Down the Drains - Silver Propeller Challenge
On a cruise to the Lincolnshire town of Boston, you can visit two Silver Propeller Challenge locations - the Maud Foster Windmill on the Maud Foster Drain and Boston Black Sluice on the Black Sluice Navigation. There is also the opportunity to collect two plaques, for visiting the Maud Foster Windmill and Cobblers Lock, the current head of the River Slea Navigation.
As well as the satisfaction of ticking off two locations towards the target of 20, the area has a great deal of interest including a passage through the glorious cathedral city of Lincoln – one of the most memorable inland waterways experiences. Other attractions include the UK’s oldest canal still in use, restored and new waterways, a complex system of navigable drains and the port of Boston - and all amid the wide open skies, quietness and isolation of the Fens.
Town centre moorings, Lincoln High Bridge. photo by Martin Smith
Draining the Fens
The Fens or Fenlands are a coastal plain around the Wash extending from Lincolnshire in the north through Cambridgeshire and the former county of Huntingdonshire to parts of Norfolk and Suffolk in the east. Originally this was a marshy region but, as with similar parts of the Netherlands, it was drained over the last few centuries and is now a productive arable farming area with a system of canalised rivers, internal drainage channels between the rivers, and automated pumping stations. The first concerted effort to drain the land was made in the 1630s by groups of wealthy individuals (the “Gentleman Adventurers”) sponsored by King Charles I, opposed by local villagers (the “Fenland Tigers”) who feared their traditional livelihood of wildfowling, fishing and reed cutting would be lost. Opposition continued until a major breakthrough in the 1820s, when wind pumps were replaced by steam engines – which in turn were replaced with diesel-powered pumps and then the electric pumps that are still in use today.
Routes to Boston
Most boaters will choose to take the inland route, following the tidal River Trent to Torksey and turning off south eastwards onto the Fossdyke Navigation to Lincoln and the River Witham onwards to Boston. With careful planning, good weather and a qualified pilot it is also possible to approach from the sea, crossing the Wash from the River Welland or the River Nene to the south. The planned Fens Waterways Link will add a third route, enabling an inland passage to be made from as far away as Bedford on the River Great Ouse.
A57 road bridge at Dunham on the tidal Trent. Photo by Martin Smith
The Fossdyke Navigation
The Fossdyke Navigation is the oldest artificial waterway in the UK which is still navigable. The Romans engineered a transport network serving Lindum Colonia (Lincoln) around 120AD, making the River Witham navigable inland and building the Car Dyke from the Nene at Peterborough to the Witham in Lincoln and the Fossdyke from Lincoln to the River Trent and the Humber Estuary. Succeeding generations continued to use the navigations for transport, the Danes when they invaded England and the Normans for carrying stone to build Lincoln Cathedral. King Henry I had the Fossdyke dredged in 1121, James I transferred ownership to the Corporation of Lincoln who made further improvements, then together with the River Witham it was leased to the Great Northern Railway Company in 1846 and immediately started falling into decline.
Following nationalisation of the waterways in 1948, one of the earliest ventures into pleasurecruising by the then British Transport Waterways was a hotel boat Water Wanderer running between Nottingham, Torksey and Boston from 1959. Today the Fossdyke and Witham Navigations are established cruising waterways, albeit still with an important role in drainage during the winter months at which times water levels can change rapidly.
The Fossdyke runs from Torksey Lock into Brayford Pool, a wide expanse of water in the centre of Lincoln which was a port from Roman times onwards. The wool trade continued for centuries, with Lincoln Green and Lincoln Scarlet being popular in the Middle Ages. Gradually the warehouses and barges fell into disuse and disrepair, until regeneration of the Pool area started in the early 1990s. The University of Lincoln has been a major force, creating the first new city centre campus in the UK for 25 years alongside the Fossdyke and the Pool. Now the Pool has a new role as a marina and is well used by resident and visiting boats, together with a large population of mute swans.
There is much to explore in Lincoln, not least the cathedral and castle high on the hill, and there are visitor moorings which make an excellent base. The cathedral is home to the Lincoln Imp, a grotesque figure which has become the symbol of the city of Lincoln. According to legend it was a creature sent to the cathedral by Satan to cause havoc, only to be turned into stone by an angel.
