Monthly Archives: August 2015

A Wet Bank Holiday in Ely – How Much?

Now urgently needing to do some washing, and hence needing a shore line, on Saturday afternoon we’d approached Cathedral Marina on the Ely waterfront with a view to temporary moorings plus a hook-up for a couple of nights, starting on the Sunday. Most marinas, and even home counties Thames locks charge about £10 a night for the privilege, even if Pyrford Marina, the nearest marina to the Captain’s home rips you off for nearly twice that. The Cathedral Marina boss said “Sure, no problem”, but fortunately we asked the price before agreeing to anything. When he said “£30 a night” we said “HOW MUCH???”, to which he replied “Well, this is  Ely”. With nowhere else around nearer than several days cruising, we decided we could do all we needed to do in 24 hours, and with a wet weekend forecast reckoned we’d probably find somewhere back out on the waterfront on the Bank Holiday Monday.

As expected for August Bank Holiday, Sunday dawned wet and miserable, and we pootled back down the river for a couple of hundred yards and were shown into a slot in the marina. A 40ft pontoon for a 58ft boat is hardly ideal, and listening to our grumbling about the cost, the boss’ sidekick took our credit card, put his finger to his lips, said “Shhhh…” and seemingly charged the card “only” £20. Hope he doesn’t get into trouble. Strangely, the marina’s annual mooring charges aren’t nearly so outrageous, given its position pretty much in the middle of a lovely city.

It poured with rain all Sunday. but while the washing machine was whirring away we managed a trip to the cook’s favourite emporium for supplies, and – bringing back memories of the first mate’s choral singing childhood – went to sung Evensong in the cathedral. The huge building is just astonishing, the acoustics just wonderful. The choir weren’t quite up to the professional bunch we saw at Peterborough, but more than up to the task. And suitably uplifted, we went back out into the pouring rain, and a boat load of wet washing.

Bank Holiday Monday dawned just as dull and wet, and we were kind of glad we weren’t camping at  Towersey or Shrewsbury Folk Festivals for the weekend. Finishing off the chores and stuff, just before lunch we left the marina, and unsurprisingly did indeed find a perfect mooring just outside the marina entrance. Where had all the fair-weather boaters gone – the whole Ely waterfront was pretty well deserted.

The afternoon was spent wandering around what appeared from the outside to be an smallish antique shop in an old building just 100 yards from the boat. However, it proved to be the Antique Road Show equivalent of Dr Who’s Tardis, with over 70 dealers stalls spread over three floors. Total sensory overload, dozens of visitors, it was all too much to take in.

Even in the evening, when the weather had improved a bit, there was no-one around, and the waterfront restaurants were pretty empty, so we had no trouble finding somewhere to eat. Think everyone had given up on the Bank Holiday somewhat earlier.

A Damp Saturday Afternoon in Ely

Suitably moored, fed and watered, we thought we’d take a wander up the hill and see the cathedral area, even though it was clouding up, and rain was forecast.

Ely Cathedral from Cathedral ParkEly Cathedral from Cathedral Park

Approaching through the park, the cathedral really is impressive, perched on top the hill. Bit like Guildford Cathedral, but clearly not built by Wimpey Homes…

Ely Cathedral BuildingsOctagon, Ely Cathedral

Cathedral Rose Garden

Surrounded by other impressive buildings, the chief cook was upset that she wasn’t tall enough to see over the wall and across the (private) rose garden.

You may kiss the BrideBride & Groom

Brides Men & Brides Maidens they made a fine show...

We stumbled across a wedding party sneaking out the side door: they all looked very happy, but SWMBO was not totally convinced by the Bridesmaids’ dresses, even less so by the (two) Maids of Honours’ dresses, which aren’t really in the picture. Probably a good thing.

Ely CathedralBoom!

In keeping with its “Ship of the Fens” image, there seemed to be a cannon to repel boarders, as well as plenty of canons, rural deans and the like.

Cathedral EnvironsCathedral Environs

Oliver Cromwell's House

Oliver Cromwell’s house is now the Tourist Information Centre.

And as the Bank Holiday rain started in earnest, we headed back down the hill to Sir and dinner.

Ely, Ely, why hast thou…

8 o’clock the lockkeeper said, for our transit up a tidal bit of the River Great Ouse and through Denver Sluice onto the non-tidal section. So although we appeared to be number three in the queue, we were up at OMG o’clock and ready for duty at 07:45. No sign of the lockkeeper, though.

Salter's Lode Junction

At 8 o’clock an old hand at this tidal transit lark peered over the wall, and said that the tidal river was still very high, too high to get under the sluice guillotine and bridges, and reckoned it would be nearer 08:45 before anyone could venture through.

