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Middle Level Navigations

The Middle Level Navigations are a network of waterways in the Fens between the River Nene at Peterborough with the Great Ouse at Denver Sluice.

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Facts & Stats

90+ miles

(145 km)

The length of the Middle Level Navigations that is navigable.

3 locks

Shortest Route

Along the shortest route of the Navigation (28.5 miles) there are three locks.

1600s

Developed

The old river channels through the Fens were probably used for transport during the Middle Ages, but it was the Dutch engineer Vermuyden who developed most of the system during the 1600s.

From the River Nene to the Great Ouse

There are three locks along the shortest route (28.5 miles – 45.8 km) between Peterborough and Salters Lode, although the total length of the Middle Level Navigations is over 90 miles (145 km) excluding those sections managed by the Environment Agency. There are also many interconnecting, but unnavigable drains.

The old river channels through the Fens were probably used for transport during the Middle Ages, but it was the Dutch engineer Vermuyden who developed most of the system during the 1600s. The Middle Level water channels were primarily built for drainage, and that remains their primary purpose today; but they were soon found useful for the transport of agricultural produce, and as such use has faded away, they have become a hidden gem for those seeking solitude on the inland waterways.

Most of the Middle Level Navigations are operated by the Middle Level Commissioners, other than the Old and New Bedford River / Hundred Foot Drain, and the Forty Foot River east of Horseway Lock, which are managed by the Environment Agency.

The main navigable drains are:

  • Bevill’s Leam (4.9 miles)
  • Black Ham Drain (3.6 miles)
  • Forty Foot River (10.5 miles – excluding Environment Agency’s section)
  • Kings Dyke (4.3 miles)
  • New Dyke (3.3 miles) 
  • Old Nene River (26.1 miles)
  • Popham’s Eau (2.3 miles)
  • Ramsey High Lode (1.1 miles)
  • Sixteen Foot River (9.6 miles)
  • Twenty Foot River (10.4 miles)
  • Well Creek (5.4 miles)
  • Whittlesey Dyke (6.1 miles)

Campaign history

In October 1949, IWA’s Fenlands Branch was inaugurated covering the Middle Level, Welland, Nene, Great Ouse and its tributaries.

In 1959 a proposal to fill in part of Well Creek in the Middle Level for road widening was opposed.

1960 saw a three-week cruise through the Middle Level in the boats Blue Peter and Maid Mary-Sonya, led by Captain Munk and Robert Aickman. Following this cruise, a meeting with the Middle Level Engineer was held at which various improvements to navigation were discussed.

The restored lock with an electrically operated guillotine gate was opened in 1962 at Salters Lode. The Middle Level Commissioners planned to follow this with the dredging of Well Creek.

In 1968 Captain Munk led an IWA inspection cruise of the Middle Level – see article below, from Bulletin 84 in July 1968.

 

Chairman’s Inspection Cruise

For the first time in eight years, an IWA. inspection cruise was made of the Middle Level Navigations last May by a party led by Lionel Munk and including Council Members Pamela Cobb and Hugh McKnight.

Starting from Ely, in one of Messrs. Appleyard Lincoln’s new Elysian cruisers, a trip was first completed via the Old West River and the Great Ouse to Godmanchester.  In recent years, the Great Ouse River Board has made considerable progress in rebuilding locks on the waterway. Although only reopened for traffic at Easter, the new Hermitage Lock had been used by more than 300 boats by the time that Capt. Munk’s party arrived.  We look forward to eventual reinstatement of the Ouse as far as Bedford. It is a superb navigation, and one which is justly popular.

After cruising the Cam to Cambridge, and investigating the River Wissey to Hilgay, the party – by now transferred to two smaller cruisers – locked through Denver Sluice and into Well Creek, one of two means of entering the Middle Level at Salter’s Lode.  Many of the Middle Level routes – the system totals more than 100 miles – were constructed primarily as drainage channels, with navigation regarded as of secondary importance.  Well Creek was formerly a well-used Fen-lighter waterway, connected the now disused Wisbech Canal with the Ouse.  Being more elevated than much of the Middle Level, it provides the pleasure boatman with wonderful wide open views.

