BEAT­ING THE OLD BED­FORD

An in­trepid trio be­come the first in over a decade to cruise the Old Bed­ford River and put the case for re­open­ing the se­cond route across the Fens

Canal Boat - - This Month -

Fi­nally with the help of the EA, three boats bat­tle to con­quer the dis­used route across the Fens

On 4 April a small flotilla of three nar­row­boats gath­ered be­low Sal­ters Lode Lock on the Mid­dle Level, where the Well Creek meets the tidal Great Ouse. But un­like most in­land craft cruis­ing these wa­ters, they weren’t head­ing for Den­ver Sluice, the non-tidal Great Ouse, Ely and beyond. In­stead, their aim was to turn sharp right into the lit­tle-used Old Bed­ford River – an an­cient wa­ter­way with an il­lus­tri­ous past, but a less happy re­cent his­tory…

The Old Bed­ford River pre­dates the English Civil War, was dug on the in­struc­tions of the great Dutch drainage en­gi­neer Cor­nelius Ver­muy­den and is be­lieved to have been used for nav­i­ga­tion ever since. In the early 20th Cen­tury it was used by the Float­ing Ark, a trav­el­ling church and by the Shellfen barge which de­liv­ered fuel to the many pump­ing sta­tions built to drain the land, much of which is be­low sea level.

Un­til Well Creek was re­stored to nav­i­ga­tion in the mid 1970s the Old Bed­ford was a vi­tal part of the only nav­i­ga­ble link be­tween the two great East Anglian Rivers, the Nene and the Great Ouse.

To­day, it would have been a use­ful al­ter­na­tive to the Well Creek route – had it not been for the fact that non-tidal ac­cess to the south end of the Old Bed­ford, where it meets the Forty Foot Drain, was lost in 2006 when the En­vi­ron­ment Agency (the nav­i­ga­tion au­thor­ity for this part of the sys­tem) closed Welches Dam Lock, stop­ping ac­cess to a wa­ter­way that

had been nav­i­gated for more than 350 years. De­spite its clo­sure as a throughroute, var­i­ous at­tempts have been made since then to at least ac­cess the Old Bed­ford as a dead-end from the north end, its out­fall into the tidal Great Ouse via the Old Bed­ford Sluice.

In 2009 an en­ter­pris­ing cou­ple, Lois and Roy Parker, suc­ceeded in get­ting onto the river and through to Welches Dam in their shal­low-draught cruiser, but no nar­row­boat is known to have man­aged it – un­til 4 April this year.

Dur­ing those 11 years since Welches Dam Lock was shut, de­ter­mined boater John Rev­ell had made re­peated at­tempts to nav­i­gate the Old Bed­ford from the Sal­ters Lode end in his 41ft nar­row­boat

Olive Emily. But ev­ery at­tempt had been thwarted by a com­bi­na­tion of low wa­ter lev­els, lack of dredg­ing, and a build-up of cot­ton weed. His most re­cent at­tempt, in Novem­ber 2016, came to a stand­still a cou­ple of miles in.

This April he was set to lead an­other at­tempt on the Old Bed­ford River. He was joined by Chris Howes in his 45ft nar­row­boat Lily May and Jeff Wal­ters in his 50ft nar­row­boat Ever Af­ter, both of whom had pre­vi­ously crewed for John, but this time were in their own boats. They mar­shalled the night be­fore at Sal­ter’s Lode lock on Well Creek.

Cur­rently, ac­cess to the Old Bed­ford river can only be gained at low wa­ter on a neap tide (which is the high­est low tide, oc­cur­ring only fortnightly). How­ever be­cause of lack of dredg­ing there was a sig­nif­i­cant build-up of silt at the mouth of the river to the Great Ouse, leav­ing only a few inches of wa­ter. Pas­sage can be de­scribed as ly­ing be­tween ‘very dif­fi­cult’ and ‘damn near im­pos­si­ble…’

All three boats adopted a tech­nique of en­ter­ing the chan­nel as fast as pos­si­ble, and when the boat came to a halt, rock­ing the ‘beached’ boat on the mud flats by alternating be­tween for­ward and re­verse. This grad­u­ally inched the boat along the bot­tom.

