One Week Through Whittlesey

Bank Holiday Dodging

Having decided that we would wait until after Bank Holiday Monday to go back into Ely we had a couple of days to kill on the way. We stayed put opposite Horningsea on Sunday and took the opportunity to give the boat a thorough clean inside and out, except the starboard side. Hanging off the handrail over the open river to try and wash that side down would be inviting disaster.

Monday was grey, cold, drizzly, with a very strong wind, a classic August Bank Holiday! We moved up to leave the Cam and find a two day EA site on the main Great Ouse a little way beyond Pope's Corner. Back here in the open fens and the wide river, the grey skies and wind whipping up the water made it feel rather bleak.

As we were expecting guests to stay aboard the next night we gave the convertible dinette arrangement a trial run. We haven't used it that often and not for a long time so it was worth familiarising ourselves with it again. We were very soon reminded how tricky it was to set up. This was the one feature of the boat that has most disappointed us, with a very poor and clumsy design. We wish now we had been even more specific about how it should be designed, constructed and then stowed away, rather than relying on the builders' experience and expertise. One to get right next time!

Despite the unappealing weather I needed some fresh air and exercise. Looking on the map I noticed a path, further down river, that followed a drainage channel inland and round to the outskirts of Little Thetford. I found the name "Grunty Fen Catchwater" irresistible, so I set out in the afternoon and followed the river bank down to find it. Where the drain discharges into the Great Ouse a footbridge crosses the side channel. Here, where it is called Braham Dock, a single narrow boat has established a mooring at the mouth of the drain. Today it looked remote and isolated, uncomfortably exposed to the wind, rain and rising water but it must be a great spot to get away from it all and watch the birds on nice, sunny summer days.

Braham Dock Near Grunty Fen Catchwater

The path follows Braham Dock inland, crosses the Cambridge to Ely railway tracks and then turns left alongside Grunty Fen Catchwater down to Little Thetford. Another track took me from there back to the Old West River, where we had moored the previous week, to join the river bank and follow it back round Pope's Corner to the boat. A pleasant enough walk, if it weren't for the unseasonal weather but with very little of real interest to see other then some of the wildlife.

Revisiting Ely

It was time to head into Ely. The Bank Holiday weekend was over but no-one had told the weather, which had worsened, if anything. It was raining hard overnight and in the morning we had condensation all over the window frames, something we expect to see in winter but not in August! The rain gave way to occasional periods of drizzle and the strong wind eased a bit so we got ready to head off down the river. As we were about to cast off we noticed a flurry of activity on board "Red Dwarf", a narrowboat-cum-shed at the far end of the mooring toward Ely who had regaled us with loud music far into the night. Sure enough, just as we pulled away, "Red Dwarf" started moving and we realised that not only was he leaving at the same time but he was intending to turn round. Ignoring our approach the bow swung round across our path and the boat commenced to wind ahead of us as we throttled back and tried to hold station on the middle of the windy river. He got it round in the end and then proceeded slowly ahead of us for a while before suddenly speeding up and pulling away. Happily we didn't suffer the ultimate irritation, which, by now, we fully expected, of finding "Red Dwarf" taking the only available space to moor in Ely.

In fact, there was plenty of mooring available. We called in at Cathedral Marina on the way in as they had a convenient bank side service dock. This proved a rather disappointing stop. We did get fuel but unusually, even with that expense, they would not let us use their Elsan facilities or dispose of any rubbish. We were allowed to get water, for a fee. However, we had rather more than our fill of the water as, while Sue was distracted by the kettle, the hose escaped from the tank inlet and proceeded to soak the forward cabin and most of our towels. Luckily it didn't manage to penetrate the drawers and wardrobes and the bedding was mostly spared but with the day still damp, a trip to the laundrette to get the stuff dry now entered into our plans for the day.

Leaving the service dock and pulling across the river we were able to get a berth back on The Willows mooring, which was ideal for access to the city and to meet our visitors and to park their car.

Ely Cathedral From Cherry Hill Park

We had an enjoyable time back in Ely. Our friends had already done some exploring and we were able to exchange some experiences and places worth seeing. Drinks at the Royal Standard, followed by the most enormous meal at the Ely Turkish Restaurant & Meze Bar kept us busy for the evening, before we staggered back down to the boat for the entertaining game of "Dinette Jenga" required to provide somewhere for everyone to sleep for the night. Thank goodness we had practised it the day before! After an extensive, leisurely breakfast at the Riverside Bar & Kitchen it was time for our guests to head off on the next leg of their tour.

