Middle Levels & Great Ouse Cruise 2018

This Report by Ric Whitby:

On 27th June we set off from Wisbech along the Nene, through Dog in a Doublet lock and arrived in Peterborough mid-afternoon. Some immediately set about washing the salt off their craft, others set about having a rest!

             Dog in a Doublet Lock   

Moored together in Peterborough

Under the very efficient direction of Mo Waghorn we had a musical Pimms o’clock with singing, ukulele and percussion playing, some suggestion of dancing and almost definitely some breaking of the “drinking in a public place” bye-laws.

Next day the group split up into twos and followed through Stanground and onto the Middle Levels towards March, the only exception being Yorkshire Bourne who needed to set off home. Sad to see them go.

The Middle Levels proved their reputation for difficult and very sparse mooring, with Great Escape and Dabbling stopping in Whittlesey and Cormorant 2, Clara Grace and Elemiah spread out in March. Elemiah moored on a brand spanking new set of moorings with the notice” Private- No mooring- Middle Level Commissioners” in large letters on it. However Tony and Mo took the view that if the MLC were going to build themselves private moorings and leave them empty, without providing much else, well they would use them.

Clara Grace breasted up in March with a very surprised set of hirers, whilst Hilary was being chased onto the road bridge for an interview with BBC Look East.

We then went on and moored with Cormorant 2 on some disabled anglers staging which we were assured were never used.

The next morning we were then pursued by Stuart, and cameraman, from ITV, who came with us all the way to Marmont Priory lock interviewing us both on the boats and the camera keeping track on the towpath. Real fame at last!

See this link: http://www.itv.com/news/anglia/2018-06-29/the-narrowboats-navigating-from-boston-to-bedford-via-the-wash/

We moored up in Upwell, just room for 4 boats and breasted up for a bit (against all the rules). Then Elemiah caught up and we went off for a Pimms pub evening, after a viewing of the very interesting church.


The next day saw us off in convoy to Denver Sluice after the short hop from Salters Lode lock, the end of the Middle Levels. Denver is quite interesting as it’s the head of the Ouse tideway, and you have to come out of Salters Lode and get it right going into Denver.


 Lovely moorings at Upwell courtesy of the Well Creek Trust



Welcome to Salter’s Lode Lock  

                                                                       ..and Denver Sluice

Where do we go now?

Whilst Great Escape and Dabbling followed up in their own time the “lead” three went along the River Wissey, Clara Grace stopping to see friends at Hillingay and the other two onto the end.

Next for them was Brandon Creek, which boasts the most easterly point of the Navigable waters.

All of these small waterways are interesting and variable, going from wide to narrow, and back again in places. Some of the information is good; other guides are bad, with inaccurate or misleading information as to lock lengths or widths of winding places. GOBA mooring sites are generally good, and most of the EA sites would put CRT ones to shame, the Great Ouse ones being particularly spacious.


 Brandon Creek – as far east as we could go

Making good use of a GOBA mooring

Observing Pimms O’Clock

Whilst this was going on Great Escape and Dabbling were catching up. We all met on the Ouse near Littleport, where Dabbling was having the first of our mechanical meltdowns. Domestic battery failure! Some ordered, where they would be installed by the flying mechanics (see later). The very nasty looking, hot and bulging offender was disconnected!

Next small waterway was the Lark. Very good commentary by Tony, sometime RAF, on the antics of the USAF around Mildenhall. A free air show and good commentary!

First to arrive in Ely was Dabbling, shortly followed by the rest who’d explored the smaller rivers and we secured some very reasonable park and riverside moorings between us. A day off shopping, real ale-ing and currying and climbing the Cathedral Tower. More mechanical problems, Elemiah requiring a new domestic water pump.

We then set off in twos and threes towards Bedford.  Great Escape was a bit late as they had to go back to Ely after about 5 miles as they had left the boat keys in the sanitary station. Some of us ventured up the Cam a little (mind Elemiah went all the way to Cambridge, but didn’t pay….sshhh!)

Mention should also be made here about Elemiah’s efforts to Boldly go down to Wicken Fen where plenty of people had gone before, but probably in a rowing boat. Full marks for going boldly, and also reversing equally boldly after a fairly short interlude!

