Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Middle Level Navigation. Benwick to Salter's Lode

We can't get enough of these Fenland Skies!



Our second failed attempt at navigating to Holme Fen resulted in an unexpected night at Benwick, which was also where Martin and Yvonne were heading. So two hours after we all waved goodbye and wished each other a happy summer for the second time, Legend and Evolution were breasted up beside each other...
Again.
They can’t get rid of us that easily. We had an on board scrabble evening, which the boys won (subject to a steward’s enquiry),  then in the morning we all said goodbye for the third, and almost certainly final time until September, and waved them off.

As a thank you to the Benwick in Bloom society, Dave set about weeding and tidying up the flower beds round the mooring till lunch time.
We'd invited Glen and Holly for lunch, we were expecting them any minute when we got an extra pleasant surprise and Ron and Rose dropped by to say hello as well. Lunch for four became lunch for six and two doggies.

In the evening we were back at Ron and Rose’s for dinner again. It’s lovely to spend time with people who we’ve only really met in bigger social gatherings and really get to know them.

Our next boat move was across the Greenwich Meridian, past Foxes' hire base and under the busy A141 into March.


On the way we went past this, which just goes to show that even the people who live here put an 's' on the end.
We snuck in on a perfect Legend length mooring gap at Parkside and had a wander round the town. In one of the charity shops we found an exact match for a mug that got broken last year.
Result!

The next morning we had two short hops, first to the sanitary station opposite the library, then under the bridge to moor on the town moorings.
This was a nice place to be, although we were right in the middle of town, so it never got really dark at night or, with roads running past three sides of us, really quiet either. Over  the next few days, as we boated across the breezy landscape from March, through Marmont Piory Lock and on to Upwell, Outwell and Nordelph, we found the same thing; although the Middle Level is open and wide and empty with stunningly beautiful big skies, unless you own a bit of accessible river bank or you know someone who does, the only places to stop are the public staithes. These are all nicely kept, but of course they are all in the towns on the way, they all have busy roads next to them and they are all subject to 36 hour limits. The crews of most boats that pass this way are using the Middle Level Navigation as an Ouse - Nene through route, to be completed as quickly as possible, so one or two overnight stops near a pub or a shop or a chippy is exactly what is required. We, on the other hand, upon this voyage of discovery that we have found ourselves, prefer a more sedate progression.  Maureen, the lock keeper at Marmont Priory, wanted to know if we’d like her to phone the lock keeper at Salters Lode to find out when the next tidal passage was. When we told her we wouldn’t be going out onto the Ouse until the following week she was quite taken aback. “Where are you going to stay?” she asked.
Well, we had one night in Upwell...
...alongside the lovely flower and vegetable beds tended by the Well Creek Society, followed by a busy couple of days at Outwell. After a tour of the local nurseries and DIY shops, Ann-Marie planted up our flower troughs for this summer, while Dave took advantage of the low bank and gave the tumblehomes  a rub down and their annual lick of paint. Shortly after we’d turned the boat round and finished the second side, and while we were having a delicious congratulatory chippy tea, a chap with a strimmer came along and before we could stop him, splattered it with grass and nettles. (The boat, not the chips.) The poor bloke was desperately apologetic when he found out, but it wasn’t his fault and in the morning we had a good look at it and it wasn’t that bad; we may need to re-do the front bit but no lasting harm was done.

Years ago, before we started this boat life, and when we were still trying to decide how we were going to even begin becoming water gypsies, we met a couple through a canal forum who live near Outwell. Martin and Chris used to own Nb Heather Bell, a historic oak-on-elm Nurser, that was used during the war to train the “Idle Women”. Very interesting people and very knowledgeable.  We’d kept in touch over the years so when we got to Outwell we invited them over for lunch aboard the boat. It was great to see them and really good to be able to finally show them our home.

From there we went over the Mullicourt Aqueduct, which takes Well Creek across the Main Drain...
...to Nordelph where, just after the very low bridge (that isn’t on the map!) the public mooring is a well-kept secret.
The sign is broken, the staithe is only about 35’ long and we were slightly concerned that if another boat came past us Legend would rip the mooring rings out, so we tied to a couple of trees. Having said that, it was a very pretty place to be.
On the Sunday we took the car to Denver Sluice and had a good look round, found out where the EA moorings and the water point were, had a quick chat with the lock keeper about how the tidal passage worked then left the car in the carpark and walked alongside the relief channel to Downham Market, over the bridge and back down the Ouse to Salter’s Lode. After a quick recce there, we carried on along the Well Creek bank, back to Nordelph. The times for lock opening on the Tuesday and Wednesday were going to be 9:45 and 10:15 respectfully; so on Monday morning we took the boat to the mooring at Salter’s and kept a close eye on the weather forecast.

When we got up this morning (Tuesday) there was a strong gusty breeze blowing in entirely the wrong direction, bringing with it the threat of rain. Dave and the Lock Keeper had a little conflab and decided that it really wasn't ideal boating, or locking weather, and going out tomorrow would be a much better idea. 

