Thursday 31 May 2018


Today's Navigation - Middle Level

The day began with a thick covering of mist which was slow to disperse. On the other hand, it was also surprisingly warm and by the latter part of the afternoon thin sunshine arrived making it distinctly hot.

We had ahead of us some very straight waters: when we were planning this trip we had expectations of exploring rather more of the network off the link route. Two factors have somewhat curtailed those ambitions. Firstly, about five of the bridges on the system are too low for us to get the boat under and there are precious few places to moor. We knew that the number of official moorings is small but had hope to be able to find  a 'rough mooring' on the bankside if needed. In practice this was not going to be realistic - marginal reeds mostly make it hard to get close enough for a safe leap onto dry land and then the banks are steep. The low bridges meant that we only had the option of the ring via Three Holes which we began last night.

Setting off, the way ahead was along the Sixteen Foot Drain. After a short length to the first bend, it was then dead straight for over seven miles. We reversed back from the overnight mooring, under the road bridge and then turned at Three Holes Junction. The mist meant that bridges emerged and evaporated via the mist in an eerie fashion.

All along this drain a busy B road follows the waterway only metres from it. Hence the need to warn drivers about what would happen should they stray off course.

Boots Bridge was the lowest today. In the end we did have ample room but we took it very slowly just in case.

There is little  sign of habitation near to the Drain except for a succession of farms. A noticeable exception was this former Wesleyan Chapel, now converted into a dwelling.

There are also many pumping station and sluice outfalls at frequent intervals. The surrounding reclaimed landscape is largely peat and has gradually dried out an sunk to a much lower level than when the drains were constructed.  This now abandoned and rather small sluice is well above the water level in the fields beyond and illustrated the effect of land sinkage.

This time a working outfall and the drain it pumps from can be seen in the distance.

Somewhat to our surprise, the Middle Level Commissioners provide no boater facilities, especially moorings. The few that there are under the care of the relevant local authority. Indeed, the MLC guide emphasises this point in order to deter any complaints being directed at them!

However, they are quite good at erecting No Mooring signs, usually attached to private mooring stages.

At the end of the Sixteen Foot Drain we turned right onto an almost equally straight Forty Foot River. Just before Ramsay Forty Foot (a small village alongside the river) we passed under Ramsay Hollow Bridge. At one time this was much lower and also an obstacle to boats with the air draft of a typical narrowboat.

However, in 2009, after lobbying by the IWA and with support from the Royal Engineers, the navigable height was raised and we passed under with no difficulty.

A short while later we turned right again, this time onto the Old River Nene (Course Of). As the name suggests, this was far from straight as it meandered in a typical river fashion.

In an adjacent field beside a farm we spotted this row of apparently discarded red buses. (They must have been there some time as one of them has gone a greeny-yellow mouldy colour!)

This appears to have been a much older and now disused, culvert for drainage into the river.

Eventually arrived at Benwick where there is a short 36 hour mooring, just enough for a single narrowboat. Oh dear! As we turned the previous corner we could see a hire boat already tied up there. Our options if we could not moor here were extremely limited and would involve a much longer cruising day.

As luck would have it, the people with the boat started waving to us and it seems that they were in the final stages of packing up  their picnic equipment ready to set off back to March. Would we mind just waiting while they finished? Would we!

It was still only mid afternoon so while Mike secured the boat to the mooring, Christine set off over the footbridge to explore the village - she had found a reference somewhere that a new general shop had opened. In fact she found a well-stocked Spar shop where she was able to buy a newspaper and some milk.

Christine was intrigued by this sculpture inside a former pill box - but we know nothing about how it got there!

She also looked around for some of the interesting features, helped by useful information boards. Adjoining the mooring is an old graveyard which was once part of the local parish church. Only built at the end of the 19th century, it gradually suffered from subsidence and after various attempts to maintain it, it was eventually demolished in the 1980's.

This old photo from the information board shows what it once looked like.

Christine mentioned that a railway station was indicated on the display and Mike set about researching this as the current maps give no hint. It seems that right at the end of the 19th century, local people wanted better access to markets for their goods and eventually persuaded the railway company whose line ran (and still does) a couple of miles to the north of the village, to build a branch line. It was only ever used as a goods railway and terminated at a wharf alongside the river.

Armed with this information, Mike went to take a look to see what remains. If you know what you are looking for then the wharf is still visible from the road bridge but two large industrial buildings have been developed on much of the sidings. The railway closed under the Beeching reforms.

At least the sign on one of barns confirms the location although it is not clear how much longer this building will stand! Bank Farms is a collection of a number of small farms and their web site states that they are proud to have been growing mustard for Colmans since 1880. As well as concentrating on arable crops they now have diversified into various forms of alternative energy generation.

