Our best walks in Northamptonshire

If you like pretty rural villages with thatched roofs, country lanes, ancient woodland, river valleys and canals, you are going to love Northamptonshire. 

Whether you are looking for a gentle amble or are ready for a long-distance hike, this county will please. In the centre of England, The Rose of the Shires, has nature in abundance, and, despite its name, the county flower is the cowslip.

Discovering the best walks in Northamptonshire was high on our agenda when we moved to our house just beyond the eastern border of the county in the 1980s.

Throughout the intervening years, we have explored the area, building a long list of favourite nature walks. Let me show you the places we have visited and the things we have seen. All the photos on the page are my own, taken on location.

We start our tour of the best walks in Northamptonshire in the attractive market town of Oundle. close to where we live. 

Barnwell Country Park

 This is one of our regular destinations "across the border". A small park, just outside the town, Barnwell Country Park offers short walks around picturesque lakes and alongside the River Nene.

Popular with families and dog walkers, Barnwell Country Park can get busy at the weekends and often has events that draw in the crowds during the summer months. This means that the resident wildlife, used to people, ignores our presence to a large extent, making it possible to get relatively close to normally wary creatures, including the kingfisher and, on occasions, the otter!

Glapthorn Cow Pastures

If you prefer the peace of the countryside, this reserve just north of Oundle might suit you better.

The Wildlife Trusts of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire manage this wooded area, where, if you are lucky, you could see the rare black hairstreak butterfly in the summer.

Despite the name of the reserve, you won't find grazing animals here, but you could hear nightingales and warblers. In the spring, as you walk along the woodland paths, you enjoy the scent of primroses, bluebells and common spotted orchids that grow here.

Titchmarsh LNR

Heading west from Oundle you might like to stop off at this local nature reserve on the outskirts of the market town of Thrapston.

One access point is from the village of Aldwincle, but the parking area here is small and has large potholes to negotiate so you may prefer to park in the town and walk. After parking in town, keep the river Nene on your left and Thrapston Town Lake (used by the sailing club) on your right as you walk along the wide footpath until you reach a bridge. Cross the river and turn right through the kissing gate to reach the reserve.

There is a circular walk around the lakes of 3-4 miles, mostly on grass paths which can get muddy in winter. In summer watch for the iridescent colours of the Banded Demoiselles, along with other damsels and dragonflies. 

In the winter, the lakes are home to large numbers of wildfowl. By February, you can't miss the noisy herons which breed here.

The Nene Way

Did you just read that as Neen or Nenn? You will hear it pronounced both ways, and the person you are talking to will always insist their way is correct!

This 70-mile long-distance walk starts in Badby in the west, follows the river Nene right across the county and ends at Wandsford in Peterborough. Those that have completed it in full will tell you it is definitely one of the best walks in Northamptonshire, but I can't confirm that, as at my age it is sadly beyond my capabilities. 

The 14-mile section from Barnwell to Wandsford includes the site of Fotheringhay Castle. Although dismantled in the 1630s, the mound or Motte is still visible. Richard III was born here, and it was also where Mary Queen of Scots met her untimely end.

The Nene Valley Living Landscape

If you are looking for lakeside walks, the Nene Valley is sure to fit the bill.

You could start at Kinewell Lake, a former gravel pit and now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA), near the village of Ringstead. A short walk of one and one-half miles takes you around the perimeter of this fishing lake. Your dog can join you on this walk, but please keep it on a lead during the bird's summer breeding season.

Moving further through the valley you reach Stanwick Lakes, labelled as a countryside attraction and nature reserve. There are play areas for the kids, a visitor centre and hard surfaced paths here. Of course you will also see plenty of wildlife, especially ducks and geese on the 15 lakes and ponds making up the complex.

It is possible to walk from Stanwick Lakes along the valley to the Nene Wetlands, which comprises four Wildlife Trusts nature reserves. This area includes the Rushden Lakes Shopping Centre, unique in combining shopping and wildlife. Along with the lakes there are islands, meadows, woodland and reed beds to explore. 