 Salter's Lode Lock/SluiceSalter's Lode Lock/Sluice

Sure enough, about 20 minutes later Paul the lockkeeper appeared, and started marshalling everyone together: there were four of us going up, and some coming down from Denver. As a newbie, Paul suggested that yours truly help him lock number one through as a training exercise, with running commentary and plenty of hints on handling the boat on the river while the tide was flowing out pretty fast. Helpful and most welcome.

The lock has to cope with the river being higher and lower than the Middle Levels, so it has two sets of gates at the end of the chamber, one set pointing up and one set pointing downstream. Locking up, the chamber is barely 58ft long: a tight squeeze for us. At certain times, when the Great Ouse and Well Creek are the same level, they can open everything and just let everyone sail straight through (for a short time)!

In the end, it all happened very quickly. Exiting Salter’s Lode lock we managed – without too much drama – the nearly 180° turn into the river doing its best to take us sideways to King’s Lynn, poured on the power, and barely 5 minutes / a few hundred yards later we branched off the fast flowing tide into the cavernous safe haven of the Denver Sluice lock, which was already open waiting for us. No time for cameras!

 River Great Ouse

With all the excitement over, the journey down to Ely was utterly undramatic. Nice weather, big wide river, high banks, long straight stretches and little to see, although we were encouraged to spot a number of suitably pleasant mooring spaces for possible use on the way back. The village next to the 10 mile bank appeared to be called 10 Mile Bank. Can’t think why.

Ely WatersideEly Waterside

Ely is seemingly a waterways honey-pot, so turning up on a sunny bank holiday Saturday lunchtime was probably ill advised, but our grasp of days of the week and the calendar has become rather vague…

Ely waterside gardens and town quay were mobbed, with boats and people, but our luck held, and we eventually located somewhere just under the railway bridge in the picture, with rather more suitable facilities for the Captain. Cheesy chips and decent Guinness at the quayside pub for a slightly late lunch – all was well with the world.

We’re Norfolk and Good

At Salter’s Lode, we were firmly in Norfolk. And it occurred to us that since we left the canal system, and ventured into territory where Tupperware cruisers outnumber the narrowboats, we slowly realised that boat names had become rather bland, and un-noteworthy. The realisation started somewhere around Northampton, probably in reaction to the splendid purveyor of comfy furniture opposite Biggles’ vet called Sofa King, who proudly advertise “You won’t believe our prices – they’re Sofa King low…”

Anyway, having been vaguely collecting some more interesting boat names in our travels, it’s probably time for a round up.

Down on the Basingstoke Canal there was a small narrowboat painted a peculiarly bilious shade of green called The Marrow Boat for which the owner should be shot, and (positively the last one) on the River Thames, not far from Shepperton lock we saw That Wey. Entering the lock as we came out was a rather fine Piper Dutch Barge Nice Butt… which looked way nicer than a rather squat and very wide-beamed barge in Berkhamstead aptly named Fat Bottomed Girl.

In the “rolls off the tongue” category were Not a Scooby, the unrelated Ruby Doo and Oy You Lindy Loo,  while Empty Wallet wins the “patently obvious” category.

There’s been a fair sprinkling of alcohol related shenanigans, including a cruiser making a stand at all the rag dolls decorating narrowboat windows, named Rosé and Gin. Raised a smile but didn’t appeal to the taste buds. Also spotted were Gin and Bare It, WineDown, the ever hopeful Whisky Me Away, and Grand Cru.

Meanwhile, we weren’t sure whether Malingra was an exotic island destination, a misspelt admission or just wishful thinking, while the prize for impenetrability is currently held by Minimal Seedling.

Narrow WatersNarrow Waters

And while Narrow Waters’  name doesn’t really stick in the mind, it wins the prize for the most totally OTT cratch cover and pram hood hands down, seen here near Upwell & Outwell. Normal for Norfolk, one suspects…

Well, Well, Well… to Salter’s Lode We Go

To get to Ely the normal procedure is to join the River Great Ouse at Salter’s Lode, where the river is tidal (and how!), then travel upstream for about a third of a mile to Denver Sluice, part of a major flood defence, whereupon the river becomes non-tidal again. But one can only get through Salter’s Lode Lock/Sluice for short period after high tide. As two high tides roughly twelve hours apart rarely fall into the same working day for the lockkeeper, one is rather restricted in passing through. “0800 to 0830” said the lockkeeper, so it was clear that if we wanted to get through in Saturday morning we’d have to get to Salter’s Lode on Friday night.