21.3 Miles - 0 Locks

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Three Holes

Today's Navigation - Middle Level

During the night there had been a thunderstorm - however, Mike only woke when there was a very loud thunder clap which then proved to be the final throe of the storm. It continued to rain until morning.

After getting up, Mike walked across the leisure centre field into town for a newspaper. He also found some lemon curd - we failed to find any at Asda! Just so we could test it out properly he also bought a couple of croissants which Christine promptly turned into breakfast.

Setting off, we immediately came to Ashline Lock, one of only two unattended locks on the Middle Level. It is reasonably easy to operate except that the penstocks (known on the canals as paddles) required a large number of turns to open - we lost count!

Since it took both of us to fill and then empty the lock, we were left with the final task of how to get back on the boat! Usually Mike is able to climb down the lock ladder on then onto the roof. However, the design of this lock has the ladders set well back into the side and it seemed too big a step from there. Instead, we pulled the boat part way out of the lock so that the stern was alongside the ladder and Mike could easily step from the ladder at that level.

After the lock the navigation changes name from King's Dyke to Whittlesey Dyke and with it much higher sides. A little later the bank level was lower and we could see much more of the surrounding features.

There are quite a few former pill boxes dotted along the navigation. These, of course, date back to the last war when the authorities were concerned that unwanted intruders might make their way secretly inland to attack vital facilities. Whilst it is quite likely that this was a realistic threat, it does seem a bit improbable that it could be done in secret as the waterway is wide and the banks sufficiently well maintained that hiding does not seem an option!

Up til now, the navigation had been quite bendy but we started to find ourselves on the typical long straight sections that indicate that this was an entirely man made route, rather than one fashioned from a natural river course.

The Middle Level channels are primarily for drainage rather than navigation. Fenland is naturally below sea level and until drainage and pumping schemes were introduced many centuries ago much would have been either permanently or frequently inundated. The Middle Level Commissioners is a statutory body that has the power to level charges on the land owners in order to pay for the works. Very frequently there are small pumping stations or sluices which bring water up from the field to the drains. Over time this has become an increasing task as the peat landscape has gradually shrink and thus become lower.

A sudden splash of red from poppies that have escaped!

Oh look - GCHQ is keeping tabs on us even out here . . .

Most of the farmers in this region specialise in particular vegetables. This farm, EC Brown, is now fourth generation and they concentrate on onions and potatoes. This crates can be seen piled along each farm and marked with the initials to denote which farm they have come from. presumably this is used when they go to wholesale market or direct to major shops and processed food producers.

The first lilies are just emerging from below the water.

Just after  Floods Ferry we spotted this sign which was put up for the Millennium and ,marks the meridian. At least we know were we are in one direction around the globe! All we need now is the longitude . . .

Another entry in the unusual boats gallery - this one is called Party Boat - let's hope the party-goers do not get so merry that they fall off! It looks as if it is built on top of two canoes.

A short distance outside March we passed this imposing building which is the head office for the Middle Level Commissioners.

Through March the navigation becomes much narrower and almost every adjoining house has a mooring and most have some form of summer house, each trying to outdo their neighbours in quirkiness.

We stopped in March for lunch - there was plenty of room on thew town moorings -0 at one time they were frequently fully occupied by long stay boats. Just before, we used the sani station facilities

After lunch Christine walked up to the Town Bridge and had a better view of the moorings. She also spotted this ornate structure which she later discovered is a Memorial Fountain, commemorating the coronation of George V in 1911.

A floating wilderness garden?

At the edge of town it looks as if the Town Council is still ready to repel invaders.

At Low Corner we turned off the Link Route onto Pophams Eau, the first stretch that we did not do in 2010 when we visited the Middle Level before. It is now possible to navigate a ring which includes Bill Fen Marina where we are booked to leave the boat for a short time. Previously this was not generally possible because one bridge was rather too low. Sadly, other navigations that look perfectly usable are blocked by similar low bridges and are not open to narrow boats or cruisers - lower boats could readily pass under most.

Cygnets are beginning to emerge, still under the watchful eye of their parents.

We arrived at the next junction in hope that there would be room at the Three Holes mooring. On the boaters guide from the Commissioners it looked as if this was quite a large mooring but cameras can be deceptive. (Actually, at present the MLC do not provide any moorings - these were created by the IWA and are maintained by Upwell town council) There was a small cruiser at one end but enough for us to tie a bow and centre line with a post in the water for the stern. Just have to make sure that when we get up in the morning we do not try to step off at the back!

We gathered rather a lot of material dropped from an overhanging tree at last night's mooring. After we stopped, we spent some time sweeping and washing the roof and front deck gto get rid of it all. Not 'spic and span' but much better!

