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Part 1 - the Nene, Middle Level, and lower Great Ouse Our 1st 2010 trip: the Thames and the K&A Part 2 - Bedford and the Great Ouse tributaries

The Nene, the Ouse, and the Thames 2010

Part 3 - Back across the Middle Level and down the Thames again

Back from successfully exploring the Great Ouse, and refreshed by an excellent meal at the Crown Lodge Hotel in Outwell, we decided to be a little more adventurous on our return across the Middle Level. Rather then simply following the recommended route again, we decided to take a lesser-known route down to Ramsey via Pophams Eau, and the 16-foot and 40-foot Drains (the 40-foot is also known as Vermuyden's Drain, after the Dutchmen who reclaimed the Fens). This route had not been navigable on our previous visit in 2004, because of a very low bridge at Ramsey Hollow, but that was raised to a navigable height by the Royal Engineers in 2006 so we decided to take a look at it.

To our surprise and relief there was very little weed along the 16-foot drain and we made excellent progress until we reached the 40-foot Drain where there was quite a lot of weed. It was obvious that not many boats had passed this way recently, and we were also quite an attraction for the motorists on the roads next t o the drains, who hooted and waved at us enthusiastically.

In common with many of the Drains there is nowhere suitable to moor up and take the dogs for a walk so they were standing cross-legged on the back deck before our journey was over.


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Approaching Ramsey Hollow bridge which in 2004 had been too low for us to pass underneath.
This sign explains why we can pass underneath it now
The 40-foot drain (Vermuyden's) was quite weedy

After a night in Bill Fen Marina on the outskirts of Ramsey, we decided to do some more exploring. Just nearby is a lock that could have been built specially for us. Lodes End lock is just 68 feet long (why???)  so it is the perfect size for our 67 foot boat. Constructed relatively recently to be a flood defence as the land around there continues to sink lower and lower until it has become the lowest point in Britain, it leads down to the original course of the River Nene. On this occasion however it was performing no function at all, because the water level across the Middle Level was so low that the gates at both ends of Lodes End lock could be opened at  the same time - although they have to be left chained shut after use to make sure that they will be in the right place if the water level changes.


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Lodes End lock with gates open at both ends
Lodes End lock, here seen on our return
The weed cutting team; we overtook and cut a channel through the weeds for them
I was intrigued by this ancient "Visco Water Cooler"

Beyond Lodes End there was a lot of weed to both sides of the channel; and then we caught up with the weed-cutting boats and from then onwards there was solid weed across the whole river. We were rather nervous because several people had told us tales of being stuck in the weed there for days at a time until they could be towed back out by a 4x4 on the bank, but we found that we were still making progress so we carried on. The propeller chewed up the weed very effectively, spitting it out behind us like pea soup, and by the time we had reached Ramsey St Mary the channel had cleared for us again.


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In Ramsey St Mary they seem to like having concrete animals in their gardens
I wonder if this one had followed us from Milton Keynes
Wind power, old and new
Winding at "Speed the Plough" junction

As the weed was relatively clear we continued past Nightingale Corner, where we had intended to turn, until we reached "Speed the Plough" junction. Sadly despite the name there was no pub at the corner, and as the weed was starting to get thicker again we decided to turn there and head back towards Lodes End. Bidding a cheery "Hello again" to the weed-cutting team, we soon passed through Lodes End and turned back through Floods Ferry towards Whittlesey. It was time to leave the Middle Level and make our way back up the river Nene.

Once again we stopped in Peterborough to fill with water, empty the holding tank, and stock up with provisions, before finding a peaceful overnight mooring just above the lock at Alwalton (a note to the other narrow boat that we saw there: the visitor mooring is in the stream on the far side of the lock, you are not supposed to take up residence on the lock moorings!)

We had a leisurely and enjoyable trip back up the Nene. The weather alternated between hot sunshine and torrential showers; several times again I simply aimed the boat at the bank and abandoned the tiller until the rain stopped. The following day however there was the first sign of a problem, when I found that a small amount of diesel had been spraying around the engine bay. I located the source of the spray as the injector pump assembly, and gingerly tightened the nuts very slightly (this area can be very fragile) which seemed to make a slight improvement at first, but the leak got steadily worse each day.


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Overhead there were many aircraft, large ...
... and small, as well as ...
people who had jumped out of them

One very hot afternoon we stopped at Titchmarsh. The cruising club made us very welcome, and we enjoyed a few beers in their clubhouse. One club member demonstrated an interesting variation on a theme of "Musical chairs": every time the background music stopped he would add a couple more empty chairs around his table and invite two of the other club members to join him, until everyone except Debbie and I were part of 'his' group, at which point we took the hint and left.