Then onwards via the Old West River, which was rather weedy to say the least, to meet up with Dabbling and Great Escape at Hartford Marina, where we had been offered a free nights mooring as a result of our fame. All facilities available and reasonably priced diesel, where the Alternative RCR team of Ric and Bob replaced Dabbling’s batteries.

Thence on to Bedford, via St Ives, Huntingdon and St Neots. There was enough water which surprised us as we hadn’t seen rain for weeks.


  C2 coming under the bridge at St Ives 

 Battling through the weed on the Old West River

There are lots of locks mainly operated by guillotine gates and vee doors and power operated on this stretch. So when you get to one that requires a push it all becomes a bit much! The main problem with these is that the vertical gate has a time delay to open it, for safety reasons, and then will allow you to open it fully after around 2-4 mins. Problem is that the whole time to get it up in the air can be 5 to 10 mins, and you are supposed to shut it again! So a long time finger pushing as the controls aren’t latching.

Arriving at Bedford for the festival weekend via some very low bridges, five 4 C’s boats managed to moor up to a very steep bank which we managed to negotiate with the help of gangplanks (and a vaulting pole in Jan’s case!)  We welcomed new crew on Cormorant 2 as Bob’s son Robin had taken over for a few days. There was yet more media attention, with a radio interview and an Anglia TV film interview – our fame was spreading! We spent the weekend relaxing, shopping, and talking to the many passers-by who were interested in our exploits. Of course, Pimms o’clock was enthusiastically observed, followed by buffet meals to which everyone contributed. We even had an outdoor film show on Saturday night when Tony set up a TV on top of Elemiah and we enjoyed Mama Mia. The superb weather continued through the weekend prompting the ladies to go in search of suitable summery clothing – we now have our 4C’s summer uniform which hopefully we’ll be able to bring out again next year!

       Bedford moorings                         

4C’s in festival mode                   

An unusual river craft!

After the festival finished there was a similar exit back towards Peterborough, with most doing their own thing. C2 and Clara Grace moored up in Priory Marina for a week whilst crews swapped and went home, to return and set off in convoy. Elemiah, Great Escape and Dabbling went straight off.

Clara Grace and Cormorant 2 were going to use the alternative, straight and boring New Bedford River but it’s tidal, and with the low tide, low water levels and it being 20 miles long we were advised not to. However a few diversions were planned. So mainly back the way we had come, along the Old West River to Denver, where we witnessed the classic way not to approach the lock! The boater nearly ended up in Kings Lynn, but backwards.

We met Unique at the Earith moorings, where they were waiting for a new freezer! Also Lynne fell through the decking, only to be told that it didn’t seem to belong to anyone!

On the way back through the Middle Levels Cormorant 2 had a starter battery failure which required a days stop over in March, whilst Clara Grace explored the 16 foot drain, the 40 foot drain and the delightfully named Pophams Eau. What wasn’t so delightful was the suggested Silver Propeller Challenge waterway, past Ramsey and through Lodes End Lock to Holme. Whilst Unique had done this, it was a couple of weeks back, and we found out that unless they only have 1 foot draught the water must have gone down! So we went along a small, getting smaller, dank, smelly, muddy dyke until we could finally see the winding basin. This has steep sides so there’s no way you can get off to push or manhandle. Problem was we grounded 50 yards before it! We took the decision to back out as if we had forced our way in we reckon we’d still be there. So, over a mile of reversing, poling, shoving and cursing till we could wind. That’s when we commissioned the Silver Elsan award!

Back to Peterborough, a day off and then on to the Nene, Northampton flight (still enough water, just) and up to Norton Junction where most went Braunston way. Clara Grace suffered the potentially serious problem of a seal failing on the diesel prefilter which siphoned several gallons of red into the bilge before being discovered at 12.00 in the night! After a mend by the Alternative RCR (thanks Bob)  Clara Grace headed north on the Leicester line and home (enough water, but getting less so by the minute!)

Overall, we think as the sort of “organisers” that everyone had a good time. We couldn’t cruise in convoy on the smaller waterways, and hence got a bit spread out at times, but this made meeting up all the more fun!