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


  1. A boater told us that on these side navigations, if he wants a break he just goes below and lets the boat drift. The chances of another boat appearing are very slim and if one does they would sound their horn to alert him.

  2. Must admit I did think about that, especially lurking in the reeds.