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This article The Great Ouse is the copyright of Jim Shead - Another look at the Great Ouse and its tributaries. First pubilshed in Waterways World May 2000.


The Great Ouse


Jim Shead

At last we were out onto the Great Ouse, having waited at Salter's Lode for the tide and watched the guillotine gate at the head of the lock slowly rise. Leaving the plaid waters of the Middle Levels we had to negotiate the short tidal stretch to Denver Sluice. "Keep well to the left as you approach the lock" the lock keeper at Salter's Lode had told us, "There's a big mud bank to the right". As we leave Salter's Lode we can see the tidal doors at the entrance to the Old Bedford River, another route to the Middle Levels that has been un-navigable for several years due to silting in the Great Ouse. At Denver the river divides again, on the right is the New Bedford River, which is the main channel of the Great Ouse. This straight, tidal cut, goes to Earith where it rejoins the old course of the river. Our route is to the left to join the old course of the Ouse known as the Old West River.

Because passage of this tidal section is only possible at high tide we have to go up onto the river at Salter's Lode and down through Denver Sluice onto the Old West River, which always seems strange to me. The lock at Denver Sluice has guillotine gates so that it can work whether the tidal river is lower or higher than the non-tidal side. Once through Denver Lock we come to another junction, this time with the relief channel that runs beside the tidal section of the river down to King's Lynn. There are now plans to install a lock here and make this channel navigable. Between the two channels is the Denver Sailing Club with pump-out facilities close by. A short way on is the Jenyns Arms a popular riverside pub that attracts boaters and motorists alike. Close by are Environment Agency (EA) visitor moorings.

From Denver Sluice the Old West River runs 31 lock free miles to Hermitage Lock, where it joins the main course of the Great Ouse, which has taken a straight 20 mile route along the New Bedford River from Denver. If you like the big open East Anglian skies these lower reaches will no doubt appeal, if not you may feel inclined to hurry towards the 16 locks that take the Great Ouse up to Bedford, but don't rush too much or you could miss some of the treasures of these fenland waters. The first of these is just over a mile from Denver where the River Wissey joins us from the left.

The Wissey can be navigated for 10 miles by cruisers but most narrowboats turn at Stoke Ferry, a mile and a half before the upper limit of navigation. Two miles up this tributary is the village of Hilgay, which has a pub, shops and a mooring for visitors. About half way up the Wissey we come to the Wissington Sugar Beet Factory. Sugar is a major industry in the fens and miles of the flat dark fields are devoted to the growing of the beet. When harvest time arrives the local roads are filled with tractors with trailers and large lorries ferrying the beet from farm to factory. Once past the factory the river opens out into a short wide section, like a lake. Three miles on an aqueduct takes the river over the Cut-off Channel, a non-navigable channel opened in 1964, that takes flood water from the Great Ouse tributaries down to the Relief Channel at Denver. Soon after the aqueduct we pass under the raised sluice gates which will be brought into action at times of flood.

Back on the Old West River, two miles past the Wissey junction, we come to the bridge at Ten Mile Bank. Once through the bridge there are visitor moorings on both sides of the river, the ones on the left being next to the Windmill pub. A few miles further on we pass the Denver Cruising Club moorings and then, seven miles from Denver, the Little Ouse with the Ship Inn standing at the junction.

The Little Ouse, also known as Brandon Creek, was once navigable for 22 miles to Thetford Town Bridge but is now only navigable to Brandon Lock for craft over 40 feet in length. The new Brandon Lock was opened in 1995 but is only 40 by 12-foot. Smaller craft can navigate through the lock to Brandon Town Bridge. There are no other locks on the 13 rural miles of the Little Ouse and, apart from the occasional farmhouse or cottage, no human habitation until the town of Brandon. Again we cross the Cut-off Channel, as we did on the Wissey, with more flood control sluices.

Back to the Ship Inn and onto the Old West River we only have to travel a short way upstream to another EA visitor mooring. Just over ten miles from Denver we come to Littleport Bridge then on the right more visitor moorings and the entrance to a backwater that leads to Littleport Boat Haven. Another pub, the Black Horse, then the River Lark, our third navigable tributary in the 12 miles from Denver.

Just a short way up the Lark is a very quiet visitor mooring and just two miles from the junction another mooring at Prickwillow. This small village has no shops or pub. The next six miles have some long straight sections, in contrast to the more winding courses of the Wissey and Little Ouse. If you take the route from Denver that I have described, you will have travelled 66 miles, on the Old West River and up and down the tributaries, without going through a lock. Now we come to Isleham Lock and just below the entrance a backwater that leads to Isleham Marina. Once through the large lock and out of the straight lock cut the river changes its nature for the final two miles to Judes Ferry, winding and becoming narrower. Just before the road bridge is Judes Ferry House Inn, where most narrowboats turn. Smaller craft can go on, a mile or two, to Mildenhall.

