Monday, 30 June 2014

A look at the River Lark

           A few bleak mid-winters ago when afternoons were short and time was slow wistful thoughts turned back to boating exploits. Photo albums were delved into, pictures extracted, scanned and printed – and the on-board archive was born.
           Within these books
are shots (often shaky) of notable waterways features seen from Cleddau over the last twenty years. To the books after the 2013
cruising were added shots of Chester, Ellesmere Port and Droitwich. After yesterday’s cruise perhaps another new-to-Cleddau waterway shot can be added - a picture of Isleham Lock.

           The day started well at Denver.  The Captain applied liberal amounts of suntan cream to face and arms before Cleddau and Tentatrice duly set off in the sunshine along the Great Ouse. It was to be a two hour cruise before diverting down the River Lark. Very soon came raindrops - now a rainstorm - then a veritable deluge.
         There were scrambles for waterproof layering.
         An emergency plan was declared – pull in at the next available place for refuge. A mug of tea later the sky was brightening, so it was onward to Littleport,
for a planned search for Sunday newspapers.
         Raindrops – heavy rain again, again damp crew. Littleport proved a quiet little town although it was a Sunday. (Not quite so in 1816 )
. From a small door in Main Street a shopper emerged, goods in a plastic bag. Close inspection of the shop however revealed it to be packed full of Polish goods and of Polish-speaking folk...
         Further up the street newspapers were tracked down and a return made to the boats. Off again – in sunshine, on course for the River Lark. 
         It’s a left off the Ouse going upstream – new waters now for Cleddau. The Imray map gives little detail; the odd pump house,
the occasional farm, power lines crossing the river,
the railway line at Prickwillow. The river banks are fairly high,
and although there are some bends in the waterway much of it is straight, straight, straight, heading south and east.
           You can focus on the wildlife instead: the swans with a brood of one white and four grey cygnets;
the grebe on its nest;
the hawk in the stoop.

            Bankside there is a windmill without sails
and some rather strange craft...
But further along a small boat pushed into the reeds
emphasised the lonely character of fenland landscape.
           By late afternoon, 8 miles upstream, Isleham Lock was in sight. How much further could the boats go? Was a glossary needed to decode the lock instructions?
Onto the digital camera flashed the GPS reference: Mildenhall, Suffolk. There was a frisson of excitement for a county-collector (surely Senior Sis will remember the British Isles Counties jigsaw, where Rutland and Middlesex were impossibly small?) Either Cleddau had nosed over the border from Cambridgeshire into Suffolk or she was now on river water which rose in Suffolk and flowed into Cambridgeshire...
            The Captain had disappeared up the river path, returning some time later: the mooring prospects were grim for the Boat Dog, and boat turning for 60 and 59 footers could be better. Decision time: the boats were turned back west and recovery made to the Prickwillow EA moorings.
              Mid-evening Cheshire Mum, in meteorologist mode, sent a message of sympathy:
those were no showers on the weather radar - that was a storm front!
              Prickwillow, a small shop-free village, has a redundant church, a glitzy village hall
 and the Prickwillow Engine Drainage Museum.
                On Monday morning there was sound and activity from Prickwillow Bridge – repairs to its expansion joints?
 And further downstream there was more activity as the weed choppers
 chomped and mulched and conveyed weeds onto the bank.
              By midday the River Lark was left behind,
 Tentatrice and Cleddau drawn towards the Ship of the Fens,
 the Cathedral at Ely.
              Moored at Ely now; watch out for a report from this pretty waterside city.
Total distance to Bedford:  310 miles (corrected again)
Distance so far: 250 miles

