Plans for a pilgrimage to Bury St Edmunds in 2020 are becoming more complicated. In the St Edmundsbury Chronicle David Addy presents evidence for the foundation of the Abbey by King Cnut in 1020, just three years after his establishment as king. He replaced the existing priests with Benedictine monks from St Benet’s and Ely, and paid a pilgrimage himself to Bury St Edmunds in 1020. So now there is a proposal to repeat the journey from Ely to Bury, as well as from St Benet’s. But how? An attractive possibility would be by boat. It is possible to go down the Little Ouse to Brandon from the Great Ouse, , or down (up!) the Lark as far as Jude’s Ferry near Mildenhall.
As I had never tried before I thought it would be interesting to walk along the Hereward Way between Brandon and Ely, to see if this was a suitable option for pilgrims. I decided it would be safer to head towards Ely as trains continue long after the buses stop. The earliest bus from Bury took me to Brandon by about 9.45 and soon I was heading Westwards into deep countryside. There were very few signs, but I was reassured when I spotted a recent badge for Via Beata: this amazing project has nearly completed a 400 mile route between Lowestoft and St David’s in Pembrokeshire using art projects as stations along the way- what a wonderful achievement!
The first half of the journey was through isolated and beautiful scenery along the marshland of the Little Ouse, walking mile after mile on the top of a dyke. A cuckoo joined in with distant jet noises from US Lakenheath-
I felt privileged to be out in such isolated country. Things got difficult, however, when I reached a railway track leading to a tiny station at Shippea Hill. Somehow the footpath had been forgotten at that point and I was wading through undergrowth before I climbed onto the level crossing and back onto a road! At that point any “footpath” disappeared completely and I walked along the A1101, then the B1382 into Prickwillow keeping out of the way of the cars that dashed by. At one point a large blue tractor slowed down and moved across for me, causing road-rage from cars behind him. Reviewing the map now there does not seem to be a better way as the land is defined by a series of ditches. A disused pumping station reminded me of the former fens-
In the 11th Century it is likely that most of this part would have been underwater or impassable marshland.
As I was approaching Prickwillow a view appeared. The “Ship of the Fens”, disguised by a barn at first, and appearing much closer than it actually was due to its enormous size. The sight of it cheered me up considerably. At Prickwillow I crossed the Lark and went down a delightful track called “The Old Way”, with the Ship appearing ever larger and more Cathedral-like. I doubt I was the first pilgrim to have felt grateful when I finally arrived in the Centre of Ely. I had walked around 25 miles, and was happy to sit down.