Have you heard of the Middle Levels, or the Twenty Foot drain, perhaps the New Bedford level or Denver Sluice are more familiar names? Having grown up in Cambridgeshire I was familiar with some of these names and thought I knew quite a bit about them. However getting up close and spending some time at these places left a real impression. This is where experience can be significantly different to factual knowledge.
I recently had the great pleasure of accompanying my brother in moving his newly acquired boat from Stockton, near Warwick to the Cam, just south of Ely. The journey by car is a couple of hours at most, but boat it was six long days, 136 miles and 80 locks.
It’s a neat boat, of course we had to get used to its little foibles, and that is really his part of the story.
The initial couple of days were on canals which each have their own character but that changed when we began to move first onto the wide expanse of the river Nene then into the fens.
The only route through from the Grand union Junction canal to Ely is first northwards (but definitely downwards!) to Northampton where the Nene is joined. That is followed for over forty miles to Peterborough from where the best course is to pick up one of the artificial “drains” that run north east across the fenlands to the tidal Great Ouse, then turn south again up the Ouse towards Ely.
One of the main things that stood out was the remoteness of the fenland. I have cycled along its roads many times and knew it as a quiet place, but to traverse its expanse on the waterway was something else. We rarely saw another boat, nor house, nor road, for mile after mile. Tall reeds lining the banks were constantly bent and rattled by the strong head wind. There is no path alongside and no mooring points. The thought of a breakdown had to be continually pushed to the back of the mind. It would be a case of dropping anchor and waiting, and waiting. I doubt a 999 call would be much use! There was about 6 hours between the two locks along the stretch. The second being in the middle of nowhere and was “manned” by a spritely lady lock keeper who had lived there over 50 years, even before navigation on the waterway was reintroduced many years ago.
These fenlands were some of the last accessible places of ancient Britain. Even up to the 17th century they were far from controlled and cultivated. That sense of desolation remains, although sunsets and sunrises are spectacular with 180 degrees of horizon, unless you are down in a boat amongst the reeds.
Having seen the tide run of the Great Ouse, its width, the height of the tide, the mud banks it did seem to me a bit of a mad idea set sail in what then seemed a glorified steel bath tub that would sink if flooded by a 3 foot wave, or tilted a foot or two by a mud bank.
What seemed equally ludicrous was the size of the lock at Denver Sluice that dwarfed our boat, I think it would have held at least 12 boats of our size.
Experiences like these remind me that although we have a sense of control over nature, its forces are huge compared to us and any breakdown, failure, human error or unusual event can leave us totally out of our depth and out of control. That is something most of us do not welcome.
History on the fens can be found at this link.