CRUISE GUIDE: FOSS­DYKE AND WITHAM

Head for Lin­coln city along the route dug by the Ro­mans and used by the Danes and Nor­mans

Canal Boat - - Contents - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY MARTIN LUDGATE

You’ll oc­ca­sion­ally come across lively dis­cus­sions be­tween wa­ter­ways en­thu­si­asts about which is Bri­tain’s old­est canal – the Bridge­wa­ter is the one that re­ally caught peo­ple’s at­ten­tion at the start of the Canal Age, but the less well-known Sankey slipped un­der the radar and beat it by a few years. This might be a valid dis­cus­sion when you limit it to in­dus­trial canals or to those form­ing the main canal building era, but they aren’t even in the same ball-park when it comes to our first canal of all.

A good 1600 years be­fore Bridge­wa­ter and Sankey, around AD120 the Ro­mans are be­lieved to have dug what is likely to have been the coun­try’s first ma­jor nav­i­ga­tion canal – and surely the old­est that’s still in use. The 11 miles of the Foss­dyke linked the River Trent at Tork­sey to the River Witham in Lin­coln, mak­ing an in­land route from the Hum­ber to the Wash, as it still does to­day.

Not that there’s been an en­tirely continuous his­tory of nav­i­ga­tion since the 2nd Cen­tury. Af­ter the Danes and the Nor­mans had made use of it, the nav­i­ga­tion silted up and had to be ‘scoured’ un­der King Henry I in 1121 (does that qual­ify as the coun­try’s first com­pleted canal restora­tion project?) and there were fur­ther re­vivals af­ter it be­came dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble to nav­i­gate in the 17th and 18th cen­turies.

Orig­i­nally the Foss­dyke was prob­a­bly ti­dal, but to­day the ti­dal pas­sage on the Trent which is nec­es­sary to get to the Foss­dyke (and for which boaters should take all the usual pre­cau­tions – see the notes at the bot­tom of our Wa­ter­ways Factfile col­umn) ends at Tork­sey Lock. This un­usual struc­ture has ended up with no fewer than five pairs of gates, thanks to length­en­ing of the cham­ber to al­low more craft to share, as well as ex­tra gates fac­ing the op­po­site way to cope with the Trent be­ing higher than the canal. It’s keeper op­er­ated, and an­other un­usual fea­ture is that the keeper has amassed a col­lec­tion of un­usual tea-pots which sit on the hor­i­zon­tal beams on some of the less fre­quently used gates.

Tork­sey is a vil­lage a lit­tle way to the north, but a sep­a­rate small set­tle­ment with re­tire­ment parks, car­a­van sites and a pub and tea room has grown up around the lock, pro­vid­ing use­ful fa­cil­i­ties for boaters. The canal heads east­wards, a few gen­tle bends lead­ing to the first of sev­eral long straight reaches. It might not quite be as dead straight as the stereo­typ­i­cal Ro­man road, but it’s wide, deep, and def­i­nitely not built in the style of the early canal era wa­ter­ways either. Its of­ten tree­lined chan­nel passes through quiet coun­try­side be­fore a main road comes along­side and fol­lows the Foss­dyke to­wards Lin­coln.

Sax­ilby is a pleas­ant and use­ful small town with shops, a cou­ple of pubs (al­though sadly one with its own moor­ings has now shut) and a rail­way sta­tion. The canal con­tin­ues its straight­ish course, with Bur­ton Wa­ters Ma­rina and the wa­ter­side Pyewipe Inn the two main fea­tures as it ap­proaches Lin­coln. The cathe­dral, with its com­mand­ing po­si­tion on a hill to the north of the city cen­tre, is vis­i­ble from sev­eral miles away.

The en­try to the city is a marked by a real as­sort­ment of old and new craft moored on the south bank, and some strik­ing mod­ern wa­ter­side de­vel­op­ments on the ap­proach to the cen­tre. Here, the canal widens out into the broad Bray­ford Pool, where it meets the Witham com­ing in from the south. Once an in­dus­trial area and the site of the Ro­man port, in re­cent decades the Pool has be­come a fo­cus for ur­ban re­de­vel­op­ment, while the wa­ter space is home to a ma­rina, trip-boats and a float­ing restau­rant.

