Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Five miles from anywhere

Man and dog enjoy the beer at the No Hurry Inn
 Today has been one of our shorter days' boating. We went barely half a mile out through the lock and round the corner to moor up at the pub next door – the wonderfully named Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry Inn.
It's a zany name but a pretty accurate one: draw a triangle between the nearest towns - Ely, Cambridge and Newmarket - and the cluster of houses that make up the hamlet of Upware will be right in the centre: a good five miles from anywhere.
The present pub is a large and functional rather than handsome building that was built in the '80s to replace a thatched pub that burnt down in 1955. That one had its origins back in the 1760s. Originally named the Black Swan, it became the Lord Nelson in 1806, and from around 1850 was popularly known as the "Five Miles from Anywhere: No Hurry". It was rebuilt in 1811, but closed by the 1950s and demolished following a fire of 1955/6. All facts courtesy of Wikipaedia; my knowledge of fen pub history is not quite that encyclopaedic.
The present pub and its large garden are a popular spot, especially on a hot sunny day like today, with a selection of decently kept bitters and a wide range of pub grub type meals. Our lunchtime sandwiches were a bit ordinary but the hot meals looked more substantial. Shame we had some chicken that was overdue for using in a curry tonight.
But use the pub and you can use the moorings, several of which actually have the boater's dream – electricity! Not free but a £1.50 electric card will see us through a battery charge up and water heating.
Dog on the run – Brian enjoying his five mile walk
After lunch and a long toasting on the tug deck we went for our own 'five miles from anywhere' walk that took us via a range of footpaths through Wicken Fen and back to the boat.
Tomorrow it's back to Ely to stock up with food and hopefully find a mooring to watch the city's Eel Festival at the weekend.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

End of the Lode

Moored on Reach Lode by the bridge over Wicken Lode
Apologies; it's been a while. A combination of visits to family  and a spell in the land of internot means that only now can I resume normal service.
You left us at Prickwillow on the River Lark and you pick us up again on the Cambridgeshire Lodes; at a delightfully tranquil mooring by the start of the Wicken Lode. Those of you who know your fenland geography will know that we must have passed through Ely on the way and indeed we did. We left Harry on the fine waterfront there while we headed off by train to visit the kids. We will certainly be returning so I will say more about the city and its sumptuous cathedral on our return.
I have also overlooked any real description of the lower reaches of the Great Ouse itself. To be honest, there isn't a lot to say: it's wide, straight and offers far reaching views across the distant fenland fields - those at the river's edge being often obscured by the high flood banks.
But back to the Lodes. Not far upstream from Ely the Great Ouse divides with the Cam (and us) heading off to the left. The end of navigation for powered boats on the Cam used to be Cambridge but few visitors bother now as the Cam Conservators demand payment of a fiendishly expensive extra licence for their final few miles - thus Conserving the Cam and the city from boating visitors.
Instead, we went as far as the entertainingly titled Five Miles From Anywhere pub at Upware - which is certainly at least five miles from anywhere - where Reach Lode lock takes one into the Lodes.
It was way back in Whittlesey near the start of the Middle Level that I worked my last lock which is probably why I fumbled with this one a bit, not helped by a warning notice saying that the lock would start to reset itself after 15 minutes whether we were out or not. In fact the water level changed only slightly and the resetting process simply lifts both guillotine gates a little for flood control.
A wilderness landscape of reeds, sedge and water
Through the lock we found ourselves in another world, the long, narrow and largely straight water courses track across a wild and unspoiled landscape of reeds, sedge grass, shrubby trees and waterlands with not a house or a road in sight. It's a landscape that probably hasn't changed significantly in hundreds of years. Wildlife is abundant: we spotted roe deer, buzzards, terns, pike in the clear water and konik semi-wild horses introduced to graze the fens as part of its management.
The semi-wild Konik horses introduced from Poland to graze the fen
The Lodes themselves are man-made waterways that run from chalk streams on the edge of the fenland and believed to be Roman in origin, who used them as transport canals and they became important cargo waterways in the 17th and 18th centuries.
From Upware the initial Reach Lode splits into three. First the narrow Wicken Lode turns left under a bridge and runs for just over a mile through the National Trust Nature Reserve of Wicken Fen to moorings and a turning point at the end. Nervous of its narrowness and also our draft we headed straight on instead to the next junction taking Burwell Lode, longest of the three, where it splits left from Reach Lode.
Yes, it's a hovercraft spotted at the edge of Burwell Lode
It's wide and relatively deep along most of its length but as we neared the end and wilderness gave way to farmland we started to churn up the dreaded blanket weed from its bottom and were reduced to a painful crawl. In summer when the weed is at its peak I imagine these Lodes might be seriously tricky going for long stretches.
It was easy enough winding at the end where there's a sort of T-junction with a feeder stream coming in from each side plus a pleasant 48hour EA mooring.
Another peaceful spot, the Burwell 48 hour mooring
Burwell itself is a large sprawling village with pubs and shops. It feels a little lacking in character but look more closely and you notice how many of the houses are built end-on to the road and a surprising number of large stone barns set in among them which are now converted to fancy homes.
It's a pointer to Burwell's prosperous past as an inland port - the houses and barns were built to serve wharves and canals that fed into the Lode. It's the same again at Reach, whose Lode we didn't visit (you can get over-loded!).
Nor did we take the boat down Wicken Lode, chickening out and mooring at the EA visitor mooring by its start as we were worried about the depth and the weed. Just as well, since when we walked down it we discovered the mooring at the end was full up with four boats.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Grand designs meets the fens

