The excitement on the platform was electric. Green fields rolled towards the horizon, a tangle of tracks lay just below our feet, and the industrial smell of oil filled our nostrils.

With eyes fixed on the blackened tunnel we waited with poised cameras for what seemed like hours, until a shrill whistle echoed through the station and we were met with a whoosh of white steam, a belch of black smoke and an ear-splitting grinding of steel.

Flat-capped controllers hurried us into carriages and the door of our compartment was shut with a satisfying click. Pulling away from the station, we made our way with a chugaddy-chug, past waterways and open countryside.

It was my sister’s idea to spend a weekend in the Nene Valley. We were long overdue a family get-together and this tract of central England, an hour and a half north of London, was accessible for everyone.

Characterised by its dense chain of wetland nature reserves, the valley is lined with thatched villages and market towns that stretch for almost 50 miles along the River Nene, from the city of Peterborough to historic Northampton.

For 127 years, the Nene Valley Railway connected these settlements, ferrying passengers and cargo along the line. Today, a seven and a half mile stretch of the track has been restored between Peterborough and the village of Yarwell.

We started our journey at the main station of Wansford, stopping off at Ferry Meadows Country Park along the way for our first family picnic in years, before hopping back on and riding the steam train until the end of the line, for a quick mooch around Peterborough’s spectacular Norman cathedral.

While most steam train services ceased in the 1970s, life on the river endured and is still very much part of the Nene Valley’s identity.

Navigable for 88 miles from Northampton to The Wash, the River Nene has powered watermills and provided a means of travel for as far back as records can remember.

Today, a string of restored mills are a striking reminder of this history, and many have been lovingly converted into homes, hotels and holiday lets, each with a unique history. Hardwater Mill, near Wellingborough, is where Thomas Becket hid in 1164, on escape from Northampton Castle.

Staying in the heart of the Nene Valley, we were amongst the first wave of guests to visit the recently restored Willy Watt Mill.

One of a handful of mills with working waterwheels, thigh-thick shafts and wagon wheel-sized cogs can be seen working away, like the mechanism of an enormous wooden watch, while you enjoy homemade cakes in their tearoom.

More of the mill’s former moving parts are central features in their self-catering accommodation and, outside, the waterwheel itself rhythmically paddles the Nene.

The tearoom is also a popular stop-off for ramblers on the Nene Way – a 110-mile footpath that spans the valley.

Clearly identified by oak stiles and finger posts, we picked up the trail outside the mill, and ambled along reed-covered banks, crossing locks and disused railway bridges, as canoes and longboats drifted past us, the damp smell of river water heavy in the air.

With more time, we could have toured the region’s historic houses, such as Lyveden New Bield or Elton Hall; spent a morning bird-spotting in the wetlands; or gone window shopping in the market towns.

But this wasn’t a weekend for rushing around. The appeal of the Nene Valley is the opportunity to take a break from 21st-century technology, adopting instead the soothing rhythm of river life, strolling along the banks watching barges navigate the locks, or reliving history and recreating the excitement of bygone years, chugging along in a steam train while the rest of the world hurtles along at high speed.

The Facts

  • Willy Watt Mill has self-catering accommodation from £168 for a three-night stay. For more details, call 01933 622038 or visit
  • The Nene Valley Railways operates most weekends and some weekdays. For details call 01780 784444 or visit
  • For more information about the Nene Valley, visit