Total number of locks to Bedford:  143
Locks so far: 125

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Up - and down - to Denver

           By 9am on Saturday morning the tide had come in.
Come in from where? From the Wash.  Look downstream
and somewhere further down is King’s Lynn and beyond that the sea.
          Behind where Cleddau and Tentatrice were moored was another structure, the Old      Bedford Sluice
and the tide was racing in through it up the tidal Old Bedford River.
          Boat checked and ready.
          Crew checked, life-jacketed and ready.
          At about 9.30 along came the lock keeper on his rickety bike, checking boat lengths and knowledge of what lay ahead. Nb Kingfisher was first to enter the Salter’s Lode lock. Slowly she rose in it. It’s a tight fit and at one point the lock keeper scrambled along Kingfisher’s gunnel to remove the chimney and prevent it from being crushed. Out Kingfisher went, stern beginning to turn as the nose passed the just visible fence post.  Across the stream and a right hand turn perfectly executed
– and off Kingfisher went heading the half mile or so for the Denver Sluice lock.
           A boat came downstream from Denver
and completed the sharp left hand turn into Salter’s Lode.
           Then came Cleddau’s turn. Into the lock.
There was some jiggling around to fit in diagonally. From somewhere above the lock keeper opened the right hand sluice and in spurted the water.
The boat rose in the lock. Up the lock gate went and the moment had come.
full revs, turn, turn, turn against the falling tide. (See Jennie’s pics from the bank)..
           Cleddau cruised upstream and into the open lock at Denver Sluice.

The gates shut behind and then – surprise, surprise – the water level was lowered as Cleddau was dropped down to river level.
             Outside two other boats were waiting to make the downstream transit. “Go left past the sailing club
to the slipway for the water point,” advised the lock keeper.
                Tentatrice arrived. It was raining hard and an end to the day’s excitement was declared. There are excellent moorings on the opposite bank
(apart from the goose droppings) and some happy hours were whiled away at the nearby Jenyns Arms.
           Walk around the Denver Complex and there’s much to see and read.
Floods, silting, pumping, draining. It was a three hundred and fifty year project to get it right, to prevent flood damage in the Great Ouse catchment, to drain the fens and make rivers navigable.
These massive structures are nothing but impressive!

           Sunday: What a lark! The cruise towards the River Lark has been halted, temporarily. Serious continuous (20% chance of showers!) rain has driven the crews to tie up the boats and repair below for cups of tea...

Total distance to Bedford:  319 miles
Distance so far: 225½ miles

Total number of locks to Bedford:  143
Locks so far: 125

Friday, 27 June 2014

At and below sea level

          Stanground Lock is about a mile from Peterborough’s Embankment along the Stanground Back River. . Boaters need to book passage through this lock which lowers boats down to sea level.

The lock keeper (like her father before her) adores her job and lives in a delightful house beside her lock. On locking through boat names and numbers are recorded, and in exchange a Middle Level Navigation Notes booklet and some fenland tourist information is handed to the boater.
          It is soon apparent that Middle Level waterway structures are purely functional,
not adorned with any decorative details at all.
Early on the first wind turbines are seen.
Tractors are frequent in the fields and on the roads alongside the waterway, and in the distance at Whittlesey is a McCain sign, a food processing factory obviously. Brick towers are here too, remnants of Whittlesey’s brick industry.
          “It’ll take about an hour and a half to Ashline Lock,” the helpful Stanground lock keeper advised. “Then you’ll be below sea level.” On the cruise went, passing slowly around Whittlesey. The scene changed: gone was the large wide sky, for now the boat was creeping along a stone lined narrow channel.
          “Isn’t this where that awful corner is?” remarked the Captain. Boatwif took up a lookout position on the front deck. Narrower the channel becomes
before it twists at a sharp 90ยบ angle around the corner. When a boat won’t bend in the middle its nose can only engage with the offside bank, whatever it’s made off. Happily some mud and undergrowth provided a forgiving cushion on the turn. For a while the channel crept on under tree cover before emerging beside a vast sports field, at the end of which is Ashline Lock.
           Faint memories stirred from 2010 that this had been a “slow lock”. On Wednesday  for nearly two hours it became a no go lock. A pale blue boat
appeared stuck on the weir side of the lock – it certainly wasn’t moving, while on the lock landing opposite a 70 foot boat waited to follow on. Was it that the crew of the pale blue boat just couldn’t work out what to do? Puzzlingly here the windlass (paddle winder)
needs to be placed on top of each pillar beside the upper lock gate and wound horizontally. No notices explain this required procedure so a degree of confusion is understandable. Add into the cocktail that each paddle raising /lowering takes a minimum of 63 slow stiff revolutions and you may begin to appreciate why progress is slow...
            Ashline Lock: arrived at 1430 – departed at 1630...
            Now Cleddau and Tentatrice were below sea level. Crews from their low position on the water could look up at speeding vans, cars, lorries and tractors very close by but above the water level.
            Here is one of several second world war pill boxes
positioned beside the channel.
            Time was ticking on – the lost hours at Ashline Lock pushed back the likely arrival time in March, the planned mooring site. Would there be a chance to moor instead at Floods Ferry marina, shortly after the Greenwich Meridian sign?
No such luck...
           At the smart wharf on the outskirts of March? No, PRIVATE, Middle Level Commissioners site.
           Outside Fox’s Narrowboats Marina – no, far too cramped.
           Onwards the boats crept, further and further into March, under leafy branches, where every house and cottage makes the most of its riverside mooring...

