Walks round March, The Town Centre
A word of caution: some paths in March are shared cycle paths, most paths in March are abused by cyclists. Be aware of this hazard at all times.
St. Wendreda's Church is March's most famous building and this walk visits it. However it is generally locked but the key is available from The Stars Public House (01354 652863). The Pub opens at 12 noon every day, except Saturday when it opens at 11.00.
1. Town centre walk, 1¾ miles, allow 1¼ to 1½ hours (plus time to explore the church).
The history of March stretches over 2000 years. The Romans built the Fen Causeway to the north of March and major Roman sites have been found at Flaggrass Hill, Grandford and Stonea all close to that route which crossed the fen between Denver and Caster. March has an important past; a place of pilgrimage, a stronghold of the Fen Tigers, a base for Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces, the Manor of Doddington and more recently a thriving market town.
March developed from two hamlets, 'Merche' around St. Wendreda's Church and Mercheford on the River Nene. The hamlets were linked by the Hythe, a small tributary of the river. A towpath cum roadway alongside the Hythe was known as High Dyke.
This walk follows the Hythe south to St Wendreda's Church and back with optional deviations.
- To visit The Sconce, a Civil War earthwork created 1642-1648 by the Parliamentarian forces.
- To Eastwood Cemetery to see the grave of Ben Gimbert GC, a local railwayman, who saved the town of Soham from disaster in 1944.
The optional deviation to The Sconce is about ¾ mile extra which takes an extra ½ hour with an extra 10 minutes to visit Eastwood Cemetery.
City Road Car Park
Even if you do not start your walk at City Road car park it is worth walking through to the right of Somerfield supermarket to look at the Powerhouse Church. This is one of the last remaining buildings in Little London, a derelict area cleared in 1970 and now the City Road car and lorry parks.
The Inclosure Acts of the 1790s saw many poor people evicted from their homes because they could not afford to fence or ditch their properties allowing wealthy land owners to buy their land. Many were declared paupers and a number of areas were designated as building sites where poor people were allowed to build a roof over their heads and poor quality housing was the result.
The arrival of the railway in 1847 brought many men to the area and some of them lodged here. Hot bedding was common, when a man went to work in the morning a night worker would get into the same bed before it cooled off. In 1849 overcrowding caused disease and cholera to hit March, which brought the town into the national spotlight. As a result of a government investigation piped water was brought in for the first time from water filled pits, in Norwood Side, dredged for ballast when the railway lines were laid.
On leaving the car park turn right into High Street in front of Iceland. You will pass Georges Public House on the way to the Museum.
(1) The Museum, built in 1851 as a girls grammar school, is a must for a visit. The Hythe runs directly in front of the Museum.
Turn slightly right into Burrowmoor Road, cross carefully and walk in front of Providence Chapel into Chapel Street. This street is part of the original main street, High Dyke. On your left notice a narrow passage, this is one of three remaining jetties joining High Dyke to the wharves on The Hythe. Turn right at the end of Chapel Street.
At the entrance to The Oliver Cromwell Hotel is
(2) Audmoor House. This beautiful old farmhouse was formerly called 'Hythe House' and faced the Hythe at the front and High Dyke at the back. If you divert into the entrance of the hotel the full size of the house can be appreciated because it was formerly even larger the present frontage only one third of its original size.
(3) Trinity Church, formerly St Paul's Methodist Church was built on part of the garden of Hythe House. In the 1880s Mr John Burrows, a Methodist himself gave the local congregation the choice of either £100 or a section of his garden for a new church. Note the initials and names on the foundation stones of the benefactors who sponsored its building. The Garden of Rest next to Trinity Church dates from the 1960s and was the old Baptist Burial ground. Closed in 1855 it contains many victims of the cholera epidemic.
In winter, when the trees are bare, it is worth walking into the Garden of Rest and looking at the end wall of the building to the south to see 'FREEAR SIGNWRITER & GRAINER' painted on the bricks.
Continue south and turn right into Gas Road. Walk to the corner of a gravel road to the right, this is another section of the old street High Dyke.
(4) Wesleyan Chapel. The plain square building on your right built in 1829 and used for sixty years was March's first Wesleyan Chapel. It later became the drill hall for the 4th Suffolk Regiment (G Company) of the Cambridgeshire Regiment.
Follow Gas Road to the south along another part of old High Dyke. Note the two other jetties on your left that linked High Dyke to wharves beside The Hythe.
Pause at the end of Gas Road where it meets The Causeway and Springfield Avenue. To your right, behind the secure fencing, is the site of The March Gas & Coke Company Gas works. In 1847 it was a dock basin for barges. On the other side of The Causeway, where there are now large houses, was another dock basin used as storage and lay-bys as the width of the Hythe only allowed for the movement of one barge at a time. On the western side of the Causeway near another jetty was the White Pump for drawing up water from a well. As the population increased so the demand for water increased and bacteria from the Hythe leached into the ground and contaminated the wells and the cholera epidemic began.