There are quite a few ways through the mysterious and multifarious Middle Levels, some more navigable than others but we’d bravely decided to follow the recommended route. This takes us through Upwell & Outwell, seemingly once a single riverside village that underwent binary fission sometime in the long distant past, and then grew back together more recently: you can’t really see the join.

Nene - Ouse RouteNene - Ouse Route

Setting out from March, on wide and straight water, with mainly high banks again, the most obvious crops were wind turbines and big sky, and no other visible boaters.

Approaching Marmont Priory Lock, which we had expected to be manned (or more specifically womanned), we found a day-hire narrowboat out of March that was just starting to tackle the lock with staggering quantities of enthusiasm, energy, and ignorance. We managed, just in time, to stop them opening all the paddles (sorry, penstocks) and draining all the water out of Well Creek: good job we arrived when we did. Before we’d got them sorted out, another utterly unprepared day boat from the same outfit turned up, and had to breast up to Song & Dance because the lock landing only has room for 1 short boat. Biggles had taken umbrage at these strangers traipsing over the back of his boat, had gone ashore, and was heading at some rate of knots down the road to Norfolk. The second day boat crew at least admitted they hadn’t a clue. So we by the time we’d sorted out all that, (6 penstocks all needing 60+ winds to operate) and retrieved the Captain, lunch in Upwell & Outwell looked good… and fortunately the good burghers of Outwell & Upwell had put in some excellent moorings (or staithes, as they call them hereabouts). Splendid café right next to the church, where an interesting array of people in their finery were assembling for a wedding. The bride was late, by the looks of it, so we missed that bit.



All of which meant it was rather late in the afternoon when we finally made Salter’s Lode; fortunately there was room for us on the moorings, and we seemed to be number three in the queue going through the lock. Another long day.

Salter's Lode

Route March to March

Well, we made our 9:30 Thursday morning appointment at Stanground Lock, where Tina the Lockkeeper sold us a facilities key (the third one in our rapidly growing collection) and a special windlass, ‘cos their locks aren’t like anyone else’s either…

Stanground LockStanground Lock and Tina

Although the level change wasn’t much, the gloomy pen and huge industrial grade chains made the lock seem somewhat intimidating. Once off into the levels, it was clear we were in a different world.

Middle Levels: en route to March

Long, dead straight drains  or artificial rivers with high reed covered banks meant there was little to see except a big sky. We thought we might stop over for lunch in Whittlesey/Whittlesea of Straw Bear fame but the only mooring was occupied and somewhat far from town. Passing through the only self-operated lock we were likely meet, it was clear they were one of the most tedious on the system. 60 turns to raise or drop a paddle (or penstock, they call it hereabouts). And there are four on the lock. Both muscle and character building.

And on we went, and on, with nowhere to park, watching the boys in blue make a lot of noise overhead, and eventually made it to March, about 5 hours out from Peterborough – a long day for us.

March Visitor MooringMarch Visitor Mooring

The March mooring we found was well received by Sir, the shops were close, the Guinness was about £1.00 a pint cheaper than anywhere else so far this trip, and the nearest pub cooked superb steaks at about half the price of darn-sarf. Result.

March Baptist Church

Mind you, if the local Baptists admit to getting lit up at night, it probably has more to do with electricity than cheap beer…

Uplifted in Peterborough

Wednesday Morning 9am (as Simon and Garfunkel would have sung if they’d had a bit of a lie-in or any sense), and a drizzly Peterborough didn’t bode well, but we’d had a look round the exceeding large Cathedral the day before, and noticed they had a free lunchtime recital from a professional singers ensemble/choir. That and a late snack lunch somewhere sounded like a plan.

The 12 singers were excellent (including a splendid counter-tenor), the acoustics wonderful, and the music splendidly uplifting. Whatever your flavour of deity (or not), they certainly do seem to have some of the best tunes.

And after a late lunch (or even later breakfast) of a short stack of buttermilk pancakes with bacon and maple syrup we were so uplifted that the sun came out.

The central bit of Peterborough has a peculiarly continental feel to it, with the Guildhall and large Parish Church at one end of a large square , and the huge Cathedral at the other end. With programmed water jets to give kids something to run around, and a wide mix of architectural styles surrounding it, it’s not a bad place to watch the world go by in the sunshine.

Peterborough Guild HallPeterborough Guild Hall

Market SquareGuildhall

Peterborough Market SquarePeterborough CathedralPeterborough Cathedral

Peterborough Parish Church

An early night beckoned: we’d booked a 9:30am passage through Stanground Lock taking us off the Nene, down onto the mysterious Middle Levels, a mix of ancient and new rivers, drains, ditches and God Wot else that cover darkest Fenland, and (hopefully) provide a navigable passage across to the River Ouse and Ely. We may be some time…