Returning to the Old West River we continue up the long straight wide sections between Littleport and Ely. Rowers and coaching boats use this stretch for practice. The Isle of Ely was surrounded by marsh and waterways before the fens were drained in the seventeenth century, now Ely stands on a small hill surmounted by the cathedral, with its 215 feet western tower, a sight that dominates the countryside for miles around. The riparian approaches to Ely are less impressive, starting with some modern industry by Adelaide Bridge the next couple of miles take us past the disused sugar beet factory and some rather derelict basins by the Ely Sailing Club. Once under the railway bridge Ely town offers a much more fitting waterfront with the park, Ely Marina and the Cutter Inn. There are good moorings but this is a popular stopping point. Ely is an interesting little city with good shopping and a large Tesco's near the railway station.

Three and a half miles north of Ely, and almost 20 miles from Denver, we come to Popes Corner, where the River Cam joins the Old West River. At the junction is the Fish & Duck pub and a boat basin. Three miles up the Cam is Upware Marina and beside it the Five Miles from Anywhere pub, with moorings in front. On the other side of the pub is another junction, this one with Reach Lode which connects to Burwell Lode. A lock takes us up to these lodes which together are less than six miles of navigable water. I managed to turn my 57-foot boat at the end of these lodes but there was not much room at the end of Reach Lode.

Almost four miles past Upware junction on the Cam we come to Bottisham Lock, the first on the Cam, it is electrically operated and easy to work following the instructions at the lock. A mile on is Clayhithe Bridge, with the Bridge Hotel just before the bridge and public moorings just after. Another two miles brings us to Baits Bite Lock. This is even easier to work than Bottisham as there are only two buttons, one to fill and the other to empty the lock. All the operations of gates and paddles are completely automated. There is a lot of rowing to be seen in the four miles between here and Cambridge, there is also a stretch where the keep right rule of the river is reversed, this is marked by signs so keep a sharp lookout. There are various moorings in Cambridge the best being immediately below Jesus Lock. This lock is only navigable by appointment and powered boats are not encouraged into the short and narrow reach above. Below the lock are a water point, elsan disposal facilities and a pump-out machine.

Having returned to Popes Corner we rejoin the Old West River at the point where it changes from a broad and rather straight waterway to a much narrower, winding channel. This continues for the final 11¾ miles of its course to Hermitage Lock where it rejoins the New Bedford River from which it diverged at Denver. Hermitage Lock, like Denver, has a lock keeper. The following 15 locks on the river are all boater operated. The section between Hermitage and the next lock (Brownshill) is tidal, but the levels only vary a foot or two as the flow comes 20 miles up the New Bedford River. A few seals come up here too and three years ago one playfully chased our boat as we came down the river. Seals are also occasionally spotted above the locks on the Old West River, much to the annoyance of local anglers.

After Brownshill Lock there are five miles of pleasant countryside to St Ives, an ancient town with a chapel on the bridge and connections with Oliver Cromwell. This is very much a trip through Cromwell country, we have already visited Ely, where he had property and Cambridge where he was educated. Another six miles up river bring us to Huntingdon, Cromwell's birthplace. During the Civil War another local celebrity, Samuel Pepys, attended Huntington Grammar School. Two miles up river brings us to Brampton, the home of the Pepys family. As a schoolboy Pepys had seen Charles I executed in 1649 and in 1660 had been on the ship which returned Charles II to England at the Restoration. At this time Pepys was in the service of another local man, Edward Mountagu, latter made the first Earl of Sandwich for his part in the return to the monarchy. In this manner people of this river valley have played major parts in both the overthrow and the restoration of monarchs.

There are still another 23 miles and 9 locks to bring us to Bedford and 8 miles to the next town St.Neots. Here, just before the town bridge, a pontoon mooring stage has been provided that gives good access to the town and the nearby Waitrose supermarket. The whole river has a variety of scenery, a good sprinkling of boatyards and marinas, and some nice riverside pubs. One of my favourite moorings is just below Great Barford Bridge with the Anchor pub just across the road. From here Bedford is about 3 hours cruising and the whole trip back, from Bedford to Denver Sluice about 21 hours cruising time.

Now that longer boats can get through the Middle Levels and with the introduction of the Gold Licence, more boats may be visiting these waters, which in the past have seemed remote from the rest of the waterways. There are over 120 miles of waterway to explore above Denver Sluice, I hope you enjoy cruising them as much as I have.

The Pictures

  1. The Lorna-Ann at Denver Sliuce.
  2. The stone and brick bridge at Great Barford.
  3. Historic St Ives with a chapel on the bridge.
  4. A seal chasing the boat near Earith.
  5. Cardington Lock, Bedford.



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Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
Features Contact me Glossary Boats Events List History Local Waterways Help Photo List