Sunday 19 September 2021

River Trent (tidal section). Fossdyke Navigation. River Witham. Cromwell Lock to Boston.

At the beginning of our first foray onto the notorious Tidal Trent, the skipper of the little river cruiser who was sharing Cromwell lock with us asked us to go out first, as he didn’t have a copy of the charts and wanted to follow, in his words, “Someone who knew where they were going.” No pressure then.

You will be pleased to hear, Dear Reader, that our trip downstream to Torksey lock was happily uneventful.

Leaving Cromwell lock and the huge weir at the head of the tideway.

One of the now disused gravel jetties. There is no commercial trade on this section any more.

A warning sign for one of the Trent's notorious Sunken Islands. They are all well marked on the river bank and the charts, so easily avoided.

It was overcast and a bit breezy, but Dave managed to stick to the red line on the chart, and avoid all the sunken islands, sand banks and Hard Marle (whatever that is.) About three hours later, with the little cruiser tagging along behind like a faithful puppy, we rounded the final bend and turned into the short channel before the lock.

The very welcome turning into Torksey.

Torksey lock, open with a green light.

Torksey lock is a strange beast. It has clearly been extended at some point as it has two sets of bottom gates, plus a further set of higher flood gates pointing in the opposite direction. (These prevent a flooded river entering the canal). 

The original bottom cill is now in the middle of the extended lock and, at low states of tide, it can prevent deeper draughted (and on some big spring tides, all) boats from going through. However, there are plenty of pontoon moorings both below and above the lock for boats waiting for passage. When we radioed the lock on our approach, the lock keeper told us that there was about five feet of water above the cill. Barring Loch Ness and the Ribble Estuary, that’s deeper than almost everything we’ve been on in ten years.

The original lock looks quite normal with bollards on the lock sides...

The original part of the lock.

...but the extension has been shoe-horned under the bridge and isn’t quite in line, so the whole thing has a bit of a banana feel to it. Any boats in the extension have to use sliders as the keepers can’t get to them to take the ropes.

The lock extension under the road bridge, with the original gates in the middle. The cill is just under the bows of the cruiser.

 Talking of taking ropes, how many volunteer lock keepers does it take to put a rope round a bollard? The volunteers who were on duty when we arrived were rather new. The usual procedure for taking a rope from a boat in the bottom of a lock, is to lower a boat hook for the crew member to put a loop on, and then drop the loop over a bollard. We couldn’t believe how three people managed to make such a complete pig’s ear of this task, attempting to throw the loose end back down to Ann-Marie while Legend drifted in the breeze to the other side, until someone suggested pulling on the rope they had hold of. Hey, no one is born knowing everything, and every day is a school day for the best of us. They were really lovely, and more than made up for any lack of experience with their enthusiasm and friendliness, and after three hours of concentrated river boating it was really good see a smiling face.

Once through the lock we were on the Foss Dyke.

Leaving Torksey lock.

The very pleasant Torksey Basin.

Long and straight. The shape of things to come for the next couple of weeks.

     This navigation has a character all its own. It reminded us of the Middle Level, unsurprising as they are both primarily fenland drainage systems, and the surrounding landscape felt very familiar with big skies and vast horizons, but this waterway is far, far older. The conventional belief is that the Romans dug this channel and it’s quite easy to imagine the beat of a drum and the steady splash of oars as a wooden freighter, weighed down with its cargo of wool and grain, plies its way along the long straight sections. However, this conventional belief may not be all there is to it. This is worth a read. 

Saxilby was our first stop, reuniting us with our car. We had a couple of days there while we got the roof garden back under control...

Trimming back the strawberries at Saxilby.

...then set off on the straight high-sided trip to Lincoln, following Jane on Nb Olivella.
Legend and Olivella on the way to Lincoln

Getting weedier, but not a patch on what lies ahead.

Matilda Blue’s crew had told us that the navigation was a bit weedy, so finding parts of it covered in a green blanket and having to put the engine in reverse every few minutes to clear the prop came as no surprise. Pushing through the weeds slowed the journey down, but at least it gave whoever was steering something to do. The Fossdyke ends in Lincoln in Brayford pool where it joins the River Witham on its way from Grantham to Boston. The visitor moorings just before the entrance to Brayford Pool had one remaining space so we tucked in for the allotted 48 hours. Jane pulled Olivella alongside to breast up...