The free pumpout at Northampton was working again, so we took the opportunity to empty our tank before we left the river. From there we could also see that construction of the new marina is progressing well; if it offers a secure mooring in the middle of Northampton it should be very welcome. Several people told us that the weed on the canal had grown sufficiently to make it almost impassible, but we had no problems apart from the inevitably slow progress. Back on the familiar territory of the Grand Union, we stopped at the Wharf Inn at Bugbrooke and again treated ourselves to an excellent meal.

The next day we stopped outside UCC at Braunston so that our favourite engineer there could look at our diesel leak. He confirmed that the leak was indeed coming from the conections to the injector pump assembly, and tried tightening the nuts a little more. Nothing broke so we set off again, but after a couple of miles it was clear that the leak was now much, much worse; I am so very glad that I hadn't tried tightening them any more while we were in the isolated stretches of the river Nene! Anyway early the next morning we reversed a mile past rows of moored boats (one of whom got annoyed at me for going to fast!) until we could wind and return to Braunston. Now that the leak was so much worse, it was at last possible to see the exact source of the leak, which was not in fact from the pipe connections but from the joint between two parts of the pump assembly, so our engineer dismantled the joint and reassembled it with new gaskets and O-rings. Again it seemed to be OK when he had finished, but by the time we reached the top of Napton flight it was obvious that the leak had started again. Our engineer came out to us this time, but even a complete strip-down of the pump assembly, replacing the O-rings with a different type and re-annealing the internal copper washers, left the pump leaking exactly the same amount as before. We finally had to admit defeat and buy a new injector pump; whatever makes them so incredibly expensive? A brand new pump would have cost almost half the original purchase price of the whole engine! Luckily we were able to buy a reconditioned unit, but even that made a severe dent in the wallet.

Banbury was very crowded. We wanted to stop there to spend an evening with a friend, but could only find room beyond the town; still it was handy for the supermarket and only 10 minutes walk back to the centre to meet our friend there. As it was a fine afternoon, while Debbie did the shopping I decided to replace the rubber seal on our roof hatch; I had only just finished when there was a torrential thunderstorm, so severe that it flooded the shopping mall to a depth of 18 inches within a few minutes because the gutters couldn't cope, and people had to wade outside with their shopping!

We had decided to go straight down the canal to the centre of Oxford, taking the Sheepwash channel instead of our usual route via Duke's Cut. This turned out to be a good choice because we found out afterwards that yet another tree had fallen down across Duke's Cut, blocking it for the day. It is many years since we went along the short Sheepwash channel, and I found it fascinating to examine the old railway bridge in detail as we passed. Years ago you had to ask British Railways to open the bridge for you by hand if you wanted to pass, but that section of line is now closed and the remaining bridge beyond it is just high enough to pass underneath quite easily.

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Entering the Sheepwash Channel (the link to the Thames below Isis Lock)
Passing through the disused railway swing bridge; the fixed bridge beyond is higher
The manual winding mechanism mechanism of the old railway swing bridge

Here is a 1950 video of the bridge being operated (if you are in a hurry, step through to 57 seconds)



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The tracks lie forlorn and unwanted on the old bridge
(Photo Mortimer Bones)
An overall view of the Sheepwash cut shows the open bridge
(Photo Mortimer Bones)
The river was flowing well by the time we reached Tadpole Bridge

We had intended to spend the night at Abingdon but Iffley Lock had broken down with a hydraulic fault, so we spent the night there instead and sampled the delights of the delightfully odd Isis Farmhouse (the Isis Tavern as it used to be called). The entire place seems to have stopped part-way through a complete renovation, so there are bare half-plastered walls with the occasional hole, and the menu must be the shortest one I've ever seen - it had just two items on it, "Vegetarian meal" and "non-vegetarian meal". The food was absolutely delicious, but unfortunately they had no beer available; what is it with these Oxford pubs having no beer, it also happened to us twice in 2006.

The next morning we continued through the newly repaired Iffley Lock, to spend another night in Abingdon before returning up-river; this time however it was Osney Lock which had broken, and we were told that there was nowhere left to moor in Oxford until it was repaired, so we stopped at Sandford instead. We had a good meal there, and at least this time they had some beer available too. The following day we were able to pass through Osney, and we returned to Thrupp for a couple of days before heading further up the river.