The sleepy little hamlet of Prickwillow by the side of the River Lark has no shop, no pub, no school, no post office and just half a dozen streets but what it does have is remarkable collection of strikingly designed and in some cases award winning modern houses.
We were last here ten years ago and there were just three; now there are twice that number. Here are the current crop:

This pair are next door neighbours both designed by Ellis Miller. Both are steel and glass construction with movable internal walls. He built the bottom one, with the external blinds, first as a weeked retreat for himself. (You can rent it as a holiday cottage says Google) and then the second for artist Mary Reyner-Banham, widow of renowned architectural theorist Reyner Banham. Both are award winning designs.

The Black House is another award winner and just down the road from these two and was designed by Meredith Bowles, founder of Mole Architects. It takes inspiration from the simple shapes and colours of agricultural barns.
As, presumably does this terrace of houses, with their subtle colour washed weatherboarding, that are again in the same street. (A street incidentally that also has bungalows and social housing in its short length.)
I also spotted this stylish little design, once again in weatherboarding, which joins a small bungalow to its adjacent pottery studio.

And finally there is Grebe House, a 2008 built eco-house that takes full advantage of its riverside location with a large upstairs balcony that also looks out across the fens to Ely Catherdral in the distance. It's just sold for £380,000.

The smell of success

The towers of Wissington sugar beet plant loom into sight
I have lived most of my adult life in East Anglia but I only know one thing about the region's staple winter crop, sugar beet. It stinks!
Get anywhere near one of the big sugar beet processing plants in the winter when beet processing is at its peak and you can't mistake the huge plumes of steamy smoke and the sour smell in the air.
The River Wissey goes right past one of these plants so fortunately it wasn't beet season but the looming towers, masses of groaning pipes and strange collections of shadowy girders look exactly like the sort of antediluvian, Heath Robinson and sinister factories you might imagine producing toxic chemicals in a decrepit region of Soviet Siberia.
What you absolutely wouldn't think was that this is the largest sugar beet plant in the world, the most efficient in Europe and that its processes are state of the art. Nor would you think that byproducts include 70 million - yes 70 million - tomatoes a year grown in acres of on-site greenhouses, bio-ethanol fuel and enough electricity for 120,000 people. All of which I have found out here.
Seventy million tomatoes a year come from here
Very briefly then: three million tons of sugar beet come to the factory from 1500 growers. The soil is cleaned off (and re-sold as topsoil) then they are sliced and mixed with water in diffusers to extract the sugar. The remaining fibre is then compressed and dried and turned into pellets which are sold as animal feed. Seemingly it's the drying that causes those smelling clouds of steam.
The juice is heated in various steps to turn into a thick syrup and get rid of impurities and dispose of surplus water. But the clever bit of the process is a complex heat recovery system which allows this heated water to be recovered and used elsewhere - for example to the 11 hectares of tomato greenhouses across the other side of the river.
The factory also has a gas turbine powered combined heat and power plant that produces steam and electricity, the surplus of which goes back to the Grid.
And another part of the factory produces over 50,000 tons of bio-ethanol a year by fermenting some of the sugar syrup.
Altogether it's remarkably clever and a huge industrial success story. So why do I and you and virtually everyone in Britain except the people who work there know anything about the place?
I wish I knew the answer. Perhaps it's because we spend too much time as a nation dwelling on disasters or unpleasantness or listening to politicians bash each other with sound bite politics and not enough promoting the things we do well.

