Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Middle Level Mysteries is the copyright of Jim Shead - A look at the myths and reality of the Middle Level Navigations now that 70 foot narrowboats can negotiate the through route. First published in Waterways World September 1999
Middle Level Mysteries
by Jim Shead.
To readers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings the Middle Earth is a remote mythical place where ordeals must be overcome and strange sights are to be seen, to most boater's the Middle Levels appears much the same. Beyond the protection of BW's men in green we must enter uncharted (by Nicholson) waters, and face the 34 guillotines of the Nene, before we even reach the Middle Levels. Here are strange tales of short locks, low bridges and weed ropes across the channel; where the navigator must find a way through the labyrinth to reach the Great Ouse on the far side
Myths are rarely a true reflection of reality and in this the Middle Levels are no exception. In one respect however the truth is stranger than fiction - here there are no navigation charges at present. The Middle Level Commissioners, who control the 87 miles of navigable waterway and six locks, are in the process of drafting new bylaws which will enable them to introduce navigation charges, so this strange freebie may soon disappear. The mystery of the Middle Levels that I am most often asked about is about the lock sizes. At one time the maximum dimensions for craft entering from the Nene through Stanground Lock was 46 feet length and 11 feet beam, the size of a traditional fen lighter. After Stanground Lock was lengthened to 80 feet the length restriction was limited by the next lock, Ashline Lock at Whittlesey, which was 58 feet long. On the 1st April this year Ashline lock was reopened after being lengthened to 80 feet, so now a full-length narrowboat can go through to Salter's Lode, where the Middle Levels meet the Great Ouse. Although Salter's Lode lock (or sluice) is only 62 feet long it is possible, in theory, for a longer boat to go through when the tide is level. However, because of the silting in the river the tides sometimes run too high to make a level and the frequency of level tides can vary from month to month or year to year.
Most visitors use the Middle Levels as a link route to the Great Ouse and associated rivers. The link route is well marked at each junction and there are no exceptionally low bridges this way. Twenty-four hours notice must be given to the lock keeper (telephone 01733 566413) before entering Stanground Lock. Here a form must be completed to record details of boats entering the system, and keys to the March sanitary station and the special windlass for the Middle Levels and Ouse can be purchased. Having descended through the lock we are on King's Dyke, the first of the four waterways that take us the 28 miles to Salter's Lode. This fairly narrow and shallow channel, much like many narrow canals, runs alongside the road for much of its course into Whittlesey. For the next few miles, looking back, we can see Peterborough Cathedral and the new gas power station. Ahead we soon see the McCain's chip factory, which dominates the open fenland fields.
About half way along the King's Dyke we turn right under the Whittlesey road, all our old landmarks disappear and we enter a new mix of fields and industry as we go further towards the town. The most dramatic industry here is undoubtedly brick making, with tall smoking chimneys reaching upwards and a massive excavation creating a chasm beside the dyke. As we come into the town we pass the Boat Inn on the right and the Hero of Aliwal on the left, just two of Whittlesey's many pubs. A little further on is a sharp bend that can be the cause of a lot of manoeuvring but which 70 foot boats can pass. Just before Ashline lock we come to the recreation ground and Leisure Centre which has visitor moorings. Whittlesey is an historic market town famous for its Straw Bear Festival, which is held in January each year, when there is literally dancing in the streets as Morris men, molly and clog dancers follow the "bear" from pub to pub.
Once through the newly enlarged Ashline Lock we are on Whittlesey Dyke which starts, like King's Dyke, as a narrow channel but after a mile or so widens out and soon becomes a wide straight channel. At Angle Corner the dyke is crossed by another wide waterway, to the right it is called Bevills Leam and runs almost five miles to a pumping station that blocks the navigation, to the left it is called the Twenty Foot River and forms a route that bypasses March - but only if you can get under Infields Bridge which has about 5 feet 6 inches headroom. The wide waterway continues through flat farmland until it joins the Old River Nene at Floods Ferry, six miles from Whittlesey. Turning right here takes us off the link route and provides an 8½-mile trip to Ramsey, a town with good moorings and Bill Fen Marina nearby. This is a pleasant journey that passes through the village of Benwick.
