The Icknield Way Path traces a prehistoric pathway across 100-plus miles of eastern and southern England, from Knettishall Heath in Norfolk to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns, roughly following the low chalk ridge that finally coalesces into those eponymous hills.
Essentially, it’s two paths in one, as alternative routes for walkers (the IW Path) and horse riders (the IW Trail) give a choice on the ground; we mostly followed the former, but not slavishly so.
Dave Travers and I started walking the path in 2005 and finished at Ivinghoe Beacon in 2007. We walked east to west, which is not the usual direction, we understand. We crossed dry Breckland – the driest place in England, and one of the driest in northern Europe – the Lark valley, the edge of Newmarket heath, and the stud farm country to its south, cut by the embankment of Devil’s Ditch. South of Brinkley, agriculture predominates to the half-way point of Great Chesterford, on the River Cam, and beyond to Royston.
After another rural stage taking in Therfield Heath to Baldock, the original Icknield Way plunges straight through what are now the very modern towns of Letchworth, Luton and Dunstable; we took the quieter northern alternative. Here you take in some attractive corners of the Chiltern Hills, such as the Pegsdon Hills and Sharpenhoe Clappers, and indeed from time to time the path coincides with the Chiltern Way. There is a short diversion to a greensand ridge at Toddington too. The edge of Dunstable is no beauty, but this prosaic town has the saving grace of its own downland, before the route passes through the tourist village of Whipsnade en route to the hillfort finish of Ivinghoe Beacon.
One says finish, and it’s generally regarded as such, but there is now a two-day extension to Bledlow, which I soloed in 2009. The Path descends to the Grand Union Canal and runs through some glorious Chiltern countryside, especially between Wendover and Princes Risborough, before a rather disappointing damp squib of an ending, mostly on roads.
There is more information on the website of the Icknield Way Association.
Towns and villages
There are no towns on the eastern section, though the western half cuts through some very built up areas, with alternatives to avoid the worst of the sprawl. Thetford, birthplace of the great revolutionary Thomas Paine, is close to Knettishall Heath, but there is no significant settlement other than tiny Euston as you cross Breckland until Icklingham. From Herringswell onwards the horse-breeding territory south of Newmarket has several pleasant villages, such as Gazeley and Cheveley; further on, Balsham, Linton and Great Chesterford are nearly small towns these days, rather than large villages, but there is less of the dormitory about Chrishall and Elmdon.
The town of Royston has been significant for centuries as the intersection of the Icknield Way and Watling Street, and one presumes that Therfield Heath once ran all the way to Therfield village. Baldock was formerly a coaching stop on the Great North Road, and the new town of Letchworth was planned as a ‘garden city’; Houghton Regis and Dunstable have good history too, but alas little character left. Whipsnade is famous for its zoo. The final village of the path, Dagnall, is in contrast a working village.
On the extension, the trail passes through the picture-postcard village of Aldbury and the working village of Wigginton before the towns of Wendover and, half-a-day away, Princes Risborough – both prosperous places with well-heeled City commuters living in the countryside hereabouts. Chinnor, a mile from the end below Bledlow Cross, is an interesting big village.
The first part of the walk has little transport, other than that provided by the A14 and Ipswich – Bury – Cambridge rail line. Knettishall Heath is around four miles from Thetford rail station, and Kennet and Newmarket stations are close to the route. There are various bus services radiating south from Newmarket, and the reasonable Cambridge – Haverhill bus service passes through Linton.
Great Chesterford has a rail station too; and beyond the Cam, Royston and Baldock are both on the Cambridge – London King’s Cross main rail line. After that, it’s buses only, fairly decent services including the Chiltern Rambler which helpfully stops right below Ivinghoe Beacon on Sundays in season. Dunstable is the largest town in England without a rail service, by the way.
The extension has excellent rail services to Tring, Wendover and Princes Risborough. Chinnor is linked to High Wycombe by an hourly bus.
There is practically no accomodation in the Breckland part of the walk. The area to the south of Newmarket has plenty as a result of the need to cater for racegoers (obvious warning – avoid Newmarket on race days). Linton and Great Chesterford have good pubs with rooms. There will be B&Bs and hotels in Royston, Baldock and Dunstable but not all of guaranteed quality. Dave and Rachel stayed overnight between our two final days, but found B&Bs hard to come by in the area, settling on the Chequers in Streatley, right on the path in a nice setting next to the church; they were happy to recommend it.
On the extension, Aldbury has picture-book B&Bs, and Wendover and Princes Risborough have a variety of accommodation, some of it no doubt pricey. Pride of (remote, for the south-east) place must though go to the Rising Sun at Little Hampden, which has letting rooms and no through traffic.
Distances and times
There is a chart of distances along the route (or at least the variant I walked) together with the time taken on my Icknield Way table (pdf viewer required).