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
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