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|The DPOC Summer Cruise 2002
The River Nene, Middle Levels, Great Ouse and Cam
The David Piper Owners Club is based at Red Bull Basin on the Macclesfield Canal, near Stoke-on-Trent. This was the place where David Piper built his famous boats, and is now a BW Maintenance facility with longterm moorings. Each year the DPOC organises several group trips for members. The trip to Bedford and Cambridge was originally planned for 2001, but was delayed due to Foot and Mouth. We managed to travel, and got as far as Peterborough, but others did not. This year we had arranged to meet up with the rest of the group opposite Alvechurch Marina, near Gayton Junction, at 0800 on 12 June.
In 2001 we had purchased a Gold licence, and regretted the extra cost. For 2002 we decided to buy our licences separately. It worked out cheaper than a Gold licence. The waters beyond Northampton belong to the Environment Agency and we benefited from a free 15 days reciprocal licence because we moor on the River Thames. We also bought an extra 4 weeks for £98, making 6 weeks in total. In the event, we were there for just the month, and were able to comfortably cover most of the system. We missed Ramsey on the Middle Level, but went everywhere else.
Before getting into details, I should perhaps answer the question many of you will be asking - Why the title "Taking the Tube to Bedford". This comes about from the first days on the Great Ouse when we were listening in to snatches of the maritime radio traffic from local boats, mostly glassfibre, who obviously did not expect visiting narrowboats to be similarly equipped - we could hear our progress being reported by such statements as "The four steel tubes have left the moorings at ... ". This went on, to our amusement for several days, until one of our number broke and reported that one of our boats would have four plastic fenders in the next lock after which there was a deafening silence and we heard nothing more about us on that channel. Discussion much latter with one of the locals provided the explanation - it is apparently a local joke that narrowboats are are extruded in long lengths and crimped off to the required size and it must have been a considerable embarrassment to have been overheard by visitors!
Careful scheduling resulted in our departure from home on the Thames at 0930 on Saturday 1 June - the Queens Jubilee weekend. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and we stopped to greet the terrapin which was basking on a branch opposite the house. After an uneventful trip upstream we moored half a mile above Abingdon lock just 7 hours later. Our evening was brightened by a firework display, just upstream.
From Abingdon it is just over an hour to the lock at Sandford, which we reached at 0915, just after opening time. Usually we would turn off the River Thames at Oxford, but we wanted to take an extra few days and go to Lechlade. We moored on the edge of a farmer's field just above Shifford lock at 1600. The farmer was busily baling hay, with an eye towards the changing weather.
The next morning was still sunny, but cooler. The River Thames continues its tortuous meandering towards Lechlade. On one corner we were surprised to confront what appeared to be an adolescent gannet. We know the bird from New Zealand but had not seen one in England, and certainly not on the Thames. The lockkeeper at Shifford said it was a permanent feature, and was thought to be about 3 years old. We were past it too quickly to grab a photo, and it had gone when we came back. We moored easily in Lechlade just before lunch. Where was everyone on this Bank Holiday Monday ?
The journey back downstream from Lechlade passed quickly, and we moored in Tiggers Field, just where DukesCut leaves the Thames. Tigger is our Birman cat, and this is the only place we let him wander without a lead. We continued to the moorings at Osney to go shopping in Oxford, then returned to The Trout at Godstow. The 2002 IWA Christmas cards include one of The Trout.
Our 7 day BW licence started on 6 June, so at 0615 we left, worked through Kings Lock, and onto the Oxford Canal at Dukes Cut. It was quiet. After problems in previous years, we prefer to go through Kidlington in the early morning, and avoid weekends and school holidays. We came upon a line of College cruisers, returning to Oxford. Apparently they had been stuck because Allens Lock at Heyford was closed yesterday. When we got to Aynho we found a mooring near the old winding hole. We like to eat at the Great Western Arms - the Hook Norton beer is kept well, and their Pork and Gammon steaks with french bread, chips/jackets and a mound of salad is almost too much food. Very good value.
