Sunday, 30 March 2014

Eleven miles and eleven locks

Approaching the picturesque Doddington Lock
 Locks come thick and fast on the upper reaches of the Nene - or 'Nen' (rhymes with 'hen') as the locals call it. But no matter, under the sun of another fine day we made steady progress from the edge of Northampton to where we are now at Ditchford near Irthlingborough.
This stretch of river is almost continuously surrounded by old gravel pits, now fishing lakes, water parks or wildlife reserves - with the odd residential caravan park thrown in. Like the vast Billing Aquadrome we passed first thing in the morning: what a curious hobby it is to buy a vast American motorhome then drive to a car park full of other camper vans on the edge of Northampton and sit beside it reading the Sunday Mirror.
Leaving Northampton behind the river becomes entirely rural, mixing stretches of unprepossessing scrubby flood plains with pretty meadows. Sadly the always popular moorings at Cogenhoe (pronounce it 'cook-know') are off limits, thanks to disreputable boaters leaving rubbish about the place which in the end caused the death of a cow.
A steady succession of locks brought us to the delightful setting of Doddington lock, set among trees and flanked by picturesque mill houses and cottages. Here and at the earlier White Mills lock pieces of semi wasteland between lock cuts and weir streams had been acquired and developed as permanent mooring sites for three or four boats.
The vast solar farm at Wellingborough
The next lock, Wollaston, is flanked by a bigger 'island' with moorings and slightly ramshackle cottage. It was always a favourite of ours: the cottage owner's ultra friendly dog would come and greet boaters in the hope of a biscuit or two. Four years on it was good to see the owner still about though not with his dog any longer. After a slight stroke he couldn't give it the exercise it needed so passed it on to a friend.
Wellingborough is one of the very few towns of any size near the Nene and the approach is marked by a large modern prison which has virtually doubled in size since we were last here. And adjacent to the prison is a vast field of solar panels; line upon line of them all angled to catch the sun. It is a 60 hectare 'solar farm' developed by Lark Energy who have built several of these and which can produce 10MWp – enough to supply 2000 homes.
The handsome Victorian railway viaducts
Wellingborough has a substantial waterfront with plenty of moorings but the constant loud drone of Whitworths flour mills across the river would put anyone off staying there for long. Even if the general ambience of the place did not! We stopped long enough to fill up with water at a recently renewed EA water point. Facilities like these are virtually non-existent on the Nene unfortunately.
Fortunately the town was soon behind and we were back out in a part of the countryside with two major landmarks - a massive 14-arch Victorian railway viaduct (two of them actually set beside each other) and the nearby hillside the massive Chester House. Gutted by fire when we were last here, it has been partially rebuilt though the work, it seems, is ongoing.
Apparently the area round Chester House and farm is a historically important site - it has been a  settlement since Mesolithic times, with archaelogical finds of flint tools, Roman remains and vestiges of a medieval hamlet. Last year the site got a £4m Heritage Lottery grant to open the site to the public and develop an archaelogical resource centre. The things you learn from Wikipaedia!
Tied up below Ditchford Lock by the new moorings
Another discovery of a different sort came at our last lock of the day, Ditchford. A narrowboat got trapped on the weir here in 2012 and sank. It was a well publicised disaster at the time. Less well known is that before it could be retrieved the boat managed to cause £250,000 damage to the foundations of the weir – as the river tried to force its way around the boat it scoured away the footings. The weir is now shut for repairs. We are moored for the night just below the lock near another new mooring site on a weir stream where a new canoe hire operation is also based.

Repairs underway to the damaged Ditchford weir

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