Thursday, May 14, 2009

Up To Bedford And Back

Almost as soon as we went through Brownshill Lock, upstream from Earith, the Great Ouse seemed to change its character. From having been very much a 'fenland' river, with marshy edges contained by man-made flood banks, it transformed itself into a slightly more 'upland' river, not exactly in a valley but flowing through woods, farmland and the occasional village like Holywell, with its thatched cottages. It began to remind us of parts of the upper reaches of the Thames but was less remote. Locks became more frequent and were all self-operated and much smaller than Thames locks.

And then we came to St. Ives! We had heard that the bridge was something special, but it certainly made an impact as the river swung round into the town! Apparently, the chapel on the bridge (dating from 1426) is one of only three bridge chapels in the country - the other two are in Yorkshire. We walked around the town and visited the little Norris Museum, covered with its sweet-smelling wisteria.

A few days before, we had received a surprise response to an earlier blog entry. One of Jeremy's old schoolfriends from Romford days did a search on the internet which somehow led him to our blog. The next thing was obviously to try to meet up. Dan often visits Peterborough, so arranging to meet us at Huntingdon was not too difficult. We chugged upstream to a very convenient pub, enjoyed a pizza lunch and chugged back to Huntingdon. And, just to prove that he really DID do it, here is a picture of Dan steering 'Zindagi' - and very well too! We look forward to another visit sometime soon.

As we travel on the Great Ouse, we are always on the lookout for suitable overnight moorings, so we were glad to find that there was just enough room for us at a small mooring site near Little Paxton. What we didn't know was that it is right next door to Paxton Pits Nature reserve, and that the local nightingales were in excellent voice! There were plenty of experienced birdwatchers trying to SEE the nightingales, let alone photograph them, so we make no apology for the lack of a picture! We enjoyed being serenaded in the evening and morning. Perhaps they went on all night - we didn't check!

We got another surprise as we came to Willington lock - it was out of action, as some emergency repairs were needed, so we had to wait while the divers sorted it out. No problem, at least it would be done by lunchtime the same day!

And so, maybe a bit quicker than we had thought, we came to Bedford, the limit of navigation - at the moment. There are plans to link the Great Ouse at Bedford with the Grand Union Canal at Milton Keynes. This is not a new idea, apparently, as the original plan dates back to 1811! Explore this link if you want to know more.
On the way back downstream, we found a snug little mooring at Barford Old Mill (the site of a former lock) and were serenaded again by the nightingales at Paxton Pits. We have noticed a gradual increase in the numbers of narrowboats on the river - perhaps more have been following the route through the Middle Level. There seem to be many more fibreglass cruisers based on the river, as on other rivers we have visited, and the increased 'traffic' levels at weekends is very noticeable!
Now we are back in Ely, planning to head up the River Cam in the next few days, visiting some old friends and exploring the Cambridge Lodes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

First Impressions of the Great Ouse

Another (brief) brush with tidal waters as we left Salters Lode Lock and swung into the ebb tide of the Great Ouse, before turning to face it and travel the half mile or so upstream to Denver Sluice, which was open and ready for us. Once through that, and we were back on non-tidal river, but still in the world of flood control, with flood protection banks that would accompany us for several miles to come. We continued to be aware that we were very much in the Fens, with their long history of floods and drainage. Denver Sluice itself is a major element of the flood control for this whole area. The smallish 'guillotine' gate to the right of the picture is where we had just come up - another narrowboat was waiting to go down next.

We moved on for a few miles, having decided that we would aim to travel all the way up to Bedford and explore the 'side turnings' on the way back downstream. Ely was the next place to look out for, and next day we could see its cathedral rising over the surrounding countryside.
Val may have only had one knee operation done so far, but she certainly seems to be extending her walking range! We walked into the centre of Ely and the cathedral, and back again, without too many ill effects!

After a couple of days on the edge of the town (city, really!), it was good to move on just a couple of miles and moor up in the countryside. There are lots of moorings on the whole Great Ouse system, some provided by the Environment Agency for all boaters and some by GOBA (the Great Ouse Boating Association). As we have joined GOBA, we have the freedom to choose almost any mooring site. It's not quite like the canal system, where we can moor almost anywhere along the towpath, but it is a lot better than the River Nene, where moorings are scarce, to say the least!

One of the benefits of the rural moorings is the abundance of wildlife, especially birds, though often we can hear them much more easily than see them. Here's a Sedge Warbler (I think!), still pretty invisible in spite of the telephoto lens . . . Try clicking on the picture to enlarge it. There are swans in abundance, geese, Coots, Moorhens, Mallards, Tufted Ducks, warblers (various), Reed Buntings, Lapwings, Redshank, Cormorants, Terns, Swallows, Sand Martins . . . the list goes on!

More reminders of the history of drainage in the Fens as we cruised past 'Stretham Old Engine', built in 1831 to lift water from 2,500 hectares of fenland into the river. As the drainage continued, the land level fell and the diameter of the scoop wheel had to be increased from 8.8m to 10m and then again to 11.25m. If the engine was still in use, this largest wheel would now be ineffective too, as the fenland continues to shrink!

We were now on a section of the system known as the 'Old West River' which joins the 'Ely section' of the Great Ouse with the 'Bedford' part, and strangely, after the next lock, we would join another short tidal section, as the 'Old Bedford River' links straight to the tidal river below Denver Sluice. Complicated? Just the result of centuries of schemes to drain the Fens! This was our first lock in about 30 miles of cruising since Denver Sluice, and the only manned one on the whole Ouse system.
Here at Earith the Great Ouse begins to change its character, but we'll tell you about that next time . . .