The link route turns left at Floods Ferry and soon passes Floods Ferry Caravan Park, which also offers facilities to boaters. From here it is five miles through open countryside to March town centre. Before we arrive at the town we pass Fox's Marina offering all the usual facilities plus a fleet of narrowboats for hire. As the only hire fleet serving the Middle Levels and River Nene these smartly painted craft are a familiar sight here and on the Great Ouse. Once past the marina it is not far to main road bridge where we must throttle back as the channel becomes narrower and is lined by the moored boats of March's riverside residences. Just before the town centre bridge is the sanitary station with pump-out on the left. Opposite this is a mooring place and there are other moorings, on the left, just through the bridge. All these moorings are very convenient for the town centre shops and services.
Leaving March the river remains narrow as we pass more waterside houses and moorings and the depot of the Middle Level Commissioners. Once clear of the town the river widens out again and after a couple of miles we see the other end of the Twenty Foot River rejoining our route on the left. Two more miles of wide channel brings us to the Junction with Popham's Eau. We continue over a mile and a half past this junction to get to Marmont Priory Lock. Mrs Norton, the lock keeper here, lives in the house by the lock, which on a sunny day seems an idyll of rural tranquillity. The river changes its character again after we go up through the lock, the channel is narrow and shallower and soon we will be coming into Upwell closely followed by Outwell. These two villages adorn both sides of the river here with the main street running alongside and houses, ancient and modern, facing the waterway. In spring the banks are vibrant with daffodils and lined by flowering trees. There are shops here, places to moor, a pub and two restaurants have landing stages, and there is a visitor mooring by Upwell Church. A little further on there are good moorings at Outwell, provided by the Well Creek Trust. This spot is called Outwell Basin, although it is hardly more than a widening of the channel, or Outwell Junction. It is the point where the Old River Nene ends and Well Creek begins and was at one time the point where these waterways joined the Wisbech Canal. Today there is no trace of the old junction and the spot is only marked by the moorings and the sharp turn to the right as the name of the channel changes to Well Creek.
After Outwell we are in open country again, although the main road to Downham Market continues to accompany us on the left. It is a feature of the fens that roads often run alongside the dykes and waterways often with no barriers in between. In the winter vehicles frequently end up in the water, sometimes with tragic consequences. A mile or so brings us to Mullicourt Aqueduct, carrying Well Creek over the Middle Level Main Drain and two more miles to the village of Nordelph. There are moorings opposite the pub here. We are now three miles from Salter's Lode and soon we can see Denver Windmill and the upper structure of Denver Sluice in the far distance. At Salter's Lode there is a turning point and good moorings just before the Lock. From here you can walk down the bank of the Great Ouse and into Downham Market, about two miles away.
The journey on the Great Ouse and down through Denver Sluice involves a tidal length of less than half a mile. Ring the lock keeper at Salter's Lode to find out the times when the tide is suitable for the passage. I mentioned near the start of this article the problems for boats longer than 62 feet. For shorter boats this is a fairly easy passage and one that is often made by Fox's hire boats. The lock keeper will tell you how to avoid the mud bank below Denver Sluice.
When Dominic Miles came this way he found it impossible to navigate between the Ouse and the Old Bedford River at Salter's Lode (see WW September 1996). The following March the IWA Peterborough Branch, with the help of the Environment Agency who did work on the sluice and a lot of dredging, organised a gathering of boats to attempt this passage. This attempt failed due to the large amount of silting in this part of the river. Prior to the 1950s this part of the river was kept clear by the flow from the Great Ouse but since then the relief channel has been built to divert these waters and the bed of the river has risen by about a metre. The problem of silting restricted the passage of boats between Denver and Salter's Lode to narrow time limits on each tide and completely prevented a journey into the Old Bedford River as the dredging done in this area was undone by the next tide, which shifted some of the vast reservoir of mud up the river.
To address this problem the Environment Agency is now running more water through the sluices at Denver to keep the channel clear. This combined with a wetter winter than we have had for the last few years means there has been a considerable improvement in the depth of the Channel between Denver and Salter's Lode. While wet winters continue it should be possible for full length narrowboats to make the passage through to the Great Ouse, but if we get more dry winters the number of days each year when this can be done will probably diminish. At present navigation through the Old Bedford River sluice continues to be a problem as the entrance to the river is still silted.
There is no guide book for the Middle Levels but Imray produce a map, and a free map called A guide to boating on Fen Waterways is available from tourist information offices in the area or from Fens Tourism, Ayscoughfee Hall, Churchgate, Splalding, Lincolnshire PE11 2RA.
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