The Witham Navigation runs out of the Pool under Lincoln High Bridge, which dates from 1160 and forms the famous Glory Hole below 16th century half-timbered houses and shops, and is the oldest bridge in the country with buildings remaining on it. Immediately afterwards the 16m tall Millennium sculpture ‘Empowerment’ by Stephen Broadbent and the Waterside shopping centre make a striking contrast.
The Witham Navigation continues through two locks to Grand Sluice Lock at Boston, where it becomes tidal and flows out into the Wash through the Haven. Visitor pontoon moorings are available at all main road bridge crossings.
For much of the way the disused Lincoln to Boston branch line of the Great Northern Railway runs along the bank, now converted into the 33-mile Water Rail Way with an accompanying sculpture trail on a Lincolnshire theme. The name is doubly apt since the shy water rail bird has been spotted here. Other features include Fiskerton Fen Nature Reserve and the nearby spa town of Woodhall Spa, with its RAF links as the home of 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron and its Kinema in the Woods complete with Compton organ (“flicks in the sticks” in RAF parlance).
At Bardney Lock there are CRT visitor moorings with facilities block and electric and water points. Through the lock there are further moorings at Bardney Town and Heritage Centre.
Before Dogdyke the disused Horncastle Canal joins the Witham, and at Chapel Hill there is a junction with the Kyme Eau or Sleaford Navigation. Between the two is the village of Tattershall, home to Tattershall Castle and also Holy Trinity Church with the grave of Tom thumb who was reputedly just over 18 inches tall and died in 1620 aged 101. Visitor moorings at Dogdyke are convenient to make a visit to the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BoBMF) visitor centre at RAF Coningsby (weekdays only). Hourly busses run from Dogdyke to BoBMF, or it is only one mile along the straight quiet road to the BoBMF entrance. Continuing onwards towards Boston the extraordinarily tall and elegant tower of St Botolph's Church (“Boston Stump”) comes into view, and draws the boater on past the entrance to the Witham Navigable Drains at Anton’s Gowt to the end of the non-tidal Witham at the Boston Grand Sluice. The sluice was built to retain the river upstream at a level suitable for navigation, to exclude tidal water and silt and to enable floodwater to be sluiced away. The modern structure including a navigation lock is the latest in a series dating from the first in 1502, after which time a succession of engineers tackled the challenges of managing navigation, drainage and flooding including John Smeaton and John Rennie senior and junior.
Recently a £100m flood defence scheme known as the Boston Barrier has been approved to provide improved protection for Boston against tidal surges such as happened in December 2013. IWA’s concerns about the effect on navigation were noted in the Inspector’s Report to the Public Inquiry. As a result the development of a Navigation Management Plan was made a condition of approval, and both Lincolnshire Branch and East Midlands Region will be involved in the process.
Witham Navigable Drains
Visitor moorings are provided on the Witham at all main road crossings above Boston Grand Sluice, but in order to reach the Maud Foster Windmill by boat it is necessary to turn off onto the Witham Navigable Drains at Anton’s Gowt (Anton after Sir Anthony Thomas, one of the people who helped drain the Witham Fens from 1631 onwards, and “gowt” meaning a sluice or outflow and said to originate from “go out”). This remarkable network of waterways was constructed to drain the fens around Boston and is controlled by the Witham Fourth Internal Drainage Board. The Board actively supports leisure uses and maintains a navigable depth in the drains from May to September, but in the winter they are emptied. The drains are below the level of the Witham and so – unusually – Anton’s Gowt Lock leads downwards from a river navigation onto a man-made waterway. The most straightforward route to the Maud Foster Windmill is to head east from Anton’s Gowt along Frith Bank Drain to the junction at Cowbridge Lock, and then south into Boston along the Maud Foster Drain. IWA Lincolnshire Branch offers a 4” X 4” stainless steel plaque with the outline of the mill etched on it for boats mooring near the mill.
Maud Foster Windmill
The drain and the mill take their name from the donation of land by Maud Foster in 1564 to enable Boston to be saved from flooding through the digging of a new cut. The mill is a tower mill with five sails. It is one of the tallest in the UK at 7 stories and 80 feet, and provides excellent views over Boston. It was built in 1819 for the brothers Thomas and Isaac Reckitt, to serve their business as millers, corn factors and bakers, and later to supply power to a bone mill and a cement mill. Isaac Reckitt went on to enter the starch business in Hull, becoming Reckitt & Sons famous for laundry blue and ‘Robin’ starch, then Reckitt & Colman and eventually Reckitt Benckiser. The mill succumbed to mechanical problems in 1948, but was repaired by the Reckitt Family Charitable Trusts and again by the present owners. The mill is open to the public to see the milling taking place.
