Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Home Waters is the copyright of Jim Shead - Back home to the River Nene in the last of "Jim's Jottings" covering our 1998 trip. Published in Waterways World January 1999
By Jim Shead
As the days grew shorter and the grey drab summer changed to drab grey autumn we were glad to be heading down the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union towards the River Nene and home. This quiet river has a character all of its own which we have come to appreciate increasingly in the five years we have lived in the area, however it sometimes feels like we are sailing beyond the edge of the map.
Although the new Nicholson's guides now include all the northern waterways up to Ripon, they still refuse to acknowledge the existence of the East Anglian waterways. The Nene, Middle levels, Great Ouse, together with the Cam and other tributaries, represent over 300 miles of navigable waters connected to the main system and deserve better coverage by the guide books. Imray provide maps and scant information in three booklets that cover the Nene and Great Ouse rivers plus a map for the middle levels. Pearson's include the Nene in their Oxford and Grand Union guidebook, which I understand, gives fuller details of the river.
Before leaving the Grand Union main line we always ensure that we have had a pump-out and that our water and diesel tanks are full, facilities are few and far between on the Nene. Visiting boaters will also need to get a licence and the Environment Agency key for unlocking gates and water points etc., as these are not readily available once on the river. We always stop at Northampton where good moorings are available between South Bridge and the first Nene lock. It is a short walk into the town centre from here and the new Morrison's supermarket is only a hundred yards or so from the moorings. A little way below the lock there is a pontoon for water, refuse and elsan disposal and a free pump-out. We stopped for water here but were disappointed as the lock on the tap was broken and would not open.
The first three locks on the river have mitre gates at both ends instead of having the famous Nene guillotine gates at the bottom, although the instructions for using the locks still refer to guillotine gates. After the third of these locks (Abington) we pass under an automatic flood barrier and turn on to a wide reach, next to the wash-lands flood storage area, then through another flood barrier just before Weston Favel lock. This is the first of the guillotine gate locks, which are standard on the river. This one and the next two have electrically operated bottom guillotine gates. We must make the most of them as only seven of the 37 locks to Peterborough have electric bottom gates; the rest must be hand lifted which usually takes between 125 and 175 turns on the handle. To me it seems reasonable that a huge steel gate takes a lot of turns to lift several metres but why does it take 75 turns to lift each of the paddles on the top gate? Luckily the amount of water coming over the top gates of many of the locks means that some will fill without fully lifting the paddles.
The third electric lock is at Billing and just below the lock is the entrance to Billing Aquadrome Marina where there is a very small visitor mooring stage and some mooring jetties by the pub that proved to be very shallow the last time we used them. We went on another mile to moor just before Cogenhoe Lock, one of the few places on the river where you can stop on the bank without making mooring an Olympic event. From here the river winds through attractive countryside to Wellingborough, 111 miles and 13 locks from Northampton. There are good moorings by the park, a water point and a Tesco's supermarket close by, although the town centre is about half a mile away. The next moorings are a few hundred yards before Irthlingborough lock, 6 miles and 3 locks away. One of these locks is Ditchford, the only Nene lock to have a radial bottom gate.
Because there are comparatively few good moorings on the Nene our plans for each days cruising are based on the available stopping points, so after lunch at Irthlingborough we travelled on 8 miles and 6 locks to spend the night at the sailing club moorings at Thrapston. An alternative stopping place, 5 miles further on, is the excellent King's Head at Wadenhoe, one of the few riverside pubs with moorings on the Nene. We did not stop there this year but instead went on to Oundle where we stopped for lunch at the Mill, just below Upper Barnwell Lock. There is less than half a mile between Upper and Lower Barnwell Locks and between them is the narrow entrance to Oundle Marina. Lower Barnwell Lock is only half a mile from the town centre where the tall spire of the church can be seen. About three miles further on we find we are again about half a mile from the spire, the river having made a long detour through the countryside south of the town. On this loop is Ashton Lock with good overnight mooring on the backwater above the lock. We stayed the night at Fotheringhay, another of our favourite moorings although there is a £2 charge here.
At this point it is only a day's cruising to Peterborough. On these last few miles we saw the steam trains of the Nene Valley Railway billowing smoke as they make their way from Wansford to the city centre. Unusually Peterborough has plenty of places to moor; on the lake at Ferry Meadows (connected to the river by a short cut) and on the embankment in the city centre where facilities are available. We prefer to get back home in the morning rather than late in the day so we turned off the river after the last lock and had dinner at the Boathouse pub. A pleasant conclusion to a long season of cruising.
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