Left to Rot - the Old Bedford River

Created on 24/10/2017

In July, two groups of IWA members made intrepid journeys to each side of the blocked Welches Dam Lock, this time overcoming decaying algae, a stranded cruiser and the threat of fish distress.

Opened in 1637, one of the earliest navigations in Britain is the Old Bedford River, which formed part of an attractive cruising ring until a lock at one end was blocked off in 2006, making the rest of the navigation difficult and sometimes impossible to access.  The Old Bedford River is a statutory navigation controlled and managed by the Environment Agency, and IWA’s Peterborough Branch has been campaigning to reopen this historic waterway route.

John Revell reports on the journey via the tidal river at Salters Lode.

Salters Lode to Welches Dam

In July 2017 the cruiser Marie II (Lois and Roy Parker) and narrowboat Olive Emily (Richard Bramley, Eddy Edwards and John Revell) successfully navigated 14 miles from the tidal river at Salters Lode to the blocked Welches Dam lock. 

On this occasion the proposed dates had been fixed well in advance with EA and the water level in the non-tidal river had been raised to make the normally tricky access from the narrow tidal stream much easier.

There was however one big headache. Out of the blue and at the last minute EA asked for the whole cruise to be called off or delayed until October.

Something Fishy

This wasn’t the first time a request had been made to cancel a cruise. On this occasion EA cited concerns from their fisheries team about low dissolved oxygen from "windblown accumulations of decaying algae" in one section of the river. The fisheries team were of the opinion that navigating through this in our two boats might give rise to a "significant risk of an environmental (Fish distress / kill) incident."

Despite EA knowing about the accumulation of decaying algae for some time the next scheduled weed cut was not until October, 4 months later.  We had also been told (confirmed by an eye witness) that EA had themselves used a small boat with an outboard to take the oxygen measurements in this area on 13th July.

With this in mind, it was agreed to continue the planned trip and assess the situation. We set off in good spirits and several hours later we reached Welney and found a short stretch of foul smelling, floating rotting material. Someone commented that EA appeared to be more concerned about the Dissolved Oxygen than the Disgusting Odour.

Photo: Olive Emily and Marie II about to set off along the Old Bedford River.

We were met by two helpful staff from EA and it was decided that the narrowboat could proceed very slowly and cautiously along the middle of the channel under their close supervision. The cruiser was stuck and so it had to be pulled through the weed by ropes from the narrow boat.

A Bittersweet Victory

Having successfully navigated this localised section of river at Welney we continued without difficulty to our destination, passing the cheery local eel catcher hard at work accompanied by the equally cheery dogs sharing his small outboard driven boat. Subsequent tests at Welney by EA after the passage and return of our two boats showed minimal effect on oxygen levels.

Reaching Welches Dam lock was a bittersweet occasion. It is an attractive location with a fine lock side cottage, close to the extensive RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve.  We returned to the excellent Lamb and Flag in Welney to celebrate.  Both the lock cottage residents and locals said how good it was to see boats on the river again.

Photo: Marie II and Olive Emily at Welches Dam Lock. Photo by Eddy Edwards

May I thank EA staff who made this trip a success and the Middle Level Lock keeper who operated the Old Bedford sluice and guillotine for all his help.

From the Other Side

Just a couple of days later, some other intrepid boaters made it to Horseway Lock from the other direction.  Despite the channel being heavily silted and very smelly, IWA members Jonathan and Trish Hill took their narrow boat Isabella along the Forty Foot Drain (aka Vermuydens Drain) to the current limit of navigation at Horseway Lock.  

Photo: Isabella at Horseway Lock

This dead-end was caused by the closure of Welches Dam and the Horseway Channel over ten years ago and the channel has been little used since.

The Campaign Continues

EA stanked off the lock in 2006 and claimed at the time that piling the entrance to the lock was to prevent water leakage through the gates.  However the piles do not extend across the full face of the lock entrance leaving a gap of about 5 feet, which stops boats using the lock but means that it is the gates that are still preventing water leakage 11 years later.

Discussions continue at national and local level to make progress but with little success and many will have read of the extraordinary development of EA issuing a formal emergency closure of this lock back dated to July 1, 2006 with a footnote added “created on May 2, 2017".

The Old Bedford river is not a dead-end waterway leading nowhere but part of a long-established route connecting the Middle Level and the rest of the canal and river system. It needs to be restored to full navigation. It would make an interesting cruising ring. It has been navigable since 1637, well before the main canal era started, it is a statutory navigation and it needs to be maintained.

Waiting 4 months for another part of EA to clear an obvious obstruction to navigation and general environmental hazard is not in anyone's interest, least of all the residents of Welney and those who walk, fish, collect eels, and occasionally boat along the river.

Read more about the 2016 trip along the Old Bedford River in the Unnavigable Navigation or find out more about IWA’s campaign to encourage the transfer of Environment Agency waterways to Canal & River Trust.

Photo-top: Marie II unable to move in the weeds and rotting algae. Photo by John Revell

Tags: IWA Campaigns, Boating