Walking the Colchester Orbital

Heading through Lexden Park

While I did get plenty of exercise during lockdown, one thing I missed was the ability to go out on properly long walks. So when June came around and the opportunity was there to get out and do more, I went and explored the Colchester Orbital route.

The name tells you what it is — a route that goes in a big circle all around Colchester, taking you through a lot of different areas and terrains and leaving you back where you started. There’s full details of the route on the website, so luckily you don’t have to deal with me attempting to explain it to you. Three sections of it have alternative routes, which means there’s actually eight different routes you can take, as well as doing it either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The shortest route around is about 13 or 14 miles, while the longest is about 17 or 18.

Of course, you don’t have to do the whole thing in one go. As well as the main route, the guide also has information on spokes that run from the town centre out to the orbital, so you can easily walk out to it, do one section and then walk back. There’s also various points along the way where you can make it longer or shorter, depending on your mood and how up for it you’re feeling. That’s one key thing to remember when you’re walking a route like this — it’s your walk, and don’t feel you have to stick exactly by the route if you want to explore somewhere else, or feel like trying something different. I’ve happily skipped bits and taken alternative routes on my times around it, and it doesn’t mean you’ve cheated or anything like that, it just means you’ve enjoyed yourself and that’s what’s important. The route is a guide to help you, not a set or orders to be complied with at all costs.

Importantly, the route of the Orbital is a pretty easy one. It’s all on well-used paths, so there’s no hacking through undergrowth to find your way, and much of it (particularly on the inner route) is on regular footpaths. There are some hills, but this is Colchester we’re talking about, not Cumbria, so there’s nothing that’s longer than a few minutes to reach the top of and the steepest parts are probably the two hills in Highwoods. The route has been designed to be as accessible as possible, and while there might be a few bits that will get muddy when it’s wetter, you don’t need to be kitted up in full hiking gear to do it. Make sure that whatever you’re wearing is comfortable for walking a long distance in, though.

One thing you’ll discover doing the Orbital is the large amount of different green spaces within Colchester. The majority of the route is within the urban area, but there are very few places where you have to walk along a road or be confronted with much traffic. I’ve lived here and walked around here for a long time, and I still managed to discover places that I’d never been to before, especially on the outer loop on the east, where you head up and over Crockleford Heath which feels a world away from the busy roads, but it’s just a few minutes from the busy dual carriageway on Clingoe Hill.

If you’re doing it as a one-off, then your big choice is which of the different options on the loops to take. On the eastern and western sides, the outer loops are longer (quite a bit in the east), but I think the scenery along them is a lot nicer and worth the extra distance. The inner loops aren’t a bad walk — they’re nice paths through green spaces — but the outer ones take you into some really impressive areas. There’s great views and interesting paths through the woods in the east, and in the west you get the spectacle of Bluebottle Grove, where you’re walking below an old earthwork, so the path is like a tunnel through the green, and also the wide open space of Cymbeline Meadows.

In the south, I think the two routes are roughly equal, both in distance and appeal.The inner loop takes you through some really nice woods by Bourne Pond, while the outer one takes you across Middlewick, though also features a bit more walking through built-up areas. If you want to take the inner loop and don’t fancy walking through the cemetery, though, you can avoid it by taking the road to the right of the entrance and following that through until you reach the long straight path that skirts the side of the cemetery —don’t worry, it’s a lot more obvious on the map and the ground!

There are several points where you can take alternative “unofficial” routes either to avoid something or because it’s a more interesting route. For instance, to get from the Hythe to Old Heath Road, I prefer the route along Distillery Lane past the pond there both because it’s flatter than the official route, and I think it’s nicer.

Elsewhere, if you don’t like wobbly pedestrian bridges, you can avoid the one by the University by taking a loop further down the railway line and using the level crossing to get to the Wivenhoe Trail then walk back along from there. On the other side of the Orbital, the route takes you through the grounds of the hospital, and there are many people who understandably might not want to do that right now. However, there are several ways to walk around the hospital grounds — going either left or right rather than straight through the hospital when you cross the Northern Approach Road will lead you to either Turner Road or different entrances to High Woods.

Because the Orbital route weaves in and out of built-up areas, it means you do pass close to various shops en route so while you should make sure you have some water with you — especially if you’re on some of the outer loops — there are plenty of places you can stop to refuel en route, as well as there being plenty of nice places to stop and eat your lunch while taking in the views around you. It’s not a race to get around it, so don’t feel you need to rush yourself — take your time and enjoy it!

Remember that all the information you need is on the official site, including an interactive map to guide you round. (One tip, learned from my experience — if you’re going to use that to navigate, check your phone’s battery and have a backup charger, just in case!) And if you want to see how I managed — and where I got lost — doing it, you can see my Strava results for the anti-clockwise and clockwise loops.

Enjoy your walk!

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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