Continue south you will soon reach the Stone Cross
(5) The Stone Cross sits where The Causeway becomes The Avenue. The Stone Cross was erected on what may have been the site of a Saxon market. Recent research suggests it is a memorial to Edward IV, Earl of March. In the early 16th century wayfarers used it as a preaching cross. Legend says that this was the site chosen for a new church. Many attempts were made to build here but each time the workmen returned they found the previous days work destroyed, allegedly the work of the Devil.
Walk a little farther down the Avenue you will reach
(6) The Almshouse known as 'Jenyn's House’ was built in 1851 by March Consolidated Charities. The previous Almshouses were built on the Museum site in 1672 with money left for the benefit of the poor of March by Sir Roger Jenyns. They were deemed to be uninhabitable by 1836. The building styles and scrolls above the doors of both the Alms Houses and the Museum are identical and are believed to have been built by Sir Samuel Morton Peto, MP for Norwich and owner of Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk. He was also responsible for building Lowestoft Railway Station.His firm Peto & Betts went bankrupt in 1866.
Continue to The Stars public house and, if you plan to go inside St Wendreda's, collect the church key from here (see the top of the page for other details). Turn right into Church Street, part of the old road into the town. As this road bends to the left look to your right and see a modern wooden clad house, this is Tommy Walsh's Eco-house. This was built in 2007 for a Sky Television programme and eventually sold way below cost.
As you follow Church Street round the left hand bend you will see the unique church of St Wendreda.
(7) St Wendreda’s Church is famous for its double hammerbeam roof. With a collection of 118 carved angels the church was said by Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman 'worth cycling 40 miles in a head wind to see'. The area round the church was originally known as 'Merche'. Do not forget to return the key to The Stars public house as soon as you leave the church so it is available for others to borrow.
Note the two squints in the tunnel under the tower that allowed lepers to look into the church without infecting healthy parishioners. Follow the tarmac path to the corner where you will be facing Church House.
(8) Church House built in the 18th century it has a steep roof, that was originally thatched, and, until more recent times, had no windows at all on the ground floor. It is mentioned in records as a meeting house and as such was for hire by the public. The ground floor was for horses.
Walk down the path on the south side of the churchyard to the kissing gate where you will be rewarded with a very fine view of the church. The kissing gate is impassable for wheelchairs and buggies but if you turn right at the church hall and then right again around the graveyard you will access the same view from the eastern side of the kissing gate.
Carefully cross the main road from Job's Lane junction, this is a 40mph limit area. There is a pedestrian crossing farther north that you can use.
Opposite Job's Lane is Barkers Lane named after Billy Barker who joined the Canadian Gold rush and struck it rich. He founded the town of Barkerville in British Colombia and was famed for his philanthropy; he died a pauper.
South of Barkers Lane is a grassy area beside Town End Pits. Under the Inclosure Award 4½ acres were set aside for pasture and it was here that paupers were allowed to build their crude homes. Later it was partly excavated for gravel to maintain the roads and these ‘lakes’ remained until the 1930s. About ½ acre remains but it is usually covered by Azolla filiculoides a water fern, or Lemna a kind of duckweed that grows on still water. (At a certain time of year the pit is only visible by walking south to Sherbrooke Close and peering through the trees).
It is time to start the return walk on the east side of the road. On your right is Neale-Wade Academy (formerly March Grammar School and more recently Community College)
(9) is now the new main Neale-Wade Academy building which is very colourful and sits on the site of Eastwood House which has been demolished. During the Second World War Eastwood House was commandeered for military use, then housed prisoners and afterwards became a children's home. After the demolition archaeologists found tunnels that could have been bricked over watercourses that connected to The Hythe or something else, who knows?.
Walk north to Field Baulk a footpath to the right. It was on March 7th 1982 on Field Baulk Farm, a hoard of 872 Iceni coins was found when the farmer was digging a pit to plant an apple tree. March Museum had 12 of these coins on loan from The British Museum but they have been taken back for research purposes.
Continue north on The Avenue for the main walk and skip all the information in italics.
Optional Deviation 1
This is the start of the optional deviation, turn right into Field Baulk footpath and walk to Carmargue Drive. Cross Carmargue Drive into a footpath with cycle barriers and follow it for 200 yards until you reach Cavalry Drive entrance to Neale-Wade Academy to the right. Turn to the left and cross Cavalry Drive on a raised brick hump, beware of traffic but it has to slow down for the hump. Walk along a wide footpath/cycle path between high fences after about 100 yards and an open grassy area with earthworks will be on your right. This is called The Sconce and it was a fort used by Oliver Cromwell's troops during the Civil War. It is a roughly rectangular raised area with a ditch on the outside and projecting pointed bastions on three corners. There would probably have been wooden pallisades around the area when it was in use. Many of the roads in the Cavalry estate are named after Cromwell's generals and comrades in arms.
At the end of the tarmac path go through the chicane on the path indicating the walking and cycle path to the Station. Walk between bungalows then turn left into Eastwood Avenue making sure to look right to see the Stone Cross emblem on the former local authority houses.
Keep left at the next junction in Eastwood Avenue and go to St Peter's Road.
