Downstream to Pope’s Corner

The return journey from Bedford to Cheshire has started. The route has been covered twice before of course, in 2010  and in 2014 . From Bedford to Denver Sluice it would be downstream all the way. However often you travel the same waterway no cruise is ever the same as the ones that have gone before: lock companions change, water levels change, waterway surroundings change…

The first couple of miles from Priory Marina (Wednesday 18th July) took an inordinately long time. “Can I come in too?” called a single-handed cruiser at Cardington Lock.  A mile or so further on at the huge Castle Mill Lock     there was chance to check the vista to the south – yes, the Cardington Sheds are still there! 

The low water levels at the wide weir beside the lock show staining on the concrete from the more usual level of water flow.

Cruising on past Danish Camp it was good to see that the outdoor bar is now up and running.    “Queues at the counter are our greatest problem,” owner Gail had explained just a month before.  In this hot summer the demand for drinks will surely be brisk… May the business continue to flourish.

Next was Willington Lock…

Onwards, the route still very familiar.   But where was the expected fleet of boats at Great Barford? Just one boat was moored at the village green, none on the meadow.  

The locks continued with Great Barford Lock and then Roxton Lock…

Just below Roxton Lock is the confluence with the little River Ivel.  A surge of water as Cleddau left the lock revealed the silted sandbar at the Ivel’s mouth. 

One more lock on Wednesday, Eaton Socon Lock….

At St Neots the Cleddau and Tentatrice crews were reunited. It was here, readers might remember, on a June Saturday, that Boatwif had come across the St Neots Day of Dance ,

Thursday started with Paper Mill Lock.  As ever Boat Dog Monty continued to supervise each lock passage…

Offord Lock – and here was a jumble of boats…  and queues both above and below the lock.

Onward, Destination Godmanchester needed to be reached on Thursday for a rather special treat. First though came a ‘River Closed’ situation.      Orange buoys connected by a line were strung across the river just north of Buckden Marina. The new southern sweep of the A14 is coming on apace.  There were workers high up in a cherry picker cradle – were they just having an aerial lunch…?     Within a few minutes a manned motor boat was used to haul the buoys out of the way.  

A second surprise came just minutes later. A steam driven whistle and a puff of smoke indicated a boat already in Brampton Lock, a rather good-looking home-built steam launch. 

Moored up in Godmanchester final treat arrangements were tweaked: Godmanchester Friend 1 was providing transport, picnic and tickets for a Cambridge Shakespeare Festival performance  of ‘A Merchant of Venice’ at Downing College.   The plays (eight in each Festival season) are performed outdoors in glorious college gardens. What could be more delightful than a civilised picnic to precede an evening’s fine entertainment?Theatrical trickery there was not, just the natural backdrop of a mature tree and a usefully large bush, the stage area being simply illuminated after the interval. A plain bench was the sole piece of stage furniture. With few other personal props being deployed Shylock’s weights and weighing scales reinforced the harsh cruelty of his intention to exact his pound of flesh. Though there was much audience mirth the serious themes were very apparent. What a grand way it was to spend a summer evening – many thanks, Nan.


Onward downstream on Friday, the locks now very familiar: Godmanchester   Houghton Hemingford  This was a First at Hemingford Lock when three coloured balls coming downstream turned out to be swimming capped heads. “Are there steps in there?” called the male swimmer. “Could we come in with you…” Up the three swam before climbing out at Cleddau’s stern.    Questioned (of course!) the following was elicited: the trio had swum from Houghton Mill and were to be met by one female’s husband at St Ives, a distance of some 3 miles. “Do you do this often?” Boatwif asked (such a tame question). “Yes,” came the reply, “between April and September…”

St Ives next.    This once familiar town still has some revelations: who would have guessed that in the mill over there in 1972   Clive Sinclair invented the pocket calculator.  

You’d think that given the prominence of the Oliver Cromwell statue in the middle of the town he was a resoundingly popular bloke in these parts:   not so apparently…   Yet the Scout Hut on Holt Island (right beside St Ives) refers to Cromwell District HQ. 