Monday, 21 April 2014

A river of surprises

Early morning on the Wissey at Hilgay
 After a quick shop for some 'home made meat pies' at the excellent little village butcher in Hilgay we headed off up river on another bright sunny day. The river continued its meandering course through scenery that though largely flat was never dull with overhanging trees, marshy banks and plenty of birdlife, including kingfishers and a sandpiper.
Lopped branches from felling provide clever bank protection
It was a completely rural landscape unbroken even by a walker, let alone a tractor or a farm house. Then in the hazy the distance the towers of the Wissington sugar beet factory began to loom over the trees. Built back in 1925 in the heart of the beet fields, there was not even a road to it and everything came by an extension of the local railway line or by boat. The road link was finally built by Italian prisoners of war in WW2.
Today it's a huge sprawling site, bewildering in its complexity – there's even a vast array of greenhouses on the opposite bank. It's quite a place so it will get its own blog post later.
As the river exits Wissington  under the latest bridge it undergoes the most extraordinary transformation and opens into wide lake that makes Tixall Wide at Great Haywood seem like Tixall Narrow (though this one is only navigable near the upstream left bank.)
Wissington sugar beet factory looms into sight
Even after leaving the lake the river remains far wider than before until, after a half mile or so, it suddenly has second thoughts and reverts back to its narrow wandering path. Still there's nothing to impinge on the empty landscape, bar the occasional ruins of some local pumping house.
Crossing the lake section after Wissington
The pretty but un-navigable Methwold Lode eventually heads off to the right and through the trees one can see it merging into the marshy Breckland with its rough grass and low gorse.
The Wissey then reaches an aqueduct that carries it over the cut-off channel from Denver (built to supply water to the Essex reservoirs). Beyond this a control sluice across the river can be closed in times of flood to divert water from upstream via a separate channel into the cut-off and eventually back out to sea via Denver and the tidal Ouse.
Breckland marshes across the bank from the river
Stoke Ferry, a mile upstream from here was apparently a prosperous inland port and trading centre in the 18th and 19th centuries. The village is a little way back from the river and modern houses with moorings for their plastic cruisers are built where there used to be mooring staithes.
We're nearly at the end of the navigable river; another half mile took us under the main A134 Kings Lynn/Thetford road to GOBA moorings alongside a quiet (adults only!) caravan site.  But first we went past them to wind a few hundred yards on at the junction with a drainage channel.
Boy did I make a mess of that! My excuse was that the wind was blowing fiercely at us, pushing us sideways at every manoeuvre. "Use the wind when turning" they say "that's why it's called 'winding'" Yes, well, like how? Poling and revving got us nowhere. Then a nearby moorer popped his head out and when he'd finished chuckling gave us the top tip of getting into the deep water on the left hand bank and poling the bow round from there. From that point on it was easy.
Handsome house in Stoke Ferry but what's that behind it?
With supplies running short we walked back to Stoke Ferry where the guide promised a 'licensed general stores'. Hmmm. Put it this way: we bought a bottle of milk.  Stoke Ferry itself is another of these sleepy, lost in time villages. The old Victorian and Georgian houses are surprisingly substantial and handsome, speaking for the place's stature in the past. There's a rather fragile looking village church which apparently is no longer in use but owned by musical performer and lyricist, Kit Hesketh-Harvey.
However overshadowing the village, literally as well as figuratively is the monstrous bulk of a sprawling and ugly factory. It sits right behind a line of the finest houses in the village which, presumably as a result seem to be either empty or used as offices.
But what company owns it and what do they do? Perhaps embarrassed by their sheer ugliness and hideous incongruity they hide in anonymity. Nowhere could we find a name or a business type.
More fine houses but the lurking chimney tells a different story
It turns out the place is an agricultural feed mill, once owned by a local family and called Favor Parker, then sold to the Grampian Foods congomerate who in turn sold it on a few years back to a Dutch firm Vion. It exists where it does because it set down roots in the days before planning controls prevented such things and large family firms could exert a sort of feudal control over local councils. Since then it's just grown. Sadly, the damage is done and even if the place died tomorrow what would happen? Probably a housing estate.
Tomorrow we head back towards the Ouse and contemplate another of its tributaries.
And finally...Brian enjoys an ice cream on this hot afternoon

