The River Nene, River Great Ouse & The Fens
The heavily locked Northampton Arm leaves the Grand Union Canal mainline at Gayton Junction and joins the River Nene in the centre of Northampton.
The River Nene then takes a twisting course to Peterborough through pleasant rural surroundings and then becomes tidal as it crosses the flat Fenlands on its way to the sea. However it is possible to turn away from the difficult tidal stretch and enter the Middle Levels which open up hundreds of miles of peaceful waterways.
The Nene originally joined the Great Ouse to flow together into the Wash, but the course of the Great Ouse was moved in the twelfth century to a more easterly outlet near King's Lynn. Nature, and then man from the Romans onward, have been continually altering watercourses of this large area of marshes between and around the rivers, frequently flooded by the North Sea, to farm the rich soils.
The River Great Ouse flows over 70 miles from Bedford out into the Wash, linking to the River Cam coming down from Cambridge and a series of other navigable rivers along its way.
The Middle Levels are a network of rivers, manmade drainage ditches and sluices intended to drain the low lying area between Peterborough and the cathedral city of Ely. However they also offer a navigable route between the River Nene and the fenland rivers.
The Dutch engineer Vermuyden created many of them when he drained the Fens in the 17th century. One of them, the Old Bedford Level, runs dead straight for 20 miles and was the location for a series of experiments in the 19th and early 20th centuries to prove, or disprove that the Earth was round. Posts were erected along a six mile length and viewed through a telescope to see if the curvature of the earth could be seen. Unfortunately both sides originally claimed victory! In 1905 a Lady Blount tried to settle the matter by hanging a sheet from a bridge so its bottom nearly touched the water. A camera with telescopic lens was used to take a photograph along the surface of the water from six miles away. If the Earth was curved the bottom of the sheet should not have been visible. The photographs clearly showed the bottom of the sheet! So perhaps the Earth is flat!
The main concern of these rivers and drains is water control. Many are managed by the Environment Agency. A EA licence is not required to cruise the middle middle level navigations between the Nene and the Great Ouse. The drains are run by the Middle Level Commissioners. A key for the sanitation station at March can bought from the locks at Peterborough and their offices in March. An additional licence may be required by BW licensed boats to cruise other waterways.
The East Anglian Waterways offer an unique and beautiful cruising area, scattered with interesting villages and market towns but often just land and sky and utter solitude! Cruising is on the increase, more facilities are being installed and an ambitious scheme is already underway to link Lincolnshire and the River Witham with Cambridgeshire and the River Great Ouse. The 'Fens Waterway Link' will comprise some 50 miles of new waterways and connect the cathedral cities of Lincoln, Peterborough and Ely with the market towns of Boston, Spalding, Crowland and Ramsey. For more details see www.fenswaterways.com.