Legend and Olivella on Lincoln University visitor Moorings

...while she went to sort out a mooring in the marina, and we went off in search of Mandy and Bob. We found them moored on the other side of the city on the River Witham, having already been to Boston, and now on their on their way back to the Trent. They’d got tickets for a Neil Diamond tribute concert in the New Theatre Royal that evening, and although Mr Diamond is not really our thing, we all know the songs and a last evening out with our mates before we went our separate ways sounded perfect.

So, an afternoon walking round (or rather, up) Lincoln was followed by drinkies in the New Theatre Royal’s  Prosecco Bar, then nearly three hours sitting in a beautifully preserved 130 year old theatre, singing along to lots of familiar songs and an encore of “Sweet Caroline”. Marvellous.

Inside Lincoln's New Theatre Royal, waiting for "Hello Again" staring Neil(y) Diamond.

The New Theatre Royal, apart from being an absolutely fabulous building, has a fascinating history. It first opened in 1893 with a production of Charlie’s Aunt, and ticket prices that evening were 1s (5p). Since then it has hosted hundreds of plays, shows, musicals and films including, in the 40’s and 50’s, risqué performances from Paris, and a Greatest Showman style circus with performing animals and a trapeze act flying over the audience. It went bankrupt in 1976, after which it was taken over by Paul Elliot Entertainment. (Paul Elliot, in case you were wondering, is better known as one Paul Chuckle, brother of Barry. To you, to me.)

We emerged from the theatre at around 10pm into a city centre Saturday night zoo. It looked like a cross between a rave and a revolution with a huge swarm of noisy drunk people as far as the eye could see. There had been a suggestion of a post-concert drink, but all the pubs on the high street looked so terrifying that we just huddled together and got out of there as quickly as possible. We must be getting old; 30 years ago we’d have been in the thick of it.

The next day we moved the car from Saxilby to Bardney and discovered the Water Rail Way, which is yet another part of Sutrans NCR1, the 1264 mile (mostly)off road cycle route from Dover to Tain that we keep coming across.

One of the sculptures on the Water Rail Way.

In 1846 the Great Northern Railway leased the Fossdyke and Witham and used the waterway to help build their Lincoln to Boston line on top of the flood bank. The inevitable decline of the navigation followed the completion of the railway in 1848, and before long the whole navigation was silted up and unusable. Today however, in an ironic twist of fate, the waterway has boats on it once more and the railway, long dismantled, has become a very pleasant cycle route along the river bank.

On the ride back from Bardney we stopped to help a couple with a puncture. Years of cycling the tow paths has taught us to always carry a tool kit; the hedges get regularly flailed and one hawthorn spike can easily turn a pleasant afternoon into a long hard trudge. They were about 6 miles from where they’d left their car in Lincoln so were very grateful for our help. That afternoon we had a walk round the lovely Lincoln Arboretum...





...then down to Stamp End lock to follow the river through the city. At the bottom of the hill, by pure coincidence, we came across the people we’d helped who were just putting their bikes back onto their car. We were really pleased to find that the patch had held and that their day hadn’t been ruined.

Next morning we did some more exploration of the city; up Steep Hill and round the castle, the cathedral and Bailgate...

Inside Lincoln Castle.

Lincoln Castle entrance. The majority of the castle is free to enter.

Lincoln Cathedral.

Going back down to the city on one of the lesser used streets.

...then after lunch we moved Legend through the famous Glory Hole.

Crossing Baryford Pool.

The entrance to the River Witham.

After all that open water, we meet another boat in the narrowest part!

Diving into the Glory Hole

A view of the Lincoln's underbelly that only boaters get to see.

Out the other side and back in shopping central.

Moored up at Stamp end under the gaze of the Cathedral, but where is Matilda Blue?

...to moor up at Stamp end, and to be nose to nose with Matilda Blue for the last time.
 However, when we got there we found Matilda stuck in Stamp End Lock.
There she is. Stuck in a lock.

    The day before, Bob and Mandy had gone for a little cruise with their son Ben and spent the night at Washingborough. When they came back that morning they’d gone into the lock, shut the bottom gates and begun filling it. They told us it took ages to fill, and once it was full the guillotine gate wouldn’t lift, trapping them and another narrowboat in the lock. A small queue of cruisers and narrowboats had formed on both sides...
River cruisers waiting below the lock..

..and a narrowboat waiting above it. You don't usually see this many boats all week.