On the far side of the Pool, the nar­row chan­nel of the Witham passes un­der the fa­mous ‘Glory Hole’ – a Me­di­ae­val span from the 12th Cen­tury be­lieved to be Bri­tain’s old­est still car­ry­ing build­ings (al­beit the half­tim­bered shops which line it on both sides are mere young­sters dat­ing from the 16th Cen­tury). This leads to a

length thread­ing through the city’s shop­ping cen­tre, with wa­ter­side walk­ways giv­ing ac­cess to pubs and shops, a mod­ern sculp­ture reach­ing over the wa­ter, and some space to moor and ex­plore all the city’s at­trac­tions.

A se­ries of red brick fac­tory build­ings on the south bank serve as a re­minder of the city and water­way’s in­dus­trial his­tory: this was the head­quar­ters of Rus­ton & Hornsby, maker of in­dus­trial engines and lo­co­mo­tives, but is now ear­marked for re­de­vel­op­ment.

Stamp End Lock, with its up­per guil­lo­tine gate, marks the end of the 12 mile level from Tork­sey and also the be­gin­ning of the end of the jour­ney through Lin­coln. Soon, the city is left behind and the wide, deep chan­nel heads east­wards into the coun­try­side – and to­wards the Fen­lands. De­spite its ori­gins as a nat­u­ral river, the Witham takes on the char­ac­ter­is­tic ar­ti­fi­cially straight course of the Fen wa­ter­ways, with banks either side to pre­vent flood­ing.

You can call it ‘big sky coun­try’, de­scribe the wide open spa­ces and the broad vis­tas, but there’s no get­ting away from the ‘F-word’. It’s flat. The hills which

flank Lin­coln to the north and south are dis­ap­pear­ing behind us (al­though the Cathe­dral will still be vis­i­ble over our shoul­ders for quite some miles), and what slight un­du­la­tions there have been in the sur­round­ing coun­try­side are dy­ing out as the land gets flat­ter.

And un­for­tu­nately, for some, the ‘F-word’ leads to the ‘B-word’. But it needn’t be bor­ing, even if it doesn’t have the ‘new view around every bend’ of the typ­i­cal early con­tour canals or the dra­matic en­gi­neer­ing struc­tures of the later ones. Stop and take a walk to the pretty vil­lage of Wash­ing­bor­ough, and you may no­tice that you cross a river­side walk­way / cy­cle­way. This is the Wa­ter Rail Way, based on a rail­way which once ac­com­pa­nied the river all the way to Bos­ton (it’s name is a play on its rail­way ori­gins and the wa­ter rail, a species of bird). An in­ter­pre­ta­tion board tells you about the night a Zep­pelin bombed Wash­ing­bor­ough (no­body was hurt, but two drowned the fol­low­ing day when an over­loaded ferry boat over­turned while taking peo­ple to see the site).

Th­ese in­ter­pre­ta­tion boards pro­vide snip­pets of his­tory all the way along the river. Fisker­ton was once served by a rail­way sta­tion called Five Mile House (it was five miles from Lin­coln) which could

only be reached from the vil­lage by a ferry. And the fish­ing on the Witham was so good that un­til the 1950s spe­cial sum­mer an­glers’ trains ran.

At Bard­ney an­other lock leads to a junc­tion where the straight­ened river chan­nel that we’ve been fol­low­ing meets the old nat­u­ral course of the Witham. Turn sharp left to fol­low a dead end of the old river up to moor­ings and a pub; bear right to con­tinue to­wards Bos­ton. Bard­ney vil­lage is a ten-minute walk east from Bard­ney Bridge (where the su­gar re­fin­ery was the final user of the old rail­way, and a replica of the for­mer sta­tion building forms a her­itage cen­tre and tea-room), and is worth a visit.

Bard­ney was the site of one of nine abbeys along the Witham, as were Kirk­stead and Tupholme: you can search

out the ru­ins on foot, and mar­vel that the rather empty land­scape around Tupholme Abbey near Southrey was the scene of a mu­sic fes­ti­val in 1972 which at­tracted 40,000 fans to watch the Beach Boys, Rod Ste­wart, Sta­tus Quo, Joe Cocker and many more top acts.