            Finally at the Riverside Park a space was found. The boats breasted up – and for anyone with enough energy left here was just the thing
 – an adult fitness facility with training apparatus located across the park!
           Techno Son-in-Law should be proud of his influence; in recent days the Captain on long lock-free stretches has deployed the Captain’s Perch,

checked speed with the Satnav
and even utilised the walkie talkie radios between the boats.

            Boatwif was allowed a ‘March mooch’ on Thursday morning, to be completed of course before 11am. The town centre is compact, the skyline dominated by the five storey high Town Hall.

A bell, a gift from a twin town, hangs above the impressive frontage
although it is almost lost against the sheer height of the building. Floral displays are everywhere in March, on the Town Bridge parapets,

 in tiers in public spaces,

 hanging from lamp posts. It is perhaps no surprise that in a town surrounded by vast tracts of agricultural land its museum has an array of farming implements parked outside.

 St Peter’s Church is Victorian, built in 1881. Everything about it seems to typify the mid-Victorian era: solid dark woodwork,

a fine array of organ pipes and stained glass windows
– and even some lace table coverings.
The large sign outside the church seemed rather brash
– but although the words are clear the event is obscure!
             In the town voices are speaking in Polish
or with a rural Fenland burr.
            The boat trip proceeded: under the Town Bridge, past a mile or so of lovingly kept garden spaces – and out again into the fens. You cannot help but wonder how a Russian gun
came to be parked here...
            Vast skies, wide waters, wind turbines.

            The vista changes little. A single property in the distance can arouse excitement. To navigate in these parts a waterways map is crucial: the few signposts
are faded, bent  and the lettering far too small to be useful!  A left at Low Corner is needed to go the last mile or so to Marmont Priory Lock. Here a lady lock keeper guards her gates. She is a fine interrogator: “And where do you live... Is your daughter well... grandchildren?” She passes on hearsay, thrives on tales of boaty adventures – and there’s a tin on a chair for tips.
                Back up at sea level it’s onwards to Upwell, a long strip village in Norfolk.
After miles of watery emptiness this seems a busy place, roads running either side of what is now Well Creek. Bridges are even lower, the water shallower and muddier.
            The mooring stage in Upwell is a delight
(apart from the traffic noise). Alongside is a garden of herbs and flowers - and just yards from the mooring is Upwell Church, its annual flower festival under way this weekend. It’s the 60th one, the theme this year “A Good Read”.  Just look at a couple of these displays.

            There were just two hours of cruising still to do along Well Creek to join the River Great Ouse. Preparations were made on Friday morning. With even lower bridges still ahead the Tentatrice cratch was dismantled and with a forecast of heavy showers waterproof gear was close to hand...
          True – the bridges were lower, the mud in the water gloopier

and the rainstorm heavy. Domestic buildings were stranger too!

If you want a fix on where the boats have come to try to think of where Downham Market is - the evening's moorings are about five miles to the south.
          Now Cleddau awaits her passage through Salter’s Lode
out onto the tidal Great Ouse to head upstream to Denver Sluice.
The tide should be right at 0930 on Saturday.

Total distance to Bedford:  318 miles (Corrected mileage)
Distance so far: 225 miles

Total number of locks to Bedford:  143
Locks so far: 123