Walk 97: Northampton Washlands Circular

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 3.4 miles (5.45km)

Time to walk: Roughly 1 hour which makes it ideal for a post Sunday lunch stroll

Difficulty: A mixture of hard surfaces & field paths which may be muddy in wet weather. There’s a small hill, but nothing too strenuous

Parking: On road in Little Houghton, but be careful as it’s a busy road

Public toilets: The Four Pears pub at the start & finish of the walk

Map of the route:

Little Houghton, the start point for our walk lies a couple of miles to the east of Northampton. The flatlands below the village, known as the Wastelands, were created 10,000 years ago when the last great ice age retreated. A huge lake, that had formed south of what is now Coventry, broke its banks & the flood it caused shaped the Nene Valley as we know it today. The flood washed everything away except for a hard rocky island

When the flood subsided there remained some high ground ending in a cliff. Ancient Britons were not slow to take advantage of the higher ground & it became an important river crossing. The ford by the cliff assumed great strategic importance in times of war & strife. About 40 BC the Romans build a fort to guard the ford on its southern side which lay along the old road from Little Houghton to Cogenhoe & Brafield on the high ground. A thousand years later the Normans build a motte & bailey to guard the ford

In more peaceful times the river brought prosperity to the village established by the Saxons in its current location. The flow of the river just beside the cliff made it an ideal site for a water mill

Today it’s one of Northamptonshire’s most charming villages & a fine place to start our walk. Ready?

Let’s Walk!

1. Park carefully near the Four Pears public house in Bedford Road…

Records put the pub at 1615 when George Fisher was granted a license by the three Knights of the Shire to open a “common alehouse” in the village, the premises at that time being under the ownership of the Little Houghton Estate. Little was then known of The Red Lion’s history during the hard drinking 18th century. In 1866 a Richard Elliott held the licence & it was recorded by the Northampton Mercury that, in March 1870, a sale took place in The Red Lion of his family’s stock. Some of the items listed included animals, fowls, ploughs, harrows & horse power threshing machines

The Red Lion continued to serve the village, the cost of beer at that time being one penny per pint. In August 1887 the Lord of the Manor, C. Smyth Esq paid the current landlord’s wife, Mrs Walker, £11. 8s & 8d for beer supplied to workers during the hay making period. This amounted to a quantity of approximately 333 gallons. After Mr Walker’s death she remarried one John George Heaney, but rumour connected him with a serving wench who was dispatched in disgrace once her condition became obvious & Mr. Hegney subsequently disappeared without trace, never to be seen again. However, later rumours suggested that he had been the victim of “rough justice” dealt out by friends of the late Thomas Walker & that his remains lie buried beneath The Red Lion

The Red Lion was put up for sale in 2010 &, to prevent permanent closure, four couples from the village purchased it (the four pairs). We can definitely recommend the food & drink!

2. Walk towards the crossroads. On the left’s the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. The earliest evidence of a church in the village is around AD 1100 of which no traces of the original building remain. The earliest parts of the present church, the south door arch & the font are thought to date from about AD 1200

The church was substantially rebuilt in a Gothic style in 1873-74. The only medieval furnishings to survive are three misericord seats in the chancel which have heads of men & monsters as arm pieces

3. Over the crossroads from the church are the village stocks. Many stocks were also provided with whipping posts, as at Little Houghton, incorporating iron clamps by means of which an offender could be held by the wrists while he or she was flogged for their crime

It’s not known exactly how long a set of stocks has stood in its present location outside the Post Office. Records show that Williams Deacon was paid £2.7s. 6d for new stocks & 2s. 0d for a new lock in 1836. However in 1833 a William Baucott was put in the stocks for being drunk & beating his wife, the last time the stocks seemed to have been used

4. Turn opposite down Meadow Lane…

Until recently the salon on the left was the local butchers, but it’s sadly no more

Next door’s Church Farm with its impressive house

5. The road bends right into Station Road…

…passing the Old Vicarage

6. At the edge of the village look for a footpath sign indicating the route into a field that heads towards Billing Aquadrome

The path down the hill is superb walking & the farmer does a great job of keeping it clear for walkers