Two miles be­yond Southrey is Stix­would, where the rail­way sta­tion has been con­verted into a re­treat cen­tre. It may seem odd that this re­mote spot had a sta­tion at all, but un­til 1970 it was the site of a chain ferry (ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing one car), the only river cross­ing for some dis­tance, and used by chil­dren to get to school.

The river be­gins to me­an­der more as it passes the mod­ern Kirk­stead Bridge with a pub on each bank. A num­ber of side chan­nels join over the fol­low­ing miles,

sev­eral of which (in­clud­ing Noc­ton Delph, Tim­ber­land Delph and Billing­hay Skirth) are nav­i­ga­ble to some ex­tent – best to seek lo­cal in­for­ma­tion if you fancy ven­tur­ing up them, and please don’t blame us if you get stuck! In­ci­den­tally some of th­ese chan­nels lead to the re­mains of the Car Dyke – a much longer Ro­man canal, which ran 80 miles from the Witham to the Nene, Great Ouse and Cam; how­ever his­to­ri­ans are un­cer­tain as to how much it was ever in­tended or used for nav­i­ga­tion, rather than (for ex­am­ple) land drainage.

Re­turn­ing to a rather more pop­u­lous area, the river passes Tattershall Bridge (a 20 minute walk from the cas­tle – see in­set), Dogdyke and Chapel Hill, all with wa­ter­side pubs, and a more re­li­ably nav­i­ga­ble off­shoot in the form of the Sleaford Nav­i­ga­tion. This part-river, part-canal, part-fen water­way once climbed for 13 miles through seven locks to the town of Sleaford, but lost its last trade in the 1940s and fell derelict ex­cept for the low­est length. How­ever the

Sleaford Nav­i­ga­tion Trust is work­ing to re­open the whole water­way. It is now open for eight miles via Bot­tom Lock and South Kyme Vil­lage (with pub) to the tail of Cob­blers Lock, it makes an at­trac­tive di­ver­sion from the Witham, and SNT’s cur­rent plans in­clude bet­ter moor­ings and a turn­ing basin at South Kyme.

A water­way branch­ing off the Witham in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, the Horncastle Canal, would have made an­other at­trac­tive side-trip, but sadly pro­pos­als to re­store it have yet to come to any­thing.

Back on the Witham, this is where the river does fi­nally live up to the stereo­type of the Fens – the banks are high, the water­way is straight, the coun­try­side is largely empty, and there is just one bridge in the last ten miles to Bos­ton. And just like Lin­coln Cathe­dral which is vis­i­ble for miles either side of the city, ‘Bos­ton Stump’ church tower can be seen ahead for much of that ten miles. But do per­se­vere, be­cause it’s well worth it for the ar­rival in the town – es­pe­cially if you take the al­ter­na­tive route via the Witham Nav­i­ga­ble Drains (see panel). Even if you con­tinue on the Witham, it’s a fine ap­proach, with good moor­ings lead­ing up to Grand Sluice.

The sluice and as­so­ci­ated lock mark the end of the non-ti­dal reaches. For the in­trepid, it’s the start of an ad­ven­tur­ous jour­ney across the Wash. For wa­ter­ways en­thu­si­asts it’s also the start of a much shorter ti­dal trip to the new Black Sluice Lock and the South Forty Foot Drain, the first stage of the pro­posed Fens Link which might one day pro­vide an in­land route to the Nene, Great Ouse and Cam – just like the Ro­man Car Dyke may once have done.

But un­til then, for most boaters it’s the end of the jour­ney and a place to tie up and ex­plore this in­ter­est­ing old mar­ket town be­fore be­gin­ning the re­turn jour­ney to the Trent.

Moor­ings and wa­ter­side pub in Sax­ilby

En­ter­ing the Foss­dyke at Tork­sey Lock

On the Foss­dye be­tween Tork­sey and Sax­ilby

Pass­ing Tattershall Bridge on the Witham

The large city cen­tre ex­panse of Lin­coln’s Bray­ford Pool The ‘Glory Hole’ un­der Lin­coln’s High Street

Cruis­ing on the Witham east of Lin­coln

Mod­ern sculp­ture sus­pended over the Witham as it passes through Lin­coln

Bos­ton Grand Sluice Lock

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