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Wandering on the Wissey

Winding down the Wissey
We woke up this morning to the sound of rain on the roof. Not another change in the weather.  After yesterday's sunshine and a starry clear night, the morning had dawned flat, grey and wet. I lay in bed and listened to the Chinese GP on Radio Five Live – it was as dull as the weather!
It wasn't until after lunch that the rain finally shifted away for good and we set off to explore the closest of the Great Ouse tributaries, the River Wissey. It's also the prettiest of them –the water is delightfully clear so you can spot fishes swimming among the weeds. It's a winding river, often tree-lined and narrow especially in its first few miles. But hopefully not so narrow that we won't find somewhere to turn at the end!

The captain steering his ship
We've only come a couple of miles down it to an EA mooring at the little Norfolk village of Hilgay. It's a sleepy and somewhat dishevelled little place that reminds one of those frayed round the edges hamlets you find in rural France. Except that it doesn't have a little bar that serves cheap wine and steak frites. In Hilgay the pub has shut down, so has the garage and the hotel restaurant is now a B&B. The village butcher is still going, though, and we will help keep him that way by calling in when he's next open.
Not much to tell today, then, except to add that I am writing this in the increasingly forlorn hope that I will ever get an internet connection. Despite having three 'blobs' of signal I can't get a connection at all. Someone else in Hilgay must be using the 3G system! So when you're out in the sticks, forget 4G and keep your fingers crossed you might be able to find 1G.
FOOTNOTE: After watching the spinning wheel of no connection for an hour and with my battery just about run down the other person in Hilgay using 3 Mobile finally went to bed and my connection came alive again!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Twenty years on

Still smiling after 20 years; Paul the Salters Lode lockie
Twenty years ago we took our first boat, a little 23ft Freeman grp cruiser, for its most adventurous trip – a two week holiday with our six year old daughter from our marina in St Ives, down the Great Ouse and onto the Middle Level as far as March before heading for home.
At Salters Lode we met a young lock-keeper who had only just got the job. He was delighted and surprised to have been picked from what he said were hundreds of applicants.
Tidal Great Ouse at low tide
Well 20 years on Paul is still there and still enjoying it. "I won't be leaving – it's not so much a job, more a way of life." He's a nice guy; helpful and cheerful. Don't just take my word: I was busy passing on greetings from other narrow boaters who've enjoyed his company.
And at high tide
I can't remember if I was nervous about the half mile trip on the tidal river between the two locks twenty years ago: probably not. This time after seeing the low-tide mud banks, watching the tide race in and talking with a local boater ("I've done it many times but still treat it with respect'), I was decidedly twitchy.

The high spring tide level meant there wasn't sufficient headroom in the lock to go at high tide so we had to wait until it started ebbing and go against the flow up to Denver. "Turn early and use lots of power," advised Paul. "If it goes wrong you'll end up on the mud somewhere down there - but don't worry you'll have given us all a good laugh."
Making the big turn out of the lock
Of course after all the anxiety and the jokes, it was a simple trip. The big old Lister powered us round the turn with ease and then charged up river without a concern. After all that mud-plugging through the Middle Level, you could almost feel it relishing the chance to thrash through deep water.
Heading up river with a boat out of Denver coming toward us
A few minutes later we were into the Denver lock then down into the wide spaces of the Great Ouse, lined with plastic cruisers bobbing on the deep water. And as if to emphasise the difference, the sun burst out and the wind dropped away: the cold, grey windswept Middle Level was behind us.
Nearing the Denver lock
We travelled less than a mile upriver and moored on the bank to enjoy the sun. Later in the afternoon we strolled back up to the impressive Denver Complex of barriers and sluices which holds back the tidal river from flooding the low lying fens – a concept going back to the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden in 1652 who built the first sluice here and created the rich farmland we have today.
And out onto the wide open spaces of the Great Ouse
The fens drainage story is well known but what I didn't appreciate was that the 'Cut-Off Channel' that was built in the 1970s stores surplus water coming off the Great Ouse and then directs it in a 90 mile long link of overground waterways, pipes and tunnels to the reservoirs of Essex where it is a vital addition the water supplies.
Oddly enough, the water finally flows along the River Stour which ran along the back of the house we lived in back in our Freeman cruising days to a pumping station just down the road for its final leg to the reservoirs.

