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.

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