17.3 Miles - 1 Lock

Tuesday 29 May 2018


Today's Navigations - River Nene, Kings Dyke (Middle Level)

It was now time to leave Peterborough after our short stay here. Well, we say 'short' as it was just a few days but perhaps we could have said 'long' as, in the past, we have rarely stayed in one place as long as this. However, now that we have navigated most of the system and perhaps have a little more time, we are finding occasionally that we can take time out to explore places we pass through.

We booked yesterday to pass through Stanground Lock, the entrance to the Middle Level Navigations, at 2 o'clock. This was timed to allow Mike to drive the car to Bill Fen Marina and to return by a bus that sets off from Ramsay just after 11. The drive over took just about half and hour and, after making contact with Lyn, who manages the moorings in the marina, he set to walk into Ramsay - expecting to take around 30 minutes. However, after about a third of the way, a car leaving the marina stopped to ask if he would like a lift. Of course! Having dripped Mike by the bus stop, the driver suddenly stopped again to ask where Mike was going next - he was actually driving into Peterborough Station so would he like a lift to Asda? Of course. It proved to be not only a very helpful lift but also an interesting conversation - he edits a quarterly magazine about the Steiner philosophy.

This meant that Mike was back at the boat, after a short diversion into Asda for a paper milk, bread and salad leaves, much earlier than expected. Even so he had missed the excitement on the Embankment. Christine, along with the other boaters moored there, suddenly discovered that the boat was a quite an angle. On looking outside she realised that the river level had risen 200 - 300 mm, lapping over the bottom step of the mooring. Quickly she slackened off the mooring ropes. By the time Mike returned it had dropped back at least half of the rise.

We had noticed last night that a red Strong Stream Warning had been displayed at the service point. General consensus seems to be that this is the result of the very heavy rain in the Birmingham area is resulting in added flows in the river.

Mike called the lock keeper at Stanground to ask whether it would be safe to cross over to the lock (the route leaves the river about 400m from where we were moored) and yes, we could go but were asked to be there an hour earlier than we had booked, just in case the water level rose again.

But first we need to fill up with water and to empty the elsan. Moving the boat the short distance quickly showed that the river is pulling much stronger so as well to be careful. By thew time we were ready to leave, the level was back down to where it had been first thing this morning and for most of our stay here.

Immediately we passed under the Frank Perkins Bridge which carries the dual carriageway bypass over the river and which we had used several times during our stay. Born to an agricultural engineer, Frank Perkins had an inauspicious start in life. He had poor health as a child and only managed the Third Class engineering degree at Cambridge. After various jobs he teamed up with Charles Chapman with the vision of making diesel engines small enough for cars and vans - at the time, 1932, they too large although had become very popular for powering agricultural machinery.

The early years of the business that they founded were quite rocky but wartime saw them blossom as the demand for their engines vastly increased. Chapman left in 1942, leaving Frank Perkins to run the company which, to this day, makes Perkins synonymous with quality diesel engines. In 1959, aged 70, he sold the business to Massey-Ferguson who were at the time his largest customer. Now a global corporation, Perkins still has its headquarters in Peterborough where it began.

Shortly after passing under the bridge we turned to pass under a railway bridge and left the River Nene behind us. As the photos show, today was very grey and often quite chilly, a distinct change from the recent weather.

We looked back and had a good view, in the distance, of Peterborough Cathedral - rather more of it than when close up.

As we arrived at Stanground Lock the relief lock keeper signalled us to tie up on the lock landing where he came and took our details before giving us a useful briefing on navigating the Middle Level. He then let us into and through the lock which takes us down to the Middle Level. Manned lo ks on different navigations each have their own distinct way of expecting boats to pass thriough. In this case, no ropes required, no engine to be switched off, but we were recommended to keep the boat in the centre of the lock as its depth varies form the side to the middle.

If course the land here is now very level and we can see places long before we reach them. Just outside Whittlesey is a large McCain chip factory, one of four in the UK. On this site they have three large wind turbines and an anaerobic lagoon which together generate a large part of their electricity needs. The lagoon converts the starchy waste Fromm the potatoes into energy!

A little further and we could also see the towers of the two churches in Whittlesey that we visited by car. At just one point, they could be seen apparently close together through a gap in the hedges and trees.

Just a few days after we first recorded seeing yellow flag irises, they are now really well developed.

Once into Whittlesey the channel becomes very narrow and steep sided - these bright red Valerian decorate the sides.

At the end of the channel is Briggate where there is a well-known very tight bend. We took it very slowly and managed to get around in one move without damaging either the boat or the bridge!

As we came around the next bend, just before Ashline Lock, we kept lour fingers very firmly crossed that there would be space on the short mooring. After this there is no official mooring place until March, some distance ahead. Sighs of relief - completely empty. Whilst it was nit yet three o'clock, we were more than happy to moor up, bot only because there was room but also because we were increasingly feeling the sharp chill in the air.

5.7 Miles - 1 Lock