By morning the weather had turned to mizzle, as we continued to Banbury. The centre of the town has changed enormously over the last three years, and not obviously for the better. We do not like the glass conservatory covering the old dry dock. The traditional shops are still there, but the bus station is covered with a large new shopping mall. We stopped for an hour for banks and supermarket, then moved on. It was quiet because the England v Argentina match had started. (We won 1-0.) When we arrived at Cropredy we were lucky and moored by the shop, just before the lock.
Next morning we worked steadily up the locks to the summit, stopping at Fenny Compton for diesel and the chandlery. The views of Napton windmill between Bridges 131 and 130 tempted us to stay, but we continued down the Napton locks and stopped just at the bottom, by the Folly. The local brew from Warwickshire Brewery disappeared nicely. We like Braunston, and were surprised that the little Londis supermarket, the butcher and the bric-a-brac shop were all open on Sunday morning. We moored at Norton Junction, hoping for a game of Northamptonshire skittles at the pub, but found it had changed hands since we were last there and was now limited to large screen TVs.
We were ahead of schedule for our meeting at Gayton Junction, but that was deliberate. We wanted to hear the performance of All Steamed Up by Mikron, at Stoke Bruerne on 11 June. We stopped at Gayton Junction to collect our EA 4 week licences (one for the narrowboat and the other for our new little dinghy), then continued south. It is just over an hour from Gayton Junction to Stoke Bruerne. We knew we could wind our 47foot just above the locks by the waterpoint. We then settled to await friends from Northampton who were coming for dinner and to see Mikron.
Mikron have been touring the waterways for 31 years, and they arrived in Stoke Bruerne aboard their vintage narrowboat Tyseley. All Steamed Up is about the adventures of the Cornishman Richard Trevithick, and tells the remarkable story of this giant of a man, who invented the first practical high-pressure steam engine. It is a new production, but has been on tour during the Spring in the West of England. Playing theatre outdoors is always subject to the weather, but Mikron were lucky, and the first drops of rain began only when the chairs were being stacked away at the end. We have booked to see the performance again, at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in August.
Getting back to Gayton Junction for 0800 necessitated an early start ! We knew that three David Piper boats were there already, and there were rumours of two others already down beyond Peterborough. Four boats is a perfect group for the River Nene and the Great Ouse. Our group was Fiddlers Green (43 foot), Corinna (47 foot), Elmley (50 foot) and Brammle (55 foot), and we fitted two boats into most locks, and sometimes could get all four in together.
The 17 locks down to Northampton are hard work, and the area around locks 16 and 17 is well known. We had chosen a Wednesday morning, and had no problems. But we later heard of a friend who had eggs and tomatoes thrown on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Since 2001 the old dilapidated buildings by Lock 17 have been bulldozed, and the area is looking better. It is only a short walk to the excellent Morrison's supermarket; moorings are just before the first River Nene lock, by a row of waterfront houses. We left crew behind to keep an eye on the boats, but again there were no incidents.
For the River Nene it is essential to have a special key to undo the boxes for electric operation, or release the windlasses for the guillotine gates. These keys are not available in Northampton, so must be purchased at Gayton Junction, or from the EA by post in advance. In case of accident, we had each bought two keys. With fridges full we continued through the first lock and onwards.
One nice facility offered by EA is free DIY pumpouts, again opened by the special key. They are not always working, but the first one is at Northampton, just below the lock on the left. We also used the pumpouts at Irthlingborough and Peterborough. It is still allowed to pump overboard, so the free pumpouts seem to be to persuade boaters to be more environmentally aware.
There are few places to moor on the edge of Northampton. The Britannia Inn had visitors moorings, but the rough edge and old tyres did not look very appealing. Billing Aquadrome also had some visitors moorings, but it is a nasty turn to get into the marina. Mooring four boats together is always difficult, even if they can moor two abreast. The next long length of mooring was at Cogenhoe, a pleasant rural spot opposite a large caravan site and before the lock. Until Cogenhoe all the locks are either electrically operated or have pointed gates, so they are fairly easy to work. Cogenhoe has no shops, and it is a 10 minute walk up the hill to the village pub, the Royal Oak. We decided that the day had been long enough, and we all had a lot of food and drink in stock, so we stayed put.
