The Drains, the Great Ouse and the would-be record breakers…

March – Salter’s Lode – Denver – Brandon Creek: 36½ miles, 2 locks

Cleddau left March on Tuesday morning, ahead of the weed killer boat that had been lurking under the bridge, its crew ready to spray…. 

Out past old cottages, new infills, pretty river frontage gardens, out past kayaks on stands    and garden sheds, out past new townhouses    and a long hedge being carefully trimmed.

In scenery that was predominantly green, white and blue occasional red poppies     on the river banks provided sharp pinpoints of contrast.

In an empty landscape any structure in the distance generates interest, even if it’s only hay bales…

Just how many wind turbines are there here in the Fens?    From the boat Boatwif counted 24,   but a quick Google suggests that there are 35  (Cambs Times, updated October 2020).

There’s a left fork that takes the channel between high banks towards Marmont Priory Lock. Progress was slow, across a dark green mat     (“The weed cutter was down here yesterday,” said a very helpful continuous moorer who pitched up to explain the finer points of passage through the lock.)

Onwards then, past bunting drying on a washing line,    the waterway parallel to Town Street in Upwell. There was the church, with a strip of mooring below. 

“Didn’t there used to be a tap here somewhere…?”

Yes, but a vegetation comb was needed to find it…

Upwell villagers have worked hard to create planting beside the pontoon, but perhaps the use of some shears might be a good thing now!

Without fuss or fanfare Upwell becomes Outwell, Upwell being in Cambridgeshire but Outwell is in Norfolk. There must be a county boundary hereabouts then…

Not long after Outwell the channel crosses the Middle Level Main Drain.  The last few miles to Salter’s Lode can often be a boating struggle as the propeller struggles through the shallow water and the mud. Was this section of Well Creek mildly easier than on previous occasions?

The Creek passes through Nordelph     – it’s easy to get distracted by the village sign and the remodelled windmill.     Was it a dog – no, a bear, catching fish from a village pontoon? 

Tractors roared past – they can go far faster than boats on this sludgy water…

Then there was a sign, Salter’s Lode, almost obscured by the overgrown grass.  It’s a tiny hamlet, Salter’s Lode, part of the parish of Downham West in Norfolk, but a very significant location for boaters.

From this lock here (onto the tidal River Ouse) you can access that lock there,     Denver Sluice, onto the navigable Great Ouse  (but only when the tide is right…)

‘Time and tide wait for no man’ – but sometimes man has to wait for the tide… 

”It’ll be a neap tide,” the Salter’s Lode lock keeper had warned in a phone conversation, “there might not be much water…”

On Wednesday was the tide coming in up the Great Ouse from King’s Lynn?

Just before 1pm the duty lock keeper announced: “You can go now, you’ll be on level water.” This was no normal lock operation. 

Into the lock, along with masses of weed.   The gate to the river was lifted.


The water level wasn’t very high against the channel marker fence – “Go now,” urged the lock keeper. “You’ve only got minutes…”

Out went Cleddau, right across the river, to get the upstream turn and to avoid the silt bank. The muddy bank opposite looked ominously close.  The engine was put into reverse – a sort of three point turn against an outgoing tide. Slowly the bow came round, was pointed upstream and driven hard towards Denver Lock.    There was barely time to observe the new floating pontoon below the lock…    but what relief to be inside the Denver Lock chamber   and then safely delivered onto the tamed Great Ouse…

The river above Denver Lock is wide and open. There’s a sailing club and cruisers moored alongside the eastern bank. Onwards, in brisk winds, observing a familiar church    and unfamiliar new housing. 

Just after Hilgay Bridge a mooring hove into view, empty of boats, although something, was it a pillow, no, a seal, was comfortably lounging on the grass on the far end.

What an afternoon’s entertainment the seal provided! Yawning,    stretching,  lolling,  rolling,  sniffing, watching,   swimming, flipping, wriggling, smiling!

At some point early evening it left, to fish, presumably, for its supper…

There are several navigable tributaries that feed into the Great Ouse. Coming from the Denver direction Cleddau took a left fork onto Brandon Creek (the Little Ouse). .. 

There was a fill up with fuel before continuing the next 14 miles or so to Brandon. Though recorded before some sights demand camera attention again…

It’s a naturalist’s heaven, this route, the river weaving between high embankments, through fenland and tree plantations, past meres and reed beds. There were herons, bitterns, marsh harriers, terns, cuckoos, swans, magpies – and a lot grazing cattle.   Twitchers bearing huge cameras were focusing their lenses on the bird life, although perhaps a moving boat on the river was a rarer sight.

What could be remembered after the one previous visit to Brandon four years ago?  The 40 foot lock prevents further navigation for longer boats.

The town is about a 15 minute walk away past the playing fields and the leisure centre. 

Was this a new sign? Late afternoon the cemetery gates to the Polish Memorial were already locked. But there were splashes of colour in the churchyard, around the trees, against the church walls, by the West Door, around the entire church building – pompoms, thousands of them!

A Google search later revealed that on 2nd June the Brandon Yarn Bombers laid out 45,736 pompoms on the playing fields and are awaiting verification that this number is a new world record…

Pictures from the town:

Flint Cottage echoes the town’s industry – and on a street corner now is a figure of a flint knapper. Just beyond a floral display reflected the Jubilee celebrations. ‘Pages in a book’ explained the Queen’s Coronation,    her link with the Commonwealth and the existence of the Gold State Coach.

After a morning in the town Cleddau pulled away from the pontoon and headed back downstream, past the tree trunk monster, past a well disguised bird hide, back over the aqueduct above the Cut-off Channel), to moor in glorious isolation, with only the wind in the treetops and a persistent cuckoo for company (until, curious about the smell of grilling steak, two dozen cows mooched past in an evening stroll…)

Next time: back to the Great Ouse

Trip stats since leaving Victoria Pit: 292½ miles, 178 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: 13 feet

 Queries about the Tudor rose: now 8

 2022 Monkton Moments*- 4

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


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5 Responses

  1. Jaqueline Biggs says:

    All new territory to me so a canal map was required to suss out your journey. I love the signs, the seal and the flint knapper, an nod to the oldest industry in humanity. Your final mooring spot looks like heaven, a perfect Les spot, quiet countryside on one’s own. Sigh…
    Love and Biggs bighugs to you both,
    Jaq xxx

  2. Sandra M. Griggs says:

    Is that 48 hour mooring the one on the nature reserve where we go to listen to the nightingales?

  3. Sue Deveson says:

    Hi Jaq,
    It did cross my mind that perhaps a map would be helpful, but the thought didn’t stick long enough to do anything about it! I /the Captain will try to address that issue in the next post…
    Watching the seal all afternoon was glorious free entertainment! As for the final mooring place there’ll be a bit more about that next time.
    Sue /Boatwif

  4. Sue Deveson says:

    Hi Sandra,
    The mooring site you are thinking of is the one on the Great Ouse at Paxton Pits, off the A1, near St Neots.
    The one described in the post was “in the middle of nowhere” on Brandon Creek (otherwise known as the Little Ouse) in Suffolk. It’s probably midway between Ely and Downham Market.
    I seem to remember managing to moor at Paxton Pits a couple of times and it involving tying ropes round tree trunks… Hopefully we’ll be seeing you soon.
    Sue /Boatwif

  5. Lovely to catch up with you and your latest adventure, Sue and Ken. Great photos. <3 to you both. Xx

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