Maud Foster Mill mooring, Wide Bargate, Boston. Photo by Martin Smith
There is much more to see in Boston including most obviously the Stump, which stands on the east bank of the river. It is one of the largest parish churches in England, reflecting the prosperity of Boston in medieval times owing to the wool trade. The tower is 272 feet high, with views stretching for over 30 miles on clear days. Being in Boston is also a good opportunity to sample Lincolnshire Plum Bread, traditionally served with butter or cheese.
Boston Black Sluice
The Black Sluice controls the flow of the South Forty Foot Drain or Black Sluice Navigation into the Haven. It is the latest of several structures and the original was probably the Skirbeck Sluice controlling the Earl of Lindsey’s drainage in 1635 of what was then known as the Lindsey Levels. This sluice was destroyed by local people, which is said to be the origin of the name Black Sluice.
To reach the Black Sluice from the Witham Navigation requires passage through the Boston Grand Sluice into the tidal Haven and a 10-15 minute journey downstream. The lockkeepers at CRT`s Grand Sluice and EA`s Black Sluice will coordinate their actions to make this as straightforward as possible. The Black Sluice Drain was navigable until the 1960s or 70s. The new lock was opened in 2009 by the Environment Agency as the first phase of the Fens Waterways Link, giving access to 19 miles of the drain. Visitor moorings are available at the Lock visitor centre, Hubberts Bridge PH and Swineshead Railway Station. The second phase will be to upgrade the southern section, including a link to the River Glen to enable navigation to Spalding.
River Slea Navigation and Horncastle Canal
Two further waterways connecting with the Witham should be included for completeness. The Horncastle Canal incorporated part of the older Tattershall Canal as well as some of the canalised River Bain. Its 11 miles and 12 broad locks required the services of both Jessop and Rennie as engineers and involved lengthy disputes with the King’s Champion. This feudal hereditary office provides a champion who rides into Westminster Hall at a coronation banquet and challenges anyone who might dispute the monarch’s title. The holders are the Dymoke family of the Manor of Scrivelsby in the parish of Horncastle, and the navigation was planned to cross their estate. Eventually the canal was completed, but by 1885 it was closed again owing to competition from the railways. There are now plans for restoration, with the support of IWA Lincolnshire Branch.
South Kyme Footbridge. Photo by Martin Smith
The Slea Navigation or Kyme Eau leaves the Witham at Chapel Hill and climbs south west through seven locks to the market town of Sleaford. A commercial waterway was planned as early as 1343, but it was only in 1794 that the navigation opened. After initial success it too succumbed to the railways, but unlike the Horncastle Canal it can be explored by boat. The Sleaford Navigation Trust was formed in 1976 and has made considerable progress with restoration. Boats can enter through Taylors Lock, where a height marker can be checked for the low bridge at Half Penny Hatch beyond South Kyme, and proceed for about 8 miles through the village of South Kyme to the current head of navigation at Cobbler’s Lock. Restoration work is continuing and in the meantime the full length of the Navigation can be canoed. The Sleaford Navigation Trust offers a brass plaque showing their coat of arms for craft reaching Cobblers Lock. Contact the Trust for more information.
The Fossdyke and Witham Navigations are Canal & River Trust waterways. The Black Sluice Drain (South Forty Foot Drain) is managed by the Environment Agency, who make a small charge. No additional licence is required for the Sleaford Navigation or the Witham Navigable Drains.
Due to works taking place on the Boston Tidal Barrier, 24 hours’ notice is required to ascertain locking times (Grand Sluice tel 01205 364864, Black Sluice 01522 785041 / 07775 228323).
IWA Lincolnshire Branch provides helpful information, navigation notes and maps for the Witham Navigable Drains on the Lincolnshire Branch Pages (select Local Waterways, Witham Navigable Drains, Map & Notes).
Find out more about the Silver Propeller Challenge.
Sign up for email updates
Keep up to date with all the latest waterways news.
We will never share your email address with anyone else and you can update your subscription preferences at any time.