CRUISE GUIDE: FOSSDYKE AND WITHAM
Head for Lincoln city along the route dug by the Romans and used by the Danes and Normans
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