Devil’s Ditch or Dyke
An Ancient Monument and SSI (Site of Scientific Interest)
‘The Ditch’ (as it is known locally) is the 7-mile-long embankment, thrown up in Anglo-Saxon times and is believed to be around 1450 years old. It is scheduled as a S.S.I. (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
Reach historian Dr. C W R D Moseley MA, Phd FRGS is an authority on the history of the Devil’s Ditch and his detailed notes may be read on the Reach village website www.reach-village.co.uk/brief_history.
For this account we will look at the Ditch as it is in the early 21st century, taking an imaginary walk from the Wood Ditton end at a point near Pickmore Wood, a quarter of a mile walk from Ditton Green.
Soon after the start the walker climbs up to the highest section of the embankment and can look down to the fosse (ditch), some 40 feet below. Here centuries old oaks and ash grow and moss-covered stumps and fallen boughs slowly rot into the ground, showing nature’s pattern of decay and regrowth. The woods bordering the left bank are carpeted with bluebells in May, patches of primroses and cowslips grow along the shady pathside in spring and the beautiful violet-blue pendulous blooms of clustered and nettle-leaved bellflowers adorn the edges in summer.
Looking to the right through the trees and tangled sinewy stems of old man’s beard, one can catch occasional glimpses of Wood Ditton Church. After half a mile the path runs through dense box and snowberry shrubs then becomes more open, with wild geraniums growing on the bank. To the left can be seen a tree bordered path leading to Stetchworth, known locally as ‘Lover’s Walk’ (part of the Icknield Way), before the bank drops down to the crossing of that ancient Roman track. A few steps along the Icknield Way to the right gives fine views over the depression in the land known as Dane Bottom looking towards Newmarket, with Ely Cathedral visible in the distance.
Back on the Ditch another half mile of thickly wooded high bank takes the walker to the Court Barns Road crossing. Along this section a dense plantation of larch and firs borders the right bank with Stetchworth Park and stud paddocks to the left. On the other side of the road a short stretch of the Ditch, thickly enclosed by scrub and bushes, leads to the Cambridge to Newmarket railway gap.
After crossing the railway line, the Ditch changes in character and becomes much more open. Chalk loving flowers abound along this stretch in summer, greater knapweed, sainfoin, harebells and carline thistle. Here also there is a good chance of seeing two of our once common but now sadly declining birds, the linnet and the yellowhammer. The open views to the right take the eye towards Newmarket over the Links golf course and at one point the golfers drive off from a small green on the top of the bank.
Newmarket Racecourse’s new Millennium Grandstand shows up white in the distance. Soon the path winds through a group of twisted old pines before this mile long stretch of the Ditch ends with the crossing of the Newmarket to Cambridge/London road, still busy despite through traffic using the Newmarket by-pass further to the north.
The next section enters the domain of horse racing, as the Ditch cuts between Newmarket’s two famous courses – the Rowley Mile and the July Course. To the right are open views of one of the largest areas of Newmarket Heath with more than a square mile of heathland, open to walkers for most of the time. To the left the July course runs parallel with the Ditch and on race days people standing on the bank get a free view of the racing, the arrival and departure of light ‘planes carrying racing personalities and the packed grandstands on the other side of the course.
This section is also rich in typical chalk grassland wildflowers and butterflies, seen along the edges of the path and on the steep grassy banks.
Five varieties of orchid have been seen here, including the rare lizard and bee species. Around mid-April to early May the beautiful pasque flowers bloom. This part of the Ditch, bordering the heathland, is also the haunt of skylarks, yellow hammers, linnets and meadow pipits.
A reminder of World War II and the part played by Newmarket Heath during the war comes when we reach a lowered section of the bank, dug out in 1943 to try to reduce the very real risk of our heavily laden bombing ‘planes hitting the Ditch bank when taking off from the temporary airfield on the Heath.
We now arrive at the great gash in the bank made by the start of the Rowley Mile course and the A14 trunk road. From the footbridge road crossing we look down on the unceasing streams of traffic travelling between East Anglia and the Midlands.
The following two-mile section of the Ditch runs between the A14 and the B1102 Burwell to Cambridge road. This part is again lowered almost to nothing a few yards from the A14 for around 200 yards or so towards Reach. This is the highest point of the land around here and in line with the main wartime runway of RAF Newmarket Heath.
This stretch, once the haunt of the rare red-backed shrike, had become so thickly overgrown with scrub in places that the path leaves the bank and runs alongside. It is along this stretch during 2003 that extensive scrub clearance and the introduction of a hardy sheep species are helping to restore the original chalk grassland conditions.
Open agricultural or sheep grazing land allows wide views towards Burwell to the right. A convenient car park for walkers has been provided near the B1102 crossing but be sure to lock your car and remove any valuables!
Now comes a short open stretch leading to the old Cambridge-Mildenhall railway cutting and this part of the Ditch is also well endowed with wildflowers despite some serious invasion by hawthorn scrub. The cinder path of the old railway, disused since the cuts of the 1960’s, is still clearly visible and is a haven for wildlife. It is well worth a short departure from the Ditch path to follow the old track to the left, where mullein, fennel and thyme are among the many wildflowers growing here.
Back on the Ditch we start on the final stretch and looking left one has good views of the windmill and the two adjacent church towers at Swaffham Prior. At one place the east bank has been eroded over many years to become almost level with the adjoining land. Soon the path enters what has become almost a tunnel formed by the dense bushes of blackthorn, hawthorn, ivy, privet, elder and wild rose. This shady path is much favoured by speckled wood butterflies that can be seen flitting in and out of the shadows in spring and summer.
At last we arrive at the northern end of the Ditch and the bank drops away to the historic village green at Reach with its surrounding picturesque cottages.
Walkers energetic enough to have completed the whole of the 7-mile length of the Ditch might well appreciate some refreshments at the Dyke’s End pub, set facing the green. If, however, the walk has been done in the opposite direction, there is the the Three Blackbirds in Ditton Green (check that this pub is open before depending on it).
What is it that makes the Devil’s Ditch so precious? Surely it is the unchanging character of this ancient monument in a rapidly changing world, giving us a reminder of our Roman and Anglo-Saxon forebears. Unlike much of the agricultural land around it has not been ‘improved’ with fertilizers or pesticides with the result that for at least some of its length a natural balance of plants and trees has been achieved over the centuries. Let us hope that future generations continue to value this wonderful legacy from the past.
Conservation body – The Wildlife Trust 3b Langford Arch London Rd Sawston Cambridge CB2 4EE (Tel 01223 712400) email email@example.com. The trust is part of the Linear Site Partnership which also includes Cambridgeshire County Council, East Cambridgeshire District Council, Cambridge Green Belt Project, English Nature and English Heritage.
In September 2001, The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant of £305,000 for the upkeep of the Devil’s Ditch, particularly the clearance of invasive scrub towards the northern end. An extensive scrub clearance project commenced in the summer of 2002 along the section by the July Racecourse owned by the Jockey Club, under a partnership with the club, the Cambridgeshire County Council, the Wildlife Trust, English Nature and English Heritage. During 2003 the main work was on the section between the Burwell Road and the A 41.
Early in 2007 work progressed to the southern section southwards from Court Barns Road (Stetchworth to Cheveley road) Here the main work was the clearing of numerous sycamore saplings on the east side of the bank.
Original article by Rodney Vincent 2008