Friday, 18 April 2014

A bit sticky

Our pretty mooring at Upwell; little did we know what lay ahead
That was how Paul, the Salters Lode lockie, described our potential passage through Well Creek to reach his lock. Boy, was he not kidding! It was as sticky as a roll of flypaper that fell into a tub of treacle.
It's only about five miles to the lock but we decided not to hurry and make today's tide but rather potter about with chores, have lunch and potter up in the afternoon to cross tomorrow.
A good decision it turned out. Pottering would have a breathless rush compared to our pace. The trip took us nearly four hours.
We were struggling from the off. The Creek through Upwell is so shallow that the bottom seems barely below the surface. We were churning mud, weed, old branches and rubbish while barely moving at all – and at times stationary on mud. It wasn't long before two shallower drafted boats were queued behind but no chance of pulling over for them as we would never have got off the side.
It wasn't long before a queue started to form
A very slight improvement saw Upwell become Outwell but then came the long, hairpin bend – shallow on the inside, shallow on the outside and mucky in the middle. We came from under the road bridge after the bend with virtually no steering as Harry just ploughed towards the outside...where a plastic cruiser was moored. Reversing and pole-ing finally got us round.
Churning mud out of Outwell road bridge
After that things never really improved. In fact they got worse as what appeared to be half a tree got sucked up and wound around our prop and rudder, demanding seriously wrestling to get it untangled.
Wrestling what seemed half a tree off the prop
The Creek got deeper but we were still in trouble, hoovering weed off the bottom and round the prop. There was little point in stopping to clear it - past experience said more would very quickly take its place so we just crawled along through the little hamlet of Nordelph where a once handsome tug 'Icarus' lay mouldering under trees and near it the sunken remains of what looked to have possibly been a narrowboat hire craft from 'Nordelph Marine'.
Off to the side of the Creek we watched four huge tractors ploughing and potato planting across the vast prairie like fen. I wonder if this was the farm? There's certainly money in 'taters.
Tonight we are at the lock moorings and I have cleared the prop of a bin bag full of weed, plastic bags, baler twine, branches and general rubbish. Late tomorrow morning we head out onto the half mile tidal stretch of Great Ouse, ensuring we miss the mudbank outside the lock before going back in through Denver Sluice lock onto the non-tidal river and heading for Ely.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Heading Up and Out

Coming into Upwell with our mooring by the church ahead
Today was an early start. The grass mowing team woke us at 6.30 am. We knew they were coming: there were warning notices on the March moorings but 6.30? Surely not? They'd probably arrive at 8.00 and then have tea. No, 6.30 it was so we quickly reversed back up under the town bridge and moored at the old moorings on the other side for breakfast. Brian was certainly not impressed and went back to bed, refusing to eat his breakfast until the usual 9.30 hour.
Tonight we are moored in a quieter spot,
at Church Bridge in the centre of Upwell a village whose ramshackle charms we have enjoyed since our early days in boating.
Upwell and its Siamese-twin neighbour Outwell straggle along a mile and more of what has now become Well Creek, a narrower and frustratingly more shallow section of the 'Nene-Ouse through route'. Like so many of these fenland places, Upwell hints at a wealthy past but also speaks of a down-at-heel present. Though the prettiness of the place has seen some uplift since our last visit, the roads that run either side of the Creek still intersperse ruinous buildings and shabby homes among the renovations and between the substantial 18th and 19th century properties of its affluent past. The ornate and solidly proportioned church is another sign of past wealth - as, even more so, is the massive vicarage alongside it.
The through route here has certainly changed character. We did some final shopping at March including a visit to a very good craft shop then bashed out of town on a wide, deep waterway running past fields of wind turbines, making good speed in weather that had turned overnight from hot and sunny to windy and showery.  Then, shortly after passing the turning to the wide, straight Pophams Eau the river narrowed, start to twist and turn and we arrived at only the second lock on the whole route. Marmont Priory is an idyllic, out of time spot; a lock half hidden between trees and a secret, tucked-away lock house stood back from it in a cottage garden. The lock scenes in the film version of Graham Swift's Waterland was filmed here and if you've read the book you'll see it is the perfect location.
A shame, then, that the lock-keeper is such a grumpy old thing. Maybe we've always caught her on an off day but today again I was chastised for not booking (I had rung but there was no reply and no answer to my message) then for not ringing the bell and starting to make my own way through.
Ah well, we did at least see our first ducklings of the year here and our next brood a little further on as we entered Upwell.
Tomorrow or Saturday depending on our mood we head up and out of the Middle Level and cross to the Great Ouse.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Goodbye Ramsey; hello internet