All along the River Nene we saw beautiful church spires. At times there were four or five visible in different directions. From Cogenhoe it is just over 5 hours to Irthlingborough EA moorings and the delights of the Doc Marten's shop at Rushden and Diamonds Football Club. In town we purchased a cheap green nylon gazebo, and set it up next to the boats. The holiday spirit was setting in !
From Irthlingborough we continued towards Oundle. After the Middle Nene Sailing Club there is a very low bridge, marked as 2.2m but seeming lower. Then Titchmarsh Lock is still manual; it was converted to being electrically operated but the solar panels were stolen. It was time for dinner out so we all moored at The Mill at Oundle, just 10 minutes walk from the town and next to Upper Barnwell Lock. Being a Friday night, there were a number of bookings for food, so we were persuaded to eat early. In the event, there was plenty of room, and service was efficient. The food was pronounced good, and many of us managed to fit in one of the homemade puddings. We explored the paths of Barnwell Country Park - an area of former gravel workings, now a patchwork of lakes, ponds and meadows bounded by the River Nene.
Diesel was purchased at Oundle marina, as well as two batteries for our little electric outboard for the dinghy, and new boating wellies. The main moorings for shopping at Oundle are later, by the A427 road bridge, but it was shallow at the bank and we all helped each other with ropes. A long plank is essential. It would not be so easy if we had been alone or single handing. The market town of Oundle is delightful. The town centre is built of local Jurassic limestone with roofs of Collyweston slate. The 13th century parish church, with its spire, is striking. There is also a renowned public school, and the girls and boys could be seen shopping in town, in their traditional uniforms. Oundle has no serious supermarket, but there are banks and lots of useful shops - including excellent butcher, delicatessen and bakers.
By lunchtime we were safely moored at Fotheringhay, having paid our £2 overnight mooring fee to the farmer. He came to collect it during halftime for the England v Sweden football match. There is a useful water point hidden next to the bridge.
Only a small part of the original Fotheringhay Church, built in 1434, is standing. Before it was dismantled in 1548 it would have looked like one single building, but actually was made up of two separate halves. The western half, the present church, was the parish church and the missing eastern part was the private church belonging to the College of St Mary and All Saints. In 1566 two identical monuments were erected containing the remains of the Royal Dukes : Richard Duke of York who was slain in 1459, and Edward Duke of York who died in 1415. The Richard III Society gave the York Window in 1975, and later the York Chapel which was dedicated in 1982.
We scrambled over the site of the old Castle. There is record of a wooden castle built at Fotheringhay in about 1100. It was rebuilt later in stone, and then enlarged in the 14th century. It was of the "Motte and Bailey" type, with the main entrance on the north side. Fotheringhay Castle was where Richard III was born in 1452, and also where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in the Great Hall in 1587. It was pulled down in 1635 and the stones were used to repair and rebuild other properties. The final fragments of the outer wall were removed in 1864
It is then a pleasant cruise from Fotheringhay to the end of the River Nene at Peterborough. We moored at the Town Quay at 1345. It was Sunday, and everyone rushed up to the Asda supermarket before it closed at 1600. We were then able to relax and wander around the centre, including the Norman cathedral with its magnificent west front and outstanding painted nave ceiling. We moored overnight at Town Quay, but it was quite noisy into the early hours and is not recommended. There were 6 boats moored, all on chains, and there were no problems.
We had been told by the lock keeper to arrive at Stanground Sluice for 1000. The Middle Level does not require a separate licence. We each bought one of the special windlasses, then set off at 1030. The waterways are primarily for irrigation, land drainage and flood defences. It was shaped by the 17th century drainers, but the modern emphasis is on the challenge of flood protection as East Anglia continues to sink and the sea levels continue to rise.