There had been several days of rain and the Thames was much higher than before. When we reached Tadpole Bridge, feeling rather damp and also very tired from fighting both the gales and the current, we decided to stop on the pub mooring even though it was slightly underwater. The Trout at Tadpole Bridge scored full marks in every possible respect; they made us extremely welcome, they had some excellent beer on tap, and the food was simply marvellous. Then by the next morning the water level had dropped by a few inches and we made good progress up the river. The lock keeper Radcot warned us that he would have to put up the red boards if there was as much rain as had been forecast over the next 24 hours, which could have left us stuck at Lechlade for a few days but that wouldn't have mattered anyway.

We had arranged to meet some friends at Lechlade so that we could visit another idiosyncratic restaurant, Colley's of Lechlade. The menu here was entirely at one fixed price whatever you chose - and when I say menu, well there isn't exactly a menu, instead a sample of every dish was brought to the table and individually introduced to you. What a wonderful concept! Several times we chose items that we would not otherwise have contemplated, and we had a real feast that evening. Unfortunately the restaurant as since closed down.


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We spy 'Alaska' in the distance ahead of us
'Alaska' returning
Followed by a Salters steamer (nowadays powered by diesel)
There were reportedly 600 boats moored at Beale Park

It rained heavily again overnight, so we flew back down the river with a good current behind us. Luckily there were no red (or even yellow) boards at the locks, so we had no problems. At Long Wittenham we had heard rumours that the excellent Plough at Long Wittenham had closed, but the lock-keeper at Clifton reassured us that it was still in business. He did however warn us that we probably wouldn't be able to get there because the current in the weir stream would be too strong for us. That sounded like a challenge to me, so after the lock we turned up the weir stream towards the pub. As we clawed our way slowly upstream the current got stronger and stronger, but after half an hour we had reached the pub and decided that we would wind around before mooring in case the stream was so powerful as to make the manoeuvre unsafe in the morning. Actually winding round was easy, but we had drifted slightly downstream of the mooring in the process and it took me several attempts to bring us back into the jetty safely. We then had an excellent evening in this friendly little pub, chatting with the regular customers and consuming several pints of their excellent beer; we were very glad that we had remembered to take our torches with us, for it was rather dark at  the end of the garden when we returned to the boat.

Again the water level actually went down a little overnight, so we were soon flying down the river again. We spotted a plume of smoke in the distance, and realised we were behind the beautiful steamer "Alaska" and approaching the site of the IWA festival at Beale Park. In accordance with our cunning plan, we passed while the festival was in full swing, putting ourselves a couple of days ahead of the traffic chaos which would ensue as 600 boats attempted to leave the site simultaneously.

There was also a festival at Reading that weekend. It was simply HUGE, with nearly a hundred thousand people attending each day, and we were very glad to leave the crowds behind us for the relative peace of Sonning. Half an hour after leaving Sonning the next day we came upon a cruiser being unsuccessfully paddled up the river, and turned around to take him in tow. It turned out that he was having fuel supply problems and had broken down, so we left him in the same spot that we had vacated at Sonning and continued back down the river again.

I was intrigued by the pretty little church of St Mary Magdalene at Boveney, near Windsor, which I had not noticed before. Walking up to take a picture I read that it is being renovated by the Friends of Friendless Churches - what a wonderful name for that organisation - so I hope that I will be able to look inside it next time we pass.


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Reading was also having a festival.
Stop me and buy one
This heron was happy to pose for a photo - because he was made of plastic
The pretty church of St Mary Magdalene at Boveney

A couple of days later there was a convenient tide from Teddington, so we stopped at Kingston for the night and set off early in the morning to arrive almost an hour before the tide, but we still had to wait for a while as the lock was already full. We then had a long wait at Brentford Thames Lock because there were 4 boats ahead of us, and an even longer wait at Brentford Gauging Lock, and finally an hour and a half wait behind 8 boats at the lock after that which had only one paddle working. Not wanting to repeat this pattern all the way up Hanwell Flight we stopped for a leisurely lunch at  the Fox to let the other boats get well ahead of us - but we still caught up with them all by the top of the flight.

So finally we made our way back up the Grand Union Canal to our home mooring, arriving home after a fantastic 8-week trip in which we'd travelled 800 miles and passed through over 350 locks. Taking our earlier trip on the Thames into account as well, we certainly felt that we had made good use of our Gold licence this year.


Part 1 - the Nene, Middle Level, and lower Great Ouse Our 1st 2010 trip: the Thames and the K&A Part 2 - Bedford and the Great Ouse tributaries
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