“See you at The Festival…”

St Neots to Bedford: 13¾ miles, 6 locks

The last stretch of the 383-mile Poynton (north Cheshire) to Priory Marina (Bedford) boat trip lay ahead – first though, take on water…

If you ever run out of water on a boat it’s highly inconvenient, so it’s best to be sure….

Some years ago, while in Gloucester, the Cleddau crew watched an enraged hotel boat skipper rev his boat across the Gloucester Dock, infuriated that his guests not only all expected full showers before 8am, but mid-ablutions they had drained the boat’s water tank dry. His schedule hadn’t been planned around a pre-breakfast water tank refill but around an early  morning passage through Gloucester Lock…

So, at St Neots, Cleddau with her water tank un-replenished in four days, was headed across to the tap on the Priory Centre pontoon. There was a space between two cruisers at one end and a broad beam boat at the other. And right in the middle of the pontoon space was a young man fishing,    his bicycle lying down, right where any boat crew would need to disembark with a boat’s bow rope.

The cruisers at the Town Bridge end had both had Environment Agency overstay notices pasted onto their windows     (one since April, one since May). The broad beam vessel (whose occupant had run a diesel generator at 11pm on two successive nights) looked as if it had been there for quite some time.     48-hour moorings, eh?    With the bow end on the pontoon and the stern overlapping the broad beam by some 12 feet Operation Water Refill could begin.

“Didn’t know there was a tap there,” the fisherman muttered, adding later on, “I always fish here (between the wall and the pontoon) cos that’s where I catch the pike.”

The water tap at Marple is often credited as the “slowest on the system” – but this one at St Neots must be a close rival for that accolade!

50 minutes later the tank was full, and the onward journey could proceed.

Out of St Neots, past lots of riverside parkland and on past a caravan site, to Eaton Socon Mill and Lock. This is a D-shaped lock with windlass operated Vee gates at the lower end and a guillotine electrically operated gate at the upper end. Local walkers (“We’re boaters”) begged a windlass to help wind the lower gate slackers. There was an unnerving moment or two at the electrical panel at the top end – where a team of metalworkers / scaffolders began to dismantle their Meccano-like construction. “Do I need a hard hat?” Boatwif ventured as a hefty platform was heaved overhead by an equally hefty-looking chap. Meanwhile over at the power box the job was being recorded as complete. And the job? Mounting safety rails and a walkway above the guillotine.

“See you at the Festival,” said the kindly windlass wielders as they continued their walk.

Just beyond the lock Watt-Way was moored. It’s a new electric boat, whose owner had been in several conversations while moored alongside on the Meadows at St Neots.  “See you at Bedford,” she called.

There’s a new(ish) estate after Eaton Socon – and then Wyboston with its pristine golf course and large leisure lake.

The river weaves onwards, south, beyond and out of sight of the Black Cat roundabout, either loved or loathed by regular A1 users. The river feels remote even from a hamlet or village. Then there’s a cluttered view ahead, Kelpie’s Boatyard, the A1 bridges, a road sign with some familiar names.

The river heads west now   (that former ship’s lifeboat was here in 2018, wasn’t it?)  and onward to Roxton Lock. It’s a relief to reach a lock of familiar operating style, size and shape, gates needing windlass winding at both ends. There is one extra feature though, chains that are easily attached to hold the gates either open or closed.

Onward through quiet hidden countryside, with just one house passed, onward to Great Barford.

From Great Barford Lock the Captain could see a boat heading downstream under the 17 arch bridge. Would it be proceeding to the lock – or mooring up?  From a distance it could be seen mooring by the slipway, right where it had been hoped to moor Cleddau. Then, in a mind change, it was pulled back to the water point, (to fill up and soon depart) and Cleddau settled in comfortably for the last two nights of her journey to Bedford.

Folk of all ages come down to the river at Great Barford – to swim, to let their dogs swim, to pump up inflatable craft and paddleboards, to sit, to talk… It was no surprise then to hear again (this time from the owners of the doggy-paddling labradors) “See you at the River Festival then…”

On the second evening, prompt at six o’clock, some members of the adult swimming group were back – and just as on the previous evening they plunged in and disappeared upstream under the bridge arches, to return 45 minutes later.

These were serious all weather, all year-round, long-distance swimmers, it transpired, training for a weekend event.

And the event? To swim Coniston Water in the Lake District…

The Academic was on board one evening at Great Barford. “I’ll bring the honey and the coffee I got for you while I was in Zambia,” she had said. And she did.

There was a wait before leaving on Thursday (morning swimmers coming through the archway)  and then Cleddau set out on her final day’s travel, past the mill race EA mooring behind the old lock and onwards the mile or so to Willington Lock. Often the target of a winter stroll, this is a very familiar location. But were the bottom end gates always this heavy to shift? Was the chamber (or local word “pen”) really this deep when empty?

One lock down, two to go – but first there was time for a pause at Danish Camp, for coffees and cake, a one-sided conversation with Ozzie the owl and a quick chat with owners Gail and Roy before again hearing “See you at the River Festival”….

The river weaves on, narrow for a while, past some riverside dwellings, under the Castle Mills Viaduct to reach Castle Mills Lock (constructed in 1990).

It’s a lock that commands respect – very deep, very long, though not wide enough for two boats side by side. The slackers are operated from a pair of pillars midway along the lock, the operator needing to stand on a metal grating through which the noise of the water exiting or entering the pen (chamber) is thunderously loud!

Above the lock there are glimpses of the outskirts of the town (Bedford’s population recorded as 173,000 in 2019). Then after just another twisty mile Cardington Lock is reached (heavy bottom gates, guillotine upper gate).   

There’s a sharp right after Cardington Lock. The last stretch  passing The Barns Hotel (has it reopened now as The Kingfisher?) and past Priory Country Park is much wider than in the previous few miles.

Journey’s end came suddenly: the boat was turned right into Priory Marina. How long have there been pontoon lodges here…?

“Go over to the linear mooring,” was the phone instruction – and so while the Captain went off to sort out the reserved pontoon Cleddau was bow to bow with The John Bunyan, the community boat that had delivered friends and family to a party some five years ago

So there Cleddau rests now, after 383 miles, 193 locks, 4 tunnels (and the cow on the towpath), taking a breather before Bedford River Festival on July 23rd and 24th.

Hopefully some of the gongoozlers and well wishers, boaters and friends, neighbours and acquaintances will make their way down to the Embankment for the Bedford River Festival later this month – see you there!

Trip stats since leaving Victoria Pit: 383 miles, 193 locks, 6 swing bridges, 4 tunnels and 1 cow

Height drop from the Macclesfield summit: 416 feet

Height rise since Trent Lock:  311¾ feet

Height drop from GU Leicester summit: 371¾ feet (4ft below sea level)

Height rise since Middle Levels minimum: 82¾ feet

 Queries about the Tudor rose: now 10

 2022 Monkton Moments*- 4

(Monkton Moment*- a reference to / recognition of Cleddau’s Pembrokeshire connections)

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