Summer Leys LNR

Another popular nature reserve in the valley is Summer Leys. The main lake here is a flooded gravel pit and there is also a wader scrape, along with two smaller ponds. Redwing and lapwing breed on the scrape offering brief glimpses of the baby birds. 

Usually Summer Leys LNR is busy at weekends, but if you can find a space to park, you can often walk around the reserve without coming into contact with other people, unless you stop off at the many hides provided. These are all placed to one side of the lake, with the old railway line forming the path along the other.

The "all weather" paths can be muddy in the winter, so wear suitable footwear. If you venture past the bird feeding station, you will need to cross a grassy meadow with kissing gates at both ends, which can get quite waterlogged. 

Irchester Country Park

Our review of the best walks in Northamptonshire would not be complete if we missed out Irchester Country Park. Here you have the choice of three woodland walks, ranging from the short Easy Access Trail which only takes 15 minutes, to the Woodland Trail and then the 2.5 mile Ironstone Heritage Trail. The latter includes the Railway Museum (free to enter), which houses narrow gauge trains from years gone by, along with fascinating indoor displays.

Northamptonshire is rich in ironstone, a sedimentary rock, which contains a substantial amount of iron ore, and you will find many old quarries throughout the county.

It is worth mentioning that you can do as we do and purchase an annual car parking permit that will allow unlimited access to all the county's Country Parks. 

Twywell Hills and Dales

Another ironstone quarry during the early 20th century, this area is now an SSSI because of the wildlife and flora found here. This includes butterflies such as the dingy and grizzled skippers, green hairstreak (the only place I have yet seen one) and common blue. 

As the name suggests, much of the area is not suitable for wheelchairs as it involves steep inclines and unsurfaced paths which can be almost impassable in wet muddy conditions. There are no public toilets on site, but free parking is available from dawn till dusk. Twywell is popular with dog walkers, but be aware that at certain times of year grazing livestock may be on site, so you will need to keep your pet on a lead for the safety of everyone.

Fermyn Woods

Travel west from Oundle and just outside Corby you will discover Fermyn Woods, formerly known as Brigstock Country Park. Good news: you can use your parking permit here.

There are three trails through the woods to choose from, depending on how far you wish to walk from the car park, toilets and café. Look out for red kites overhead, purple emperor butterflies in the treetops, and great crested newts in the pond.

Just beyond the park is Lyveden New Bield, owned by the National Trust. The "new bield" is an unfinished lodge begun back in Elizabethan times and was to be part of the moated gardens for the Manor House. I have spent many a happy hour by the moats watching and photographing the dragonflies that patrol the area. At the time of writing (2020) the property is closed to the public while they reconnect the manor and lodge for the first time in 300 years. 

Brixworth Country Park

This reservoir, split into the country park itself and Pitsford Water Nature Reserve (an SSSI), is situated 5 miles north of Northampton. A causeway divides the two sections.

Again, you can use your parking pass here, but will need a separate permit from the Wildlife Trusts to walk around the nature reserve.

Please leave your dogs at home if your aim is to walk around the reserve, or keep to the country park itself where they can run off lead but under control.

The park has toilets and a café, along with a sailing club near the dam.

More country parks

There are two country parks in Northamptonshire that we have not yet visited, so for completeness I have added them to the bottom of this page. They may make my list of the best walks in Northampton in the future.

The 14-mile Brampton Valley Way follows the route of the old Northampton to Market Harborough Railway. This is a linear park rather than a circular walk and includes two tunnels which are not lit, so beware of cyclists!

Sywell Country Park, near Wellingborough, started life as a reservoir and converted to a country park in the 1970s. Besides the main water there is a pond, a butterfly garden and an arboretum. It's smaller than Pitsford Water with a perimeter of 2.7 miles. We hope to visit this park in 2021 and will be sure to write about it and share any photos I take afterwards.

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