We decided to stay one more night and sample the delights of Peacock's award winning tearoom. So far, although we had passed it many times, the tearoom had either been closed or it had been the weekend and the queues to enter stretched out onto the street and down the quay. Today, we made it inside for a cream tea. We found it was well-run and probably deserved its reputation. The layout of the small rooms inside is quite interesting, with an incredible mixture of different tea sets on display and a vast range of teas available for the connoisseur. Well worth a visit if you can get in.

Faulty Crossing

On Thursday morning we prepared for the tidal crossing, removing the bike rack, lowering the top box and well on our way before ten o'clock.

The Ultimate 'Shed' On The Way Out Of Ely

So far, September showed little improvement on August with dull weather and occasional spitting for the three and a half hours it took to get down to Denver Sluice. On arrival, we found "Badger" already on the pontoon but just space for us in front of them. Quite soon after that "Black Duck", a hire boat from Fox Narrowboats in March, arrived, so we offered to let them breast up with us to wait.

The tide table said we should be ready to go at four o'clock, so for the next couple of hours there wasn't much to be done but have another look round the site and wait. After our experience in the other direction we still, somehow, thought that that had been an exception and the tides were generally fairly reliable. Four o'clock came and then, about fifteen minutes later, the keeper came down to warn us that the tide was barely rising and might never reach a sufficient depth, so there might be no crossing that day at all. This caused a certain amount of dismay on "Black Duck", who needed to have their boat back at the yard in March by nine o'clock the next morning.

"High" Tide at Denver Sluice - Not High Enough

There was some discussion about mooring overnight. Ben, the lock keeper, assured us he wouldn't leave us stranded and would drive us inland for take away food or any supplies we needed, if necessary. Nonetheless, it was a relief when, just after five o'clock, there was a sudden call to arms as the water was just high enough to clear the sand bar beyond the lock but it was a case of "now or never".

We moved into the lock with "Black Duck" and descended. They were then sent ahead first, as they had a deadline to meet and they could get ahead and clear the way at the next lock. In the meantime, the lock was filled again to let "Badger" join us inside and then emptied again ready for the passage. There were clear instructions on how to avoid getting grounded on leaving the gates and avoid the floating pontoon that has been erected on the right bank. That part went quite well,.

Half a mile down river, at Salter's Lode, the entrance is far trickier than the exit in the other direction. You have to start the turn before you reach the channel but not hit the sandbank in front of it. However, you mustn't get blown across to the far bank. This I made a complete mess of, turning too early and aligned with the wooden fence upstream of the entrance channel. We could only salvage the situation by heading straight for the wall of the lock entrance, which was thoughtfully completely rendered with old car tyres and use the engine to drive the stern round once we were against it. Clearly, we weren't the first to get this all wrong but that was little consolation. Having passed through the lock, which we could cruise straight through as, at slack water, the river and the lode are at the same level, we slunk off to the furthest point of the visitor mooring to wallow in our humiliation and embarrassment for the rest of the night.

Back In The Middle

There were three of us moored up at Salter's Lode on Thursday night so it seemed likely we might all be planning to moor in March on Friday. We briefly considered leaving early to get ahead of the pack but were proved correct in our conclusion that we would never get up early enough to pull that off. "Badger" was chugging past by six-thirty in the morning and "Anodyne" set off by seven o'clock.

As always, any fretting about this proved completely pointless. We caught up with "Anodyne" at Marmont Priory lock where, having stopped to participate in some internet meeting, they had just entered the lock as we arrived. At this point some much-missed sunshine was just coming through so the delay didn't matter and we found out they were planning to go all the way on to Whittlesey. As we approached the middle of March, we caught sight of "Badger", now facing in the opposite direction and tied up her own mooring outside a house. Having moored up at the town quay in March and climbed the steps to the Ship Inn, we found that not only had the crew already arrived home and left their boat but they were already sitting outside in the sun, halfway down their second pint. They obviously have this boating life down to a "T".