1960 Middle Level voyage

The account of the Association’s 1960 Middle Level voyage published in Bulletin 62 said of Well Creek: “The existing statutory navigation from Salter’s Lode via Well Creek through Upwell and Outwell to the junction with New Popham’s Eau. . . is at present in very poor shape indeed, and totally unnavigable.”

Introduction to the Middle Level at Well Creek was in the form of towing both craft by lorry from the towpath, on account of the lack of water for these comparitively deep draught cruisers.

Conditions have certainly changed for the better since then, for, even using two broad beam cruisers drawing at least 2 ft. 9 ins., no inordinate difficulties were experienced. True, the entrance from the Ouse is badly silted for perhaps a mile and this necessitated hauling the boats from the towpath by motor truck. Great help was provided in this connection by Mr. Lou Doubleday and his enthusiastic friends of the Middle Level Watermen’s Club.  Lou operates a boatyard at Outwell, the only one on the entire Middle Level.  He hopes to introduce a hire cruiser fleet there, and nothing else could do so much to deter plans for closing the Creek in connection with road-widening proposals about which we heard some months after the cruise. Such closure would be a tragedy for the waterways and for Fenland in particular.  We are preparing to do all possible to avert this catastrophe.

Continuing through Whittlesey and Ashline Lock, apart from some troubles caused by rotten blanket weed and the need to wait for more than an hour for water levels over the lower cill of Stan-ground Sluice to be raised, a fairly normal passage was made.  Certainly, any boats drawing under 2 ft. would encounter little trouble, especially early in the season.

The return from Peterborough and the Nene was made via Whittlesey to Angle Corner, Flood’s Ferry, Benwick, and Welches Dam, joining the Ouse once more at Salter’s Lode.  Chief tribulation of this portion of the journey was the condition of Horseway Sluice, between the Forty Foot and the Old Bedford River.  More than seven hours was spent in negotiating many tons of dead vegetation clogging the chamber and approaches.  Certainly no boat had been through for many months.

We found the Middle Level Commissioners’ Engineer Mr. Fillenham very helpful in contriving to make the whole passage as easy as possible. It appears that the Commissioners are lacking powers to raise funds necessary for navigational (as opposed to drainage) improvements. They have, in fact, asked the Association to use its influence to find a solution to the difficulty. While in Peterborough, Capt. Munk’s party met Mr. L. Critchley of the East Anglian Waterways Association, who was able to offer much advice and information on his own Association’s work to improve local conditions.

A nine-page illustrated serialised account of the two week cruise appeared in Motor Boat and Yachting for 23rd August and 6th and 20th September. More than anything else, the Middle Level needs boats and more boats. The scenery is very fine in places, indeed the waterways atmosphere is unique in Britain. This is England’s nearest approach to Holland. Any Members who do take their craft to the area will find local assistance and enthusiasm to be phenomenal.

The Well Ceek Trust was founded in 1970.

IWA issued two writs in 1981 against the Middle Level Commissioners one relating to the closure of Horseway Lock and the other to the obstruction of Bevill’s Leam.

In 1983 Legal action on the Middle Level started in 1981 met with success with the Commissioners agreeing to restore Horseway Lock and to build a new lock near Ramsey.

Waterway notes

Maximum boat sizes

  • Length: 80′ (24.4 metres)
  • Beam: 11′ 6″ (3.5 metres)
  • Height: 6′ 6″ (1.98 metres)
  • Draught: 3′ (0.9 metres)

Useful Info

  • The shortest lock is Stanground Sluice (80ft), but boats over 72ft are likely to have difficulty negotiating Briggate Bend in Whittlesey, just west of Ashline Lock.  Deep-draughted boats need to be positioned with great care through Stanground Sluice.
  • Welches Dam Lock (currently closed awaiting funding for major repairs) along the Forty Foot Drain limits navigation to boats under 47ft (14.3m), and Lodes End Lock the southernmost section of the Old River Nene limits boats to under 68ft (20.7m).  Horseway Lock, at the eastern end of Forty Foot Drain has a limit of 60ft (18.3m).
  • The turning area at Ramsey is limited to boats up to 60ft (18.3m).

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