...and everyone and their dog had tried pushing both buttons to no avail, so CRT had been called out. As it was a Sunday the probability of release before the next morning was slim, so Bob and Mandy had resigned themselves to a night in captivity. They’d invited us over for dinner and a game of something, and we couldn’t see any reason why that couldn’t still go ahead. Quite surprisingly, at 7pm a CRT van turned up and a very nice engineer rummaged about in the control box for a while. After the initial excitement, nothing seemed to be making any difference and we’d all given up hope of freedom again, when suddenly there was a whir of motors and, to a round of applause from the gathered boaters, the guillotine rose majestically from the depths.  The engineer stayed until all the boats had worked their way through, and told us that he’d be back in the morning to affect a proper repair and would help us through.

In the morning we pushed over to the lock landing so that we’d be ready when he arrived and found that the lock was working normally. Either he’d fixed it the night before, or it had re-set itself, whichever, we were through and off down the Witham before 9am in the morning drizzle. Because of the profile of the river, and the density of the vegetation on the banks, there is hardly anywhere where bankside mooring is possible. However, this really isn’t a problem as there are several very nice floating pontoons for 48hr visitor mooring. On the trip from Lincoln to Boston we moored on the pontoons at Bardney Village, Kirkstead Bridge, Tattershall Bridge and Langrick Bridge. There’s easy parking close to all of these places and we employed the cycle way to go back for the car, enabling us to go out visiting some of our old friends from when we used to live in this neck of the woods.

Here's a selection of photos from our trip.

The weed got really thick at Bardney Lock.

Under the disused railway bridge that now carries the Water Rail Way.

Moored up on the pontoon at Bardney village.

Some of the many eateries in lovely Woodhall Spa.

The famous Tea House in the Woods in Woodhall.

Woodhall Spa Clock Tower.


All that remains of the once huge Kirkstead Abbey.

Even as a ruin the masonry is breathtaking.


Nice and snug on the Tattershall Bridge moorings.

Tattershall Alms Houses.

The magnificent Tattershall Castle. (NT)

Inside Tatteshall Castle.



The view from the roof.

Approaching Langrick Bridge

The fabulous "Just one More" bicycle and coffee shop in Horncastle, with added puppies!

The site of the Northern Basin at the end of the Horncastle Canal.

Looking down the Horncastle Canal.

Arriving as tourist meant we got to see and do things we never thought of when we lived here. We visited Woodhall Spa, Horncastle, Tattershall Castle and Kirkstead Abbey, before finally arriving in Boston with the majestic St Botolph’s church, locally known as “Boston Stump” towering up at the end of the waterway. 

Pulling away from Langrick Bridge pontoon for another push through the weed.

You don't leave a trace when it gets this thick.

A clear bit of water makes a nice change.

Finally "The Stump" comes into view.

This is what a good day looks like.

Boston used to be one of our local shopping towns, we knew there was a river running through it, but we’d never been to look at it. The Grand Sluice was, and still is, vital to the local community and landscape. Before 1766 the River Witham was tidal for many miles inland, probably as far as Lincoln, and would regularly flood the surrounding fenland. Stopping the tide in Boston and controlling the river drained and reclaimed 11,000 acres of highly fertile farmland which, along with Vermuyden’s  Lower, Middle and Upper Levels, completed a hundred years earlier in the south of the county, lead to Lincolnshire becoming the Vegetable Garden of England that it still is today. The port of Boston flourished, with a rapid increase in trade and wealth, and many grand houses, warehouses and wharves can still be seen along the river bank. The Grand Sluice still lives up to its name; stoically carrying out its vital duties and keeping Lincolnshire out of the sea, while the thousands of people who cross over it in their cars every day only notice the rush hour bottleneck at the traffic lights.

Here's a few more photos from this trip.

Stamp End, Lincoln.


Before the ring road and the new by-pass, the A15 used to go right through Lincoln. Dave used to regularly drive a 38 tonne artic up this hill on his way to Immingham docks 


Having a Coffee at Stokes Café above the Glory Hole

Some more of the sculptures on the Water Rail Way. These two are made from wood.

Legend moored in the soup at Tattershall Bridge.

The other end of the Horncastle Canal where it joins the River Whitham at Dog Dyke.

The end of Kyme Eau, which eventually becomes the River Slea and goes to Sleaford. It is navigable about half way and there is a plan for full restoration 

So much duck weed. Millions upon millions of little tiny individual plants make up this soup.

The lock gates at Anton's Gout that lead to a huge waterway system north of Boston known as the Witham Navigable Drains. They are really only navigable in the spring before the weed takes over, and even then they are very shallow with limited head room and few places to turn. We reluctantly gave them a miss this trip.

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