The recommended route for cruising starts at Stanground along the King's Dyke to Whittlesey, along the Whittlesey Dyke to Flood's Ferry, along the Old Course of the River Nene through March and Upwell to Outwell, and finally along Well Creek past Nordelph to Salter's Lode lock. Each stretch has its own peculiar characteristics and fascinating contrasts. There are manned locks at each end, at Stanground Sluice and at Salter's Lode. There are two other locks: Ashline Lock is unmanned, but Marmont Priory Lock is usually manned.
The lock at Stanground Sluice is wide, but not wide enough for two boats, so we continued separately towards Ashline Lock, near Whittlesey. There is a famous sharp bend at Briggate, and the channel is very narrow there too. Ashline Lock followed shortly afterwards and we arrived just as the boat before was leaving. It was 90 foot long and so two of our boats should just fit diagonally. Continuing onwards we passed the Greenwich Meridian Line, then turned towards March at Flood's Ferry. Each junction was well signposted, and we had maps and notes to work from. We had arranged to moor with friends in March - Chris and Sheila who own the 1985 Sagar inspection launch Esperance. Like us, they have a mooring at the bottom of their garden, and welcomed us alongside, although we did stick out into the next garden. After a bottle of homemade wine we decided on an Indian takeaway, and settled down to chat. Chris was still recovering from knee operations, but was working hard on the water feature in the garden. They hoped to get away on the boat in the autumn.
After breakfast we made a reluctant departure, and joined up with the other three boats at the town moorings. March is a nice town. There is a sanitary station, but it needs a special key which can be bought from Fox's Marina nearby. There was some shopping to be done at Sainsbury's then we continued to Marmont Priory Lock, arriving at 1300. We wondered if the lock would be unmanned at lunchtime but we were made very welcome, and helped through. Chris had already rung that morning to chat with the lockkeeper, Mrs Norton, and to confirm that we would be there as arranged.
We had been warned that the channel to Upwell was narrow and the water was shallow, but we had no problems. Luckily we were able to moor three boats outside St Peter's Church Upwell, with the fourth boat alongside. Normally mooring two wide is forbidden on the Middle Level because it would restrict navigation. But it was wider by the church and caused no problem. We all adjourned to the 5 Bells, next to the church for refreshment, before obtaining the church keys and admiring the beautiful building. The present church was completed during the 14th century, with later repairs and additions including roof battlements added in 1842. It is noted for the carved flying angels on the wooden ceiling.
Beyond Upwell is the village of Outwell, where there are also limited moorings in the basin, but on a sharp bend. We preferred Upwell.
It was mid-morning when we reached Salter's Lode, to wait for the lock keeper and the tide. We could see the lock at Denver Sluice in the distance. Our departure was scheduled for 1300, and at that time the lock gates were opened, the water was level, and our four boats set off. There was some skill needed to avoid the sandbank as we turned sharply right onto the tidal river. We were told that all four boats would fit at Denver, but when we arrived we found the lock was only just able to cram in the first three. It is not quite wide enough for 3 narrowboats, and it is only 90 foot long. Our front was jammed between the two longer boats, and the gate just closed behind us. Fiddlers Dream had to reverse out, and wait on the landing stage. We continued slowly, waiting for Brian and Dot to catch us up.
The Denver Complex forms the focus of the flood defence system that protects the low lying lands of the Fens from inundation by the sea and flood. The first attempt to drain the Fens was undertaken in 1630, with the Old Bedford River completed in 1631. During the 1650's a vastly extended network of cuts and drains and sluices was completed, including the New Bedford River and the first Denver Sluice. Denver was rebuilt in 1750, and again in 1834. The scheme was finally completed, and the Lock enlarged, in 1964. The main problem remains to protect the fenland from flooding by raising the flood banks to counteract the ground sinking.
In 2001 we had joined the Great Ouse Boating Association (GOBA), and had continued as members in 2002. One of the advantages of membership is that it gives access to their private GOBA mooring sites, as well as reciprocal moorings through AWCC. Our first night on the Great Ouse was spent at the EA moorings at Littleport. Nicely mown, with a picnic table, we were impressed. We drank too much wine to celebrate our successful arrival, and had an excellent BBQ.
