Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Great Ouse Cruise is the copyright of Jim Shead - First published in Waterways World May 1996
Great Ouse Cruise
Cruisers dominate the waters of the Great Ouse and the Cam, narrowboats being rarer here than on almost any other river, not surprising really if you consider just how far it is from Bedford to the nearest narrow canal, the Northampton Branch of the Grand Union. Unless you wish to navigate the tidal New Bedford river this is a 69 mile journey to Denver Sluice, here you will probably have to wait for the tide to go the quarter of a mile to Salter's Lode Lock where the Great Ouse joins the Middle Levels, 32 miles through the Middle Levels to Peterborough, then 61 miles up the River Nene. A total of 162 miles and 67 locks, no wonder that for so many people on the Fenland rivers a cruiser is the natural choice.
Although Bedford is so far from the Grand Union by water as the crow flies it is less than 15 miles, this prompted schemes to make a water connection in 1811 and 1892, both failing for lack of finance rather than for any technical reasons. Now we have a new scheme proposed by The Bedford - Grand Union Trust for a link from the river at Kempston Mill, above Bedford, to the canal at Fenny Stratford. This scheme includes rowing, angling and white water canoeing courses and other facilities in addition to the navigation and it is hoped that the creation of this new cruising ring will be largely funded by the Millennium Commission. The organisers are currently looking for a name for this new canal, any suggestions should be sent to Brian Young, 9 Woburn Road, Bedford, MK40 1EG.
Our trip through the Middle Levels to the Great Ouse started in the last couple of days of September with our entry into Stanground Lock at about mid-day, having given the required 24 hours notice to the Lock Keeper. When the lock was emptied we found ourselves in the unusual situation of being aground in the lock. The boat that went through before us had the same problem, but with some pushing and flush of water from the top paddles we were soon afloat again and had no trouble in going through the Kings Dyke to Whittlesey where the Lock Keeper met us at Ashline Lock. The Stanground Lock Keeper looks after both these locks so lock passage times must be booked with him.
We stopped the first night in March where there are moorings on both sides of the bridge in the centre of the town. There is also a self service pump out station for which you need to buy a special key, which are available from the Middle Level Commissioners Offices in March or from the Lock Keepers at Stanground or Sallter's Lode. On leaving March we continued on the Old River Nene to Marmont Priory Lock. The route through from the Nene to the Ouse is by way of several different waterways but the through route is marked by blue and white signs at each junction. After the lock the water level was rather low and we made slow progress scraping the bottom all the way to Salter's Lode Lock where we had to wait for the next day's tide.
No licences are required to navigate the Middle Levels although details of boats entering are taken by the Lock Keepers and recorded on a form that the boater must sign. Visitors Licences for the Great Ouse (and Nene) are issued by the National Rivers Authority (Anglian Region), Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 0ZR, or by their agents (e.g. Gayton Marina) the licences cover 28 days for boats registered with another navigation authority and the cost varies with boat length, e.g. 40 foot £76.70 and £60 foot £86.06.
Once through Salter's Lode Lock we were on the tidal Great Ouse for a short while until we reached Denver Sluice Lock. Through the lock the river is broad with fairly high banks each side and well maintained National Rivers Authority visitor's moorings. From here the Ouse has a thirty mile lock free stretch to Hermitage Lock at Earith. But before that we come to Ely, a diminutive city whose cathedral is visible for miles around. Ely provides good moorings and all the boating services you are likely to need. The city centre and Cathedral are well worth a visit.
Three miles upstream from Ely is Popes Corner where the River Cam joins the Great Ouse. The Cam is navigable for 14 miles, to Cambridge, and there are two locks, both electrically powered and operated by boaters. The lower part of the Cam is very much like the Ouse but the banks get lower and the scenery gradually improves as we near Bottisham Lock, the first lock going upstream. A little way beyond the lock is the Cam Sailing Club and next to them the Cambridge Motorboat Club sometimes causing a lot of boating activity here, especially at weekends. These are followed by the Bridge Hotel, at Clayhithe Bridge, and visitor's moorings just through the bridge.
A tree lined reach takes us on to Baits Bite Lock, which like Bottisham has a guillotine top gate and mitred gates at the bottom end. After this the Cam asserts itself as a rowing river. We had encountered rowers on the lower part of the Cam and on the Ouse, there being several rowing clubs at Ely, but the upper Cam to Cambridge is first and foremost a place to row and scull. Above the lock, and the A45 road bridge beyond, seem favourite places for the rowers to turn and we saw a variety of craft; rowing eights, fours, coxless fours, pairs and various scullers; often accompanied by their coaches, on bikes or in boats, communicating with their crews by hi-tech radio link or old-fashioned megaphone. The rowing continues from before dawn until after ten at night, the dark of autumn mornings and evenings being countered by bicycle lamps and torches that serve as makeshift navigation lights.
