyper-cute there’s also something fake about it. Of all my CT walks so far this was the least appealing, so the one star might as well come out.

Easton-on-the-Hill. Authentic Britannia? You decide.

The area: While the Soke of Peterborough was never an actual county, it did have a certain legal independence throughout the Middle Ages and until the 20th century. No one seems very sure what a Soke is or was, and nor did anyone ever seem certain which county this particular Soke belonged to, with Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire (which no longer exists) and Cambridgeshire all staking claims at certain points (the Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soke_of_Peterborough) might help work all this out). But in my 1950 Times Atlas it’s marked as a separate entity.

Having been subsumed in other counties for a while, in 1998 Peterborough was given back its independence as a separate authority (though having dropped the ‘Soke’). As a city, it’s paid its dues, with the remains of an Iron Age settlement at Flag Fen, evidence of Roman occupation, a 14th century cathedral, and the grand Elizabethan pile of Burghley House (our walk passed the gatehouse [pictured further down the page and in the banner image], though not the manor). Despite all this history, to my shame, I have never visited the city itself — though I’ve passed through its railway station often enough (it’s on the East Coast Main Line into London).

Houses in Stamford
The houses of Stamford, seen from the opening stages of the walk.

The start and end point of the walk today was Stamford, and this lies at the southernmost tip of Lincolnshire. It’s an attractive-looking town but we didn’t explore.

Map: Pick up OS Explorer 234 Rutland Water, Stamford and Oakham if you really feel the need, but you’ll happily get round without it.

On this summary map, the railway station is to the north, and the summit is marked by the 81m spot height at the southernmost point of the walk.

Map of the walk

Route: You’ll have already got the impression that this isn’t an inspiring walk, and you’d be right. I’m glad we picked this up in passing, and didn’t travel all day just to do it. Two main things conspire against it; firstly, the dismal state of the path all the way from Stamford to Easton-on-the-Hill (2½ miles), which was a continuous, foul muddy swamp on the day we attempted it. It may be better in high summer, but I have my doubts. Secondly, the fact that the rest of it is on (or beside) tarmac. Walking along Racecourse Road is OK I suppose, but then you have to face the A1. And while there is a bit of a sense of being up in the air, views are unspectacular. Perhaps there are other routes available which would improve matters, but anyway, here’s the way we went.

From the station car park, cross the bridge over the River Welland, which is not very broad but must know it’s about to hit the flat land of the Fens and is already wallowing like an old sow. Once on the other side, head left along the bank, upstream. The path passes a monument marking the location of an ancient Roman ford, over which the 9th legion fled while being pursued by Boadicea, apparently.

A1 tunnel
Clare and Joe pass under the A1 and into Rutland.

Keep going until reaching the footbridge, named Broadeng Bridge on the map, and cross it. The mud really kicks in here. Now on the south bank of the Welland, head upstream a little further then bear left, through the most awful mire (the farmer responsible for this disgrace should not be surprised that the crops are being trampled to each side of it), and under the A1 via a tunnel (pictured). Here you pass into Rutland, but only for the couple of minutes it takes to negotiate more mud and then cross the railway line (with care…), at which point you enter Northamptonshire and get to experience its own brand of filth.

Squelch across the field then begin the only noticeable climb of the day, finally emerging from the swamps at the northern end of the village of Easton-on-the-Hill. The first building reached is apparently the headquarters of the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, which I never recognised before as being so important a profession that it needed its own regulatory body. Why they are based in this secluded little place I do not know — and in any case, the office seems abandoned at the moment due to the Great Fear. The only facilities on offer were a little garden where we ate our sandwiches.

Walker on Racecourse Road
A walker on, more or less, the summit of Peterborough.

Turn left past the church and head through the plastic-looking village until reaching the junction, where again turn left. Cross the main A43 with care, and begin your expedition along Racecourse Road. This proceeds dead straight for at least a mile, and it is at the first bend (roughly where this gentleman is pictured) that you cross into the Soke/City of Peterborough and attain its summit. (If you’re wondering where the racecourse is, the OS map suggests it used to be in the woods to the south of this point.)