Optional Deviation 2
To visit Eastwood Cemetery and the grave of Ben Gimbert GC turn right into Upwell Road until you reach the imposing cemetery gates Walk about 200 yards straight on passing two paths to the right. The grave of Ben Gimbert GC is the 8th on the right. Notice the George Cross carved into the headstone even though lichen is beginning to obscure it. Return to Eastwood Avenue junction.
Optional Deviation 1 continued
Cross carefully at this busy junction and turn left along St Peter's Road and walk to the traffic lights where The Causeway is left and High Street right.
Back to the main walk
Walk to the traffic lights where St Peter's Road goes to the right and cross when safe to do so.
Pause at the wall on the corner and look for the stone white lion which is a reminder of the White Lion Public House that used to stand on this corner. The White Lion was the emblem of Edward IV Earl of March.
Just past the Fish & Chip Shop is 110 High Street.
(10) Norland House an imposing 17th century property. To the rear there was stabling and a coach house. The garden once stretched from The Hythe in front to Elwyn Road at the rear. At that time Elwyn Road was called Yards End Drove; as were other roads in town that ran behind lines of properties this led to confusion and in 1896 many roads were renamed.
(11) The Maze, next door, was once the curates' house. In 1816 it was bought by Firmin Fuller, a local vet, who set about creating an exotic garden on the 1½ acre site. It had a long rectangular lake with a Chinese Style bridge across connecting several attractive walks. At one end of the garden was a bandstand where concerts were regularly held and on certain days was open to the public free. A notice on the front of one of the stables stated 'All welcome except dogs and policemen'
(12) The Old Courthouse was built in Italianate style in 1875. Sittings were held twice a month and the Magistrates held Petty Sessions on the third Tuesday each month. March Police Station was at the rear of the building as was the office of the Chief Constable for the Isle of Ely. Note the Royal Coat of arms above the recessed archway.
(13) Next door at 78-82 High Street is Cassano's now a public house and restaurant. It was formerly the town's Guildhall built, in 1827, on the site of an earlier Guildhall. Later two wings were added to house the town’s first National School. For some time it was used as the town library.
(14) Opposite is the former Salvation Army Citadel closed in 2008 because the building had become unsafe. Originally the roofing material was slate but in the 1950s this was replaced by concrete roof tiles. This increased the weight of the roof so much that the integrity of the walls could not be guaranteed. The Salvation Army could not afford to repair it and insurance for large gatherings was unobtainable. The Army now share the Whittlesey Citadel. The other end of the jetty seen from Chapel Street at the start of the walk is to the right of the building.
(15) The Centenary Baptist Church in its elevated position was the site of the towns first non-conformist church built in 1799. In 1870 in was demolished and a new one built. In 1959 it was gutted by a fire and rebuilt yet again.
Until 1856, when the Doddington Rectory Division Act allowed the separation of the March Chapelry from Doddington into seven new parishes St Wendreda's was the only Church of England church in March. The Act did not come into force until the death, in 1868, of the Reverend Algernon Peyton, the last Rector of the original parish of Doddington. Six new parishes were created, St John's with its church in Station Road, St Mary's with its church at Westry (gutted by fire March 2010 but now fullt restored), St Peter's and the parish churches of Benwick and Wimblington.
(16) St Peter's Church founded in 1868 was built on the site of Phillip's Brewery. It is the largest of the three new parish churches built at this time and its construction cost was £11,000.
The statue over the west door is of St Peter and the book in his hand has writing in Latin 'CREDO IN DEUM PATREM OMNI POTENTUM', this translates as 'I believe in God the Father Almighty'.
The clock on the west front was taken from the old public hall on the market place. It had been bought by public subscription in the mid 1700 making it the oldest working thing in March. It needs winding twice a week and there are 37 steps to reach it.
(17) Numbers 34-38 High Street are an attractive group of buildings that used to have gardens going right back to Elwyn Road.
Number 38 is sadly boarded up at the moment awaiting attention which will be costly as it is in a conservation area. In the 1960s it was the 'Cabaret Club and Casino’ but changes in casino laws saw it become a series of Nightclubs; most recently 'Minstrels'.
Number 36 'The Chestnuts' which was built in 1790 and the home of the Shepperson family had a fine cast iron porch added in the early 19th century.
(18) The Griffin Hotel was a coaching inn and dates from the 16th century. In 1686 it became the 'posting house' and the mail coach would have driven straight through the archway that once graced the front. Many famous people have stayed her including Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys.
(19) The Town Hall on the market Place was originally built in 1900 as a Corn Exchange. This new edifice built in the renaissance style, replaced an earlier public hall and fire engine house that had been erected around 1839. The tower is 110 feet high and topped by Britannia.The clock was paid for by public subscription to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria'. It became the Town Hall in 1912.
It was converted at a cost of £80,000 in the 1970s for use as a Magistrates Court. After the court was transferred to Wisbech the money to buy the building was gifted by Peter Skoulding to the people of March.
A plaque marks the spot where a time capsule was buried in the refurbished Market Place to mark the Millennium.
The first part of the Town Centre walk ends here on the market place but you may continue to the Town Bridge if you would like to follow the Riverside Walk.