We all continued to Ely, but two boats went directly, so they had time for shopping. We turned up the River Lark, hoping to visit the Drainage Engine Museum at Prickwillow. Unfortunately it is not open on Wednesday or Thursday. So we peered in through the windows and vowed to come back by car for an open day. We continued along the River Lark, through Isleham Lock which is electrically operated, and moored at the Judes Ferry House Inn, at the Head of Navigation. The final half mile, past the gravel gardens, is very narrow and winding. Fortunately there were no other boats travelling. We turned our 47 foot easily, and would expect to be able to turn 50 foot into the short arm by the pub where it is wider than at Judes Ferry Bridge itself.
Ely is a delightful town with narrow streets and a variety of shops. There are lots of moorings, although we chose to moor by the Maltings alongside DPOC friends. Free water, pumpout and rubbish bins are available at the Public Quay, and Ely Marina sells diesel. For supermarkets, Tesco is next to the Railway Station and there is also Waitrose. Ely cathedral, known as "the Ship of the Fens", was first established as a monastery, founded in 673 by St Etheldreda. The Norman building seen today was begun in 1083, becoming a cathedral in 1109. There were various changes and developments, until final completion in 1534. The unique feature is the octagon with the lantern tower soaring above, completed in 1322 and extensively restored in 1990. Evensong is sung at Ely cathedral at 1730 every day, and is to be recommended. There is an entry fee to visit the cathedral, but attendence at evensong is free. Many of our group paid for the guided tours the following day, and we bought CDs of the organ music.
We knew there were many pumphouses along the Great Ouse, and that the one at Stretham was open for visits. So we set off from Ely after lunch, turning onto the narrow Old West River at Pope's Corner. We were disappointed to find that Stretham Old Engine is only open on the 2nd Sunday of the month, and then only in the afternoon. In addition, the EA moorings opposite were occupied by a large working barge, and there was no space for even one little boat. We continued to the GOBA moorings, just before the Lazy Otter.
We left first in the morning, reaching Hermitage Lock, and the short tidal stretch, mid-morning. Hermitage Lock is operated by a keeper, and closes at lunchtime. There are no EA Summer Assistants on the Great Ouse, unlike the River Thames. The lock is just too narrow for a pair of narrowboats. We shared with a friendly large white cruiser. On our way back we were able to get a combined length of 90 foot into the lock, but we had to be diagonal. We found that two boats measuring 97 foot would fit diagonally into all the narrow locks on the Great Ouse, and we could get all four boats into the extended wider locks, provided we entered in the right order !
The short tidal stretch from Hermitage Lock to Brownshill Staunch is not subject to the same speed limits as the rest of the Great Ouse, and we had a chance to get up to speed. At Brownshill Stanuch we found our cruiser friend already working the lock, and we followed him into it. It has two electrically operated gates, and an automatic delay to limit filling. Nevertheless there was a strong pull forward. Fortunately we were safely at the back. We continued to St Ives, again sharing with our new friends, and joined two other cruisers. The lock at St Ives was wide, and was the first which would take four narrowboats, or in this case, three cruisers and one narrowboat.
St Ives has a number of EA and GOBA moorings, as well as town moorings. We were able to moor just before the Town Bridge, and offered to act as a landing stage for shopping for the narrowboats behind. There are less shops than in Ely, but there is a good Waitrose supermarket. After shopping we all continued to Noble's Field, an excellent long GOBA mooring just 10 minutes walk from St Ives town. This mooring is said to be very popular in the summer, but there was lots of space on a Saturday in June.
Sunday was a good day to go out for lunch at The Cock in Hemingford Grey, and continue for tea at the Manor House listening to the local brass band. It is just a short walk from the GOBA moorings, and then a pleasant stroll in the other direction to Houghton Mill, owned by the National Trust. The Mill is in operation on Sundays and stoneground wholemeal flour is for sale. We continued to Huntingdon for overnight moorings. Both Hemingford Lock and Houghton Lock are wide.