Moored in the tree filled oasis of Bill Fen
Ramsey is a quaint, old fashioned sort of town that – like Bill Fen Marina – scarcely seems to have changed at all in the five years we have been away. Mr Bream the shoeshop is still there, as is Peter Gammon the furniture shop, Wades the ironmonger/cycles/electrical/fishing store and so too the Madeira Fish Bar. And unlike many places in the Fens, foreign accents seem rare: this is, in the words of The League of Gentlemen 'a local town for local people'.
It's not a well-off place, far from it, there are a few empty shops, but thank god the High Street has not yet been infested with those usual leeches after the struggling - lines of betting shops.
Ramsey is old fashioned in every sense and the nicest sense is the helpful service you find in every shop. In Gammons where I bought a three quid watch battery, the man spent ten minutes looking 'out the back' for a suitable watch strap. Sadly in vain. In Ramsey Paint Shop (yes, still there) the assistant split a roller tray and roller pack to swap a fleece roller for a second foam one. (Can you imagine B&Q doing that!). And Wades, when I asked for a wire brush I got offered a selection of three styles.
Less easy for out of town pensioners like us addicted to our 3G internet, the town is also old fashioned in having virtually zero coverage. Astounding in the flat fens where masts bristle and a signal is easily found in the middle of nowhere. Not in Rammie - even the wi-fi in the coffee shop was barely walking pace.
Still, old fashioned shops and helpful service did mean that, internet or not we still spent more cash locally than in many towns this trip.
Passing yet more of the swelling ranks of fenland wind turbines
But now we are back in the 21st century. Having spent a couple of days titivating the battle scarred paintwork, we said our farewells to our old mates at the delightful Bill Fen and headed back onto the 'through route' to the Great Ouse.
Very fancy new Middle Level HQ
End of garden moorings line the river into March
Tonight we're moored in the centre of March, home of straight-through car exhausts and noisy street youth. Shame really because the river run-in to the town is one of the most interesting I know, beginning with the swanky new Middle Level Commissioners HQ. Then comes a mile or more of willow lined end-of-garden moorings of every style and condition from elaborate concoctions of summerhouse and jetty down to rickety planks and poles and with everything from semi-sunk ruins to handsome plastic cruisers to narrowboats large and small.Still there is a compensation for these March moorers – a sizeable Lidl just five minutes walk away!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

But times haven't changed here

You know that feeling when you come back from a great holiday; so much time seems to have passed; you've done so much; got so many memories. Then you get to work, sit down at your desk and within minutes reality comes pouring back and you realise that actually you've only been away a couple of weeks and in your world of work nothing has changed at all.
Well, in the nicest possible way, that's what it has been like coming back to Bill Fen Marina at Ramsey after nearly five years away. We are in a different boat, we've refitted it, cruised it around most of southern England and got a bit older and a bit creakier but within a few minutes of arriving it feels like we can only have been away a couple of weeks. So little has changed. The boats, the people, the surroundings all hardly altered.
And that's wonderful for Bill Fen is a little oasis in what can at times be a bleak, flat and windswept part of the country. Over the years John and Lyn Shotbolt have landscaped, planted and nurtured a beautiful spot, rich with trees, flowers and birds. In the time we've been away it has only got better; there are more trees, a couple more ponds, more flowers. It's a lovely spot and great to be back – and of course say hello to a few old mates as well.
Tomorrow we will head into Ramsey and somehow I can't imagine the sleepy little town will have changed much either. And I rather hope it hasn't.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The times they are a-changing

