Friday, July 10, 2009

On The Level Again!

When we came back through Denver Sluice on 9th June, it seemed a very long time since we had first come through – the other way – on 24th April. In those 6½ weeks, we had become accustomed to the 'dual personality' of the Fenland rivers; sometimes hemmed in by high flood banks with very little to see from the boat, sometimes meandering through flat, lightly wooded countryside.

All the time, we had been developing a greater awareness of the unique nature of this area, where land level is often well below river water level and the threat of devastating floods has only receded in comparatively recent years, thanks to systematic drainage and flood relief measures.
Denver Sluice itself plays such a pivotal role in the whole process that it is specially significant as the gateway to the Fenland rivers. Now we were leaving as we came, through Denver, down half a mile of tidal Great Ouse, then nipping in to Salter's Lode lock to retrace our route through the Middle Level to Peterborough.

We showed you the inside of Salter's Lode lock as we came through it – here's a view of it from the tidal river side, taken when the tide was a little higher. Just imagine bringing 57feet of steel narrowboat downstream (from the left of the picture), moving fairly fast on the ebbing tide and trying to turn across the current to enter the lock between the yellow cross marker and the side wall – tricky, but not impossible, and we only bumped a little!
Back on the Middle Level and with plenty of time to spare, as we had an appointment in Peterborough, but not until 21st June, twelve days away. Time to dawdle!

Just 2 miles from Salter's Lode lock is the little village of Nordelph. Last time, we just chugged straight through it, but did notice some public moorings as we came under the bridge. We needed to get some shopping, and the local bus route would take us into Downham Market, so here was our opportunity. We liked the village sign, with each side showing one distinctive characteristic of this area – farming (with a river and windpump in the background) and ice skating, with its long history in the Fens. The moorings are provided by the Well Creek Trust (WCT), along with others along the Well Creek, the section of the Middle Level which runs from Marmont Priory Lock to Salter's Lode.

After our shopping trip in Downham Market, we moved on just 4 miles to the twin villages of Outwell and Upwell. On the way, we passed an unusual sight – a 'trig' (triangulation) point! As most countryside walkers know, these are always placed on the highest points in the landscape and are used in land surveying. So here we were, chugging along just a few feet below the highest point for miles around – we were certainly still in the Fens! We reached Upwell and moored on the WCT moorings there, as we had on the way through. We spent two nights there, sharing the moorings with four boats who were travelling together. They moved on before us and we next caught up with them in March. The picture shows nine boats moored near the Town Bridge – at one point there were thirteen!

The four stayed there as we moved on to Whittlesey, where they caught up with us a few days later but left ahead of us. When we were about to move on, we were hailed by a small cruiser across the other side of the river – could we help him, as his steering had failed? He needed to get back to his mooring at Stanground, which was on our way, so it was simple enough to take his bow rope and soon we were towing 'Isla May' with Stephen on board!
In spite of the slight delay, we arrived early for our locking-through time at Stanground Sluice and were soon on our way into the outskirts of Peterborough, 2½ days early for our scheduled rendezvous.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Triple Diversion

When we first came up through Denver Sluice back in late April, we saw that there were three tributaries leading into the Great Ouse and wondered about exploring them first or leaving them until we were on our way back. We decided then to press on towards Bedford and look at the Rivers Wissey, Little Ouse and Lark on our return journey.
Now (very late May) we were on the way back and conscious that some of the most attractive parts of our journey lay behind us. We now knew that the lower part of the Cam and Great Ouse were not so picturesque as the higher parts. Apart from anything else, the high flood banks do tend to restrict the view! So we left the River Cam and came back to Ely, filled up with diesel and water and set off down the Great Ouse, ready to turn up the Lark, the first of the three. What would this be like, same old high flood banks or what? Once again, we were very aware that we were in fen country. The highest pieces of land for miles around were the roads, the railway and the flood banks either side of the river! The water level in the river is several metres higher than the surrounding farmland, which has sunk many metres as the peatland has gone on shrinking since fenland drainage started in the 1600s. It is difficult to show the different levels in a photo, but this one shows an old pumping station in the foreground and a newer one built behind and below it, simply because the old one is now too high above the surrounding farmland!

We moored overnight in the village of Prickwillow, but found that its 'Museum of Fenland Drainage' was closed that day. No problem, we could catch it on the way back, so we chugged on to see what the Lark was like. There were some very straight bits but the flood banks began to reduce a bit We passed 'The Pepperpot', a former land drainage windpump.

