Wandering down the Witham

“I’ve told the others that there could be a boat trip. The boys might be interested.” So said Cheshire Mum, while regaling her own disrupted travel plans to Lincolnshire for an annual Graftonite * weekend.

On Sunday there was a text: we’ll be down soon after 1030. “Down” was the River Witham at the pontoon at Fiskerton Fen.    They (how many would that be?)  would be walking down from the farm and the campsite.

Suddenly there was a boarding party from the stern.    Down the steps from the engine room trooped The Cheshire One, followed by five other children.

Quickly they lined up in size order, queuing for life jackets. First was Oxford Miss. ”Wow, I remember someone else wearing that once!” Techno Son-in-Law proclaimed, and with a few twiddles of his thumb up came a photo on his phone. Eight years ago The Cheshire One had been that wearer.

Next up was Oxford Lass: for her the striped jacket was a decent fit (worn previously, according to Techno’s photo archive, by his then young nephew).  

Third came Ferry Hill Girl, the all orange job for her.

A boy next, the Somerset Swan Kid, the dark blue junior jacket for him. “Where do I put my head?” he asked, eyeing the waistcoat style with puzzlement…

Four down, two to go.

“I’ve worn this before,” said the Cheshire One, recognising the black shape on the bed. Following suit Swan Teen was buckled and strapped into the matching black life jacket.

All new crew members were dispatched to the adults for checking.

“Right!” the Cheshire Mum announced, directing her remark to Boatwif. “All children have at least one parent on board, but “(and here she indicated to The Cheshire One) “she just has her grandparents.”

Have faith, these are competent and common-sense people. Those left behind would have a plan…

The boat was untied and Cleddau set off, heading for Bardney. On board were the regular crew, four Somerset Swans, three Oxfordians, three Ferry Hill reps (from three different generations) – and the Cheshire One. Who was on the back deck? Whose legs were these?    The Cheshire One, not afloat since a jaunt on the Trent and Mersey Canal last August, did some steering, supervised of course by the Captain.

The youngest crew members crowded the front deck, overseen by the Ferry Hill Jam Maker, while the adult Swans took to the roof…

At Bardney, while the water tap began to fill Cleddau’s tank, the Cheshire One and others leapt off to set the Bardney Lock.   There was winding; there was waiting;  there was pushing; there was waiting. The lock was prepared, the gates were opened, the water tank had filled, the boat was being untied – and down the cut came a cruiser, straight into the prepared lock… 

More gate pushing (to close),   more paddle winding (to empty), more gate pushing, (to open and then to close), more paddle winding (to fill), more gate pushing (to open).

Once was fine, twice was enough, summarised the Oxford Academic – and Cleddau passed through the lock, aided from the side by six hearty lock keepers. 

Onwards, for a further 0.8 mile. Meanwhile inside the cabin Oxford Miss had befriended the resident mascot.   Then, at Bardney Bridge, there stood the three remaining parents.   Were the cars lined up here? Were the additional crew members to be off-loaded here? “We’re getting on, we’ve brought a picnic lunch…” On came three more adults: two Cheshires, another Oxford Academic, along with three large rucksacks and a dog… 

Somehow, over the next three Witham miles the visiting crew were fed and watered. Then off at Southrey they got, prepared to walk the Viking Way back to their cars…    

And the boat did not sink…!

Southrey still has a railway station – or so it seems… In more recent times a ceramic (?) art installation   has illustrated the history of these parts,

 

from the raw natural environment through to the human impact of the railway.

Onward, progress towards Boston still needed to be made. A mooring at Kirkstead Bridge maybe, for a walk into Woodhall Spa? The mooring pontoon crammed with cruisers made that an impossibility…

Onward, further. Onward, in increasingly high winds.  What did “WARNING FISH SHELTER NO MOORING” mean? 

Tattershall Bridge and its moorings hove into view. Two cruisers ahead vied for the far pontoon moorings. Little space was left. Gratitude indeed to the cruiser crew who emerged from their boat, eager to help a narrow boat battling a harsh wind and a short length of pontoon left to tie up against…

With time to explore away from the river the Captain and Boatwif set out on Bank Holiday Monday to walk to Tattershall Castle…. It was a mile route, alongside the busy Horncastle –Sleaford Road. Plastic bottles marked every fifteen yards or so, plus two socks, separated by about half a mile, and obviously not a matching pair! The castle was glimpsed through the trees, a tall brick-faced structure

At an encampment in the castle grounds   medieval skills and crafts were being demonstrated.  Nettles were being stripped into strands from which twine was to be made.    Flax was being strung into fish nets and animal traps.   Archers were demonstrating their skills…

On the site of an earlier stone fortification built in 1231 the later castle was rebuilt in brick by Lord Cromwell in the 1430s. For him (Lord Treasurer of England) it was a private residence built to impress.    In 1914 it was rescued from ruin by Lord Curzon and bequeathed to the National Trust in 1925.

The tower has the same basic design from basement to the battlements. Each floor has one large chamber,    three small turret rooms, a garderobe and a massive fireplace. 

A bird’s eye view from the rooftop revealed activities below     and the flat lands of Lincolnshire stretching in every direction…

Coningsby airfield is very close by: various attempts to photograph a practising Memorial Flight Hurricane were a complete failure, but then came the distinctive low drone of the 4 Merlin engines of the Lancaster     – an appropriate sighting after the visit to the International Bomber Command Centre just two days previously.

From Tattershall Bridge onwards Cleddau’s Witham wanderings lacked further excitement: There was one more night stop, and then 7⅓ miles, mainly along a dead straight, high-banked river to go.      Finally, (on Tuesday morning) there was the feature that dominates this landscape,     the Boston ‘Stump’, the tower of St Botolph’s Church. Beyond this lies the route to the sea…

Distance and locks since leaving Aqueduct Marina, near Nantwich: 211½ miles, 82 locks

Distance and locks remaining to Bedford from Boston: 113¾ miles, 17 locks

 

*The core group members of The Graftonites met either through meteorology or sailing at Reading University, circa 1996.

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