Keep straight on!
Whittlesey today is a friendly, somewhat rough edged little town but a wander round the market square reveals that it once saw more prosperous days. There are some fine Georgian houses, a sizeable hotel - now Wetherspoons - and behind these is the large, handsome church with its fine spire.
Like so many similar fenland towns which have the same worn-at-the-elbows look about them, agriculture brought its wealth. It still does, but the towns have outlived their contribution – today's mega-farms send their spuds and onions direct by truck to factories like the giant McCains chips plant we passed on the way in; farmers live in huge new-build houses (there's a massive one near Benwick where we are now), and drive huge and hugely expensive tractors and loaders. And, of course, the other change is the presence now of foreign languages from the European farmworkers. What do the old, private fen folk make of that I wonder?
At Whittlesey we spent two relaxing days at the edge of the superb playing fields which boast skate park, five a side pitch, football pitches and picnic tables as well as riverside walks. Well, they were relaxing days except in the mornings when Seadog Brian and me took our constitutional through the undergrowth of litter left by the town's youth. Sadly, they prefer to use the grass than the multiplicity of litter bins.
That object in the distance is a litter bin, lads
What's the answer? The world seems to be awash with litter these days. Maybe ignorant people have always dropped their litter and it's just that there's now so much more disposable stuff they can throw down.
Anyway once out of the town we were into the open fen countryside where the waterways cut straight lines through the flat acres of dark soil between steeply banked sides that keep the views a secret. Oh to be in the Typhoon Eurofighter roaring across the sky above us and see the whole landscape of the fens flashing past below.
Beyond Whittlesey there's barely a bend of note in the waterway – but fortunately none of the paralysing weed either. Since our last visit even more wind turbines reared up into the air and over the high bank we spotted at least one more 'solar farm'.
We were shadowed for a mile or more by a kingfisher which would watch us approach from its perch on a reed, let us get close enough almost to photograph it then flash away ahead and wait for us to get near again. And so it went on as he taunted the camera with what seemed almost deliberate cheek.
Finally we turned off the main "Through Route" to head towards our old moorings at Ramsey, passing an eel fisherman just packing his traps away. At the junction, an old pumping station which someone had begun to turn into a property and moorings had sunk back into abandonment and ruin but further on, past the ultra-low farm bridge that is helpfully not marked on the guide book, the mobile home that we'd watched morph into a timber-clad structure with miscellaneous outbuildings had now been replaced by a sizeable permanent house.
At the new moorings in Benwick
Then we were in Benwick, a forgettable hamlet from the road but delightful from the water. The river bends 90 degrees between trees under a large, picturesque footbridge (just rebuilt) and arrives at a brand new public mooring.
Yes, a purpose built public mooring in the Middle Level – as rare a feature as a fenland hill. We're moored there tonight so a big thank you to all those who made it happen. Let's hope it's the first of a few more.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Into the Middle Level

Wrong way round
What is wrong with this picture? Knowledgeable navigators of the Middle Level will spot that though we are locking down into the Level, we are actually facing the opposite way.
That's because water levels on the Level are low and Stanground Lock is rather shallow and we are deep drafted so we had to turn round  and reverse in. That would put our deep stern over the deepest section of the lock. Then we reverse out and spin back round. Simple!
Or not. First of all turning to reverse in was not at all easy in a howling crosswind and when we got in and the lock was emptied we found ourselves sitting at a jaunty angle on the bottom. Hmmm. This didn't auger well for our chances of making any headway along the Level itself.
Try again, this time with me on the roof keeping the boat in the centre of the lock which apparently has a curved base, hence the grounding. We stayed afloat and I reversed out – then spent the next ten minutes painstakingly grinding the boat round the right way in a shallow channel only a couple of feet wider than we were.
But we got round, paid our fiver for a key to open the sanitation station and lock pen, and set off with me cautiously hugging the centre of the channel and trickling along. No problems at all, though, until we reached the notoriously narrow and sharp 90deg turn in the middle of Whittlesey when we grounded again. Fortunately a mixture of poleing and pushing got us off and we are now moored up for the night, having scoffed our way through Fen sized portions of fish and chips.
 First impressions are that the Fens are as flat as ever, as windswept as ever, a little tidier and cleaner but otherwise pretty much as they were five years ago. Aside from a few more wind turbines - half of which weren't turning on a very windy day (why?) – and another of those huge solar farms on the edge of Whittlesey, built by the same firm who built the one we passed back near Wellingborough. It can power 900 local homes.