Monday, 18 May 2015

River Nene. Middle Level Navigations. Wansford to Ramsey

It’s been a hectic few weeks.

From Wansford Station we carried on down the beautiful River Nene to Peterborough and Ferry Meadows Country Park. We were now getting well into our old stomping ground; for several years in our former life we both worked in Peterborough so we’ve got a lot of history in this part of the country. The car club that we used to be part of -2cvGB - used to hold its annual “Registrars Day” Show and Shine weekend in Ferry Meadows
and when we had our little Otter dinghy we came here on a couple of occasions to sail it.
(“Sail” was a bit of an exaggeration one weekend when we were becalmed for hours and had to paddle back to shore, but we had a fly-past by a Lancaster which more than made up for it.)
There are two main lakes in the park; one is for sailing, and the other is linked to the river by a short channel and has floating pontoons outside the visitor centre.
There can’t be that many people who’ve steered boats across both of them, but we have! 
 
As you would imagine we know quite a few people around here. Mandy was performing with her ukulele band in the Hand in Heart in the afternoon which, co-incidentally, had a beer festival going on.
So that was the rest of the day sorted.

As the next day was George’s first birthday we drove to Kim and Luke’s to see them all. We went out for lunch and then back to their house for present un-wrapping in the afternoon.
All very enjoyable.
Ever since we’d decided that repairing our old squirrel was beyond our capabilities Luke had asked for first dibs on it and we’d had it in the boot since Wansford when the car was conveniently close. A Birthday Boy visit provided the perfect opportunity to get it delivered and stowed in their back porch. Hopefully they’ll be able to fix it up and install it in their fireplace.

In the evening we went into the city to join Pig Dyke Molly - Ann-Marie’s old morris dancing side – who were having a practice night in another pub. When we got back the park was dark and deserted and we had one of the calmest nights ever…. Until the dawn chorus of ducks, geese, terns, pigeons and goodness knows what else kicked off at some ungodly hour. We got up and had a walk round the lake and through Bluebell Wood....


....before Diane turned up and we set off for the embankment. Luckily the wind was in our favour, and luckily we’d moored on the lee side of the jetty, so casting off was simply a matter of untying the front rope and quickly jumping on board. In a matter of seconds we were at right angles to the jetty and pointing towards the channel entrance, whereupon we untied the stern and went full steam ahead across the lake.
It’s nice when a plan comes together.

Peterborough Embankment was our last mooring on the Nene, in fact without going past the turn-off for Stanground and carrying on towards the tidal lock at Dog-in-a-Doublet, there is nowhere else to moor. It’s very regal, with weeping willows and tiered steps down to the river. There’s also a very useful services block and a water point (which was spraying water all over the place until Dave fixed it with a couple of jubilee clips.) There’s an Asda within walking distance and if that's not enough then there’s the whole of Peterborough city centre to go at.

It just so happened that Anne was working in Pinchbeck that day, and it just so happened that Slapdash (another of Ann-Marie’s old dance sides) were practicing in Pinchbeck that evening, and it just so happened that Anne was at her office in Peterborough the following morning. So, we all had dinner in ‘spoons, Anne had a go at Appalachian dancing, we did a car shuffle and put the Astra in Whittlesey, then we all went to bed and in the morning Anne’s drive to work was the shortest she’s ever had. How’s that for serendipity!

Our booking through Stanground lock was for 10am so we set off from the embankment at 9:30. Ever since we left Gayton Junction just before Easter the weather has been kind to us. All the way down the Nene we’ve had sunny days, fabulous sunsets, gentle breezes; perfect weather for messing about on the river. For three weeks when we had no fixed agenda and could have changed our plans on a whim, the benevolent gods of the skies smiled upon us. That morning they pulled the rug out from under us and we turned up at the lock soaked to the skin with the boat sideways, after battling through a torrential gale that kicked off at 9:32. The crew of the boat that was already on the lock mooring were good enough to brave the storm and grab our ropes so we weren’t blown out to sea, for which we are eternally grateful. We ducked inside and stripped off our dripping summer attire and put on some good old fashioned waterproofs. By the time Tina the lock keeper came out, the rain was abating...
...and by the time we were through the lock...
...and on the waters of the Middle Level...
...the wind had dropped, the sun was peeking through the clouds and we were rapidly warming up and beginning to sweat inside our waterproof trousers and big winter coats. We have oft been heard to state, in gleefully condescending tones, that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Well, Dear Reader, that morning we were well and truly hoist with our own petard.

The events of the morning were soon forgotten as we made our way to Whittlesey. As we followed the Back River, King’s Dyke and the Briggate River the beautiful big skies and endless horizons of Fenland opened out all around us and we felt like we were home. We negotiated the 90˚ Briggate Bend in Whittlesey without a hitch and moored up behind the leisure centre.
On May Morning we were up and out of the boat at 4:30. Pig Dyke were dancing at Holme Fen at dawn - a tradition going back years – and as we weren’t far away we drove over to join them.


