The Harcamlow Way runs for 140 miles, a figure of eight from Harlow to Cambridge and back. It takes in much unspoilt countryside and many pleasant villages, such as Manuden and Arkesden.
Though mostly in Essex, and with a lengthy stretch in Cambridgeshire too, the route also takes in a very pretty part of north-east Hertfordshire. There’s a little bit of fenland as you enter Cambridge, but mostly this is an area of gently rolling low hills, almost exclusively agricultural to this day. The Way goes over the 482ft high point of Essex and is within a couple of miles of the slightly lower high point of Cambridgeshire. It features too the fine stately homes of Wimpole Hall and Audley End.
World-famous, of course, with its University one of the great and historic seats of learning. The River Cam helps lend the city its character, and walking along this path into the city beside the river you will almost certainly see college crews practising. Undoubtedly a major tourist centre, it’s a working town too, and there is a thriving open air market in the centre.
Harlow is a new town in Essex. That damns it already to many. It certainly has its share of ribbon development, 60s estates and shopping malls, but do not ever forget that to a generation of east and north Londoners the chance to move out of desperately cramped bomb-hit accommodation to the green countryside of Essex was heaven indeed. The Harcamlow Way passes through the town on the Stort River towpath; another path, the Forest Way, goes through its southern fringes, and both show attractive touches, thanks to the still-extant vision of its original master planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd.
Saffron Walden, Newport and Thaxted
Saffron Walden and Thaxted are both prosperous and very pretty Essex market towns, although Saffron Walden in particular is perhaps a little touristy these days. Thaxted is much smaller than Saffron Walden, barely more than a village, but it has a fine church and Guildhall. Newport is at the centre of the figure-of-eight; formerly a coaching stop on the Cambridge road, it is quieter now the M11 forms a bypass, but with the railway it is well placed for Cambridge and London commuters.
The valleys of the little Hertfordshire rivers Ash and Rib, the latter especially, are splendid. Villages worth stopping in include Manuden, Coton, Arkesden and Debden (not the one on the Central Line). The path spends four miles on top of the ancient Fleam Dyke, and reaches the edge of fen country around Lode. Hatfield Forest is, like Epping Forest, a relic of the natural forests of England. Around here you cannot avoid the influence of Stansted Airport; the new A120 has caused a path diversion, and the happily-abandonded plan for a second runway would have led to desecration beyond recognition.
Transport and accommodation
Cambridge has two rail lines to London, but on this walk it is the junior – the Liverpool Street line – which is more useful. It passes Harlow Town (the walk’s official start), Roydon, and Newport, and Harlow Mill and Sawbridgeworth are close by. Stanstead Airport station, on a branch, is less than a mile off route. The stop at Meldreth on the King’s Cross could be useful too. Places like Standon, Saffron Walden, Bartlow, Thaxted and Takeley have good bus services (other than on Sundays). By road, the M11 roughly follows the Liverpool Street line, but has no exits in the vicinity of Newport.
There are plenty of places to stay in Cambridge (all budgets) and Saffron Walden (pricey). Harlow has its share too but often functional and business-oriented. Both Harlow and Cambridge have hostels. The influence of Stansted Airport is not always bad, for it has increased the supply of accommodation in the south of the walk – B&Bs as well as impersonal hotels. Some of the local pubs have rooms.