We might have been stuck yesterday but at least we were not as high and dry as this poor bugger washed up onto Peterborough embankment during the winter floods and now well and truly becalmed.
Perhaps he will be turned into a piece of urban art?

Left, right and centre

Getting hauled off the shoal with Brian supervising
The past few days we hadn't seen a single boat out on the water but at Alwalton Lock, as we headed down from Wansford, we met one waiting to come in as we locked our way down. He gave us a warning: "There's a big shoal just past the lock, you need to keep to the left."
We came out of the lock and fifty yards down, where the weir stream entered from the right, three red buoys bobbed in mid river. Go left, he'd said – but that was through barely a boat's width between boat and bank. Surely not? The boss was not convinced: "he must be confused - he must have passed to the left of them coming up. The weir will be washing the shoal toward that far bank. We need to keep to the right"
"But he said 'left'," said I. "I ought to go left."
Unfortunately at that precise moment neither of us could remember the rules of the river regarding coloured buoys. I hesitated ... and we got ourselves well and truly stuck in mid-stream.
Fortunately, the boat who had warned us had seen our plight and reversed back down but it still took 20 minutes of serious pulling and revving to get us free and we were beginning to contemplate being stuck there for the foreseeable future!
The moral of the tale? Know your river rules – and don't have a boat with two captains. I was at the helm so I should have made the decision for better or worse.
Curiously, though, there had been warnings at every Nene lock about a pretty minor shoal at an earlier part of the river and about a fallen tree blocking half the waterway but not a mention about this major shoaling which was blocking virtually the whole river. Odd.
And odder still that the boat which rescued us had belonged to friends of ours: they had just sold it and it was being delivered to its new owners on the canals.
After all that we were glad to find the sanctuary of deep water floating moorings at Nene Valley Park for an evening of walking and bird spotting.

Moored in the delightful Nene Valley Park

Letting the train take the strain

Leaving the boat behind to take the train
Before Doctor Beeching wielded his axe, a steam railway line ran pretty much the route that we've been travelling by boat, from Blisworth through Northampton to Irthlingborough, Oundle and finally Peterborough.
And then it all vanished, until a bunch of enthusiasts with the assistance of the local councils created the Nene Valley Railway which runs via four stations to Peterborough where it terminates at the edge of the 'Railworld' centre.
So we left Harry moored by the NVR's base at Wansford and spent most of the day travelling on the steam railway. First of all we headed into Peterborough itself, the line crossing and re-crossing the winding river as we headed across the wide, flat expanses of water meadows and flood plain with those evocative clouds of smoke drifting back outside the windows from the little tank engine pulling us.
For someone who grew up as a child spotting numbers in the great age of steam, a steam railway always brings back fond memories of that distant youth. The carriages with their varnished wood surfaces, quaint toilets, sliding doors into private compartments and the clackety-clack over the track fishplates.
Last surviving example of the tracked hovercraft rail venture
Railworld (an otherwise rather forgettably scrappy place) was dominated by another memory from my youth, the sole surviving example of the tracked hovercraft or mag-lev railway which BBC Tomorrow's World I recall championing as the future of transport. It combined two British inventions, hovercraft and the linear induction motor, to create an ultra high-speed railway running along a concrete track. Sadly, like so many great sixties projects it all came to naught.
A stroll around Peterborough revealed a city a little smarter than I recall, especially the central piazza with its water features. Architecturally it's nowt special, though with low, dull buildings rather like the low, dull fens that surround it.
Homeward on the train we stopped at the excellent Ferry Meadows Country Park on the edge of the city where we would moor the next night, then went past Wansford to travel through the line's tunnel which emerges at the Yarwell terminus.
Then back to Wansford for a look around. It's well worth a visit for even the casually interested. There's an old mail sorting coach from the days when the GPO sorted the post as the train ran, a cafe, secondhand bookshop for the rail, bus or tram geek and all sorts of engines and associated hardware.

And the train even has a bar!