There’s a small museum in St Ives, the Norris Museum, so named after a locally born Huntingdonshire man, Herbert Norris. Like many Victorian gentlemen he loved collecting artefacts and curiosities.   Among the many interesting displays is the history and practice of fen skating in these parts.       Video footage of the 1963 winter is particularly interesting.

On summer Sunday afternoons visiting bands play on the small square outside the Norris Museum.  An appreciative audience lapped up the varied programme of light classical and film score music.   The interval break was declared an Ice-cream Break – and the ice-cream seller whose van was cunningly parked nearby did phenomenally brisk business!

These days St Ives recognises and celebrates its watery location: here’s a sign seen from the river    and a wall painting on the Town Quay.   On Sunday afternoon Scouts,    a paddle boarder and several cruisers were afloat.     By evening the quay was bathed in a rosy sunset.  

Other memories of two nights spent at St Ives: a vast Monday market that fills the main street and spills over into the (air-conditioned) Corn Exchange           – and the Captain’s catch, a retrieval from the murky depths of a boat-unfriendly traffic cone…   

St Ives Lock.”We’re novices. We need to do it slowly.” It was very slow in the Monday midday heat, the water levels finally balancing before the novice crew had even wound the paddle up to maximum…  

Onwards, away from St Ives. Heat blazed, cows vied for tree shade, 

locals swam.    At last came Brownshills Staunch Lock, a stark site, between Holywell and Earith, industrial in appearance. The conveyors across the weir can be a distraction to the navigator.   Great care was taken here, the crew mindful of a horror story relayed about this lock. Down Cleddau went, onto low tidal waters, with just a couple of miles past Earith (and its Dutch lookalike gables)    to Hermitage Lock. Six weeks ago water levels were high in these parts, now they were lower than usual. There was a green light at Hermitage Lock,“Come on in,” indicated the lockkeeper. “With water levels low we’re encouraging boats to share.” It wasn’t exactly easy squishing into the lock (“penstock” in these parts) behind a broad cruiser. When Cleddau’s bow rope was attached to the riser there was a sharp call from the cruiser skipper: “Mind my dinghy!” and one pointy end of his dinghy was caught behind Cleddau’s tunnel light…   

It wasn’t a long drop down onto the Old West River, the waterway that stretches for 11½ miles to Pope’s Corner. There had been several conversations with boaters at St Ives, all in the same vein: “You been down the Old West?”

“You’re not going on the Old West, are you…”

“It’s terrible on the Old West…”

Weed is the problem on the Old West, bright green duckweed. It forms a sort of thick sludge across the water’s surface.   There was plenty of the stuff to contend with. Periodically the Captain put the throttle into reverse to try to kick the weed and debris off the propeller. “This is like pushing a car in first gear up a very steep hill,” was the Captain’s summary…

The Old West is remote, the river map largely devoid of features and the stone supports are all that remain of the Aldreth Flat Bridge.  Onward slowly,very slowly, just a gentle breeze whispering through the dark reeds.

A flood embankment behind the overnight mooring at Aldreth High Bridge had to be climbed before darkness fell. Beyond are the flat parched fields and straight lines of fen country.  Back on the river a swan family trod water by the bow, curious – or maybe just optimistic about some human generated crumbs.  

With temperatures rocketing Cleddau crept away early next morning from the other sleeping boats. The sky was cloudless, the green carpet even more dense.   From under the stern deck umbrella sunshade thirsty cattle and tousled horses         could be seen drinking from the river. Flood banks, skeletal boats,   adapted boats,    the Stretham Old Engine     … then the  weed cleared a mile or so before the wide space of Pope’s Corner. Here, beyond the moored boats    are direction signs: 

One hoot to indicate a right hand turn and two hoots for a left. One hoot – and on Tuesday morning Cleddau turned onto brand new waters, heading south this time, up the River Cam to Cambridge.

Next time, to Cambridge, by boat

Distance and locks: Priory Marina (Bedford) to Pope’s Corner: 48⅔ miles, 15 locks

Distance and locks since leaving Aqueduct Marina, near Nantwich: 401½ miles, 125 locks








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