From Huntingdon it is a full day to Great Barford, and the choice of EA moorings by The Anchor and water point, or the GOBA moorings opposite. We chose the former because there was a better edge and it was easier for the cat. It was busy, and we moored in two pairs. The locks were mostly narrow and 90 foot long, but we could fit diagonally in pairs. Only Brampton Lock and Eaton Socon Lock were wide.
There are then three locks to Bedford. GOBA have an arrangement for moorings with the Priory Marina, and we left one boat on their visitors mooring, another boat stopped in town for shopping, and the remaining two shorter boats continued through Bedford Lock and to the Limit of Navigation near Kempston Mill. The river is very wide as it leaves Bedford, but the two Rail Bridges seemed very low at just 2.0m. We passed safely underneath. There was also one nasty sharp bend, near Kempston. Approaching Kempston Mill, the channel became shallow and we had no choice but turn back. It was just wide enough to turn 47 foot, with care. When the link to Milton Keynes is built it will follow the route of the Great Ouse to Kempston Mill, and continue beyond.
We returned to The Anchor at Great Barford, to join up with two extra DPOC members, making 6 boats together. Our first stop on the journey back to Pope's Corner was at the pretty village of Godmanchester.
There are moorings marked with white posts on the edge of the park, but only enough length for two narrowboats and a small cruiser. It is however very wide, and we could moor four boats wide if it had been necessary. The next morning we watched as others had fun negotiating the sharp bend back onto the main river,to Godmanchester Lock, and returned to Noble's Field at St Ives.
We wanted to visit Cambridge, so set off early, overshooting Pope's Corner and mooring on the long GOBA Fodder Fen moorings where the A1123 crosses the River Cam. The edge was rough, and the grass and nettles were at knee height, but we were pleased to find somewhere for all four boats. Holding was not good, and the ground was soft in places for our mooring pins. There are two locks on the River Cam; the first is Bottisham Lock which is where responsibility for navigation transfers from the EA to the Cam Conservancy. The lock is electrically operated, wide enough for two narrowboats, and long. We continued past the Cam Sailing Club, Cambridge Motorboat Club and the Bridge Hotel. There are good public moorings, but it was crowded.
The second lock is Baits Bite Lock, also electrically operated. Rowing boats become a hazard now, and the rules of the road are reversed along the next stretch, but it is well signposted. We had been warned to keep away from Cambridge during the Summer Festival, but it was quiet now. The first reasonable moorings were at Fort St George. It was not busy and we were able to continue and moor just before Jesus Lock, one pair on each side of the river. Everyone took the compulsory stroll around town. We went looking around a number of the Colleges, but could only get inside a few because it was a Degree Day. We saw St John's, Kings, Queen's, and Trinity. Then we assembled our little SeaHopper dinghy and Pete and Dugald rowed along the Backs, mingling with the punts. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to use our outboard, so it was hard work.
Returning the next morning as far as Upware, we turned at the Five Miles From Anywhere Pub along Reach Lode. We waited patiently at Reach Lode Lock. Four boats arriving together certainly caused a queue. Then the two shortest boats turned off along Wicken Lode. This beautiful stretch of water is navigable, and although it appears narrow we were able to pass another boat, with care. Wicken Fen is the oldest nature reserve in the country and belongs to the National Trust. The first parcel of land was acquired in 1899, and now extends to 538 hectares in 57 separate acquisitions. There are three walking trails, including a boardwalk. There are also eight hides, including a new Tower Hide for bird watchers overlooking the Lode. They looked surprised when we chugged slowly past and waved.
At the Limit of Navigation we were pleased to find space at the GOBA moorings at Monks Lode. Being Sunday, the NT Information Centre and the Fen Cottage was open, so we looked around, using our reciprocal membership from the NZ Historic Places Trust. The cottage at 5 Lode Lane was built between the early 18th and early 20th centuries. The cottage was acquired by the National Trust in 1974, and it was restored using traditional methods, finally opening to the public in 1990. We followed a well-trodden track to the Windpump and Brickpit.