7. Exit the first field & continue into the second towards the large house

Look across to the right where there’s a mound that’s partially covered by trees & undergrowth. This is Clifford Hill on which once stood the motte of Little Houghton Castle. It was one of the largest in England

The motte dates back to the 11th or 12th century & was built to control the ford across the river Nene, leading from Little Houghton to Little Billing. However nothing is known of its early history beyond the fact that it bore its present name in the 13th century. The lack of any documented history may be due to its early collapse. It’s constructed from Lias Clay which is notoriously unstable when wet & the landslips on its south side, as well as the attempted restoration of the ditch, may have taken place soon after it was built. The flat summit is apparently due to the construction of a bowling green there in the 17th century

8. Walk through the gate of Clifford Mill House & continue down the edge past the tennis court…

…to cross the lock over the Nene to arrive at Billing Aquadrome

9. Billing Aquadrome is a leisure park. Facilities within the 235 acre park, which was built around various mature gravel pits, include a mobile home & lodge site, marina & funfair. It’s also home to a variety of shows throughout the year, which are often car or motorsport related, such as the world’s largest annual Land Rover show & the American Car Show. It also hosts the Northampton Balloon Festival

It’s very popular, but on occasions when the wind is from the east it suffers from the closeness of Northampton Sewerage Works – enough said!

Turn left & follow the Nene crossing the weir on the bridge

The Nene cuts through the park & is a lovely stretch of river along here. Keep an eye out for Kingfishers

10. There’s a fine selection of holiday lodges in this section of the park & some people have  wicked sense of humour

As the road bends to the right, take the grassy path & continue to follow the river

Some of the boats along here don’t look like they’d get very far upstream…

11. Exit Billing Aquadrome through the gate in the fence

The path now moves away from the river around an island that contains Northampton Boat Club. A small family orientated boating enthusiasts club, it was formed in 1911

The club can have up to 150 members & currently has a limited number of places available for new applicants with moorings available immediately. The only qualification you need is to be a boat owner

12. To get round the island we have to leave the water for a short while & follow the track as it heads inland towards the industrial estate in the distance

Every time we’ve walked along here there’s been tethered horses in this field & they always look so sad…

13. Exit the field through the gate at the end of the field, turn immediately left through another one & then follow the lane between the hedges back towards the river

We’re now round the other side of the Boat Club…

14. When you can’t go any further, look for the narrow, hedged alley on the right leading back to the river…

…to cross the bridge in front of the lock gate

15. On the other side we were being closely watched

Walk through the gate & climb the steps up to the main sluice barriers

16. These are the main river control mechanisms that decide how much water flows downstream & helps prevent flooding within Northampton

Walk over the sluice, but stop in the middle to take in what’s around you as the views are very impressive

17. Stand & admire the vast open expanse that is the Northampton Washlands…

Northampton Washlands is one of the most important refuges for wetland birds in Europe. The lake & surrounding grassland are part of a much larger nationally & internationally legally protected area of lakes & wetlands in the county called the Upper Nene Valley Gravel Pits Special Protection Area & Site of Special Scientific Interest

The area is of international importance as more than 20,000 birds over-winter here. It receives the same level of protection as sites like the Camargue in France & the Coto Donana in Spain

18. After crossing the sluice turn left & walk along the raised bank. Please be aware that it is illegal to walk down into the basin itself…

…but it’s ok for her to do it!

19. Keep your eyes & ears open to the right as something’s always happening on the water

There’s also more lakes to the left which apparently contain some very large carp

20. At the end of the water on the left, walk down the bank towards the pylon & the gate out of the Washlands…

Once through the gate continue up the dirt track

21. Look for a sign on the right indicating a footpath into the field through the hedge…

…& follow the grassy track up the steep hill towards Little Houghton in the distance

22. Once at the top, bear left & pass through the gate with the church ahead…

…keeping to the hedge to pass out of the field into the lane

23. Walk up the lane. This is a particularly nice part of the village with some very attractive  properties

The lane rises round the bend to arrive back at the church & crossroads once more. Turn right to return to the Four Pears, where we left the car

So that’s our short, but very pleasant stroll that’s ideal for a weekend afternoon following, or followed by a visit to the Four Pears. A lovely village & a really interesting natural feature of our county that not all locals are aware of

Go Walk!