A gentle stroll in a riverside nature reserve near St Neots in Cambridgeshire.
Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)
Minimum time 1hr 45min
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Mostly firm gravel tracks, boards across marshy ground
Landscape Reclaimed lakes, meadows, woodland and reed beds
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 225 Huntingdon & St Ives
Start/finish TL 196629
Dog friendliness Mostly on lead, out of water at all times, use dog bins
Parking Paxton Pits Visitor Centre, Little Paxton (signs from B1041)
Public toilets Visitor centre or at St Neots
1 Take the gated path behind the visitor centre indicated 'Meadow Trail', and follow this lovely, wandering route past Rudd and Cloudy Lakes, small reed-lined pits filled with water lilies and bulrushes (also known as reed mace). At the far end go up the steps and turn left on to a straight, tree-lined track, and soon Hayling Lake appears through the undergrowth on the right.
2 At the junction at the far end turn left and follow this wide track for ¾ mile (1.2km), sometimes close to the river bank and at other times skirting open farmland. Ignore several turnings off to the left (including various nature trails) and make sure to turn right on to a gravel track just past (but not at) the signposted 'river viewpoint'.
3 This is also the route of the Ouse Valley Way, a 26-mile (42km) long distance trail that follows the river over its Cambridgeshire flood plain. Eventually you leave its helpful waymarks behind and veer away from the river just past a wooden post (No 12) for the Heron circular nature trail. Go left, and then right, on to a wide gravel track indicated 'public footpath' between the two lakes known as Heronry North and Washout Pit, where feeding geese, swans and a variety of waders are a common sight.
4 Signs warn against swimming in the deep, cold water, and also of the dangers of quicksand! The reason becomes a little clearer further on as you approach the still-active quarry, where oddly shaped machines (there's an information board that tells you what each does) dig away and grade the aggregate. The waymarked public footpath treads its way through the works, past the site office and weighbridge, and at the far side turns left on to a grassy path adjacent to the lane.
5 Before long the path merges with the tree-lined lane, known as Haul Road, and you should follow this wide thoroughfare all the way back to the car park. There are several optional diversions through the trees on the left that allow useful vantage points over the large lagoon known as Heronry South. When you arrive at the main junction before the visitor centre turn left, through the gates, for a short detour to visit two bird hides. Apart from the activity on the water, scan the tree tops on the far side for a view of the nesting cormorants, which began with a single pair in 1998 and now number around 120.
Located on the banks of the River Great Ouse, 1½ miles (2.4km) north of St Neots, Paxton Pits Nature Reserve consists of a series of shallow lakes and ponds originally dug for gravel and sand extraction and now flooded for the benefit of wildlife. The industry still continues near by, and if you visit mid-week you will probably see lorries rumbling by filled with gravel for the building industry or hear some of the machinery at work. And yet these same pits and pools that were first scooped out over a century ago, and whose gravel was used to make runways during the Second World War and build roads and houses in the following decades, are now unrecognisable as peaceful, open lakes where cormorants, kingfishers, grebes and terns are a common sight, and ducks such as gadwall, wigeon and goldeneye overwinter in large numbers.
Part of the nature reserve has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), for apart from the wetland and marsh the pits are surrounded by hay meadows and mixed woodland that provide entirely different types of habitat. Nightingales, for instance, regularly sing from the woods alongside Haul Road in April and May - a visit at either dawn or dusk is the best time to hear the males' song. Several waymarked nature trails criss-cross the reserve, whose eastern border is defined by the river bank of the tree-lined Great Ouse. During the school holidays there are special activities for children based at the newly refurbished visitors' centre (see www.paxton-pits.org.uk). St Neots Bird and Wildlife Club also organise a programme of talks and field trips throughout the year. So far 220 species of birds have been recorded on the reserve, with around 70 breeding. Rarities include a black kite, little egret and honey buzzard.
Rudd and Cloudy Lakes are a key area for insects during the summer months, including butterflies like the marbled white and purple hairstreak, and over 300 different types of moth.
St Neots is Cambridgeshire's largest market town with a diverse range of facilities. The Riverside Park is a popular place for recreation. The museum in the former police station on New Street, near the Market Square, tells the story of the town over the centuries, and has workshops and changing exhibitions.
Try the visitor centre at the nature reserve; the Anchor pub on Little Paxton High Street; or the Bistro at Little Paxton Conservatory Village near the A1 junction.
On warm, sunny days between May and September look out for damselflies and dragonflies, especially along the banks of the River Great Ouse. Paxton Pits supports several varieties of each, including the common blue and blue-tailed damselflies, and the southern and brown hawker dragonflies, many of which have set routes and flying times.