Apparently there used to be many of these in the early days of fen drainage, strung out along the banks of this river and others. The sinking land levels made them ineffective, and few remain.

Meanwhile, spring had been moving into summer and we had seen more and more young waterbirds. The early ducklings were afloat in April, but cygnets take a little longer and swans seem to be doing very well this year. 6 or 7 youngsters seems to be the norm. Maybe fenland suits them especially well?

After crossing several miles of fenland, we came to Isleham Lock, the only one on the Lark, and experienced the familiar shift of landscape as we rose only a metre or so, but soon found ourselves in wooded coutryside, leaving fenland behind. Only a couple of miles later and we reached the end of the navigation at Jude's Ferry, which turned out to be the name of the pub, not a village!

Overnight there, then back down to Prickwillow, where we did visit the Drainage Museum – very interesting too! There is a good introduction to the history of the Fens and the centuries of drainage on their website. Definitely worth a look! (Go to the 'Education/Research pages for the historical background.)

REACHING FURTHER EAST. Our next 'diversion' was the Little Ouse, aka Brandon Creek, which was to take us to the furthest east that we can travel on the (connected) inland waterways. We thought we had reached our easternmost point back in 2007 when we reached Bishop's Stortford on the River Stort, but we had reckoned without the fenland rivers!

It started well - the flood banks are quite low at the Ship Inn on the Great Ouse, where we turned off, and the first mile or more of the Little Ouse is lined with mature poplar trees. After another mile, we passed the settlement of Little Ouse and the river started becoming more 'fenny', but still without high flood banks.

We passed a man and his dog, exploring the river by canoe, and passed under the isolated Redmere Bridge, the last one for about six miles.

After a few more miles, we were looking out for the GOBA moorings shown in our guide book, and hoping that they would not be full up as it was getting a little late, moving from late afternoon to early evening. We found there was just one other boat there, and the moorings themselves were delightful - quiet and remote and in a good wildlife area.

We moved on to the town of Brandon the next morning, as far east as we could possibly go. Although the river is still navigable for a few miles beyond Brandon Lock, the lock chamber itself is only able to accommodate boats up to 12 metres long, and Zindagi at 57 feet is over 17 metres long. The 'end of the road', then, for us! Having arrived at lunchtime, we stayed the night and the next morning and then started back downstream. (If you want to find Brandon on the map, it is in Suffolk and very near to Thetford Forest).

We hoped to find enough space to moor at the remote mooring we had used on the way upstream and it only took us two hours to get there, where we found that we had it all to ourselves - great! There was no hurry, so we just relaxed and enjoyed being there for a couple of nights before moving on. On the opposite bank there seemed to be a bit of activity from time to time, and it seems that there was a major bird-watching 'twitch' going on. Apparently there were some Golden Orioles and Hobbys around, but we didn't see any of them, just a Marsh Harrier or two, which was quite good enough!

Then back to the Great Ouse again, going under the road bridge at Little Ouse on our way, which seems to be very well-used for a bridge that looks like it belongs to a bygone age!

The last of the three rivers was the River Wissey, which flows into the Great Ouse quite close to Denver Sluice. We chugged in as far as Hilgay and stopped for lunch, then went on to the end and were there at Stoke Ferry by the mid to late afternoon – not very far to go!

On the way, we saw some Great Crested Grebe with well-grown youngsters. They seem to have grown well this year – we only saw very few at the 'small chick' stage, when they often ride piggy-back on one of their parents' back. These ones were almost full size, with their curious, almost snake-like, stripey necks and heads.

The river follows a pleasant course, through large lakes (flooded gravel pits, probably) and, right in the middle of apparently remote fenland, passes the enormous Wissington sugar beet factory, built here for obvious reasons, close to one of the centres of sugar beet production. It is apparently the biggest sugar refinery in Europe and British Sugar's first bioethanol plant. On the way back the next day, we found a cosy mooring spot for lunch by the riverside. Only when you climbed the bank could you see how close this gigantic plant was!

So, back to the Great Ouse again, with almost no distance to travel to get to Denver Sluice. Our diversions up these three rivers were definitely worth it, though we agree that, of the three, the Little Ouse was the best!

Now we were about to start our return to Blisworth via the Middle Level and the River Nene. . .