A remote bit of the Middle Level Navigation actually dead ends at Holme Fen and we had considered taking the boat there the day before and staying overnight, but it would have meant picking the pace up a bit so we didn’t. With hindsight we wish we had; more about that later.
The last time we were there was just after we’d sold the house and we were living in the camper.
Click here.
After all the dancing we went back to Kit and Jessa’s for a fabulous full English then returned to Legend. After dismantling the big box to reduce our air draught, we boated on through Ashline lock and along Whittlesey Dyke, turned right onto the Old River Nene at Floods Ferry...
...and ducked under the very low White Fen Farm Bridge...

...then stopped at the delightful public mooring just by the black and white bridge at Benwick.
After lunch we got the bikes out and cycled straight into a head-wind all the way back to Whittlesey to collect the car. Ron and Rose from Pig Dyke Molly live in Benwick so after a quick phone call they came down for a cuppa. Later we went round to theirs for a Chinese and a laughter filled evening in their lovely home, and they were good enough to do a car shuffle for us to Ramsey. What a lovely full day! We know it will only be for a short while but it’s so good to be among our old friends again.

On the Saturday we set off for Bill Fen Marina just outside Ramsey where we’d booked Legend in for the week while we flew to Ireland for Shandy’s birthday. This was a first for us as we’ve never put the boat in a marina before; we’ve always left it somewhere we felt safe on the towpath. Unfortunately, apart from the very good - but of course restricted - public moorings, there are very few places on the Middle Level, or the rivers for that matter, where it’s physically possible to get into the side and off the boat, let alone feel safe about leaving it. Add to that the fact that without employing some elaborate rise and fall mooring contraption, the fluctuating water levels mean you stand a very good chance of returning to find, at very best, your boat leaning drunkenly to one side. Even if our lovely friends Martin and Yvonne, who keep Evolution at Bill Fen, hadn’t had a word with the owners and got us a special rate, it’s fairly certain we’d have booked ourselves in anyway. Being in a foreign country and worrying about what’s happening to all your worldly belongings is not the way to enjoy your holiday.

Rose came aboard at Benwick and pointed out all the places of interest on the way into Ramsey and got to see her local walks from a different angle. Just before Lodes End Lock we turned left into High Lode and right through the flood gate into the marina then, between gusts, carefully picked our way, round the other boats to moor up in the only spare slot, just along from Evolution.

Ron arrived to take Rose home and we went for a walk round the town. While we were window shopping we bumped into Kit and Jessa, so they came back to the boat for a little snack. All these lovely people! What a social life we have!

The next day we were off to Luton and Belfast. As this is first and foremost a boating blog we’ll spare you the details and just cover the main points.
Paddy is still adorable and was even more excited to see us than we were to see him.
Shandy has almost finished laying the new flooring downstairs and it looks fantastic.
Dave did some wall-papering and they were very pleased with his efforts.

We went to see the Giants Causeway and it didn’t rain...

...and we had lunch in a tea room in Ballintoy which was yummy.
Chloe took us to Derry where she works and we had a day walking round the walls and learning all about the history of the city.





Five days after arriving we said many fond farewells, then joined the other 24 passengers (we could have had a row each) on the red-eye back to Luton and got home to Legend and into bed at 2am.

After a well-earned lie-in we were up in time to welcome Martin and Yvonne back to their boat, then in the afternoon we paid our (very reasonable, considering how much peace of mind it gave us) bill, and manoeuvred ourselves back onto High Lode, where we turned right and did the last half mile to moor at the limit of navigation in the basin at Ramsey.
Later on our friends from Evolution came to dinner and we had another fabulous evening in their company. In the morning we reversed roles and walked up to the marina for breakfast aboard Evolution. Our plan for the day was to finally take the boat to Holme Fen where we’d been with Pig Dyke Molly the week before. Martin and Yvonne were going to set off a little while after us and head towards Peterborough so we weren’t going to see them again until September. There were lots of hugs and goodbyes then off we went. As legend passed under the bridge outside the marina they came out and waved and we all said goodbye again...
...then we carried on up High Lode to the lock.

The plan was to turn left through the lock and carry on to Nightingale’s Corner and eventually New Dyke, but when we got to the junction we found another boat sideways across the lock entrance blocking the landing stage. The stiff westerly breeze that was trying to blow us away from the gates had no doubt been their downfall, but their predicament instantly escalated our ability to turn into the lock from difficult to impossible. With the only other option being to dither about until we were blown into the reedy bank, Dave pulled the tiller hard over, gunned the engine, and we swept under the bridge away from the lock; the wind now on our tail and our nose pointing back towards Benwick. Once more boating to Holme Fen has eluded us. When we come back in September we’ll have another go, meanwhile we’re off to the Great Ouse.