At Cambridge the normal head of navigation for powered boats is Jesus Lock and here, by the weir, are visitor's moorings. The centre can be reached by walking across Jesus Green - history, architecture, shopping, food or drink this famous city can fulfil your needs.
Back to Popes Corner and after leaving the Cam we turned upstream on the Great Ouse, or Old West River as it is called, the main course of the Great Ouse being the tidal New Bedford River. This section of the river to Earith is quite narrow and meandering in some places, a contrast to the straighter, improved rivers and artificial, waterways of most of the Fens. Although the Great Ouse has been non-tidal ever since we left Denver Sluice it is tidal again after Hermitage Lock at Earith. This is because between here and Brownshill Lock the tidal New Bedford River branches off on its twenty mile journey to Denver Sluice, our route was eleven miles longer but much more interesting and non-tidal. The rise and fall of the tide is normally only about a foot here as we are so far up river.
At the next lock up, St. Ives, we were in for a surprise. The lock needed a windlass to operate it and our large canal windlasses were just a fraction too small to get over the square spindle, even had they been the right size for this lock they would not have worked on following locks which have steel tubes round the spindles that stop a canal windlass fitting, we needed a different type. Luckily there was a team of NRA men working on the lock and they sold us the necessary lock key, but had we known we could have bought one from a boatyard or marina beforehand. In just four months travelling round the waterways we have accumulated a Calder & Hebble handspike, Leeds & Liverpool anti-vandal keys, the BW key, large and small spindle canal windlasses, the River Nene lock key and now the Great Ouse windlass. How many more items will we collect by the time we have navigated all the system?
St. Ives is an historic town dating back to pre-Norman times, Oliver Cromwell had a farm here and the six arched bridge spanning the river was built about 1415. The bridge is unusual as it has a chapel on the central pier. When we stopped at the town it had been taken over by a funfair, the main shopping streets were full with every sort of ride and side show, the back streets being home to the trucks and caravans of the fairground people. There are plenty of interesting towns and villages on the Great Ouse: Hartford, Huntingdon, Godmanchester, St Neots, Great Bareford and Bedford to name just some. As on most waterways the locks take us up to improving landscapes, undulating countryside contrasting with the flat Fenlands.
Fifteen locks take craft up from Earith to Bedford and a very mixed bunch they are. Most waterways have a standard style of lock with some minor variations, but on the Ouse the engineers seem to have started at first principles with every lock, some are the usual rectangular shape, some widen out to twice the width of the gates, some have guillotine gates at the top end some at the bottom and there is an amazing diversity of paddle gear and gate mechanisms, both manual and electric. The locks from Brownshill to Eaton Scocon were rebuilt in the 1930s when this part of the river was restored by the newly formed Great Ouse Catchment Board. It was at this time that guillotine gates were introduced, the original locks having the usual mitre gates. The war interrupted this work leaving the river above Tempsford still derelict. In 1951 the Great Ouse Restoration Society was formed to restore the remaining ten miles, working with the Great Ouse River Authority. The restoration was given a boost in 1963 by legislation that enabled the River Authority to licence boats and charge fees, at last providing money for navigation to a body mainly concerned with drainage. Some of the new locks were built on entirely new sites and some of the old locks were disused. By 1978 the final lock at Castle Mills was completed and navigation to Bedford was restored.
The river is well used with many marinas packed with cruisers and the occasional narrowboat. The Great Ouse Boating Association is also very active providing many temporary moorings and other facilities for its members. Wild life abounds in this area including Great Crested Grebes diving as the boat approaches, Cormorants, Coots, Moorhen and Grey Heron. I even saw a Whooper Swan, a harbinger of winter, gliding beside a resident Mute Swan, but for me the most notable birds were the kingfishers. On most waterways it is possible to catch a glimpse of these shy birds, but on this trip hardly a day passed without seeing at least one - on one day I saw nine.
Bedford is a town that makes the most of its river front with good moorings on both sides of Longholme Island which is one of the towns parks. It also has a tree lined riverside walk opposite this park which at night is lit with blue and green flood lights. Rowing is also much in evidence on this length of river. Bedford Town Lock is the highest on the river but it is possible to go a further 2 miles to Kempston Mill, some of the channel is narrow and shallow but we got to within sight of the mill before we went hard aground and had to reverse off the shoal that was blocking our way.
In addition to the Great Ouse and Cam their tributaries (Reach Lode, Burwell Lode, the Lark, Brandon Creek and the Wissey) are also navigable. We did not attempt any of these rivers because I was concerned about turning our 57 foot boat at the head of navigation, in many cases the guide book was vague and none of the people I spoke to about this was very reassuring. Perhaps I will have some more definite information by the time we revisit these waters, meanwhile I will recollect the misty autumn sunshine, the rural tranquillity, cruisers and kingfishers.
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