Having reached March we had a crowded schedule ourselves. We were scheduled for a Zoom meeting with boating friends at home and abroad at three o'clock and we could now reach the starboard side so that needed washing before we could relax for the evening. On the way down we had thought that we would find the chip shop above the quay still closed but a quick check showed that it was open and ready for business. First we visited The Acre pub, beside the river on the other side of the town bridge. This had had a rather rowdy crowd outside back in August, which we had found off-putting but today it seemed much calmer so we went in to find that it was much nicer than we had anticipated. Picking up the fish & chips on the way back to the boat we wondered if they would measure up to their glowing recommendation from our informants on Peterborough embankment a few weeks ago. It has to be said that they really did, so Friday was a good day all round.

Moorings Below The Chip Shop In March

Moving on the next day we found the levels generally quite low and in consequence, progress was extremely slow. In shallow water, increasing the revs on the engine is counter-productive, forcing the propeller down into the mud and slowing you down further. There is no choice but to throttle back the engine and settle for forward motion at whatever speed you can achieve, all of which made for a slightly longer trip than expected. Around three o'clock we eventually arrived at Ashline Lock, from where we could see that, with two narrowboats already moored there, the limited public mooring by the recreation ground was full.

As we worked through the lock two cruisers arrived behind us that seemed to both belong to one large group of middle-aged revellers out for a cruise to celebrate one of the women's significant birthday. They had clearly got the party started early. I spoke to one of the boaters already moored and asked if we could breast up but he didn't seem keen. He also pointed out, quite correctly, that unlike the canals and rivers, the rules of the Middle Level Commissioners expressly forbid boats from mooring two abreast.

We pulled out of the lock and managed to moor up against the overgrown bank beyond the mooring, with the help of the guy I had spoken to, a certain amount of hacking and slashing at the undergrowth and precarious deployment of the gangplank. As we pinned the boat in, the cruisers came out of the lock and drove past. The birthday 'girl' seemed somehow indignant that we had managed to moor up, so we guessed they had intended to stop there and go into town. Still, first come, first served and there was plenty more bank if they wanted to fight the nettles.

The owner of the other boat on the mooring returned a little later. He was out with his wife and child who were playing in the park. He told us he had been boating in the area for thirty odd years, starting as a child on his father's boat. He had plenty to say about it and in common with other people we had spoken to on the trip, he was most concerned with the new powers coming into force to charge specific licence fees for the Middle Levels. The charges planned will increase the costs of boaters based there significantly, which doesn't please them, of course. They do have a point, however, that they get precious little in return, in terms of facilities for boaters. They might be more accepting if that were to improve, alongside having to pay new fees.

Sunday brought a bright September morning, a precursor to a seriously hot, sunny day, just like the August we never had. We got everything back on board and managed to push off to immediately tackle the tricky ninety degree Briggate Bend, which seemed even tighter from this direction. Having negotiated that and heading out of Whittlesey, the water levels here were even lower than the day before and progress correspondingly sluggish. It got a bit deeper and easier going later on and as we approached Stanground Lock, towards noon, we were a bit earlier than we had booked for. It didn't matter, Tina was already out on the lock side as we came in sight and had the gates open ready for us to head straight in.

Stanground Lock by Mike Todd

Coming out the other side, into the Back River, we stopped at the Peterborough Boating Centre for diesel. If this name conjures up a picture of a smart marina with shiny new boats and state of the art services, be disabused. A large selection of boats of all types are moored, stern-on, outside what most closely resembles a breakers yard. We had anticipated a tricky bit of manoeuvring to get our stern, with the diesel filler, close enough to the pump to fill up but turning and backing in was pretty straightforward, on a sunny day. There was nothing to tie the boat to on either side but we found a T-stud to tie the stern line on and just let the boat bob against the narrowboat we had ended up alongside. As it was Sunday the place appeared deserted but we had phoned ahead to make sure they would open for fuel and an elderly lady soon appeared to sort us out. It was all very casual and we gathered that they were in the process of selling up and retiring. The tank was full at fifty three point one litres but there was no dial for the cost, we were just told the price was forty-five pounds, coincidentally just on the limit for contactless card payment. We got the impression that this would have been the price whatever the exact number of litres, avoiding fiddling about with loose change or awkward arithmetic. Similarly, there was no tiresome messing around with self-declaration forms for HMRC to specify the proportion to be used for propulsion versus domestic purposes. With a full tank we were all set for the next few days and headed off towards the embankment at Peterborough, back on the River Nene.

Posted in Cruises, Long Haul, Parting Shot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.