The GOBA moorings would be a delightful spot to stay overnight, but we had all arranged to meet at Burwell, so we had to make our way back. Burwell Lode was very weedy, and with the sort of weed which is like a matted fabric. We had to travel very slowly and stopped often to clear our propeller. We were lucky; friends who had stopped due to overheating found that they had got stuck in it on the bankside and had to be towed off. We all moored at the EA moorings at Burwell. It was cold, and rained overnight. We all lit our stoves to keep warm.
In the morning we slowly and carefully crawled back through the weed to Upware, and back to the River Cam and towards Pope's Corner. We reached Ely just before lunchtime, and set off to restock at Tesco, continuing in the afternoon to the EA moorings with a picnic site just before the junction with Brandon Creek. The picnic site was a large parking below us, complete with greasy spoon mobile cafe.
The Little Ouse, or Brandon Creek, was a pleasant surprise after yesterday and Burwell. The water was deep and the channel was wide, reminiscent of the Kennet and Avon back home. But the weather was cold, windy and showers. We moored just before Brandon Lock and walked into the small town of Brandon. There is one main street, with a few pubs all open but with closed doors and no food. There is a Coop for emergency provisioning, but the overall impression was that tourists were unusual. We eventually found a pub lunch with a mound of chips and headed back to the Great Ouse. We were pleased to find the EA moorings at Ten Mile Bank were clear. The EA moorings opposite were also empty.
The River Wissey, our final detour, was also delightful. We planned to all meet at the EA moorings at Hilgay in the evening, which gave plenty of time for us to explore as far as the limit of navigation. In the early mist and mizzle we could see the ghostly outline of the Sugar Beet Factory at Wissington in the distance. We passed close by it, and were confronted by an enormous lake, wider than Tixall. We followed the boat in front to find our exit channel. The River Wissey is navigable as far as Stoke Ferry, and we turned at the Y-junction with Stringside Drain. After a short stop for lunch at the GOBA moorings at the nearby Caravan and Holiday Park we returned to Hilgay. Just a short walk up the hill is an excellent butchers's shop. He sells good meat, and also makes fruit pies which he cooks from the freezer to order. We arranged to collect ours early the following morning. The butcher also keeps an excellent secondhand bookshop, from which the proceeds go to charity.
From Hilgay it is a short cruise to Denver Sluice. We had been instructed to be there by 1300, but we arrived several hours before so we could explore the site, and use the pumpout and fill with drinking water.
We arrived first in the queue and our four boats were first out of the lock, in two pairs. The first pair went straight through Salter's Lode Lock on the level, and we hoped to follow through straight behind. But we were kept waiting until the Denver lockkeeper knew it was clear at Salter's Lode. We believe there was a lack of communication between the two lockkeepers because we had to wait ages, and crew from our first pair of boats even walked down towards Denver to see what was wrong. Maybe radios or even waving flags would help ! Brian won the prize of a fender for the best approach into Salter's Lode. It is a nasty sharp turn, especially with the effect of the tide, and the entry is narrow and protected by a shallow sandbank. Because of the delay we had to use the lock. Although the entry is narrow, it widens inside and two narrowboats fitted snugly side-by-side.
There are few places on the Middle Level to moor four narrowboats together, and we wondered whether we would have problems when we passed the moorings at Outwell and there was no space. Fortunately our favourite moorings at Upwell Church were free, and we settled down. We ended the day with a few drinks at the 5 Bells.
We had booked to pass through Marmont Priory Lock at 0900, but misjudged the time and arrived early. We managed to share with Elmley (total length 97 foot) but it was very tight. The lock is only 92 foot long, but 12 foot wide. After four hours in March, we continued to Whittlesey, mooring just above Ashline Lock.
Then it is only an hour to Stanground Sluice, and the delights of Peterborough and the River Nene. Mooring at Town Quay on a Saturday night sounded a bad idea, especially when moorings were limited due to a fishing contest, so we turned towards the sea and moored on pontoons at the Dog and Doublet.