You cannot cross the A1 where you emerge onto it, so don’t try. Instead, head left, down the side of the carriageway. There’s a pavement, so it’s safe, but hardly pleasant, not only because of the traffic but the litter that all main roads seem to shed, like dandruff. Bear left onto the exit road and go up onto the bridge — a point which is surely higher than the ‘natural’ summit of the county (it certainly looks it). Cross the carriageway and then turn left down the B1081 (the old A1, before the bypass was built).

The A1
Your exit point for the A1. The bridge may be the actual summit of Peterborough.

This heads back into Stamford. If you’re still feeling up for it, the grounds of Burghley House are on the right, behind the long wall you follow from this point on, and these may add grandeur to the day. But we had to move on, so just returned to the station, which lies past the William Cecil pub and is then on the left.

(An alternative ending for this walk, from the summit, would involve retracing steps back along Racecourse Road for ¾ mile or so, then heading north along the signposted footpath, which goes down past Wothorpe to come out on the B1081 by the entrance to the golf club. Whether avoiding the A1 is worth the extra distance, I know not.)

Burghley House gates
The gates of Burghley House.

Commentary: Inevitably, some of these walks were going to be less-than-inspiring and today was one. We are spending Christmas at a cottage in Norfolk, and Stamford was a convenient place to break the journey from Yorkshire, encouraged by the existence of the Top nearby. But beyond ticking one off the list and giving us reason to stretch our legs in the middle of a five-hour drive, there were no redeeming features for the walk. The mud in the first part was dreadful. At best, come here in high summer and watch the butterflies frolic among the wheatfields. But you’ll still have to face the A1, unless you try the suggested alternative ending.

Our week in Norfolk was booked back in January, and no one, at any point, suggested that we might cancel it; not me, Clare or Joe, nor the owners or letting agents of the cottage. Why should they? We are not mixing with others, we are boosting our personal immune systems by walking. If anything we’re ‘safer’ here than at home, whatever the Christ that means these days.

The River Welland
The River Welland.

To listen to the rabid hate-and-fear sheets like the Daily Mail you’d think we were treacherous criminals, contributing to the disintegration of British civilisation. These rags shriek like banshees — or more accurately, like the spoilt little brats they are, horrified by the very notion that they might have nothing to say, no reason to be listened to, which for the media, means no reason to exist at all. Would this place truly be worse without them?

In the 11 months since we arranged to come to Norfolk, this country has gone from a state of relative sanity to having internal roadblocks and neighbours who are turning their backs and closing their doors. A biblical tailback of freight lorries in Kent (not that the Bible ever foresaw anything as stupid as Brexit) develops because the French no longer feel like we have anything to offer them.

View north
A view north from Racecourse Road.

“It’s the virus!” you may say. I see only gross incompetence at the highest levels of the state, seeping through into our psyches, numbing us all into accepting all this crap instead of seeing it as the desperate Johnsonian cock-up which it really is. Authority and its media allies have finessed the blame onto the rest of us.

But, in the midst of it all, it is Christmas, and we are on holiday. A First World solution to a First World Problem, we rent a second home for a little while, and pretend it doesn’t matter. Our cottage is (deliberately) within walking distance of the local CT, Norfolk’s Beacon Hill, and looking at the weather forecast it may be that Christmas Day is the best option for bagging it. So I shall wish you Yuletide greeatings then, wherever you are, however your local jurisdiction is dealing with all this insanity.

Note for geography geeks: That our walk passed through four different counties is evidence that around here might exist a “quadripoint” — a point where these four counties all meet. If it does exist it’s the only one in the UK. However, according to this page (which seems to have done its research), there are in fact two ‘tripoints’ about 20 metres apart, very close to the point where we crossed the railway (pictured from the Rutland side; over the tracks is Northamptonshire).

Railway crossing

The western of these two tripoints is where Lincolnshire, Rutland and Northamptonshire meet, and the eastern is where Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and — historically — Cambridgeshire (but now Peterborough) meet. What this means in practice is that the boundary between Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, at about 20 metres long, is the shortest county boundary in the country. So there you go. A shame we could not actually cross at that point, but we’d have had to trespass on the railway to do it; it lies somewhere just to the left of this picture.


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