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Walpoles in the Marshes

Walk through the edge of the Fens, near where King John lost his treasure.

Distance 7.3 miles (11.7km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Footpaths in fields and housing estates, country lanes

Landscape Pancake-flat fenland and prairie-style fields

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 236 King's Lynn, Downham Market & Swaffham

Start/finish TF 520199

Dog friendliness Dogs can run free

Parking Near war memorial and Woolpack Inn, Walpole Cross Keys

Public toilets None on route

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1 With the village sign behind you, turn left along Little Holme Road, using the pavement on the right-hand side. After about ¾ mile (1.2km) you will see a track signed 'No Through Road' on your left. Follow it, cross the A17 with care, and head down the lane opposite, signed 'No access to the Walpoles'. This lane follows the line of ancient sea defences; continue along it for about 350yds (320m).

2 Turn left on to the unmarked footpath that cuts diagonally across a field. Follow this until it meets another path, and turn right along the track towards farm buildings. The track ends at a crossroads.

3 Go right and walk down this lane, past the 30mph sign and into the village of Walpole St Andrew. Use the pavement on the right until you reach the Princess Victoria pub, then cross over and use the pavement on your left, continuing to walk along Wisbech Road until you reach St Andrew's Church.

4 Bear left at the crossroads at St Andrew's Church. Take the first turn on your left and walk down Church Close towards Anthony Curton Church of England Primary School. Take the footpath that runs down the side of the school and through a housing estate before emerging near St Peter's Church in Walpole St Peter. Turn right, using the pavement on the right as the road winds to another junction.

5 Turn left across from the house called Quantum and walk past farmland until you reach more houses. Look for Chalk Road and turn left. After a few paces turn right into Bustard's Lane and continue until you reach a junction.

6 Turn left and walk until you see a communications tower on your right. Keep left again and after ½ mile (800m) you will reach the junction you made earlier at Point c. Go right, with greenhouses to your left, until you reach another junction. Turn left, and follow the lane until you see a tall fence and a hedge of Leylandii trees.

7 Turn left in front of the hedge, past the Old Railway Inn house until you reach the A17. Follow the pavement to the left, then cross over at the end of the railings, using the central island. On the other side, walk to the left of the piled pallets and up the lane past scattered houses and a fruit farm. At the T-junction turn right along Station Road back to the car park.

In October 1216, things were not looking good for King John of England. The previous year he had been forced to sign Magna Carta, which saw him abrogate much of his regal power to the barons, and 11 months later Prince Louis of France invaded the country, intending to seize the English crown for himself. King Alexander of Scotland had reached Cambridge and had to be ousted, and John was losing supporters by the fistful. To top it all, he was ill, probably with dysentery - unpleasant at any time, but especially so when travelling fast along medieval roads.

On 11 October, John started to move from his Norfolk base into Lincolnshire. Because time was of the essence, with hostile forces all around and his kingdom slipping through his fingers, John was obliged to take the shortest and quickest route. This happened to be across the Wellstream Estuary in the parish of Walpole St Andrew. Impatient to be on his way, John did not wait until the tide had properly receded and the result was devastating. The heavy baggage wagons became bogged down in the mud and many of the servants driving them drowned. John also lost some of his chapel goods.

Did John lose his crown jewels in the Wash as the monk chroniclers at St Albans later claimed? Did the tide come racing in, a mass of brown surging water that sucked the King's entire baggage train, all his money and most of his army into quicksands and whirlpools? Probably not, although the legend persists and the Walpoles have seen countless treasure hunters searching for the fabled wealth lost to the sea. Within a few days John was dead. His servants stole his personal goods, the Abbot of Croxton laid claim to his intestines for burial in his abbey, and his nine-year-old son was crowned Henry III.

The Walpoles offer a good deal more than legends, however. There are four of them - St Andrew, St Peter, Cross Keys and Highway. The church at Walpole St Peter is so magnificent that it is known as the 'Cathedral of the Fens'. It was originally built in Saxon times, but was swept away by floods in 1337, so that much of what you see today dates from the mid-14th to 15th centuries. The money for raising such a magnificent building came from the great fertility of the surrounding lands, allowing its parishioners to be generous to the Church. Also fine is Walpole St Andrew's church, which had bequests in 1443 and 1463. Meanwhile, little Walpole Highway's St Edmund's Church was built in 1844 as a chapel of ease for those people who found Walpole St Andrew's too far to travel.

While you're there

Other marshland villages with mighty 'cathedrals' are West Walton, Wiggenhall St Mary, Terrington St Clement, Walsoken and Tilney All Saints. Terrington St Clement also has the African Violet Centre, with nursery displays, a tea room and a shop; this is just off the A17 on the way to King's Lynn. The Fenland Aviation Museum is at West Walton, just to the south west of Walpole St Peter.

Where to eat and drink

The Woolpack Inn in Walpole Cross Keys has a restaurant and bar for lunch and dinner. It has a good carvery on Sundays, and serves hot and cold bar snacks. The Princess Victoria in Walpole St Andrew also offers food. This building carries a date of 1651, although its modern paintwork and windows make it appear more recent.

What to look for

Since Walpole St Andrew has one of the most famous churches in East Anglia, it's worth looking around inside it. Iron overshoes called pattens, designed to protect Sunday footwear from the mud, hang outside along with a 19th-century notice warning parishioners to remove them before entering the church. Look for the portable shelter in the churchyard, designed so that the parson could stay out of the rain while conducting funerals.

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