We were in no rush to get back, and had heard good reports of the visitors moorings at Ferry Meadows, just outside Peterborough. We were impressed with the area, and it had the benefit of a steam train service back to Peterborough so that various weekend visitors could get back home. The Nene Valley Railway owns a 7.5 mile long line between Peterborough and Wansford, which stops at Ferry Meadows, and operates a timetabled service at weekends from February to October, and during the summer school holidays.
Already one lock from Peterborough, it was only a half day back to the moorings at Fotheringhay, giving a second chance to explore the pretty village.
The following day it was raining as we continued to Oundle, and then to the Middle Nene Sailing Club at Thrapston. The effect of all the rain was to increase the stream and raise the river levels. It was not enough to trigger the warning boards, but we did need to report clearance heights to boats behind as we went through the lower bridges. We did not expect a problem in the summer but we found we were stuck at Thrapston the following morning. It was not until mid-afternoon that we were able to get under the supposedly 2.4m footbridge just before Islip Lock. It was then a wet and difficult journey to the moorings at Irthlingborough, but no problems with the other bridges.
The following morning it was sunny and the flow had reduced. We left at 0800 and arrived at Cogenhoe at 1430. The Royal Oak had new owners and we were disappointed to find that there was no food because the kitchen had to be replaced. We could have continued to Northampton, but would then have moored in the town, with all its disadvantages.
The next morning we wanted to do final shopping at Morrison's in Northampton and then work our way up the 17 locks to Alvechurch, so it was an early start ! Leaving Cogenhoe at 0700 we reached Northampton at 1000. We were disappointed to find the EA pumpout was broken, but it was not critical. Last year we emptied our tanks at Peterborough and that lasted us the full 12 months. We don't do much boating in the summer and winter.
The trip outlined here, from Northampton and back, could just fit into a four week EA licence. Including the detour to Ferrymead and the day stuck due to the rain, we took 30 days. To enjoy the area slowly, and explore it more thoroughly, it is essential to have the 6 weeks combined licence if you are normally based on the River Thames, or else purchase a Gold licence. We plan to take the free 15 days reciprocal arrangement next, and just travel the River Nene and the Middle Level.
We did not want to go shopping, so having been last to leave Cogenhoe we were first out of Northampton. We had purchased a 7 day BW licence, so were keen to make progress. Lock 17 was quiet, and there were some kids on the towpath by Lock 16 but they moved on. Locals said that schools did not close until Thursday, so it was peaceful. We used our radios to keep in touch with the boats behind and report on progress. It meant we could go to each others help, if necessary. And we could warn of boats coming the other way, so that locks could be left set. We reached the top of the locks at 1500. It was not very fast because we emptied each lock to help the boat behind. And then once we reached the top we went back to help. The moorings opposite Alvechurch are good, and after rushing into their shop for icecreams, we settled down for a final evening all together.
The next day we worked our way up to Norton Junction, then onwards to moor at the top of the Braunston locks. There are good moorings, once you are away from the wet and soggy towpath by the tunnel. And it was wide enough for a BBQ.
After a short shopping trip into Braunston, and final goodbyes to everyone else, we turned towards Napton and homeward. It was quite busy on the Oxford Canal and we decided to go up the Napton locks if the queues were not too long. We were surprised that there were no boats waiting, and we had an easy quick ascent to the Summit. Overnight we moored by Bridge 124. It is a pleasant piled length with rural views. By the evening, two other boats were behind us.
Our schedule home was then the reverse of our journey out, with overnights at Cropredy and Aynho. The final night on the canals was at Thrupp, to enable an early start for going through Kidlington in the morning. From Thrupp to Isis Lock and the River Thames is just over 3 hours, and we stopped at Oxford shopping until 1230. We hoped to have lunch at the Restaurant Elizabeth, but it was closed, so we decided to try and make it home. We were lucky with locks and at Benson Lock, at 1730, we asked whether we might reach Cleeve Lock before it closed at 1900. As we passed the Beetle and Wedge Hotel we came upon the annual Swan Uppers. This distracted us, and we only reached Cleeve Lock at 1845. We were resigned to winding Goring Lock, but we were told to hurry because Mike knew we were coming and was waiting for us at Goring Lock. We just made it by 1900.
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