Af­ter much writhing about in the mud, and over an hour of try­ing, all three boats even­tu­ally scraped through to the Old Bed­ford Sluice and into the non-tidal Old Bed­ford River.

The EA had kindly raised the wa­ter level in the river suf­fi­ciently for com­fort­able pas­sage to be made once in,

and pre­vi­ous prob­lems of weed and ‘bot­tom­ing out’ were avoided.

Next, the con­voy reached Wel­ney, where in the 1970s (de­spite strong ob­jec­tions from boaters) a guil­lo­tine gate was in­stalled. This gate is kept closed for most of the year pre­vent­ing nav­i­ga­tion, but the EA had help­fully lifted it, en­abling all three boats to pass through.

All three boats ex­pe­ri­enced glo­ri­ous Fen­land views for the full 12 miles of the river: un­like many Fen wa­ter­ways, the west­ern bank of the river is be­low eye­line, so plenty can be seen. We passed a huge flock of swans close by, and a sub­stan­tial flock of Scot­tish Black­faced sheep, who had clearly never seen a nar­row­boat be­fore, and cer­tainly weren’t go­ing to miss the op­por­tu­nity to have a good look.

Un­der Wel­ney bridge we passed a small group of teenagers, who ob­served wit­tily that it was like wait­ing for a bus: “You wait un­der a bridge and never see a boat, and then three come past, all at once.”

The three boats even­tu­ally ar­rived at Welches Dam lock where, un­for­tu­nately, the EA had driven a line of piles most of the way across the en­trance above the top gates in 2006, ef­fec­tively clos­ing the lock. Un­able to progress through the lock, the boats winded and re­turned to Wel­ney, where they sam­pled the hos­pi­tal­ity of the ex­cel­lent lo­cal pub, the Lamb and Flag, be­fore overnight­ing.

In the morn­ing the three re­turned to Sal­ter’s Lode for low tide. Again it was very dif­fi­cult to get through the sluice gates onto the Great Ouse, but af­ter two hours of try­ing, the happy trio and their mud splat­tered boats fi­nally made it !

An emo­tional John Rev­ell ob­served: “I was one of the last boaters to use Welches Dam lock from Horse­way Chan­nel be­fore EA sud­denly piled across the lock en­trance in 2006. I never thought it would take an­other 11 years to reach it from Sal­ters Lode. I’d like to give a big thank you to the EA for their sup­port this time, with­out which the trip would have failed.

“I’d also like to pay trib­ute to the late, great, in­spi­ra­tional Char­lie Fox, it can be no co­in­ci­dence that two out of three of the boats that made the dif­fi­cult pas­sage were Fox boats.”

Chris Howes added: “Af­ter the great dif­fi­cul­ties get­ting onto the Old Bed­ford through the silted up es­tu­ary en­trance, the jour­ney it­self was lovely. The huge frus­tra­tion was that when we even­tu­ally made it to Welches Dam Lock we were only one closed lock and two miles of de-wa­tered chan­nel away from the Mid­dle Level nav­i­ga­ble net­work.”

Jeff Wal­ters added: “I’d like to join in the thanks to the EA for their fan­tas­tic co-op­er­a­tion. As a mem­ber of the Project Here­ward restora­tion team, can I make a heart­felt plea that the EA con­tinue this in­vig­o­rat­ing, fresh spirit of work­ing to­gether by now fa­cil­i­tat­ing the en­try of the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion’s highly qual­i­fied en­gi­neers into Welches Dam Lock to as­sess the true ex­tent of nec­es­sary restora­tion?”

To read the full story of Welches Dam and the Project Here­ward 3 cam­paign by lo­cal wa­ter­ways ac­tivists to re­open this po­ten­tially use­ful se­cond route across the Fens, see our restora­tion fea­ture Who Gives A Welches Dam? in the April 2016 is­sue of Canal Boat.

A tight, at times shal­low, wa­ter­way

En­ter­ing the Old Bed­ford River

EA help­fully lifted the guil­lo­tine at Wel­ney

Welches lock closed

Lily May at the river

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